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I am thinking of buying a satellite check in device. I often go alone, and would like to upgrade from the system of of always letting someone know where I am going and when to expect me back.

The problem with that system is that on a multi-day trip, it may be days before someone comes looking for you, and any deviations from the planned course greatly increase the chance of being missed by searchers in an emergency.

I would like something that as a minimum has the ability to send a SOS signal, what other features should I look for?

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PLB:

  • Robust.
  • Simple to operate.
  • Most have a battery that enables standby for years.
  • No account needed.
  • Newer ones provide GPS location.

Downsides:

  • Inflexible. You can only say, "I'm in trouble, come get me"
  • Requires special radios to track.
  • It has zero subtlety: The people receiving the call have no idea of the number of people involved, or the urgency. Nor do they get any indication of special circumstances.
  • Minimum 1 hour time between pushing the button and the appropriate SAR being notified. (See link below.)
  • No way to tell if there is anyone responding.
  • SAR services are an unknown quantity. Many are excellent. Some are moribund, or part of the local emergency scene and stretched thin.

https://www.mrtsos.com/plbs-explained/what-is-a-personal-locator-beacon-plb

Satellite Messenger:

  • Allows text messages bidirectionally between locations.
  • Sends GPS coordinates.
  • Can be configured to send breadcrumbs (locations) at user setable intervals.
  • Shorter response time -- typically a few minutes.
  • By using it, you get familiar with limitations.

Downsides:

  • Uses power. Can easily run your battery flat on an expedition.
  • Possibly less robust.
  • Requires account and activation.
  • You need to set up a responsible someone to receive messages either by email or text. This may increase the delay in getting action.

(https://explore.garmin.com/en-CA/inreach/)

Sat Phone

  • Voice communication. Easy to resolve issues quickly.
  • By using it, you get familiar with limitations.
  • Can phone anyone in the world.

Downsides:

  • Larger, heavier, more expensive
  • Eats batteries. (Carry one spare that is reserved for emergency)
  • Requires clear view of sky.
  • Does not automatically send GPS location.
  • Requires current account.

The following is option based. You need to decide the relative merits.

I've spend years (literally -- add up all my trips and it's just under 3 years) in the bush. The need to communicate with the outside rises quite frequently in situations that are short of life or death.

A PLB a good answer for scenarios where someone has an injury that immobilizes him. But consider the following scenarios. I would not want to activate SAR for any of these situations.

  • We've wrapped one of our two canoes around a rock. (Happened to a friend. They had to abandon the good canoe and walk out.) I don't need rescue. I need another canoe)

  • Mike has lost his insulin bottle. Can someone airdrop me a bottle of insulin)

  • Bear came into camp, ate the next two weeks groceries. (Happened to me, but he only got today's lunch) Move up our Cree Lake food drop, and add 15 lbs each of rice and beans)

  • Fred has what looks like appendicitis. I need to talk to someone to tell for sure.

  • There is a forest fire in front of you, and you need to change routes, so you need some different maps. (Happened to me canoeing in N. Sask. Being paranoid, I happened to have maps for the route change.)

Look instead at something like In-Reach

This gives you both emergency 1 button "I'm in trouble" as well as text messages. You have the flexibility to say that you need help, that you need a new canoe, that you need insulin, groceries. The costs are fairly modest, and you can sleep your account for months you're not in the field. Transmission time ranges from instant to minutes, with typical times being about 3 minutes for round trip.

The next step up is a satellite phone. Last time I did a remote trip with clients this ran about $200/month plus $3/minute for usage. Connectivity wasn't perfect: You need a clear view of the sky, and even so there are pauses in coverage. This was using the Iridium system. We carried a spare battery for it.

For individual users, the InReach is affordable. For expeditions a sat phone gives you a better response and gets things resolved in far less time. In addition you can pay for it by charging clients $150 for ten minutes from the middle of nowhere.


I have carried PLBs on trips. We never used it. Didn't want to bring the whole world down around our ears.

I've carried SSB radios too. These are a PITA, as it takes a good hour to set up the antenna (long wave, down near AM frequencies) Unreliable at best. Our protocol said, "Send out a plane if you haven't gotten a transmission in 72 hours"

I've used two text based services. The first filled a 20" pelican case, weighed 30 pounds, and typically took 20 minutes to send a text message.

The second was an In-Reach. I used this when I took my nephew and my dog for a week in Willmore Wilderness. We made a point of sending a text every evening, and waiting for a reply. We had no problems with it, and used sparingly we still had 40% of battery at the end of the week. (We carried a USB battery to recharge it just in case.)

I've used Sat phones on a few trips. Reliability is about the same as for GPS. If you can see enough sky for your GPS, then generally your sat phone will work. We have had issues with bad antennas, faulty battery packs, and getting the device wet.

At this point in my life, I consider the In-reach to be the best solution.

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I use a personal locator beacon (PLB), which just allows me to send a signal in an emergency showing my location. If it can get a GPS signal, it broadcasts my location, but if it can't, it still acts as an omnidirectional beacon. There is no monthly fee. Every few years, NOAA asks me to update/verify my contact info. There is a battery check feature, so I can tell when it's time to replace the battery. The idea is that this is a device that I often bring with me, but hope never to use.

An alternative is something that's more of a communication device, such as a SPOT. These allow you to send text messages, tell people everything is OK, etc. They generally have a monthly fee. I don't see the communication features as worthwhile, and I don't want a monthly fee.

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    Just an FYI for boaters the corollary for a PLB for maritime use is the EPIRB. As you can see in the link they are very similar, but there are some differences. – Erik Dec 27 '16 at 23:57
  • When I was in Civil Air Patrol, we would train to find the airplane beacons as well as using them to find high altitude balloons upon landing. Our success rate wasn't particularly good, but perhaps the technology has improved since then. Especially in mountains or canyons with lots of things to bounce the signal off, they can be rather hard to find. – Charlie Brumbaugh Dec 28 '16 at 0:50
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    @Charlie That sounds like you were looking for the mostly obsolete 121.5 MHz beacons. Current PLBs and EPIRB's now use 406MHz which is easier to locate, and many transmit GPS location. Aviation still monitors 121.5MHz – user5330 Dec 28 '16 at 19:48

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