Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers Explained

Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers Explained: A man holding Zoleo Satellite Communicator

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Picture yourself hiking 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.

But what are these devices, and how do they work?

In this post, we’ll delve deep into these remarkable pieces of equipment. Get ready to uncover the inner workings of these life-saving devices and gather valuable insights.

What are Personal Locator Beacons

To begin, let’s explore the realm of personal locator beacons, often abbreviated as PLBs. What exactly are these devices?

Well, you can think of them as your reliable outdoor safety partners. Imagine PLBs as the fundamental emergency tools of the wilderness, allowing you to send out an SOS signal to alert search-and-rescue services with the simple push of a button.

It’s like having a 911 lifeline when you’re in areas without cell service. These devices are built to withstand harsh conditions, equipped with long-lasting batteries that endure for 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.

Personal Locator Beacons: Pros and Cons

Operating PLBs is simple and doesn’t require technical expertise. It’s as easy as pressing a button when you require assistance.

Nevertheless, there are advantages and pros to cons:

  • Pros: 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.
  • Cons: 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.

Yet, their simplicity remains appealing to adventurers seeking a straightforward SOS function in emergencies.

Interesting Fact: In 2021, PLBs helped rescue 106 individuals in the United States alone.

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. Keep in mind that the features and capabilities of these units can vary significantly.

How do Satellite Messengers Work

One-Way Satellite Messengers

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 Satellite Messengers

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.

Let’s make a comparison across four categories:

  • Battery Life: PLBs outshine satellite messengers with their extended battery life, often lasting for years, while satellite messengers require frequent recharging.
  • Running Costs: PLBs win again in this category, offering subscription-free options that use government satellites. In contrast, satellite messengers come with significant subscription costs to keep them operational.
  • Dependability: The dependability of these devices varies greatly depending on the specific model, and there’s no clear winner in this category.
  • Peace of Mind: Two-way satellite messengers excel in providing peace of mind as they offer confirmation that your distress signal has been transmitted and help is on the way.

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, but when should you actually bring one along? Let’s figure that out.

  1. Remote Areas, No Service: 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.
  2. Solo Adventures: When embarking on solo hikes, it’s wise to carry a PLB or satellite messenger, even in areas with cell service. You never know when you might need help. As someone who has watched numerous MrBallen’s Missing 411 videos on YouTube, I’ve learned not to venture without one.


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 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.


Are personal locator beacons worth it?

Absolutely! Personal locator beacons (PLBs) are a valuable investment for your safety during outdoor adventures. These rugged devices can be a lifesaver in emergencies, working even in remote areas without cell service. While there are initial costs and periodic battery replacements, PLBs offer peace of mind, ensuring that help is just a signal away when you need it most. Don’t compromise on safety—PLBs are worth every penny for the added security they provide.

What are the disadvantages of a PLB?

While personal locator beacons (PLBs) are invaluable for safety, they do come with some drawbacks. One downside is the initial cost, as PLBs can be relatively expensive. Additionally, they require periodic battery replacement, which adds to the overall expense. Another limitation is that PLBs can only send a distress signal and lack the communication features of some other devices. They also rely on satellite signals, which may be obstructed in certain terrains or conditions. Despite these disadvantages, the potentially life-saving benefits of PLBs often outweigh these drawbacks, making them a crucial tool for outdoor enthusiasts.

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