What is a PLB or Personal Locator Beacon?

Personal Locator Beacons which are usually just referred to as PLBs are a fairly new addition the safety tool box which everyone who spends time outdoors, especially those who do risky activities away from civilization, should carry.

If you end up in an emergency situation out in the wilderness a PLB in your pocket or backpack could be your only hope of rescue.

What is a PLB and how does it work?

Simply put, Personal Locator Beacons send an emergency signal through a worldwide satellite system to the appropriate Rescue Control Center (RCC). These RCCs will then dispatch Search and Rescue (SAR) Teams to assist you with your emergency situation. PLBs should only be used in an actual emergency situation as rescue workers will come looking for you when you activate your beacon.

Never turn your PLB on just to test it, this will cause an actual distress message to flow through the SAR System. There are proper procedures outlined in your beacon’s instructions which if followed properly will allow you to test the PLB without giving off a false alarm.

PLBs were once large and bulky devices, but as technology has improved manufacturers have been able to reduce the size of their products. Your average PLB is now as small as the average flip style cell phone, they will easily fit into your backpack or pants pocket.

Who should carry a Personal Locator Beacon?

Anyone who enjoys activities that are slightly dangerous or which place them well off the beaten path should definitely carry a PLB.

Here are some examples of who should carry a Personal Locator Beacon:

  • Hikers
  • Campers
  • Hunters
  • Horse Riders
  •  ATV Riders
  • Snow Machine Riders
  • Skiers and Snowboarders
  • Climbers
  • Kayakers
  • Jet Ski Riders
  • Boaters
  • Fishermen
  • Ice Fishers
  • Those who often travel in areas without cell coverage

As you can see from the list, anyone who is out by themselves or with a small group away from other people should carry one, especially if they know cell coverage is spotty or unavailable where they are going.

How much is your life worth?

Over the last few years PBLs have not only become smaller, but they’ve become cheaper and filled with more bells and whistles.

You can get reliable PLB from online stores like Amazon.com for as little as $275. A small price to pay to know that rescue forces will be headed you way if you need them.

How will they find you?

OK, so you’ve fallen and you can’t get up, to use the line from the TV commercial, you’ve had an accident out in the wilderness, here is how a PLB can help you.

Perhaps you were hiking in the Colorado wilderness by yourself, far from any other person, when you slipped and fell. Your leg got caught, twisted, and broken severely under a rock. You are miles from anyone else, you are stuck and there is no way you can get yourself out and no one will be passing by to find you.

In an older time you’d be out of luck, you’d die right there where you lay. But you have a technological marvel packed away in your backpack, your PLB. You pull it out, open it up, and turn it on. Within seconds the Search and Rescue Satellite system will pick up the Personal Locator Beacon’s signal and alert the authorities that someone needs help.

Depending on the type of PLB you’ve purchased, either the PLB will send your GPS location to the system, or the satellite system will determine your location on its own.

In either case after you bought it you should have registered your Personal Locator Beacon, in the United States this registration data will be transmitted along with the PLB activation information to the U. S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC).

Rescue is on the way

The AFRCC will attempt to immediately contact you or those you’ve listed as contacts on your PLB Registration via phone to determine if you are actually in a distress situation. They make these calls because most beacon activations are false alarms and they need to determine if your emergency signal requires that someone respond. If they find out that you are or could be in an emergency situation or they can’t contact anyone they will get SAR forces headed to the location of your Personal Locator Beacon’s signal as fast as possible.

Be Prepared

Scenarios just like this one play out all the time, so make sure ahead of time that if you were to find yourself in a bad situation that you would have the right tools in order to bring about a good ending.

Buy yourself a PLB!


More Information

In other areas of this site you find much more information on how PLBs work, how the Search and Rescue Satellite System works, How to properly operate your Personal Locator Beacon, How to test your PLB, What is the best type of PLB to buy and most importantly our Personal Locator Beacon Review area, where you’ll be able to get our honest opinion of the various PLBs available on the market and where you can get them at a reasonable price.

Our goal is to be your best resource for information on Personal Locator Beacons! Writers for this site have worked in the United States Search and Rescue community for many years and have extensive knowledge of how the COSPAS-SARSAT system and America’s SAR System works. Rest assured we won’t steer you wrong. We fell that a PLB should be carried by everyone who engages in risky pastimes and those who spend time well away from others in areas of limited cell coverage.

This site is also committed to reducing the very large amount of false activations which take up a huge amount of our nation’s Search and Rescue professional’s time. PLBs are not toys and should be used and tested properly. It is every owners responsibility to learn about their beacon so as to prevent themselves from setting off a false SARSAT alarm.


This site recommends that you buy a PLB with GPS capability!

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