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Published Jul 31, 2022 12:39 PM

One of the joys of backcountry travel is getting far away from idiots, and the further you go away from civilization, the more you need to be prepared to rescue yourself — which is why personal locator beacons (PLBs) are so important. 

I frequently hit the backcountry for days and travel to some pretty remote areas, places where cell phone coverage is sketchy to non-existent and we might see a few people per day, maybe. There are a lot of objective hazards in the wild, everything from heat exhaustion to hypothermia, lightning strikes to avalanches to venomous snake bites, and more. But without risk, there’s no adventure.

However, we should always take steps to mitigate risk, and part of that is having a communication and rescue plan. (The American Alpine Club’s Sharp End Podcast and its annual Accidents in North American Climbing publication are replete with people who wished they invested in a SATCOM messenger or personal location beacon.)  With so many devices out there, it’s hard to know what product is best for you, and personal locator beacons have come a long way from the early days of push and pray (that it works and someone responds).

To that end, your trusty writers here at Task & Purpose have sifted through what’s available to recommend to you the very best personal locator beacons for your next outdoor adventure. Read on, and remember: when things go wrong, you’ll be happy you left home prepared.

This exceptionally portable and packable PLB features global satellite coverage, two-way text communications, and more. It’s easy to see why it leads the market in terms of capability and functionality. Most importantly, the Mini2 enables you to send interactive SOS alerts to the fully staffed GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center. The IERCC is manned 24/7 and helps coordinate rescue with local search and rescue organizations. Unlike many PLBs, the Mini2 has two-way text messaging so you can keep friends and family updated on your progress. You can even post to social media and communicate directly with other inReach devices in the field. The MapShare function allows users to share their location. All inReach communications travel via the Iridium satellite network which provides truly global coverage (not all SATCOM systems do). Plus, this device allows you to communicate directly with local responding search and rescue agencies.

The Mini2 is tiny — measuring four by two inches — and weighs only 3.5 ounces. It’s also tough, durable, impact-resistant (MIL-STD-810), and water-resistant (IPX7). Other stand-out features include TracBack routing which enables you to navigate back to your starting point should you get lost, a digital compass, decent battery life (14 days of use at 10-minute tracking mode and up to 30 days with 30-minute tracking), weather forecasts for your location AND other locations (bonus!), and unlimited cloud storage for trip planning. It also integrates seamlessly with other Garmin products. Using a USB-C interface, it charges twice as fast as devices with micro USB ports. This device is best for mountaineers, climbers, backpackers, backcountry skiers, hunters, hikers, trail runners, and others looking for an ultralight two-way Satcom SOS solution.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 3.5 ounces (100 grams)
  • Dimensions: 2.04 x 3.90 x 1.03 inches
  • Display size: 0.9 x 0.9 inches
  • Messaging: Two-way, send and receive text
  • Battery life: Up to 30 days*
  • Sensors: GPS, Galileo, QZSS, Compass
  • Weather report: Yes
  • Subscription required: Yes, starting at $11.99/month
PROS

Very reliable global connectivity

Top performance and message reliability

Small, packable

Stand-alone two-way text messaging

Weather forecasts

Full functionality without needing a smartphone

CONS

Tedious on-unit texting interface, much better with app

Less battery life than larger devices

Satellite only, no cell or WiFi data

Expensive

This compact hand-held PLB is a lower-priced and very capable option for backcountry users. Running off of the Iridium satellite network, the Zoleo provides truly global coverage and SOS connectivity to a 24/7 monitored rescue center. In fact, it’s the same IERCC that Garmin uses. The palm-sized gadget is fairly lightweight at 5.3 ounces. It’s rugged as well, with IP68 dust ingress protection, MIL-STD 810G shock resistance, and water resistance up to 4.9 feet for 30 minutes. The unit also features a Micro-USB port power input and internal GPS chip for location awareness to 8.2 feet accuracy. There is no screen on the unit, rather LEDs to let you know your power status, that have messages and the status of your SOS and messages. This well-designed and intuitive device has an SOS alert button (also cancellable) and check-in (to let folks know you’re OK) button integrated into the unit. It also has a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery with 200-plus hours of life. Charging takes about two hours with a 1.5 amp charger. The unit is entirely capable of activating an SOS and telling rescuers your position as a stand-alone unit. You can also preset check-in contacts so you can share your location with others at a user-selected interval from every six minutes to every four hours. That’s the good news.

