GPS Personal Tracking Systems

How Does A Personal Locator Beacon Work?

iPhone GPS tracking

How Does PLB Work?

What Hikers Need To Know About Personal Locator Beacon PLB

Personal locator beacons (PLBs) are an extra layer of safety you can consider when looking at a GPS tracker for hiking. An emergency locator can assist anyone in imminent danger by sending out a homing signal that allows search and rescue forces to pinpoint your GPS locator, relay the information to a rescue coordination center, and ultimately save lives.PLBs are handheld devices that, when activated, send an emergency signal to Search and Rescue. While PLBs can be purchased as their own stand-alone devices, there are also plenty of GPS hiking tracker options that include a PLB function.

But how does the PLB let a Search and Rescue (SAR) team know where you are and that you need help? The short version is by piggybacking on the GPS system and other satellite systems, but let’s take a little more time to better understand how it works.

The PLB (in the case of GPS trackers that includes a PLB function) notes your current location and sends an emergency radio signal to satellites. The satellites then forward that message to ground receivers and appropriate Rescue Control Centers (RCCs), and those RCCs in turn dispatch a SAR team.

The best personal locator beacons send a digital signal at 406 MHz to the SARSAT Search and Rescuer satellite system and that system forwards the message appropriately. Then, when SAR teams get closer, they pick up on a honing signal at 121.5 MHz that helps them find you even if they don’t have an exact GPS location.

The bonus part of using a GPS device that includes a PLB is that it ensures that if you do get into trouble, a SAR team can come to find you. That said, be careful not to inadvertently trigger your PLB without needing that emergency response, as SAR teams (especially in wild and dangerous terrain) often literally risk their lives to make rescues and don’t tend to appreciate being called in to rescue someone who simply got tired, for instance. Packing your ten essentials and being well-prepared for your outdoor adventure are good ways to limit the likelihood you’ll feel the need to activate and use your PLB; we’ll discuss those ten essentials and ways to best prepare for a hike in the following section.

If you do need the assistance, however, a PLB can quite certainly save your life, and PLB-enabled GPS devices have saved numerous lives previously.

Consider These 5 Things You Might Not Know About PLBs:

  1. PLBs are often confused with satellite messengers, and there can be an overlap in their function, but they are not the same. PLBs do not allow you to send a message, unlike satellite messengers. Instead, their sole function is to allow you to call for help.
  2. Personal locator beacon PLB’s run on their own satellite system, the COSPAS-SARSAT, designed specifically for this sort of rescue purposes. The system uses both low Earth orbit (LEO) and high Earth orbit (GEO) satellites, and, when you use a GPS-enabled device, can transmit your exact location to rescue teams.
  3. COSPAS-SARSAT is an acronym that represents the original system devised by France, Russia, and the United States, first for marine vessels, then airplanes, and then, in 2003, to hikers.
  4. PLBs actually alert the military. That is, if you press the button for help and are hiking in the United States, the U.S. Military gets a notice and passes on the info to the relevant SAR teams.
  5. Since their origin in the 1970s, PLBs have saved at least 30,000 lives. What if your life is one of the next lives saved by a PLB?

How Do Locator Beacons Work?

Similar to a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), an emergency beacon can let rescue teams know you are in trouble and need help. Not all emergency beacons are PLBs, however. For instance, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is tied to a vessel, such as a ship. The black boxes on airplanes are another example of an emergency beacon. Like PLBs, they rely on the SARSAT network to transmit a signal; like PLBs, they transmit a distress signal at 406 Mhz and a honing signal at 121.5 Mhz.

The biggest difference is that when people refer to emergency beacons, they are generally referring to beacons tied to objects, rather than personal locator beacons an individual might take with them. When looking at hiking GPS tracker options, you’ll want to consider PLB-enabled devices to best ensure your safety, especially if you spend significant time engaged in risky or dangerous activities or in backcountry areas.