PLBs and SENDs

personal locator beacon
Bryan Hansel

In the not-so-distant past, you were on your own when you ventured into the back country. Not just physically, but in terms of assistance. If something went wrong, it could take days before a search party would find you. Nowadays, mobile phones – or rather smartphones – are now so ubiquitous almost everyone is equipped with one. This means you can easily contact friends, family or emergency services when something goes wrong, which is great. But what happens when you have no cellphone reception, which can happen very quickly in remoter or more mountainous areas?

Imagine the worst has happened; you or your party are injured, immobile, or suffering from exposure in the deep wilderness. Without assistance you are in danger. Your mobile phone is useless, but luckily, you carry a PLB or a SEND. These are communication devices that use GPS and other satellite communications technology to enable you to send a distress signal to the emergency services when you are at sea, in the mountains, or anywhere else out of cellphone reception.

PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons)

PLBs do one thing: send out a distress signal. When activated, a PLB transmits an SOS message and its GPS coordinates over the COSPAS/SARSAT constellation. They also emit a powerful homing radio signal. The SOS signal and coordinates are routed to the rescue services of your country. Since you must register the beacon with the authorities in advance, and registration details include several telephone numbers, the authorities then attempt to contact you to verify if the emergency is real or if the bacon was set off by mistake. If judged necessary, rescue services are dispatched to the location of the beacon. It is worth noting that if a PLB is used outside of its country of registration, the emergency signal will be sent to both the Rescue Coordination Centre responsible for the region in which the distress incident is occurring and the center where the beacon’s registration details are kept. The two centers will then coordinate with each other.  PLBs do not require an annual subscription and are better at acquiring a GPS lock than SENDs. PLBs absolutely represent your best chance of being located in an emergency situation. However, they are essentially in standby mode until activated and do not offer tracking functions or any form of two-way messaging.


Model to choose

The ACR ResQLink+ is currently the PLB of choice for most people. The dual SOS transmission (406MHz / 121.5MHz) and 5-watt transmission power coupled with the excellent track record and global coverage of the COSPAS/SARSAT constellation makes this the best device in purely SOS terms.
ResQLink™+ PLB
The ResQLink™+ PLB. The best emergency communications device currently available. ACR Electronics


SENDs (Satellite Emergency Notification Devices)

SENDs are basically like a stripped-down smartphone or wifi router. Although their basic concept is the same as a PLB, they differ in several important ways. Firstly, SENDs are a subscription service that transmits to a commercial Rescue Coordination Center operated by the private companies Globalstar or Iridium. If you don’t pay, you don’t get rescued – simple as that. The big plus of a SEND, however, is that they enable two way messaging through the device itself or through pairing with a smartphone. So, while a PLB offers the binary option of sending a help-get-me-out-of-here SOS to the emergency services or not, a SEND also allows you to send text messages to friends and family to let them know you are safe but running late, for example. SENDs also incorporate other useful functions, including GPS tracking, mapping and weather reports. These can be accessed directly on the device or via a smartphone paired by Bluetooth.

Model to choose

The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is the best device for tracking and two-way messaging when outside of cellphone reception. It offers global 2-way communication messaging functions, professional SOS monitoring via the GEOS International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center (IERCC), GPS tracking and position sharing, 100% global coverage and weather forecasting. Plans start at about $12 per month for annual plans, or $15 per month or a freedom plan, where you only pay for the months you want to use it.


 inReach SE+
The inReach SE+. The best 2-way satellite communications device for the back country. Garmin


Request from outdoors people in Japan!

So, it seems that the situation is not as clear-cut in Japan. PLBs were cleared by the government for use a few years ago, but I couldn’t find much about them from official sources. Similarly, several sites implied there is a fine(!?) for use of a PLB on land rather than at sea. Finally, the inReach website does not support Japanese. I am certain the IERCC would try to coordinate rescue operations for SOS signals that originate in Japan, but I wonder why Garmin is not actively targeting the Japanese market. If anyone in Japan could shed some light on this in the comments below, I would be vary grateful!

Last word

Traditionalists and puritans would probably balk at the idea of taking satellite communications devices back country; after all, the idea is to unplug and get away. But in practical terms these devices will save your life, period. So if you are going out alone or are leading a group, they are something I would recommend. The fact that the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council (MSC) almost perpetually runs a campaign to make taking PLBs out into the back country second nature is testament to their efficiency. That said, New Zealand is incredibly progressive in its approach to outdoor recreation. Rescue services are free at point of use here, which is certainly not necessarily the case in other countries, so do your research and take out mountain rescue insurance if necessary.

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