On the downside, the Zoleo requires a cell phone interface via the Zoleo app for two-way communication. This is potentially problematic because if your cell phone battery dies, you lose two-way messaging functionality, which is pretty critical when you are trying to coordinate a rescue — especially with local responding SAR units. On the upside, typing texts on your cellphone to send through the Zoleo to others via satellite is much easier than most systems. It’s a trade-off, but an important one to note. Because of this design consideration, your power requirements increase since you have to keep both your cell phone and the Zoleo charged in the field. Also, charging with the Micro-USB takes about twice as long as devices that use USB-C. The Zoleo is also pretty tolerant and can operate in temperature ranges from minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It comes with a lanyard, carabiner, USB cable, and a two-year warranty. This is a great option for budget-conscious users who are willing to accept the additional complexity, weight, and power requirements that come with a cell phone to message interface to gain superior two-way messaging capability.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 5.3 ounces (150 grams)
  • Dimensions: 3.58 x 2.6 x 1.06 inches
  • Display size: N/A, connects to cellphone via Bluetooth
  • Messaging: Two-way
  • Battery life: Up to 200 hours
  • Sensors: GPS, GLONASS
  • Weather report: Yes, via phone app
  • Subscription required: Yes, starting at $20
PROS

Global connectivity

Small, packable

Two-way communication

Lightweight

24/7 monitoring

Only unit with dedicated cell number for seamless messaging

Cheaper data plan

CONS

Cell phone-dependent for full functionality

Doesn’t do tracking

No mapping capability

Heavier and larger than others

Increased full system power requirements

There’s a lot to like about the Somewear Labs Global Hotspot. As a stand-alone device, it delivers push and pray SOS capability and sends a rescue and location signal to a 24/7 rescue coordination center. If that’s all you want in a PLB, there are cheaper options out there. Where the Global Hotspot really shines is when it is paired with a smartphone via its proprietary app and allows for reliable and easy-to-use two-way communication. With the cellphone app interface, you gain text messaging capability, the ability to set interval tracking (10- to 60-minute check-ins) to allow friends to follow your progress; the ability to set navigation waypoints; access to downloadable topo or satellite maps; and on-demand weather reports.

When paired with a phone, the app seamlessly switches between satellite, cell, and WiFi networks and allows users to send messages via text to both phone numbers and email addresses. Also, its subscription plans are less expensive than the competition. It’s important to consider the total price in terms of the cost of the unit, activation fees, and monthly/annual service subscription. This device is so intuitive to use that the company doesn’t even include a user manual. Nice! That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, like the Zoleo, you have to take along a smartphone to access the full functionality, and this adds complexity, weight, and increased power requirements in the field. Unlike the Zoleo, the Somewear unit alone doesn’t have a push to send pre-programmed check-in “I’m OK” message function. You can, however, both activate SOS and enable friends to track your movements from the base unit alone.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 4 ounces (113 grams)
  • Dimensions: 3.0 x 3.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Display size: N/A, connects to cellphone via Bluetooth
  • Messaging: Two-way with cell phone pairing
  • Battery life: Up to 10 days with 10-minute tracking
  • Sensors: GPS
  • Weather report: Yes, via phone app
  • Subscription required: Yes, starting at $8.33/month
PROS

Global coverage

Satellite, cell and WiFi data capable

Intuitive user interface

Lightweight

Two-way messaging capable

Real-time location sharing, tracking

On-demand weather report (via cell phone app)

CONS

Phone-dependent for full functionality

No message display on device

Increased full system power requirements

Shorter battery life than other systems

Honorable Mention

Like the Somewear Global Hotspot, the compact and lightweight Bivy Stick, by itself, is a basic SOS beacon. Like the Zoleo, the Bivy Stick has a pre-programmed check-in button. Like both, the Bivy Stick’s functionality expands greatly when paired with a smartphone to include two-way messaging — essentially it turns your cell phone into a satellite communication device. Using the Iridium satellite network, the Bivy Stick provides true global coverage. Through the app, you can also get detailed weather reports and track your pace, mileage, and altitude, and download detailed offline maps for everywhere in the world.

Additionally, the Bivy Stick comes with a dedicated phone number and email, which allows unsolicited incoming messages so that people can reach you any time without the need for you to initiate contact. (For some of us, this is a major negative!) The app also has more than 50,000 mapped climbing, hiking, biking, paddling, and skiing routes to check out, and also weather reports.

Keep in mind that you’ll need your cell phone to enjoy the full capabilities of this device, and that will add another layer of complexity, additional weight, and increased power charging requirements. ACR also makes several different mount accessories for the Bivy Stick and a lightweight 15W solar panel that can help keep the device charged in the backcountry.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 7 ounces (198 grams)
  • Dimensions: 6.5 x 2.9 x 0.94 inches
  • Display size: N/A
  • Messaging: Two-way with cell phone pairing
  • Battery life: Up to 10 days with 10-minute tracking
  • Sensors: GPS
  • Weather report: Yes, via phone app
  • Subscription required: Yes, starting at $8.33/month
PROS

Capable SOS beacon

Lightweight

Two-way messaging capable

Real-time location sharing

On-demand weather report (via cell phone app)

CONS

Requires cell phone for full functionality

No message display on device

Increased full system power requirements

Shorter battery life than other systems

Best Stand-Alone

Of all the devices we reviewed, the SPOT X is the only one that has an integrated keyboard in the PLB unit. (In fact, it reminded me of the old Blackberry phones we were issued in the Marines.) Of all the units tested, the integrated keyboard enables the fastest and most easy-to-use text messaging. It also features the largest LCD display of any unit we found.

