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Personal Locator Beacons as a Rescue Device for Backcountry Travelers

Is a PLB consistent with a responsible lightweight backpacking philosophy?

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by Ryan Jordan | 2003-11-23 03:00:00-07

Contents of this Article:

  • Official NOAA Press Release detailing the 11-14-2003 PLB-assisted rescue in Adirondack Mountains
  • Editor's commentary
  • Public discussion forum


First Person to Use New Technology in the Contiguous United States

Nov. 17, 2003 — A Cleveland, Ohio, man was rescued by the U.S. Army Fort Drum Air Ambulance Detachment outside of Watertown, N.Y., Friday through the help of a personal locator beacon or PLB. This rescue was the first using PLB technology since they became available for use in the U.S., July 1, 2003.

Carl Skalak, 55, was in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York when he activated his PLB. At 10:45 a.m. EST, personnel at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), at Langley Air Force Base, Va., were notified of the distress call via the Search and Rescue Satellite Aid Tracking System (SARSAT), operated by NOAA. The AFRCC notifies the appropriate state emergency rescue agency in the area where the PLB was activated.

According to Lt. Daniel Karlson, SARSAT operations support officer for NOAA, “The system worked like a gem.” Mr. Skalak decided to activate his PLB after he realized he was facing a life-threatening situation because of his isolated conditions and the brutally frigid weather. “In a matter of a few hours, Mr. Skalak might have become acutely hypothermic putting his life at risk,” Karlson explained. “Since he had properly registered his PLB, we were able to immediately confirm his whereabouts and set the wheels in motion for his rescue.”

“This was a team effort between NOAA and the AFRCC from the beginning to bring the system to fruition in the U.S.,” said Lt. Col. Morgan. “Working together, we have been able to establish a system that allows for a quicker response by emergency personnel and will hopefully help save lives in the future.”

Prior to July, PLBs had only been available for use in Alaska under a test program to evaluate their usefulness in search and rescue. The success seen in Alaska paved the way for the technology to be used throughout the rest of the nation. “This particular rescue demonstrates how well our agencies work together when it comes to saving a life,” said Ajay Mehta, the NOAA SARSAT program manager.

PLBs send out digital distress signals on the 406-megahertz frequency, which are detected by the NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) and Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES). GOES, the first to detect a beacon’s distress signal, hover in a fixed orbit above Earth and receive the signals, which contain registration information about the beacon and its owner. The POES constantly circle the globe, enabling them to capture and accurately locate the alerts to within a few miles. The satellites are part of the worldwide satellite search and rescue system called, COSPAS-SARSAT. The COSPAS-SARSAT system is a cluster of NOAA and Russian satellites that work together to detect distress signals anywhere in the world transmitted from PLBs and from beacons carried aboard ships and airplanes.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center acts as the single federal agency for coordinating search and rescue missions in the inland regions of the 48 contiguous states.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources. NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Editor's Commentary

Since the November 14 event where Mr. Skalak was rescued in the Adirondacks, we've engaged in some lively discussions among the outdoor media, SAR volunteers, and military rescue professionals about the utility of a personal locator beacon (PLB) and its applicability in the lower 48.

There is no question that a personal locator beacon has saved the lives of mariners around the world. The open ocean is a vast, hostile environment subjected to conditions that frighten most of the alpinists I know that get their endorphin rush by hanging off strings and screws somehow attached to brittle ice and rotten rock.

The use of PLB's in remote areas that most of us cannot even appreciate - like the interior of Alaska, Siberia, Australia, and other seemingly Godforsaken places - has also had an impact on the safety of solo adventurers.

However, I think we need to question whether it is appropriate to endorse personal locator beacon use in the contiguous United States. After all, the most remote location (in the far SE corner of Yellowstone National Park) is still only thirty miles as a crow flies from the nearest road.

The old cell-phone arguments are similar for a personal locator beacon and will not be regurgitated here. However, PLB's offer a level of signaling reliability that is much greater than a cellular phone. Consequently, the chance that a novice outdoorsman will place security in a PLB is far greater.

I've participated as an SAR accident analyst for 12 years. Nearly every outdoor and mountaineering rescue that our committees have assessed has been attributed to the outdoorsman taking risks inappropriate for their level of experience and/or equipment. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. It's easier to analyze an accident than to have the forethought to prevent it. However, it is extremely valuable to consider the context in which the personal locator beacon was activated in this particular rescue.

