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Why a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) Is Not Enough

Jean-Stéfane (J.S.) Bergeron

June 23, 2024

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When it comes to your adventures in the wilderness, your safety must be a priority. Whether hiking, fishing, riding, skiing, camping, or simply exploring remote areas, it's essential to be prepared for emergencies, including having the right tools to call for help. One such tool is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).

However, a PLB should not be relied upon as the sole means of emergency communication and rescue. In this article, we'll explore why a PLB is likely not enough and what alternatives you should consider to ensure your safety in the wilderness.

What is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)?

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a small, handheld device that can send an emergency signal to rescue services in an emergency. It uses satellite communication to send a distress signal, which is received by a network of national emergency response coordinators around the globe. The distress signal is used to identify the owner of the PLB, the location from which the distress signal originates, and to initiate a response.

Why is a PLB not Enough?

While a PLB can be an effective tool for emergency communication in order to initiate a rescue, it has some significant shortcomings compared to a satellite communicator like a Garmin inReach, ZOLEO, etc. Here are a few reasons why:

Limited Communication:

A PLB only sends out an emergency signal and does not provide any additional information about the nature of the emergency or the user's condition. This will make it more difficult for rescue services to respond effectively and efficiently.

Mission Specific:

A PLB is designed to send a distress message only when your life is at risk. As a result, you are more likely to delay triggering the distress message. Delaying initiating a rescue is one of the most important factors that contribute to a negative outcome in an emergency.

It is also almost impossible to request a rescue for someone else you encounter in your travels since you would need to remain with the party requiring assistance until rescuers arrive.

One-Way Communication:

Generally, a PLB can only send a distress message, and only some of the most recent models will confirm that the distress message has been received. You will not be able to provide any additional information about your emergency, and your rescuers will not be able to offer you any information about an expected rescue. Not only can this be concerning for you, but imagine how concerning this could be for your loved ones the response coordination center contacts once your distress signal is received.

Limited Battery Life:

PLBs have limited battery life and may not last long enough to ensure rescue services can locate you, especially as the device ages. Additionally, if you must use the device for an extended period, the battery may run out, leaving you without communication.

Environmental Factors:

PLBs may not work effectively in certain environments, such as dense forests, deep canyons, or inside caves. This can make it more difficult for rescue services to locate you, even if they receive your distress signal.

A PLB’s limitations are understandable when you consider they their origins in the maritime and aviation world, where it is typical to have other robust means of communication and where you operate in a more “managed” environment where traffic control centres are often already monitoring the user of the beacon device.

What Alternatives Should You Consider?

Consider a satellite communicator like a ZOLEO, Garmin inReach, to ensure your safety in the wilderness. These devices have significant advantages over a PLB, allowing you to send a distress signal but much more.

Two-Way Communication:

When you send a distress signal using a satellite communicator, you begin a conversation with an emergency response centre that contacts local rescuers. The two-way conversation will allow you to provide critical details about your emergency that can be relayed to rescuers and your loved ones. The response centre will also be able to offer you an update, letting you know rescuers have been contacted and mobilized. It will also allow rescuers to contact you if they need additional information and let you know when they may reach you, which is a very comforting.

Ability To Get Advice:

When you send a distress message, you will communicate with trained professionals who have handled hundreds or thousands of emergencies in remote areas. Because you can have a conversation with them about your situation, you are far more likely to “push the button” earlier, an essential factor when it comes to your well-being in an emergency. You will be less hesitant to send the distress signal.

Ability To Get Help For Another Party:

As a result of the two-way communication initiated when you send a distress signal, you can get help for someone else you encounter in your travels. You will be able to provide the location of the party needing emergency assistance and details about the situation while continuing your adventure once you are satisfied that help is underway and the party requiring assistance can safely wait for their rescue. This may not directly benefit you, but it is certainly an important benefit. I have luckily never had to send a distress signal for myself or someone in my party, but I have for others several times.

Ability To Communicate With Others:

A satellite communicator also allows you to contact others, not just the emergency response centre, providing you the ability to seek advice from a trusted friend when faced with a situation when you could benefit from a helping hand, such as advice on local conditions or in the case of a mechanical breakdown.

Location-tracking and Check-In Messages:

Satellite communicators also allow you to share your location with loved ones and send simple check-in messages to offer them peace of mind and allowing them to keep an eye on you. These messages also enable you to establish a safety plan with them as to when they should initiate contact with you or rescuers should you miss a planned check-in. They would also be able to provide critical information about your whereabouts earlier in your travels to assist with your possible rescue. If you somehow become incapacitated, unable to send a distress message, location tracking and check-in messages can save your life.

Additional Services:

Additional services are available to users of satellite communicators. Virtually all service providers offer the ability to obtain a weather forecast using your satellite communicator. ZOLEO’s Medical Assist free service allows you to contact medical professionals to obtain assistance with a medical situation, before it becomes an emergency.

And of course, the location-specific severe weather and other safety alerts provided to Adiona Alert customers are available to users of most satellite communicators since they can receive messages.


While a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a useful tool for emergency communication and rescue in remote areas, it should not be relied upon as the sole means of calling for help. To ensure your safety, you should consider a satellite communicator like a Garmin inReach or ZOLEO as an alternative or in addition to a PLB.

Regardless of the communication device you choose, communication in only one of the element of staying safe in the wilderness. Trip planning, including leaving a trip plan, appropriate training and taking the essential gear are critical to your safety.

Updated: June 24, 2024

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