Personal Locator Beacons

12:19 a.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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My apologies as this has probably been discussed, however, I am missing where to search the forums, only see where to search gear reviews.

Anyway, those of you who use them, which one to you prefer? There are of course the Delorme inReach and the ACR Electronics ResQLink+

Seems I have heard very mixed reviews about the SPOTs ability to connect, however, I am torn.

I have never used one or should I say carried one, however, stuff happens and outside of cell coverage could really pose an issue...especially, if there is no way another person can get you out.

As always, thanks for the information!

5:56 a.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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You can use Google to search a specific TS forum by including a site reference in your search string. site:[url] is the format so to search the Backcountry forum for PLBs you would enter PLB or if you wanted to search the entire forum PLB

10:12 a.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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DeLorme and Spot technically are not PLBs, they are satellite communication devices that include SOS-type functionality in addition to one- or two-way communications and possibly other features. From a PLB/SOS/SAR standpoint, DeLorme and Spot use private satellites that are less reliable (though many will say still plenty reliable enough). The true PLBs like ACR and McMurdo use the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system, basically military-maintained satellites that are considered more reliable, both in terms of their constellation of satellites providing better coverage (in canyons, international) and in terms of relaying a distress signal to the proper SAR.

The true PLBs also have a dual signal, one that is sent up to the satellite with your GPS coordinates, but that still leaves SAR with a radius of a few hundred yards, so the PLB also has a local signal that SAR can pick up once on the ground that can pinpoint your location to within 10 feet or so. A radius of a few hundred yards might seem like they should be able to find you pretty quickly but not necessarily -- if you fell between boulders in a talus field or partway down the edge of a cliff, for example.

The advantage to a satellite communication device, from a SOS standpoint, is that you potentially could communicate with SAR about your situation. With a true PLB they only receive the SOS without knowing why, with a satellite communicator you could let them know if you broke your leg or got lost or if you sent the signal to assist someone else.

12:16 p.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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Some time back, I did a review of rescue devices here on Trailspace. The inReach devices had not been released at that time.

JR gives part of the information you are seeking. He is quite correct that the inReach and SPOT are not PLBs. in fact, there are several families of what I will loosely call "emergency beacons", of which PLB, EPIRB, and ELT are just a few. The distinction among these is the application. 

PLB = Personal Locator Beacon, which intended for individuals to carry on their person. These are largely used in the marine world, but also used by hikers (required in some areas, such as the Pacific Northwest). You have to activate them by hand.

EPIRB = Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon - also largely used in the marine world, but most are automatically activated (for example, when immersed in salt water, such as when you are dumped from your sea kayak into the ocean

ELT = Emergency Locator Transmitter - for aircraft, particularly private aircraft, activated by impact or by hand if your plane crashes

The above use COSPAR-SARSAT as JR noted, an international government maintained constellation of satellites. The old version did not have GPS-location capability, but used a doppler approach that required several passes to narrow down the search area. Years ago, when I had an airplane, I participated in several searches, where we would do a series of passes with the plane to narrow the area after the satellites got a broad area.  Historically, there was a single frequency, later enhanced with a second frequency, still later with the original frequency discontinued. More recently, most of these beacons have added GPS and some text capability.

SPOT and inReach are similar to one another, though with significant differences. For both, emergency location is "hand activated", so if you fall off a cliff, you have to punch the button yourself (which you have to do with a PLB as well). Both, in their current versions, allow 2-way texting, with inReach being far more capable than SPOT in that aspect. Both allow tracking (you can see the SPOT tracks in the link I gave above). inReach allows detailed tracking of your location if you want your family to follow your wanderings.

JR is a bit off in his statement that they are:

use private satellites that are less reliable.

Actually, both are commercial companies. Both use the Navstar Global Positioning Satellite constellation for positioning (I spent 10 years on the modernization program). Delorme's inReach uses the Iridium satellite system (originally developed for the US military, then privatized, but still supported by the US Air Force). SPOT uses GlobalStar's commercial satellite system. For both, you choose a plan that matches your usage - activated all the time or activated part of the time (say, summer hike of the "Trailspace Trail"). You pay a fee according to that usage. inReach also has plans for companies or organizations where many people are in the field and in frequent communication with one another.

Also, inReach, in my experience, is very reliable, although there are sometimes short delays of 5 to 10 minutes. When I was involved in a rescue down in Peru, the main delays were getting the local SAR group to our camp, interviewing the survivor, and then directed to the body recovery site. I have been using inReach for several years in the US, South America, Japan, Mongolia, and parts of Europe. A couple of other Trailspace members have used inReach for hiking the John Muir Trail.

The image below has some local tracks from bike rides and hikes near my house. If I had an accident or attack by a mountain lion (there are a number of them in these hills), my body could be found without having to send an SOS.

SPOT does have some longer outages, due to their smaller constellation, as well as limitations on their global coverage - they do not cover most of the Earth's oceans, the polar regions, or the southern parts of Africa and South America. This is due to Globalstar (the parent company) using a "bent-pipe system", vs Delorme inReach and the COSPAR family using satellites with orbits that give global coverage (actually COSPAR loses a small amount of polar coverage)

What you choose is dependent on your needs and financial situation. The following is a simplified summary.

1. PLB/EPIRB/ELT - one-time purchase (until the next major upgrade of the system), provides emergency-only messages (plus some limited "I'm OK" messages in some versions), governmental SAR direct notification (COSPAR-SARSAT satellites)

2. inReach - commercial company, purchase the device, pay for usage plan, 2-way messaging, real-time tracking, history is saved, full Earth coverage (Iridium satellites plus GPS Satellites), SAR notification is relay from GEOS (commercial company) to government SAR

3. SPOT - commercial company, purchase the device, pay for usage, limited 2-way messaging, tracking, coverage limited to partial continents (Globalstar satellites plus GPS Satellites), SAR notification is relay from GEOS to government SAR

9:01 p.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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Of course great info shared by you guys, thanks for taking the time!

I was aware of the inReach and it's ability to communicate with emergency responders as well as update family members or friends with your progress. I guess I just do not know if it is something I need (until your life depends on it right!?) Not a big fan of paying a monthly subscription, however, you can suspend that when you are not using it. I suppose I do not know if I really need the communication function as much as I want the, "I feel and I cannot get up option" lol.

Also, you have the InReach SE which does not have GPS built in, does this mean you cannot share your location while on the trail? The Explorer has GPS built in, however, I imagine the built in GPS is simply to share your location or create way points that you can navigate to, which I have a GPS that does that.

Thanks again!

10:22 p.m. on January 13, 2016 (EST)
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The inReach SE DOES have GPS built in. The image I included above was from my SE. The tracking, waypoints, and most of the other Explorer features are included. You do not have the full range of track log points. The SE lacks route planning and following, as well as the trip information screen and map screen (which is just a track on a grid, though the track points go to your account and can be viewed in your account and on your smartphone Earthmate app.

May 20, 2019
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