No matter how much you prepare beforehand sometimes events beyond your control mean you need help. And when you’re outside the reach of cell phones, and not on regularly-traveled trails, getting that help can be a challenge. Which is where satellite messengers and personal locator beacons (PLBs) come in. By bouncing your cry for help off a satellite you can get assistance almost anywhere on the planet. And for the devices that allow non-emergency communication, you can even ask for help in less dire situations, or just check in to let mom know you’re okay.
Here’s our picks for the best personal locator beacons:
Best Personal Locator Beacon
Two-way satellite communication. Whether it’s rescue services letting you know they’re on the way, or just checking in with civilization after a good day, the ability to communicate is a big selling point for the inReach devices.
At just 4”x2”x1” and 3.5 ounces, the Garmin inReach Mini is the most compact full-featured satellite communicator on the market.
With a minimalist screen and limited on-device functionality, Garmin claims fifty hours of active use, and even longer with more conservative settings.
The satellite system Garmin uses covers 100% of the Earth’s surface, so as long as you can see the sky you can get signal.
That little nubbin on the top of the Mini houses Garmin’s spherical antenna. You still need to see the sky in order to get this communicator to work, but thanks to the upgraded antenna you’ll have less trouble in urban or forested environments.
The minimalist design of the inReach Mini means you need a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone to access most features. If you’re bringing your phone anyway that’s not a problem, but keeping both devices charged could be a challenge in emergency situations.
Who should buy the Garmin inReach Mini ($349.99)? Weekend adventurers looking to add safety without adding weight. So long as you’re bringing your cell phone this is a fully-featured satellite communicator, and even if you don’t the SOS functionality is a tremendous asset in an emergency.
The SPOT Satellite Messanger offers a full-functioned interface. With an integrated keyboard, the SPOT X 2-Way Satelite Messanger offers complete stand-alone functionality.
For family and friends, you can be tracked through a great website called Find Me Spot. Which also shows your past text and trip information for review in the future.
SPOT Gen 2 Long-lasting battery. The built-in, rechargeable, lithium-ion battery offers ten full days of continuous service.
The SPOT X has a rigid mast at the top of the device houses a spherical antenna. You still need to see the sky in order to get this 2-way satellite communicator to work, but thanks to the upgraded antenna you’ll have less trouble in urban or forested environments.
It’s not massive, but at 6.5” x 2.9” x 0.9” it is by far the largest option on the list.
As wonderful as the full keyboard is, it’s very very small. You can eventually get the input you want, but only with patience and very steady hands.
SPOT uses the Globalstar satellite system for the SPOT Service Plan, which does provide full coverage in North and South America, Europe, and most of Africa. But beyond that service is incomplete throughout Asia and Oceania, and there’s a massive hole over the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii.
Who should buy the SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Messanger ($249.95)? Not sure. Granted the inReach Mini requires you to bring your cell phone and keep it running. But considering the fact that you’d probably be doing that anyway, is that really a problem?
Whether it’s rescue services letting you know they’re on the way, or just checking in with civilization after a good day, the ability to communicate is a big selling point for the inReach devices.
Unlike the Mini, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ has a 1.9” x 1.4” screen and interface that allows you to make full use of the devices GPS mapping and communications services without any additional equipment. Though if you prefer the interface on your smartphone, Bluetooth connectivity still allows you that option.
Pre-loaded topographical maps make it easy to use the Explorer+ to find your way in the wilderness.
Long battery life. The larger size allows for a larger lithium-ion battery, providing 100 hours of battery life.
The satellite system Garmin uses covers 100% of the Earth’s surface, so as long as you can see the sky and your subscription to the Garmin inReach plans is up to date, you can get signal.
Spherical antenna. That little nubbin on the top of the Explorer+ houses Garmin’s spherical antenna. You still need to see the sky in order to get this communicator to work, but thanks to the upgraded antenna you’ll have less trouble in urban or forested environments.
At 7.5 ounces the Explorer+ still isn’t heavy, but it’s more than twice the weight of the mini.
Price. Retailing at $450 this isn’t quite as expensive as a full-on sat phone, but it’s close enough that it warrants comparison shopping.
Who should buy the Garmin inReach Explorer+ ($499.99)? People spending serious time off-the-grid. With a larger battery and better ability to use features independent of a secondary device, the Explorer+ is a more reliable lifeline in the wilderness.
At just $150, the SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messanger is cheap “insurance”.
Running off four AAA batteries this beacon is easy to keep running. And even if you don’t bring a spare set with you, the included Lithium-Ion batteries should last you for seventeen days of regular use.
Simplicity. With just four buttons plus SOS functionality, the SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messanger is beyond simple to use and a perfect choice for people who don’t want to waste time trying to learn how to use their device.
Unlike the Garmin’s, and SPOT X, the Spot Gen3 Satellite Messanger can only send messages. This means no confirmation that your SOS signal got through, and no ability to receive “regular” communication from the outside world.
The SPOT PLB uses the Globalstar satellite system, which does provide full coverage in North and South America, Europe, and most of Africa. But beyond that service is incomplete throughout Asia and Oceania, and there’s a massive hole over the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii.
Who should buy the SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messanger ($150)? Budget-conscious adventurers. The SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messanger simply does not have the same capabilities or coverage as even the inReach Mini. But if you aren’t leaving the continent, and don’t need the communication features, it costs two hundred dollars less.
Five-year battery life. The built-in lithium battery should provide up to five years of standby functionality before needing to be replaced.
No plan. Unlike every other device in this review, the ResQLink + Personal Locator Beacon does not require a monthly subscription to function.
Waterproof, and buoyant, making this a perfect choice for water-based adventures.
Multiple emergency signals. Upon pressing the SOS button a distress signal is sent via satellite, complete with information about your rough location. But it also broadcasts a signal on multiple radio frequencies, allowing properly equipped rescue teams to quickly zero in on your location.
The only message this beacon can send is a full-response emergency distress call. Which is essential if you’re experiencing an emergency, but unhelpful if you just found out you got a flat tire, or want to let mom know you’re okay.
Who should buy the ACR ResQlink Personal Locator Beacon ($289.95)? Nervous boaters. This type of beacon is most popular in aquatic settings because it is a one-time purchase that provides basic protection so long as the (replaceable) battery has power.
Personal Locator Beacon Subscriptions
A quick note about service plans. Both the Garmin and SPOT devices on this list require a monthly subscription to function. Prices vary based on services required but are roughly comparable between the two brands. For this reason, plan pricing is not being considered in this comparison. And of course none of these devices cover the cost of rescue itself, should you need that.