Personal locator beacons (PLBs) save lives. By comparison with the cost of unguided search-and-rescue efforts, their cost is inconsequential. I could make an argument that it is just plain irresponsible to head offshore without one, and it would be a fair argument. EPIRBs, vessel-dedicated emergency position-indicating radio beacons, are required on commercial boats for these reasons. The U.S. Coast Guard would like you to consider at least carrying one PLB on your recreational outing.
At one time, personal locator beacons served only to send a one-way message via satellite to rescue personnel. The wait for rescue is always painful, but more so when you don't know if anybody knows you need it if an emergency occurs out of range of a VHF radio or mobile phone.
Even so, in the past, the cost of $300 PLBs has been a key factor in resisting their purchase. Today, however, the benefits of PLBs have risen astronomically because they can also use satellites for other communications, such as texts, family tracking and, for some devices, the ability to summon nonemergency towing assistance. Some can even receive a message, such as “help is on the way” or “help will be there in one hour.” With all these benefits, there is no good reason to leave one of these devices out of your gear bag. And now, costs are even lower, making the security they provide above that of normal VHF communications very valuable.
We haven’t tested every PLB, by far, and in truth you can’t really test any SOS device — that’s illegal. We have analyzed their features, benefits and costs here in this tight, concise rundown. And in the case of those with the capability of sending civilian messages via their satellite network, we also tested that. We even noted the time it took for each one to communicate.
How We Tested
Efficient connection to appropriate satellite constellations is key to timely rescue and a function of comprehensive satellite coverage plus the efficacy of GPS receivers. We cold-started each device and immediately initiated a test message to see how long it took to link to its satellite constellation and receive the message via Gmail. We assume that this process should approximate the time needed to send and receive an SOS.