To quote from the manufacturer's (ACR Electronics, Inc.) press release about this event:

"On November 14th, the 55-year-old (Carl J. Skalak, Jr.) ... decided to summon emergency help with his recently purchased personal locator beacon, after several days weathering gale force winds and torrential rains followed by 18 to 22 inches of snow at his remote one-man camp along the Oswegatchie River in Adirondack State Park. On a week's canoe and hunting trip, the Cleveland, Ohio resident found himself virtually stranded when icy conditions caused the Oswegatchie River to freeze over, and thigh deep snow drifts made walking virtually impossible. Skalak, an experienced outdoorsman and hunter, had filed an itinerary with New York State Forest Rangers, but wasn't expected to return until the following Monday. After considering his food and fuel rations, physical condition, and the potential for weather to worsen, Skalak activated the beacon putting into motion a search and rescue scenario that ended in his rescue by a U.S. Army Helicopter later that day."

There are several issues that an accident analyst considers when performing a rescue assessment. We will consider one of those issues here. Since we were not directly involved in the rescue, and do not have all of the facts at hand (although we must assume that the manufacturer's press release presents an interpretation of the facts that emphasizes the appropriate use of their product), it would be inappropriate for us to comment on this particular incident (although you can bet that we have questions). Rather, we hope to provide a foundation for decision making for outdoorsmen carrying PLB's.

What is the condition of the victim that led to a call for rescue/evacuation?

Commentary: It is commonly accepted that calls for rescue and evacuation are appropriate in situations where conditions are life-threatening. Such conditions might include immobilizing injuries, lack of shelter and/or clothing in combination with unexpectedly cold conditions, or a severely weakened physical condition caused by several days without food or water. In general, a rescue should not be initiated until the victim has exhausted reasonable means for survival and self-extraction. In severely inclement weather conditions where a victim is at a high risk of exposure-related injuries (hypothermia, frostbite), then any and all means of shelter and warmth (including clothing, fires, tents, etc.) should be employed for survival. In the absence of such means, a rescue may be appropriate.

In short, the incident of November 14th is a significant one. It represents a very important precedent that is currently the standard of measure for appropriate use of a PLB. Whether or not "appropriate" use was exercised in this incident is merely subject to different interpretation by different individuals. As such, land use of PLB's in the contiguous U.S., and the use of a PLB in this incident, will be provide fodder for a hot debate for a long time to come.

The NOAA press release indicates the Mr. Skalak was (emphasis mine) "facing a life-threatening situation because of his isolated conditions and brutally frigid weather. In a matter of a few hours, Mr. Skalak might have become acutely hypothermic putting his life at risk."

Are we then left to believe, from interpreting the details released about this incident, that (1) any time we face a life-threatening situation we are to activate our PLB. Or, (2) is brutally frigid weather and isolated conditions warrant the use of a PLB? Finally, (3) is the prospect that one may become hypothermic warrant a PLB-assisted rescue?

Likewise, we are left to interpret the manufacturer's press release in a similar manner: "After considering ... food and fuel rations, physical condition, and the potential for weather to worsen ..." Unfortunately, we are left with few real details about Mr. Skalak's food and fuel rations or his physical condition, other than he was apparently released without incident following a medical examination (which is standard operating procedure for SAR victims). In summary, are we left to believe that activating a PLB is appropriate if we have some food, fuel (or the ability to build a fire), are tired (even "exhausted"), or we think the weather might worsen?

There is no question that the weather Mr. Skalak was facing was serious. Winds in the 20 to 40 mph range were occuring in the area (a gale is typically defined as 39 to 54 mph), as well as heavy snow and subfreezing temperatures. But aren't such winter blizzard conditions to be expected as a possibility in mid-November in the Adirondacks?

I'll conclude simply by noting the obvious. First, land use of PLB's will undoubtedly result in more rapid rescues and greater safety for SAR personnel who won't have to expend as much energy searching for a victim. Second, PLB's will be used by those who truly need evacuated, and they will be used by those who have to face conditions that are not normally life-threatening to those with the prerequisite skills, experience, and equipment.

Finally, we cannot help but ask:

Are there 17.6 oz (the weight of the PLB used in this rescue) of gear/supplies that you would bring instead of a PLB that would have improved your ability to cope with the conditions Mr. Skalak was facing and avoid a rescue?


