Personal locator beacons are the safety net of backcountry travel. They’re simple electronic devices, usually with sealed mechanisms, that are meant to be used a single time.
When you use a PLB it’s a life or death emergency that will result in a full scale rescue mobilization. Using a personal locator beacon isn’t like sending a text to your mom.
These devices directly access an emergency network of rescue personnel to save lives in true emergencies.
It’s worth mentioning that in the last few years backcountry messenger devices have become more popular. These are satellite powered electronics that boost your cell phone’s capabilities or send messages on their own.
Quick Answer: The 6 Best Personal Locator Beacons
- ACR ResQlink+ Personal Locator Beacon
- ACR Aqualink View PLB
- Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1
- Garmin Inreach Explorer+
- DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Tracker
- SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger
We’ll cover the differences between a true personal locator beacon and some of the modern messaging devices in this article. I’m going to show you a few of the personal locator beacons available to choose from.
Best Personal Locator Beacons and GPS Messengers
Personal Locator Beacon Reviews
This Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is ready to go right out of the box. ACR has been making PLBs for years and they’re by far the most common PLB used in backcountry situations around the United States.
I’ve carried these before on several trips and when leading groups in the wilderness.
There’s nothing particularly fancy about them. They’re foolproof, easy to use, and quick to learn. Even if you forget how to use them, there are simple instructions on the PLB that walk you through a couple quick steps.
This PLB is registered with the US Coast Guard who will be the first to receive any signals from the device. They will then initiate the proper rescue for you.
Your PLB must be registered after purchasing – it’s an important and legal step in using the beacon.
Remember that using this beacon will initiate a full scale rescue and you may be held liable to pay for some or all of the rescue costs in certain situations and locations.
These rescues often cost $20,000 or more! They’re only to be used in life and death emergencies. If your looking for a PLB, the ACS ResQLink is the best personal locator beacon, hands down!
Like the ResQlink+, the Aqualink is an ACR device registered with the US Coast Guard. It’s worth noting that you can contact ACR to order these devices in configurations for use in other countries or around the world.
The Aqualink is made to be completely waterproof and self floating. You’ll want this little guy along for trips on open water and gigantic lakes. If you do a lot of offshore fishing, sailing, or boating one of these wouldn’t hurt in the boat!
Much like the ResQlink+ it’s easy to use and foolproof. There are simple instructions on the devices and clearly marked indicators.
The GPS receiver is clearly marked with “do not cover, give clear access to the sky”. Even in the most frightening situations you’ll be able to easily remember what to do with the device.
There is an LED strobe light built into the device to help aid night rescues and visibility. The built in digital display helps you see the battery life and device status so you know it’s doing its job.
It even includes a backup high frequency radio locator signal for maximum safety and location. Definitely a top choice for a marine personal locator beacon.
Another marine programmed PLB for location and rescue in the waterways of the United States. As with all devices you’ll need to register with the US Coast Guard.
You can use the device outside the US but it will first contact a US registered NOAA emergency center for transmission to the proper authorities, wherever you may be.
Like the Aqualink it comes with a floating case. The outside of the device is clearly marked with instructions for use. You’ll be able to easily understand and operate the rescue capabilities of the device in any situation.
I wish they would have molded the instructions into the plastic instead of using stickers though, as this might help in the odd chance any stickers are destroyed or peel off in extreme circumstances.
According to the manufacturer there are no charges to use the COSPAS SARSAT system with this device.
In a world where everything is becoming privatized and expensive, it’s good to know you can call for rescue with this device free of charge. I still wouldn’t use it for a stubbed toe, though.
My biggest criticism of the device is user complaints about the small locator device slipping out of its floating case. If true, this is a major oversight as the device itself should float with or without a case.
Having your PLB sink to the bottom of the ocean would just ruin your day. Best as an alternative to the Aqualink by ACR.
As satellite messaging and emergency devices become more popular, Garmin has carved out a corner of the market. Known for their GPS devices, the Explorer+ is a communicator and rescue device.
Combine Garmin’s legendary GPS with two way messaging and SOS capabilities and you get the Explorer+.
You can send messages to contacts, view your location and navigate via GPS, or hit the emergency button for a magical evacuation coordinated by Garmin’s for-profit rescue center.
I like that you can pair it with your phone to unlock advanced features such as downloadable maps, charts, and aerial images.
Like the SPOT devices you can track and transmit your location with family and friends. It has a handy data usage tracking features.
Why? Cause you’ll have to pay a monthly subscription.
That brings me to my final point. This device really only makes sense for those who are out in remote locations nearly every weekend.
You’ll be paying a pretty penny to have your device subscription active and it just doesn’t make sense if you’re only going to use it once a year.
Best for very active explorers of remote areas who want bleeding edge tech.
DeLorme is a major player in the satellite tech space. They’re known for great GPS systems and compete heavily with Garmin and TomTom for market space in the exploration world.
Their devices are well loved and dependable if perhaps a bit less popular than Garmin.
That’s not to say they’re any worse! DeLorme lets you communicate with two way messaging, location sharing, and other advanced features with the InReach SE.
You can send and recieve messages up to 160 characters – like old school cell phones. These can be send along with GPS coordinates to phone numbers or email address.
