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What's a Personal Locator Beacon?

I'm starting to plan for an elk hunt in Colorado next year. I looked into a Personal Locator Beacon in case of emergency. Here's a synopsis of what I found for those of you who may be planning a trip to the wild woods.



What is a Personal Locator Beacon?
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are for personal use and are intended to indicate a person in distress who is away from normal emergency services, according to Wikipedia. PLBs vary in size from cigarette-packet to paperback book. They can be purchased from hiking supply stores, online, or rented from PLB Rentals (among others). The cost varies widely with varying levels of performance and options. A site with excellent FAQs about PLBs is provided by the Equipped To Survive Foundation.

How Do They Work? - Generally
A PLB is activated manually by you. The PLBs signal transmission is picked up by one or more satellites. The satellite transmits the signal to its ground control station. The satellite's ground station processes the signals and forwards the data, including approximate location, to a national authority. The national authority forwards the data to a rescuers. The rescuers use their equipment to locate the beacon, contact your emergency contacts to verfiy it's not a false alarm, and then hopefully save you!

How Do They Work? - Technically
PLBs operating on 406 MHz transmit a unique serial number called a Hex Code, which is 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. In the U.S. 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. Beginning Feb. 1, 2009, only 406 MHz beacons will be detected by the international Cospas-Sarsat SAR satellite system, so I won't even mention other types. Citation: "Personal Locator Beacons as a Rescue Device for Backcountry Travelers," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364). http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00205.html, 2003-11-23 03:00:00-07.


When the PLB is purchased the Hex Code is registered with the relevant national (or international) authority. Registration provides Search and Rescue (SAR) agencies with crucial information such as: emergency contact phone numbers to call, a description of the person, any additional information that may be useful to SAR agencies. All of this allows SAR agencies to start a rescue more quickly. Remember, PLBs should not be used in cases where normal emergency response exists (i.e. 911.)!


Get ready for sticker shock - they aren't cheap. But would you want them to be? Really, you get what you pay for. Personally, I don't spend enough time in the really remote places to justify purchasing one. However, I'd sure consider renting one. Yes, it would add weight to my pack, but peace of mind should lighten the load!

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