"Personal Locator Beacons as a Rescue Device for Backcountry Travelers," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2003-11-23 03:00:00-07.


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Personal Locator Beacons & Other Wireless Technologies for Backcountry Travel?
The purpose of this thread is to discuss rescue and emergency communications technologies, as discussed in the following articles:
Specifically, comments regarding the utility of PLB's in the context of lightweight backpacking are encouraged.
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Chris Strawser
(mcochris) - F
Suunto X9 GPS watch first impressions on 05/07/2004 16:39:25 MDT Print View

I recently purchased a Suunto X9 GPS wristwatch and thought I’d share some of my first impressions of it.

I purchased the X9 because of it’s size and weight. The Garmin Foretrex 101 is .1 ounce lighter than the X9, but much larger. No way am I wearing the Garmin – it’s just too geeky.

The X9 is a large wristwatch, but not so large as to attract too much attention. It’s a very solid piece of gear and well constructed. I verified its weight at 2.7 ounces.

I’ll let the reader do web searches to find out more about X9 features. I’ll just briefly go over my impressions of it.

There are five push buttons on the sides of the watch that are very hard to depress. Because all but one of the buttons is diagonal to another, you can’t easily use an across-watch pinching motion to press a button. You really have to contort your fingers and hand and exert a lot of pressure on a button to activate it. And it’s easy to activate the button twice as you struggle. This problem is so bad that after a few days of working with the unit, I got so frustrated with the buttons that I sent the watch back for a refund.

Even if the rest of the watch’s features were super, I would not keep this watch. The buttons are just too hard to use.

Battery life is short, but I figured I could use the X9 in a check GPS, check map type mode, keeping the GPS function off most of the time. This would minimize battery usage. The watch comes with a recharger that can accept a 9V battery to recharge the unit, so I figured I could field recharge the unit every couple of days or so.

Unfortunately, the recharger is large (4.5” x 2” x 1.5”) and adds another 2.1 oz (w/o battery) to your pack. The battery cover door is hard to open/close and not very strong. I would see this breaking in field use.

The recharger (aka docking station) is poorly designed. It clamps the watch in such a way that the watch and recharger cannot lay flat on a table. It looks a mess while in the cradle. This is minor point, but poor design. The unit is also hard to open and close around the watch, making charging and PC access more of a pain. You can’t just drop the watch in it’s docking station like a Palm Pilot PDA.

Suunto does not provide any other recharging options suitable for field use. You’d have to bring a mess of 9V batteries, or a small solar panel and a rechargeable 9V battery. Perhaps not practical for multi-days hikes.

The watch is one piece – the bands cannot be user removed or replaced. Oddly, the watch comes with an undocumented extra band, maybe for extending the diameter of the original band to fit around your leg or outside a puffy jacket.

The compass feature seems to work fine, but it’s not as easy to use as a non-electric compass.

Some of the user preferences are not totally utilized – on the sunrise/sunset screen, you get 24-hour time even if you select 12-hour time. And the date is displayed as DDMM even if you select the American MMDD format option.

The GPS function can record position information every second or once every minute. That’s it. Since we’re dealing with very limited battery capacity, I think more options need to be available here. I’d like to see 5, 10, 15, 20, 30-minute intervals to wring more battery life from the unit. The limit is 8000 track points. That’s good for 11 12-hour days, recharging the unit nightly.

If you give up track logs but still use GPS a couple times a day, you could probably go a couple of days between recharges.

I don’t know if the watch’s firmware can be user updated. It’s not documented in the manuals and I couldn’t find a firmware page on their website. There’s no “display version” option in the watches menu system.

The “night mode” for the X9’s backlit display is not well implemented. Night mode tells the watch to activate it’s backlighting whenever a button is pressed. You have to tell the watch when to use night mode. I think the watch should know when it’s night and adjust the backlight option accordingly.

These is no provision for daylight saving time. You have to adjust the UTC offset manually for DST. Many GPS received are also “dumb” when it comes to DST.

The watch does not lay flat because the thick wristbands are permanently curved. So it has to sit on its side or face when not on your wrist. The crystal is well recessed, so scratching is minimized.

The watchband is a bit hard to take off you arm, as it’s hard to unattach the buckle tongue and the buckle doesn’t easily slide over the strap.

