PLB vs Satellite Messenger: Which is Right For You?

PLB vs Satellite Messenger: A man holding Zoleo Satellite Communicator

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Picture yourself hiking or backpacking in a remote area when a sudden emergency strikes – you’re lost, injured, or facing a daunting situation. That’s where a personal locator beacon (PLB) or a satellite messenger becomes your lifeline.

What are these devices, how do they work, and which is best for your next backpacking trip?

In this post, we’ll delve deep into these remarkable pieces of equipment and shed light on the PLB vs satellite messenger debate. Let’s get started.

What are Personal Locator Beacons

PLB: ACR ResQLink™ 400

PLBs are emergency devices that allow you to send out an SOS signal, alerting search-and-rescue services with the push of a button in areas without cell service.

These devices are built to withstand harsh conditions, equipped with long-lasting batteries that endure for ~5 years, making them suitable for even the most challenging environments, from dense forests to remote deserts.

How do Personal Locator Beacons Work

When you trigger a PLB, it initiates a distress signal that travels to satellites orbiting high above Earth.

This signal is then transmitted to a coordination center along with your precise location and essential information, which is subsequently passed on to the relevant authorities, such as local law enforcement or search and rescue teams.

Certain PLBs utilize government satellites, eliminating the need for a subscription, and can pinpoint your location within 100 meters. They offer continuous location updates to rescuers, even if you’re on the move.

Where PLBs fall short:

PLBs transmit your location and personal details, but that’s the extent of their functionality. There’s no confirmation of message receipt, no option for custom messages, and you won’t get responses.

Some PLBs might encounter signal errors; placing them in an open area or on the ground can assist in achieving a GPS lock.

What are Satellite Messengers

Satellite Messengers Explained: A Garmin inReach Mini device on a ledge in the mountains

If you want more than just an SOS, consider one– or two-way satellite messengers. These devices can track your location and send messages.

How do Satellite Messengers Work

One-Way Devices

One-way satellite messengers elevate your communication options beyond PLBs. They use private satellite networks and often involve subscriptions, similar to cellphone plans.

These devices offer more than just SOS; you can send customized messages to your loved ones, making it easy to stay in touch while off the grid. Simply set up your messages and contacts before your outdoor adventure, then choose the message and recipient when you’re out of reach of regular cell service. However, as with PLBs, you don’t receive any confirmation or response in return.

Two-Way Devices

If one-way satellite messengers are a step up from PLBs, two-way satellite messengers take things even further by enabling both sending and receiving messages. These messages can originate from the rescue dispatch team or your friends and family, keeping you connected in critical situations.

Two-way satellite messengers come in two main types, each offering its own unique features and benefits:

  • Phone not required: Some two-way satellite messengers can operate as standalone devices, similar to PLBs and one-way models. The advantage of this is that you have fewer components to keep track of, safeguard, and ensure are powered up.
  • Phone required: Some two-way satellite messengers rely on your smartphone’s keyboard and Bluetooth to function, requiring you to manage and charge both devices..

Comparing PLBs and Satellite Messengers

Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers Explained: A hiker in a remote mountain region, emphasizing the potential benefits of having a PLB

As you can see, PLBs and satellite messengers have similarities but distinct differences. PLBs focus solely on safety, while satellite messengers offer additional conveniences.

Here’s a quick comparison table for you to get a better grasp:

FeaturePLBsSatellite Messengers
PurposePrimarily for sending distress signals and SOSSend messages, share location, communicate
NetworkUse government operated satellites like COSPAS-SARSATRely on private satellite networks
Cost$150-$400$250-$500
SubscriptionUsually not requiredRequired monthly or annual fee
Battery LifeLong, up to 5 yearsShorter, depends on usage
WeightSimilarSimilar
Location AccuracyWithin 330 feet (100 meters) typicallyVaries, can be 30 feet (10 meters) to 2 miles
CommunicationOne-way, cannot receive messages backOne or two-way, can receive messages
Message TypesJust SOS alertCustom messages, chat, share waypoints
Ease of UseSimple, press button to activateMore complex interface
DurabilityVery rugged, usually waterproofDesign related reliability issues are more common, waterproof options exist

PLB vs Satellite Messenger: Which is Right For You?

