The motivation for this question is the impalement question. The impalement question asked what to do in a particular catastrophic accident if

Phones are dead, you don't have a PLB, and if you walked out, help could not arrive in less than three days

I think it is irresponsible to be three days away from any type of communication, given the availability of a PLB or a satellite communication device.

Obviously, one doesn't carry such a device when walking the dog to the grocery store, and maybe not on a well travelled trail, with many access points, such as the C&O Towpath. But does there come a point where one should carry such a device, not only for one's own safety but out of consideration for family and rescuers? If so, what are the these minimum conditions?

Several questions have asked about features of these devices, and the conditions under which they should be activated, but I could not find a question about when it is irresponsible not to carry them.

2 Answers 2


TL/DR: There's really no argument - just carry a PLB for any non-trivial trip!

This is a question I've discussed with the leaders of SAR teams. They are unanimous that responsible use of a PLB makes life much safer and easier for both you and the rescue team. They encourage all parties to carry them, and particularly solo walkers.

I would argue that for any non-trivial project it's irresponsible not to carry a PLB.

Let's imagine a scenario where a solo walker does and does not carry a PLB.

Scenario 1: you don't carry a PLB

You are planning a 6 day solo walk on a remote wilderness trail. You are experienced and responsible and leave notice of your route.

Then you get an immobilising injury on day 3, with no cellphone reception. Here's how it plays out:

  1. You have to wait at least 4-5 days before SAR will consider you lost and start their search.

  2. Now the rescue team have to cover 150 miles of trail to find you, plus there's the possibility that you might have lost the trail or tried to bail out down a side-trail. This kind of search involves dozens of volunteers giving up days or weeks of their time, and if conditions are poor they may be risking their lives.

  3. If helicopters join the search you are also risking the lives of the crew (there was a recent incident where a rescue copter went down with all hands lost).

  4. It may take days to find you. Grim for the rescue team, and grim for you - if you have a bad injury this might be harrowing or even life-threatening.

Scenario 2: you carry a PLB

After your injury you simply press the button. The SAR team knows exactly where you are, and as soon as conditions allow they come straight to you and get you out ASAP. Simple as that. While rescue would have taken at least 4 days without the PLB (and often much longer), in this scenario you might well be picked up within hours.

Can any sane person argue that Scenario 1 is better?

We've been looking at a fairly extreme scenario (though it's not at all uncommon).

But the same principles apply on shorter trips or with larger parties. Used responsibly there is simply no downside to carrying a PLB. On shorter trips the benefits may be less dramatic but they are still significant. I was involved in a search in Glen Coe - a small but complex area in Scotland. It took days to find the walker, by which time they had died of their injuries. My PLB lives in my pack and I carry it all the time, even on day walks. I can't see any reason not to - in an emergency it's unambiguously better for everyone involved.

No need for debate - just get one and carry it!

Responsible use of satellite devices

Like any tool a PLB can be abused. It's emphatically not a reason for undertaking irresponsible projects on the assumption that you'll be bailed out if things go bad.

There was recent incident on the Pacific Crest Trail when a thru-hiker went into the Washington Cascades late in the season with storms forecast and against the strongest advice from local experts. Reportedly, his PLB gave him a false sense of security. Sure enough he became trapped by heavy snow and had to be rescued in the face of potentially lethal avalanche risk. This kind of behaviour is the height of selfishness and irresponsibility.

But SAR leaders tell me that this kind of abuse is rare. The benefits when responsibly used hugely outweigh the actions of the occasional idiot. They all agree that on balance the advent of PLBs is a game-changing improvement to safety in the back-country.

What about Spot or inReach compared to a dedicated PLB device?

A satellite communicator can also work if (a) You are 100% sure that there is reception throughout your route, (b) You are careful to preserve the battery life, and (c) You are careful to keep your account in good order. Plus with the inReach you can communicate the details of your situation.

But this is a compromise - a PLB is a much more powerful and reliable device for calling in SAR, and once it's purchased and registered there is no ongoing account to worry about. For communicators, the rescue functions are a secondary add-on.

In a larger party, the ideal scenario is to carry both a PLB and an inReach, and for deep-wilderness travel (eg Alaska or Greenland) a satellite phone is worth considering.

But if you're only carrying one device, the PLB is the way to go when rescue is your priority.