GPS sensitivity is much lower as compared to my Garmin Etrex. The Etrex locked and maintained quicker and longer than the X9. I didn’t keep the watch long enough for extended field testing of GPS sensitivity, but I doubt the X9 would maintain a lock while worn on the wrist without clear view of the sky.

The software that comes with the watch allows you to import gif, bmp, or jpg scanned maps and calibrate them. You can add waypoints and tracks and upload/download them from the X9. The software is not intuitive and a little frustrating to use as compared to Oziexplorer. I don’t know if the X9 uses a proprietary NEMA sentence structure, and I didn’t try it with Ozi.

The menu system on the watch is easy to use until you get to the GPS functions. These are spread out over three menus (all modes, activity, and navigation). Setting waypoints, go to’s, etc is not intuitive. After reading the manual a couple of time and working with the unit, I was still frustrated on how to use GPS functions like waypoints and go to’s. I’m sure I could figure it out eventually, but outdoor gear should not be this hard to use. I didn’t have to read the Garmin manuals to learn how to use my Etrex and 45XL.

Setting a waypoint needs to be really easy and involve as few key presses as possible. It’s not on the X9.

This complexity may be due in part to the limited display real estate, but I think the X9 software could have been designed much better.

Well, as you can tell, I didn’t like the X9. The buttons alone are a deal killer. If the buttons were easy use, I still couldn’t recommend the X9 due to the complexity of its GPS menus. If that were easy to use, I still wouldn’t recommend the X9 due to its poor GPS performance and value.

P. Todd Foster
( - F
New cheap light locator beacon on 06/03/2004 17:37:33 MDT Print View

Here's a cheap light beacon that works until Feb. 2009, when they turn off the satellites for it, if they really do that. Assume they do. It's almost 5 years away.

It's a: ACR Mini B 300
Miniature floating
personal locator EPIRB

This is made for Marine use, available at:

Price is $134.95, weight is 7.4 oz/215 gms with batteries.

Note that this unit only transmits on the 121 Mhz SAR frequency -- same as tens of thousands of aviation and marine rescue beacons. It is being replaced by the better 206 Mhz beacons that tranmit an id number and a GPS location.

This unit can't do that. It takes several satellite passes to localize you, then the SAR helicopter homes in on the signal.

Is this good enough, will it suffice until under 8oz 206Mhz GPS units are available and affordable?

My answer is yes. I'm ordering one for my solo off-trail backpacking, just in case.

Best, Todd in Tarzana.

P. Todd Foster
( - F
New cheap light locator beacons on 06/03/2004 18:02:56 MDT Print View

Sorry, the new frequency is 406 Mhz, not 206 as stated. Best, Todd F.

Kim Skaarup
(skaarup) - F

Locale: Cold, wet and windy Scandinavia
He had his time of life.!! on 06/11/2004 17:11:42 MDT Print View

According to

UPDATE December 5, 2003: Two weeks later Skalak went back, alone, to retrieve his equipment left there when he was rescued. Officials were apparently less than pleased when he again set off his PLB on December 2. He was again rescued by helicopter, but this time in much more severe weather conditions. It was later determined that Skalak should have been able to make it out on his own and officials believe he had exaggerated his predicament. He was arrested, charged with making a false report and posted $10,000.00 bail. Skalak is scheduled for a court appearance in the town of Webb, New York, on January 20, 2004.

P. Todd Foster
( - F
ACR cheap EPIRB update on 07/18/2004 12:33:05 MDT Print View

Just completed 6 day hike, my first with the ACR Mini B EPIRB sewed into the upper part of my pack rear stretch pouch. Used the little yellow Kevlar cord that comes with to tie it on as a leash.

Well, it worked. The thing successfully warded off emergencies, as planned. Electronics is magic.

In conversation with China Lake SAR team members yesterday at the Whitney Trail Centennial get together in Lone Pine, I was told that there have been no rescues yet in their area from beacons.

As usual, SAR folks are ambivalent about beacons, fearing misuse. Current high prices/weight for the 406Mhz new technology beacon is surely discouraging use. My point that rescue beacons have been routinely carried by general av pilots and boaters for decades gets a quizical reaction. But what's the difference? Fliers and boaters aren't expected to totally shun any area where rescue might be unlikely or problematic. Why should backpackers be in a different category?