On the face of the device are a directional keypad, an SOS button with a hard plastic cover, and a tracking button. It is also designed with a large, obtrusive antenna — so it isn’t the smallest or most pocketable device we reviewed. But if you want to leave your cell phone at home, the SPOT X will enable you to send an SOS and also communicate two-way via text. In fact, you can also pre-program up to 14 messages for select-and-send use. It will also pair with your smartphone and app for expanded capability.

Unlike many other PLBs, the SPOT X has a dedicated cell phone number — meaning that you can exchange messages with any cell or email address from almost anywhere in the world. It also provides tracking on a 2.5-, 5-, 10-, 30- or 60-minute interval so you can track your progress via SPOT’s cloud-based mapping. The check-in feature allows you to quickly alert friends and family that you’re OK, and the integrated compass helps you navigate and includes programmable waypoints.

While it has global coverage for SOS, the SPOT X doesn’t have complete global coverage for non-emergency messaging. It does have full coverage of virtually all of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, portions of South America, portions of North and South Africa, North-East Asia, and hundreds of miles offshore of these areas. It does have big gaps in a lot of the countries you probably don’t want to go to anyway. Check out the coverage map before you buy. Also, it takes a few minutes for the unit to send a message, which is a bit of a drag. This PLB is best for users who truly desire an integrated QWERTY keyboard and are willing to carry a larger and heavier device.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 7 ounces (198 grams)
  • Dimensions: 6.5 x 2.9 x 0.94 inches
  • Display size: 2 x 1 1/8 inches
  • Messaging: Stand-alone two-way
  • Battery life: Up to 10 days with 10-minute tracking
  • Sensors: Globalstar
  • Weather report: N/A
  • Subscription required: Yes, starting at $11.95/month
PROS

Easiest to use stand-alone two-way messaging user interface

Smartphone interface

Does tracking

Check-in functionality

Compass

Dedicated U.S. mobile phone number

CONS

Heavier

Large, bulkier

Takes about 5 minutes to send one message

Antenna must be pointed vertical to sky

This maritime SOS beacon is absolutely dialed. It does one thing exceptionally well: transmit your location to an emergency coordination center while you bail, deploy your inflatable lifeboat, and fight off sharks. EPIRB stands for emergency position indicating radio beacon. This is a standard kit for commercial fishing vessels and passenger ships, and you can own it as well. It’s exceptionally well-made and deploys automatically by hydrostatic release from its bracket if submerged between one and four meters. Once deployed, it will float to the surface and start transmitting your oh-shit signal. As your signal reaches the emergency coordination center, search and rescue will pull up your beacon’s registration. EPIRB sends your location via GPS data or via triangulation via low Earth-orbiting satellites. Once on scene, SAR will use the 121.5 MHz signals to find your exact location and fish you out of the water.

The EPIRB has a 66-channel GPS to speed activation from a cold start. The unit features a protected keypad to prevent false activation, and is waterproof to one fathom — that’s 33 feet or 10 meters for you landlubbers. The battery pack has a 10-year lifespan and can be replaced by users to keep costs low. Once activated, it will operate for a minimum of 48 hours at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, and longer in warmer temps.

Product Specs
  • Weight: 27 ounces alone; 34.9 ounces with auto-release bracket
  • Dimensions: 8 1/8 x 4 1/4 inches
  • Display size: N/A
  • Messaging: N/A
  • Battery life: Up to 10 days with 10-minute tracking
  • Sensors: COSPAS-SARSAT
  • Weather report: No
  • Subscription required: None; just register it first
PROS

Actively fixes exact location

Broadcasts SOS and coordinates via 406 MHz signal

66-channel GPS

LED strobe

Protective keypad

User replaceable battery pack with 10-year life

CONS

Expensive, but so is your life

No LCD display

No subscription required

Things to consider before buying a personal locator beacon

It’s important to remember that the wilderness can be dangerous, and even more so if you don’t have reliable communications to effect rescue should you need it. Many areas in the backcountry have exceptionally sketchy or non-existent cell coverage, so if something bad happens to you or your group there, things could go from bad to awful in a heartbeat. It’s very important to have a solid, redundant communication plan before you leave the trailhead, and a good PLB can keep you in contact with emergency response services. A great one can keep you in touch with friends and family and transform your smartphone into a Satcom device. 