This feature is particularly helpful if you’re in need of help but don’t want to trigger a full scale rescue. Jonesing for some of Grandma’s cookies? Send her a text with your coordinates and she can fly you in some cookies with her new drone!
I love that you can set the device to continuously send out your location to a cloud based website where friends and family can check your progress.
Set the device to mark your location once per day and your family can monitor your progress toward the next checkpoint and they’ll know if you go off course deep in the wilderness!
Best for advanced communication and tracking.
SPOT was one of the early players in advanced satellite based communication and rescue devices for personal use. Depending on your device subscription level you can do all sorts of fun and helpful location and communication.
SPOT 3 is the most recent iteration of these popular satellite messengers.
With the ability to send satellite based GPS tracking info at intervals or based on motion, you can keep an remotely updated map of your location viewable by family and friends. Just like the DeLore SE!
Unlike the DeLorme and the Garmin, the SPOT doesn’t have a viewable screen or other features. You’ll only be able to use this for simple communication and emergencies.
It’s a bit more affordable but you lose GPS navigation capabilities and other advanced functions.
However, with the simpler demands of this device, you can transmit your location or use the SOS features for a lot longer on just one set of batteries.
With no screen or advanced computing capabilities the SPOT is much lighter on battery use than the Garmin or DeLorme. Something to consider on long trips.
Best for long remote trips with a need for battery conservation.
How to Choose the Best Personal Locator Beacon for You
Often the differences between PLB’s are relatively minute. Choosing between models can seem difficult or trivial so let’s break down the real nitty gritty.
If you’ve decided that you’ll need a Personal Locator Beacon, the next step is to choose between some of the models available. So how can you choose a PLB for your needs?
Understanding Satellite Networks
Prepare yourself for a quick dive into the world of commercialized space objects! In order for PLB’s to know where you are, they need to work from any location in any weather at any time.
Your plain old vanilla cell phone network just isn’t going to cut it here. We need something with grit. Something that spans the network….
Enter the satellite networks. Each PLB is programmed to work with different types of satellite networks and there are essentially two different kinds.
These control EPIRBs (naval and marine locators) and PLBs. More devices may be added at any time and device access to this network is heavily restricted.
Globalstar and Iridium – are satellite networks owned by private companies that grant access at nosebleed prices. Manufacturers can pay for access to these networks and then sell their devices to you at a cost – resulting in profit for everyone.
Globalstar controls a network of satellites that cover nearly every region of the earth except remote parts of Africa and the poles.
If you want to be located near the North or South Pole you’ll want to avoid SPOT devices which rely on this constellation of satellites.
Garmin devices are backed by the Iridium satellite network. This constellation of satellites contains a few more satellites in total but still receives spotty coverage in some areas. It does, however, cover the poles.
Are personal locator beacons. These devices send out two signals when you decide to hit the emergency button. One signal beams up to the satellites in orbit miles above your head.
These satellites locate your coordinates and alert rescue teams. At the same time the PLB sends out an emergency radio signal that transmits to rescuers as they near your location.
These devices do not require a subscription to operate!
Devices are two communication devices that rely on satellite networks to communicate. These communicate with rescue centers operated by for-profit companies that will then coordinate with rescue teams to get your butt out of the emergency situation.
Unlike PLBs, SPOT messengers and other SEND devices usually allow more thorough communication. They may send you confirmation that rescue is coming. You can often transmit in depth messages or relay text messages with rescuers.
The drawbacks of SEND devices are that their signals tend to be much weaker. With obstructed skies, tree cover, or even terrible weather a GPS lock may fail.
Even if the SOS communication is received, rescuers won’t have the additional radio frequency emitted by a PLB to lock onto.
Which to choose?
In terms of raw emergency rescue power, you’ll want a PLB. If your only need is a one-time use emergency rescue signal with maximum reliability then go with a PLB.
PLB and Messenger Comparison Table
Now that you have a good idea of what you need, lets take a look at a comparison of them:
|Technology/Function||GPS Mapping||Features||Subscription Required|
|ACR ResQlink+ PLB||Personal Locator Beacon||No||Simple, reliable locator beacon||No|
|Garmin Inreach Explorer+||Motion Activated GPS Tracking Using Satellites||Yes||Pair with mobile devices using the free earthmate app to access downloadable maps||Yes|
|SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger||2-way text satellite messaging with interactive SOS to the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center||No||Tracking even where no cell service exists||Yes|
|DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Tracker||Send and receive 160 character free-form text messages with GPS coordinates||No||Adjustable tracking intervals from 10 minutes to 4 hours allow you to track your trip||Yes|
|Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1||Personal Locator Beacon||No||Comes with a flotation case to allow the device to float for marine use||No|
|ACR Aqualink View PLB||Personal Locator Beacon||No||Completely waterproof and self-buoyant for marine use||No|
If you’re looking for a device that simply and reliably transmits your location for the sole purpose of a rescue, use a PLB. It’s really that simple. They’re powerful, reliable, and tested devices.
These devices allow for helpful daily navigation and communications in all situations – not just life or limb emergencies.
I hope this guide was helpful for finding the best personal locator beacon to fit your needs. If you want to comment or recommend a PLB I didn’t include, please use my contact form to get in touch.
Have fun and enjoy the ride!