Now that we’ve covered these devices, let’s find the perfect one for your hiking or backpacking adventures. Which one should you choose?

From our experience you should:

  • Choose a PLB if…
    • You primarily want an emergency SOS device and don’t need two-way communication.
    • You are on a tight budget.
    • You don’t want the cost or hassle of an annual subscription.
    • You will be hiking in very remote areas and need the absolute best connectivity.
    • You want the absolute longest battery life possible.
    • You will be in extreme environments where ruggedness is key.
  • Choose a satellite messenger if…
    • You want two-way messaging capabilities.
    • You desire more frequent tracking/position updates to share your location.
    • You want to send text or custom messages to specific contacts.
    • You need confirmation that your message was received.
    • You will be traveling in a group and need to communicate between members.
    • You want extra features like weather forecasts, SOS call initiation, etc.
    • You don’t mind paying an annual subscription fee for enhanced services.
    • You are willing to keep the device charged at all times.

For inspiration, here are some popular ultralight PLBs and satellite messengers that won’t weigh down your backpack:

Make / ModelTypeWeight (g)
ACR Bivy StickSatellite Messenger3.53oz (100)
Garmin inReach Mini 2Satellite Messenger3.53oz (100)
Zoleo Satellite CommunicatorSatellite Messenger5.29oz (150)
ACR ResQLink 400PLB5.08oz (144)
SPOT Gen4Satellite Messenger5oz (142)

Conclusion

Personal locator beacons (PLBs) and satellite messengers play a vital role in the wilderness. PLBs are simple and offer SOS assistance, while satellite messengers provide extra features.

Comparing them, PLBs win in battery life and running costs, while satellite messengers excel in providing peace of mind.

When should you carry these devices? Take them to remote, no-service areas and on solo trips. They act as safety nets, ensuring you can call for help when needed, even in areas without cell service.

These devices are like your safety insurance, ready to come to the rescue when situations get challenging, and next to a reliable navigation solution they’re among the most valuable gear investments you can make.


Interested in a PLB or a satellite messenger? Check out our TOP 5 guide to the lightest devices on the planet.

FAQ

When to Carry a PLB or a Satellite Messenger?

Carrying a PLB or a satellite messenger is like having a safety net for your outdoor adventures. If you’re going on a hike, especially in areas where your mobile phone signal disappears, having one of these devices is a smart move. It ensures you can call for help when you’re out of reach from regular communication. You never know when you might need help.

What features should I look for in a PLB?

As a hiker venturing into remote backcountry areas, I look for certain key features when choosing a reliable personal locator beacon. It needs a sturdy, waterproof build to withstand rough terrain and weather. Long battery life of 5+ years ensures the PLB will work even after years stored in my pack. I want built-in GPS for accurate location data, a powerful 406 MHz transmitter to connect with satellites, and easy one-handed activation if injured. Reflective strips help rescuers visually locate me, while a homing transmitter guides them close once in range. Finding a lightweight model with these crucial reliability, signaling, and visibility features gives me peace of mind that my PLB can quickly summon emergency help from anywhere on the trail.

How reliable are PLBs in emergency situations?

Personal locator beacons (PLBs) are highly reliable emergency devices that use satellite networks to transmit distress signals and location data to search and rescue authorities. Their rugged, waterproof design, integrated GPS, powerful transmitters, and long battery life allow PLBs to provide accurate location information to rescuers anywhere on Earth as long as they have a clear view of the sky. PLBs have proven their effectiveness in real rescues, demonstrating their vital role in outdoor and marine safety thanks to their robust and dependable signaling capabilities. In 2021, PLBs helped rescue 106 individuals in the US alone.

How reliable are satellite messengers in emergency situations?

Satellite messengers use multiple satellite networks like Iridium and Globalstar to enable reliable global coverage from extreme environments. Their rugged, compact build includes powerful transmitters, heat/water resistance, and long-life batteries for weeks of operation. By combining GPS receivers with satellite-optimized antennas, they can accurately transmit text, SOS alerts and GPS coordinates from anywhere. Two-way messaging provides confirmation of received emergency messages. Their proven effectiveness for real-world rescues demonstrates satellite messengers offer unmatched reliability for emergency signaling via robust satellite connectivity.

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