PLBs used to be press-SOS-and-pray your message would be received, delivering a one-way signal to emergency rescue services. Today, the latest devices have enabled two-way messaging, so it’s hard to justify purchasing one-way devices anymore. Two-way communication allows you to send your SOS and communicate with the rescue coordination center and responding on-scene rescuers. This can be the difference between life and death in some cases.   

Level of stand-alone functionality 

All of the devices reviewed have a global one-way SOS beacon capability in the stand-alone unit, but not all have stand-alone two-way messaging for emergency and non-emergency communication and require pairing with a smartphone and proprietary app for full functionality. This is important because the more complex a system, the more probability of failure. Also, smartphone-dependent devices also raise your power and recharging requirements in the backcountry and add additional weight to your pack. 

Communication networks

Be sure to check if the device you are considering is satellite-only or if it can also communicate over cellular towers and WiFi. Of those that can, check to see if two-way messaging is seamless across networks for the best user experience.

Size and weight 

When you have to carry every piece of equipment on your back for days, every ounce counts. Look for the lightest device that minimally meets your needs. 

Battery life 

This varies greatly across devices, especially if you have tracking enabled. Most devices can stay in tracking mode for several days before needing a recharge, and most need a Micro-USB or USB-C cable. Know that USB-C recharges twice as fast as devices using Micro-USB. 

FAQs about personal locator beacons

Q: How much does a personal locator beacon cost?

A: Prices vary depending on unit capability. The very best unit I reviewed costs almost $400 for the PLB alone, and the cheapest costs about $250. Most require service contracts or subscription fees (costs vary widely) for both emergency and non-emergency communication, so you should definitely factor that into the cost of ownership and use. 

Q: How does a personal locator beacon work?

A: When you press the SOS button, your PLB sends a powerful distress signal to a network of satellites around the globe. These distress signals are monitored by both government and private rescue coordination centers. The distress call is relayed to an appropriate response agency with data on your location. They, in turn, coordinate with local search and rescue organizations to come get your ass. Note that SAR assets vary from place to place, so you’re probably going to get a faster, more capable rescue in the Tetons than you would in less-resourced countries.

Q: When should I use my personal locator beacon?

A: Well, think of pressing SOS just like a 911 call. You should use it when you or a member of your team is at immediate risk of loss of life, sight, or limb, and when self-rescue and evacuation isn’t the speediest option.

Final thoughts

It’s been interesting watching personal locator beacons transition from push-SOS-and-pray someone hears your signal devices to true two-way messaging-capable satellite communication systems. Over the past decade, devices have become more capable, smaller, lighter, and cheaper — so much so that I can no longer recommend one-way SOS systems (maritime use excepted). In the event you do need to call for search and rescue, your likelihood of success increases dramatically with the ability to communicate two-way with the rescue coordination center and local on-scene responding SAR organizations, especially in restricted terrain. Of all the devices reviewed, none have yet reached perfection, but the Garmin inReach Mini2 reigns supreme for its stand-alone functionality, reliability, compact size, and lightweight packability. Are PLBs and satellite messengers worth it? Yes, because your life is worth it.  

Methodology 

I selected all of the personal locator beacons/satellite messengers in this review based on personal ownership, hands-on inspection, performance reputation, interviewing other experts, and thoroughly reviewing manufacturers’ specifications. I take my time to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each item, and also check out the reviews of other experts just to make sure we’re not missing anything. For new items, I ask for samples from the makers and test them in the field. When that’s not possible, I visit the products in the store. In either case, I also review the manufacturers’ websites, user comments, YouTube reviews, and third-party evaluations, just to make sure I’m not missing anything.

When researching personal locator beacons, I based my criteria on my own experiences using outdoor gear in the field for more than 35 years. I’m very familiar with the major manufacturers of outdoor equipment, know their reputations, and have a sense of their customer service — which is also super important. I also speak with other people who spend considerable time outdoors for their thoughts as well. 

After gathering enough high-performing products for a best-of article, I racked and stacked each based on their attributes, design, and performance. My bias is towards the lightest, best-functioning, and lowest-cost solutions available. We don’t torture test gear here at Task & Purpose — we test within normal usage limits. When gear does fail or break, we contact the manufacturer to see if and how it stands by its products. I also take a look at how easy the gear is to maintain or repair in the field — the simpler, the better.

For final selection, I take all factors into consideration and think: What is the gear I’d most want in my pack? What would I trust my life to in the backcountry? Those are the recommendations I forward for your consideration. Furthermore, it’s of the utmost importance to the Task & Purpose team that our readers know our commitment to open, fair product recommendations and reviews, and that you can trust us to provide you with unbiased, balanced information.

Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. We independently evaluate gear by putting products in the hands of subject matter experts. The products we test may be purchased by Task & Purpose, our staff, or provided for review by a manufacturer. No matter the source, our testing procedures and our assessments remain free from third-party influence. Learn more about our product review process.