I'm carrying this little guy just in case, since most of my hikes are solo and some will be off trail in wild areas. I feel better about it, which is what matters. Strictly a last ditch survival item. The worst (and last) regret would be not having it along, if it were ever truly needed.

Best, Todd in Tarzana.

Roman Dial
(romandial) - F - M

Locale: packrafting NZ
Sat Phones vs EPIRBS etc on 11/03/2004 22:04:49 MST Print View

Curious what people here in this forum thinak about the pros and cons of sat phones vs. EPRBS?

Bernard Shaw
( - F

Locale: Upstate New York
+ and - s on 11/17/2004 07:14:27 MST Print View

EPIRB imho are best when, one, person overboard, signal goes out, it is attached so you don't have to do anything while fighting for your life, etc. Sat phones assume you are mentaly and physically able to use one while it hooks up etc. In situations where weight matters, like many here feel who go light, epirb can be lighter and don't have to worry about batteries going dead as much. On the other hand, sat phones do allow you to keep advised of weather emergencies, let others know of your safety, status, and can prevent needless searches, etc. Evidently, there is a considerable track record of their use by marine and aviation but with any new population there are start up concerns about misuse as folks get educated.

Charles Maguire
(hikelite) - F

Locale: Virginia
Another twist on PLB's on 12/19/2004 13:01:09 MST Print View

One of my personal pet peeves are the number of hikrs who could care less about the environment. I mostly hike on and around the Appalacian Trail. The campsites/shelters are pigstyes. The further you go from a road the better they get, making me believe the less educated considerate hikers stay closer to their safety zone (road).

If these people get PLB's will they take their carelessness further up the trail, or to the more remote side trail area's that usually few venture too. I Don't see PLB's reallly needed on the AT esp. if hiking with a partner, but there are a bunch of bozo's out here that I could see using the PLB in the most marginal situation.

I am not trying to be snobby, but the conditions of the AT are deplorable. I doubt the hardcore hikers are to blame, but instead the 1 weekend a year warrior.


Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
interesting on 06/22/2006 15:10:41 MDT Print View

A comment on made me read this article.

Interesting to read this commentary, in light of Ryan's recent trip north.

Jeffrey Lantis
(lantisdeadeye) - F
Personal Locator Beacon on 10/18/2006 11:45:45 MDT Print View

I feel that it is the most vital thing a person can bring into the great outdoors. I am interested in getting one for my self.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
To carry or not to carry a PLB on 12/19/2006 18:35:21 MST Print View

When I am going on a solo off trail jaunt, I now carry a PLB
for the following reasons: 1) I have a huge responsibility to my wife to come back alive; 2) If I get seriously injured, a timely rescue will greatly improve my chances of survival. They would diminish considerably if a search was not undertaken until after I had failed to return on the scheduled date, which could be anywhere from 2 to 10 days depending on when I was incapacitated; 3) The cost and risk of search and rescue would be considerably higher if all they had to go on was an itinerary. That said, I consider it mandatory that I exhaust all options available to me to self extract before activating the device. Still, it remains to be seen how I would react if and when I find myself in dire straits.
So far, alertness, caution, and a healthy ration of good fortune have kept the PLB in its holster, but there are no guarantees. All it takes is a millisecond of inattentiveness, a miscalculation, or some random incident of objective hazard and things go bad real quick. I guess it's sort of like auto insurance; you hope you never have to use it and take all precautions, but......Also, I do take out insurance to help defray the cost of a rescue should one prove necessary.

Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
Re: Sat Phones vs EPIRBS etc on 12/19/2006 18:59:34 MST Print View

I have a PLB and have posted several comments about this form of emergency communications and the reasons for carrying one. I recently started seriously looking into buying a SAT phone and have found that prices have come down considerably along with the service contracts for them. I can now buy one for the continental US with roaming service to Canada and Mexico with full coverage of the US and Alaska for less than $400 and about $500 for one with a GPS locator built in. They weigh in at between 7oz and 13oz. The service contracts can be as simple as $39/mo for what is called emergency service which is a per minute charge of $1.49. Bottom line is that this piece of gear would end up costing me about $100/yr after the initial purchase. They are waterproof to 1m and pretty resistant to bumps and dings from what people tell me whom I know who own them and use them in Africa.

