For those who regularly head into the backcountry, a personal locator beacon (PLB) is an essential item.
(We’ve updated this guide – Read our 2020 guide HERE)
Where to buy
Most outdoors stores will sell PLBs, and a few will even offer rental options. Beacons can be purchased overseas, but it’s important to get your beacon recoded for New Zealand in order for it to be registered with the Rescue Coordination Centre NZ (RCCNZ). If you don’t do this, rescue services in the country you bought your beacon from will be sent your distress signal, delaying your rescue. Recoding the beacon can only be done through the manufacturer.
GPS and 406MHz
All modern beacons transmit a 406MHz signal, but some also transmit the older 121.5MHz signal, which helps searchers home in on your location once they arrive in the vicinity. Your chosen PLB should also be GPS-enabled so it can also send your location to searchers (non GPS models still work but take longer for orbiting satellites to pinpoint your location).
How they work
When a PLB is activated, the signal is picked up by a satellite, which then sends information to RCCNZ. RCCNZ will determine the exact location of the beacon, and will contact the people listed on the beacon’s registration details. This is why it’s important to register your beacon upon purchasing, to keep emergency contact details up-to-date, and to let those contacts know your plans in order to help establish your position.When the position has been determined, RCCNZ will launch a search and rescue operation.
Read more: How to carry your PLB.
When to activate?
Distress beacons should be used in life-threatening situations. RCCNZ advise people to err on the side of caution and to activate their PLB with plenty of daylight; it’s easier and more convenient to search during the day than in the middle of the night. Once activated, keep the beacon turned on and in one place (if possible, find a clearing and remain there until help arrives).
Read more: What to do once you’ve activated your PLB.
Types of beacons
Most beacons work as an emergency device only – sending a signal when you need help. But some models also provide messaging and tracking options. These devices allow for pre-set messages to be sent and may be able to receive text messages and link up to social media accounts so your friends can follow your progress. The major drawback of these devices is that they operate on a subscription service.
There are three satellite systems which may detect a distress signal from a PLB: the Russian Glonass, the US GPS and, as of 2016, the EU’s Galileo. All beacon signals will be detected by Glonass or GPS satellites, but only those devices with modern receiver chips will be detected by the Galileo network of satellites.
- Keep your PLB securely on your person, rather than in your pack.
- Ensure everyone in your party knows where the beacon is and how to operate it.
- When possible, have more than one PLB in your tramping group.
- Make sure your PLB is waterproof and you have a floatation device for it.
KTI Safety Alert $339
Salt water corrosion resistant, self-buoyant, high-intensity LED strobe, impact-resistant case and retention lanyard, mirror, 10 year battery life, 66 channel GPS, 406MHz and 121.5MHz transmission. 140g.
ACR ResQLink $450-$499
406MHz PLB, bright LED SOS light, 66 channel GPS, self-test and GPS test features, minimum 24hr continuous operation, waterproof to 5m, six year battery storage life. 130g.
rescueMe PLB $529
406MHz PLB with seven year battery storage life, seven year warranty, 66 channel GPS, minimum 24hr operation, floatation pouch, mounting clip, bright strobe light. 116g.
McMurdo Fast Find 220 GPS PLB $599
406 and 121.5MHz PLB, bright LED SOS light, 50 channel GPS, GNSS Galileo receiver, waterproof to 10m, minimum 24hr continuous operation, six year battery storage life, self test, battery use indicator, lanyard, flotation pouch. Available in March. 152g.