There’s one piece of equipment that every mountaineer should have in their emergency kit, but that you won’t find on any 10 essentials list: a personal locator beacon (PLB). These beacons allow you to send an emergency signal via satellite to call for rescue and communicate with responders.
I’ll be the first to admit that PLBs are a touchy subject. No hiker or climber likes to think about the worst-case scenario. But accidents happen, and it’s critical that you’re able to get help right away when they do. I keep a PLB in my pack every time I head into the mountains.
In this guide, I’ll show you the 5 best personal locator beacons on the market today. There’s a PLB for every budget and even a few models for the gram-counters among us, so there’s no excuse not to take one on your next trip.
My Review Process
For better or worse, I’ve tested several PLBs in the field in emergency situations. I understand what makes specific designs easier or harder to use in the mountains, as well as the importance of being able to communicate clearly with emergency services when you turn to your locator beacon.
I also know that a PLB is a significant investment for many mountaineers. So, I’ve balanced the cost of each device against the essential features it provides in my reviews.
The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is hands down the best personal locator beacon on the market today. It’s the PLB I currently use, and it offers everything I look for in a satellite messaging device without adding weight or bulk.
The inReach Mini 2 is one of the only devices on the market right now that enables you to compose messages on the device. Doing so is slow and clunky compared to using the phone app, but it’s critical that the device offers this functionality. Even if your smartphone dies or is lost in an accident, you can still communicate with an emergency response team.
The other thing that puts the Mini 2 at the top of my list is the fact that it’s tiny. No matter how crammed your pack is, this PLB will fit. You won’t notice it’s there, either—the Mini 2 is extremely light at only 3.5 ounces.
The only drawback to the inReach Mini 2 is that it’s pricey. In addition to the device, an annual subscription costs $143.40. All I can say is that when you need it, it’s worth every penny.
The Zoleo Satellite Communicator is one of only a few serious competitors to the inReach Mini 2. The reason it lands in second place is that you can’t compose messages without using the smartphone app. Of course, you can still send an SOS signal using an emergency button on the device.
Apart from that, the Zoleo device is virtually flawless. This handheld device is an ideal choice for non-emergency messaging since it works on a cellular phone network and WiFi in addition to the Iridium satellite network. The Zoleo app is also very easy to use, which is a plus if you’re just trying to have a conversation in the backcountry.
The Zoleo Satellite Communicator weighs 5.3 ounces and it’s only slightly larger than the inReach Mini 2. At $200, it’s one of the more affordable two-way messaging devices on the market.
The ACR Bivy Stick is similar to the inReach Mini 2 and Zoleo Satellite Communicator in functionality. It offers two-way messaging via the Iridium satellite network, and it’s very straightforward to use.
The Bivy Stick is compact and weighs only 3.5 ounces. However, there’s no way to compose messages on the device without using a cell phone connection to access an app. Unlike the Zoleo device, the Bivy Stick doesn’t offer texting via cellular or WiFi networks.
What makes the ACR Bivy Stick stand out is that you don’t need to sign up for a service contract to use the device. You do need a subscription, but you’re free to cancel it during any month you aren’t planning to hit the trail. If you aren’t spending much time outside in the winter, for example, you can cancel your plan temporarily and save some money.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a relatively large PLB that adds key navigation functions and many additional features. With this device, you can record tracks to a digital topo map and even check your bearing on a digital compass. It’s also easy to check the weather forecast with this device.
The inReach Explorer+ is bulky, but you won’t find a satellite messenger that offers comparable battery life. Importantly, you can compose messages using the controls on the device. Even with the big display, it’s still cumbersome compared to using the smartphone app, but it’s easier than doing so with the inReach Mini 2.
For the majority of hikers and climbers, the Explorer+ is overkill. But for expeditions, this device offers more features than most satellite phones and works more reliably.
The SPOT Gen 4 is the only one-way messaging device on this list. To be honest, I can’t recommend enough the importance of two-way messaging. I’ve used a SPOT device in an emergency situation in the mountains, and being able to communicate with the emergency response team in real-time would have made a world of difference.
That said, the SPOT Gen 4 is very attractive for people on a tight budget, and it’s certainly better than not bringing any PLB on your adventures. With the SPOT, you can send an SOS distress signal, an emergency message to friends and family, or an “I’m Okay” message. You can also set up several preset messages, which is useful for notifying a loved one that you’re running late.
The device uses AAA batteries and the battery life lasts seemingly forever, even if you use the tracking features. It’s fairly small (although larger than the inReach Mini 2) and weighs 4.9 ounces.
How to Choose a Personal Locator Beacon
When evaluating PLBs, there are few key features I look for. Let’s take a closer look at what those features are and why they matter.
If you’re investing in PLB, I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing a model that offers two-way messaging. Two-way messaging allows you to communicate directly with a rescue team. You can explain your situation, get advice, and find out if a rescue effort is underway. In an emergency, the communication these devices facilitate is an enormous asset.
One-way messaging devices like the SPOT Gen 4 are better than nothing. But there’s no way to know if your message was received (based on my experience, the message status indicator on the device is unreliable) and no way to know if or when help is coming. Two-way messaging devices like the Zoleo Satellite Communicator and ACR Bivy Stick only cost $50 more.
Nearly all PLBs on the market today come with smartphone apps that make it easy to send messages, access weather reporting, and more. That’s great, but what happens if your cell phone dies or gets lost during an accident?
In that case, it’s important that you’re able to communicate using only the PLB device itself. This is one of the main reasons I recommend the inReach Mini 2 over competing PLBs. While it’s more cumbersome than using the app, you can send and receive messages even if you don’t have a smartphone available. The inReach Explorer+ offers even more functionality and a bigger display.
PLBs aren’t cheap, but the peace of mind that a PLB provides in the mountains is well worth the price tag. Keep in mind that most devices require you to pay ongoing subscription fees in order to connect to a satellite network. Expect to pay an annual fee of around $100-$200 per device.
Size and Weight
The idea behind a PLB is that you won’t need to use it 99% of the time you carry it. So, you want your locator beacon to be as small and lightweight as possible. With the exception of the inReach Explorer+, all of the PLBs I reviewed weigh less than 6 ounces and fit in the palm of your hand.
If you don’t plan to use your PLB in tracking mode, battery life is unlikely to be an issue for any of the devices I reviewed. A PLB can hold a high battery level for months if you don’t power it on.
If you do want to track your location or send frequent messages to family and friends while you’re in the backcountry, then battery life is more of a consideration. Most devices can stay in tracking mode for several days before running out of battery. All of the emergency devices I reviewed, except for the SPOT Gen 4, can be recharged in the field with a micro-USB or USB-C cable.
A PLB allows you to keep family and friends updated while you’re in the mountains and it can make a life-saving difference in the event of an accident. I recommend the inReach Mini 2 as the overall best PLB available today. It’s ridiculously small and lightweight, and you can communicate during an emergency rescue without having a smartphone handy.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.