So, it looks as if I will be getting one and using it as an emergency communication device and to call in to my wife each night to let her know I am safe. It would have the added benefit of serving in case of earthquake (I live in SoCal)and when traveling. I really can't think of a single downside to having one with me treking. I can load up the ranger station number and the local SAR number and get help and advice if needed by phone and have my situation evaluated by the professionals if I need evacuation.
Decided to add:
After re-reading a number of posts in this thread and remembering numerous posts from other threads about the "purity" of the wilderness experience being spoiled by technology, I need to make the following comments. The wilderness experience is what you make of it. One can hike the same travel worn trail over and over again year after year and chose to see it and experience it anew each time. It is what one brings to the experience that make the difference. A PLB, SAT phone, MP3 player, camera and other technology does not have to reduce the "purity" of the experience. If one spends a lot of time thinking about the presence of that technology in your pack then maybe yes, it can. But as the zen masters say -- empty your mind and allow it to be filled by the experience. The technology of the SAT phone or PLB does not have to get in the way. I doubt that Everest Climbers see technology as an intrusion on the experience of that mountain.
If you chose to see PLBs as the harbinger of the end of wilderness as we know it and a license for the shallow end of the gene pool to hike into situations they should not, that is one perspective and not that of those of us who wish to make sure we return from even the most mundane hike or the most hair-raising adventure. Remember, Murphy lurks around the most innocent bend in the road.

Edited by mitchellkeil on 12/19/2006 19:31:12 MST.

b d
(bdavis) - F

Locale: Mt. Lassen - Shasta, N. Cal.
Re: To carry or not to carry a PLB on 12/19/2006 19:03:28 MST Print View

I posted the following on a related thread:

"Here is a US Coast Guard site summarizing EPIRB recommendations which discusses and defines the types, ranges, uses, and what not to buy or use:

As mentioned by a previous poster here, note the number of items or classes of EPIRBS with: "No longer recommended."

Having sailed in both harbors and out on the open ocean, where there are no mountains sticking out of the water or other obstructions, usually, EPIRBS are useful and proper equipment is recommended by the Coast Guard.

Poor, low quality, defective equipment is worse than having nothing because it creates a false sense of security at precisely the moments when that is the last thing one needs -- like a choice whether to turn around and go back in rather than keep going into heavy weather or current, etc."

I am not that experienced at "land sailing" or what is called hiking, trekking and camping. That said, relying on the electronic gear is great for security but can never replace judgment and preparation in the execution of a venture. My thought is that what are being referred to here as PLBs are not perfected or developed for land use, what the mariners call EPIRBS, and I would use all other means first before relying upon them. If I were, as an old sailor, to pick a weapon of choice, it would be a handheld radio device, waterproof and lightweight + a strobe for night and orange dye for day, if I couldn't get a fire with smoke going. Visibility is the key.

All that aside, I really respect BPL for initiating this kind of discussion. It has given me pause for thought and to refine my pacing plans.

Edited by bdavis on 12/19/2006 19:35:41 MST.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Re: Sat Phones vs EPIRBS etc on 12/19/2006 20:20:38 MST Print View

Sat phones (Globalstar, anyway) are very sensitive to sky cover. I can't usually make a call from beneath trees, although sometimes I can receive SMS messages. A small clearing or a stream is usually good for a 5 minute call before it drops, then I wait 15 minutes for the next satellite to pass overhead.

It doesn't bother me at all (except for the extra weight) to carry the phone. I don't think of it until I make my nightly connection, and when I do so I am grateful that I can be out there and keep my job too.

Mike Barney
(eaglemb) - F

Locale: AZ, the Great Southwest!
Re: Re: To carry or not to carry a PLB on 12/19/2006 20:21:43 MST Print View

Hey bd,
The new class of EPIRB's (aka PLB's) are well suited for land use. One of the nice things about this new (only out for about a year) class of beacons is they have virtually instantaneous location capabilities, using a combination of GEO and LEO satellites. If you have one that reports your location, your ID and location is available in 1 - 3 minutes, otherwise, the LEO satellites have to make a couple of passes to find you, takes about an hour.

