Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Buyers Tips: Personal Locator Beacon's (PLB)

Tips when purchasing a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

 Beside boots, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) will probably be one of the most expensive pieces of kit in any trampers arsenal. I recently brought a PLB, so here are a few tips I discovered while researching my purchase.
Tramper with a GME Personal Locator Beacon

What is a PLB?

Also known as a Rescue Beacon, a EPIRB or Safety Beacon. In basic terms, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is an electronic safety device that when activated sends a distress signal to a satellite. The satellite system informs the rescue authorities in your location, a Search and Rescue operation is then initiated.

Please note: Only 406Mhz beacons are monitored in New Zealand, please check if your PLB will work here if visiting from another country.

PLB Activation sequence

Why buy a PLB?

What a personal locator beacon offers is a measure of security. If you or a member of your party has an accident which precludes walking then this is your quickest means of summoning assistance. Why wait for days when using your PLB could mean assistance within hours.

A SAR rescue operation in progress in 2015
While PLB's are useful for all outdoor folk they should probably be required equipment for solo trampers.

Where should I buy?

Most PLB buyers will purchase their beacon from a local hunting, boating or outdoor shop. It is probably preferable to buy local as warranties and servicing will be easier to obtain.
There are also a number of on-line New Zealand based suppliers, Aviation Safety Supplies Ltd is the most well known. You can buy your beacon on-line overseas but be aware that they will need to be re programmed to work in this country, this costs approximately $120.

Common brands and prices

There are numerous brands and types of beacon's available, I will discuss four of the most common brands I have encountered while tramping in New Zealand:

ACR ResQLink

One of the larger locator beacon manufacturers is ACR, with their ResQLink beacon.


 The company produces a number of beacons, the more expensive are GPS capable.GPS capability means that the potential search radius is much smaller, they are accurate to 30 meters. Non GPS equipped beacons have a 100 meters radius by comparison. You want a GPS cabable beacon!

Standard pricing ranges from $500-$700 depending on the supplier.

The ACR ResQLink is the beacon used by NZ Search and Rescue (SAR) and the Southland Locator Beacon Charity.

Fast Find McMurdo

Another brand is the McMurdo 220, they are smaller than the ACR beacons and have very similar features.

McMurdo Fast Find 220 PLB

Another brand is the McMurdo 220, they are smaller than the ACR beacons and have very similar features. These beacons float which is an important factor to consider when using it in the wet New Zealand back-country.

I have been told it is slightly more difficult to extend the antenna on these, but have not tried myself. Again, these range in price from $530-$700 depending on where you purchase the unit.

AccuSat GME MT410G

I have seen a couple of people with AccuSat GME beacons, cost is around $500 from Aviation Safety Supplies.


They have a hard protective outer casing on them, an excellent feature as PLB's tend to get knocked around. Because of this they are slightly heavier than the ACR and McMurdo Beacons.
I believe they are aimed at the boating community more than trampers.
Here is some info from their site:
The MT410 and MT410g provide the aviator and or the outdoor adventurer with a 406 MHz PLB that is not only affordable, but provides enhanced peace of mind for boaters, bush walkers, 4 x 4 enthusiasts and aviators should they ever require emergency assistance.

SPOT Find Me

You can buy a Spot Find Me for about $300, and they are the smallest and lightest of the four.


 They have excellent tracking functions and allow for pre programmed messages to be sent.  One negative feature is a US  $150 per annum fee to register you would be looking at $1200 for the 6 year life of the unit.

My Beacon

I decided to buy a ACR ResQLink for three reasons:

PLB size comparison: McMurdo, Rescueme and ResQLink
Familiarity: I have hired these beacons before and found them light and easy to use.
Price: I brought mine for $530 from Hunting and Fishing (Ballingers) in Christchurch. This was the best price within New Zealand for a ResQLink PLB, the other suppliers were selling them for up to $630. This was also one of the lower PLB prices regardless of brand.
Functionality: These are the easiest to use of the three beacons: the antenna is easy to extend and requires minimal pressure to do so. The controls are obvious and really simple to use. One feature I really like are the instructions printed on the PLB itself.

Personally, I would recommend that every tramping party carry a PLB. The added layer of security they offer is certainly worth the price and weight.