  • 4
    +1 Having witnessed a helicopter SAR before satellite devices, I can believe that it is not always easy to find an injured hiker, even above timberline, and even when the hiker is near a landmark. The helicopter searched for about an hour and landed at least once before finding the hiker. He had HAPE, was camped near Vee Lake in the Bear Lakes region of the Eastern Sierra, at abt 11,200 feet. His companion hiked out for help. The companion could have aided the rescue by marking the campsite, which was hidden among rocks, and maybe by finding another party to signal the copter.
    – ab2
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 16:32
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    Not my DV, but this answer could be much improved by adressing not only the best case scenario with PLB, but also scenarios where things go wrong. Reception is not guaranteed after all, and tecnology sometimes malfuntions. Yes, used responsibly, PLB:s add security, but they do not replace common sense.
    – Guran
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 10:14
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    @Guran Nov - can you be more specific? I devote a whole section to the responsible use of PLBs, so I'm not clear what you're suggesting. Non-reception is highly unlikely with a PLB, even in a canyon or with tree cover. That's the main reason for carrying one - they are much more powerful than other signal devices, and use a more reliable satellite network. They are also engineered for reliability - and because they are single-use devices the batteries are sealed and should always be fully charged. Provided you run the test feature regularly, it's unlikely to fail you. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 11:31
  • What do you mean by 'non-trivial'?
    – user5330
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 3:45
  • By non-trivial I mean any trip where you might realistically need to call in the rescue. If you're going for a stroll with the local Rambers group and phone reception is good a PLB might be overkill, I guess. Though it's so easy to carry that personally I keep it in my day-sack and have it with me all the time. Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 4:35

TLDR: You can be irresponsible with or without a PLB

The most basic principle of responsibility in the wilderness is that

YOU are ultimately responsible for your own safety.

With that being the case there are few things more irresponsible than than the idea that you can take risks, and if anything goes wrong, you will simply push a big button and Search and Rescue will show up and whisk you to safety in their big helicopter.

One of the rules of survival from Off the Edge Death in the Grand Canyon is,

Never rely on a cell phone as your sole safety and survival kit.

(Page 560)

the authors also mention that,

The take home lesson here is that one should never embark on any hike into the backcountry unless one has fully prepared to successfully do that hike without a PLB and without a Satellite Phone.

(Page 118 Emphasis in the original)

As someone else said,

"Now you can go into the back country and take a risk you might not normally have taken," says Matt Scharper, who coordinates a rescue every day in a state with wilderness so rugged even crashed planes can take decades to find. "With the Yuppie 911, you send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out of something you shouldn't have been in in the first place."


See this case where a party in the Grand Canyon pushed their PLB Button 4 times.

The group’s leader had reportedly hiked once at the Grand Canyon; the other adult had no Grand Canyon and very little backpacking experience. When asked what they would have done without the SPOT device, the leader stated, “We would have never attempted this hike.”


Beyond that your PLB might not work depending on your location (such as deep slot canyons) or Search and Rescue might get there too late.

The use of a PLB should not detract from effective individual preparation. Therefore, make sure you are adequately prepared to survive as a Search and Rescue response is not always instantaneous.


Probably the most tragic case of someone who waited for rescue instead of trying to self rescue is Geraldine Largay who got lost while hiking the Appalachian Trail and stayed put.

Her cell phone couldn’t get a signal. Instead of continuing to hike she stayed put. For 26 days she wrote in a journal until she died quietly of exposure and starvation.


The camp was less than two miles from the Appalachian trail. Adam wrote that walking south from the campsite, the dense forest became open woods with good visibility after 60-70 yards, and after another 25 minutes he found “a clear logging road” that led to lodging. In total the walk took about 30 minutes.


All of this to say that people can be very responsible and safe without a PLB and people can be very irresponsible with a PLB. Being responsible is more about the mindset and the preparation than a particular piece of gear.

  • 2
    Sorry, but I just can't agree with this answer. Used responsibly, you are always better to carry a PLB. There are many scenarios where rescue will be far quicker and safer for both you and the SAR team, even if you have been responsible. And there is no scenario where you will be worse off. A responsible party carrying a PLB will be safer, and often much safer, than a responsible party without one. Just ask a SAR leader if they would prefer to rescue a party with a known position as against a wide area search. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 11:35
  • @Tullochgorum the vast majority of people won’t use it responsibly. Something like 1 in 20 alerts are real or less The odds of needing something to protect yourself against another human in your lifetime are much greater than the odds of needing a plb Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 12:59
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    This post is essentially arguing against seat belts because they make drivers more complacent. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 15:34
  • @Fistbeard "A 1994 research study of people who both wore and habitually did not wear seatbelts concluded that drivers were found to drive faster and less carefully when belted. "en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_compensation Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 18:16
  • 1
    A) Confounding variables - perhaps most people who don't wear seatbelts are less risk averse in general. B) I bet you those people who wore seatbelts had less serious injuries than those who did not, regardless of their outlook and risk taking, which is the entire point of the analogy I am drawing. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 18:34

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