The reliability is pretty good, they are relatively lightweight (~ 12 oz), will beacon for 1 - 3 days, have location resolution within a wingspan, and are getting pretty reasonably priced (example: ACR AQUAFIX 406 PLB EPIRB w/ INTERNAL GPS for $575 from , I have no affiliation w/ them)

When you activate the EPIRB, you don't have any options. The SAR center gets the registration information, will call a contact number that you provided to make sure that it's not a goose chase, then dispatches general help. (It's only a distress signal, no indications on whether it's medical or whatever.)

I see 2 other lightweight alternatives: One is a SAT phone, several in the 8 - 13 oz range, typically $600 - $800. If you're in good enough shape to make a call, you can probably get more precise support or care with this option. These typically do not work reliably under large canopies, and some don't work in deep canyons.

The other alternative is an handheld VHF aircraft transceiver to make a distress call. Often in the $300 range and under a pound. These are relatively inexpensive and lightweight. Several high profile saves have been made by communicating with airliners overhead, who were able to relay specific distress information. There are many areas (more in the western US) where there are not that many air routes.


b d
(bdavis) - F

Locale: Mt. Lassen - Shasta, N. Cal.
Re: Re: Re: To carry or not to carry a PLB on 12/24/2006 14:21:49 MST Print View

Hey Mike,

Thanks, a lot. Just saw your post about the new EPIRBs. I am not going to go Sat phone or VHF aircraft transceiver for sure. Too much trouble and cost, plus I don't even like the idea for some reason.

The new "PLBs" sound interesting, mostly because of my partner's safety. I have pretty much decided to find a UL strobe for night, if I can't start a fire (hopefully not a forest fire) and some orange dye and carry at least one large item of orange, bright, material which also has other benefits / uses, like one of the Heatsheats thermal bivy things sold at the Gear Store. (I even daydreamed about a small canister of gas to go with a balloon that could be sent up on Spectra cord and carry a strobe for night, orange balloon for day ... funny how the mind works when wanting to be out there and suffering from cabin fever ... it would be like the mariners' flares or orange smoke for land.)

Please keep posting about this new EPIRB system and any light weight and functional / durable units available. Or, PM me.

Until then, lost here in gear heaven while I organize, reorganize, and re-reorganize everything waiting to get back out there ... while playing hookey from other tasks.


Edited by bdavis on 12/24/2006 14:32:14 MST.

Cornelius Austin
(nealaustin) - F

Locale: Minnesota
PLB's on 08/09/2007 11:25:44 MDT Print View

I pack a PLB on back country trips because I just couldn't bear seeing my wife turning into a nervous wreck by the time I got home from each solo trip. If I didn't have a loving wife waiting for me, I wouldn't need it. It's not for my peace of mind, it's for her's.


Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Re: Sat Phones vs EPIRBS etc on 08/09/2007 12:57:22 MDT Print View

I agree with Douglas. Sat phones are effective for many purposes, however they have limitations with signal strength and quality based on sky cover and terrain. W/ a sat phone, there are additional steps to be located, however you are also able to communicate the urgency of your situation and your actual needs Vs. the "come and get me" of activating an EPIRB. Sat phones are getting smaller, albeit slowly, and do give you the ability to check fire reports, call out when delayed, or call to change a pick up if you need to. As far as being a multiple use item, they seem to have a bit more going for them than an EPIRB (PLB). I think used responsibly, a PLB could be a great tool for back country travelers, but it all comes down to personal preference and having a good head on your shoulders to know when any tools use is appropriate.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: 17.6 oz of What? on 01/02/2009 17:48:50 MST Print View

This PLB is from November 2003. Over the five years since, what has changed and what remains the same?

Has anyone here actually used one in an emergency?

How many of you carry one?

Fred eric
(Fre49) - MLife

Locale: France, vallée de la Loire
150g now on 03/11/2009 07:48:40 MDT Print View

or 5.3 oz if you prefer.

Im seriously considering bringing one on this summer hike with my wife : 10-12 days hike in Greenland without maybe seeing someone else ( then one week in more habited area )
And next summer probably back to Iceland for a crossing this time.

Its not for cold weather/wind , in Iceland last year i had a huge margin of security for that,and i always do so when hike a few days away from civilisation.
But its more for the case of a broken limb or equivalent.

Its seems a reasonnable weight penalty to carry that in the case my wife or i injure himself 100km away from the nearest known house/ cell phone cover.

i wouldnt use it in a situation not serious enough that i would care having to reimburse the whole cost of the rescue

Edited by Fre49 on 03/11/2009 07:54:31 MDT.