I know I have had some of you worried a few times on some of my crazier solo hikes, so I’m happy to announce that I now have a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) for emergency situations. I have been considering getting something like this for a while, but have just not got organised and not felt too much urgency. Some of my hikes recently have been a little more risky and it seems that the older I get, the more conscious I am of every tiny little thing that could go wrong. My primary goal of every walk is to not have to call a helicopter so I’m usually very careful not to go beyond my limits, where I might end up stuck, lost or cold. However, there is always a chance that I can slip and do a fairly minor injury such as a broken ankle or leg (yes, I’m counting that as minor). While I’m happy to try to drag myself off a mountain or across several kilometres of bog in that state, if the weather is poor (ie cold), crawling/dragging myself may not be enough to maintain my body temperature. Obviously there’s also a smaller chance of a more serious injury which I can’t even crawl through, so the helicopter option is a good backup to have!
I have purchased a Ocean Signal “rescueME PLB1”, recommended to me by a hiking friend from Australia. The device is designed for marine use, but works effectively on land too. The box tells me quite emphatically that this is not an EPIRB, but the best description is that it is very similar to one (there is quite a good explanation about these things here). The rescueME works with a worldwide dedicated search and rescue satellite network (apparently the only officially recognised one, operated by Cospas Sarsat). When activated, it alerts the nearest Rescue Coordination Centre of my coordinates (hopefully to within 100m). This accuracy is pretty good, but then there is also a homing beacon so that once the search party is within 100m they can find me straight away.
The device is waterproof to 15m, has a 7 year battery life and, I’m delighted to read, is the smallest PLB available. It is only 75mm x 51mm x 31.5mm, and weighs 116g. The PLB itself does not float. However, it is supplied with a pouch that will float with the PLB inside. This makes it slightly bigger and heavier, but does make it float, and allows you to attach it to a belt or strap. If you don’t want to do this, it does have an alternative belt/strap attachment piece. I think I’ll just leave it in the floating case, just in case!
The device has a retractable metal antenna and a flap which covers the activation button so you can’t accidentally turn it on. This makes me a lot more happier!
The homing beacon will operate for over 24 hours once activated, so they have a full day to find me once I’ve activated it before they have to resort to mindless brute-force searching.
I have now registered the device with the UK Coastguard (a form was supplied in the box, but this was very easy to do online at https://forms.dft.gov.uk/mca-sar-epirb/). I assume other countries have a similarly easy registration method. It is compulsory to register EPIRBs/PLBs with your local rescue organisation, but just because I have registered my device with the UK Coastguard, doesn’t mean I can’t use it abroad. At least that is my understanding!
I have also tested my device, both the emergency beacon and the GPS. The instructions for these are quite specific. The beacon has to be tested in the first 5 minutes of an hour because it sends a short burst on the aircraft distress frequency, . . . and obviously they are told to expect short bursts for testing equipment in the first five minutes of each hour??? Other than that, testing the beacon is quite simple. Simply hold the test button for 1 second and note the colour of the LED flash. The colour and number of flashes indicate how long the battery has been used for and/or the type of failure. Thankfully, mine passed with “0-1 hours of battery use”. They recommend testing the beacon once a month. I will try to stick to this. After all, there’s no point going to all the trouble of getting one and taking it walking if I don’t even know it’s working properly! If I’m not out walking for over a month though I won’t bother testing it until just before the next time I take it out.
Testing the GPS takes slightly longer, but still virtually no time at all. You have to press and hold the test button for 10 seconds. After that, the LEDs will flash a certain sequence until it has a GPS fix. It will then flash to tell you the number of remaining times you can test the GPS. This test takes a fair bit of battery power, so you can only test the GPS a certain number of times before it will start to impact on the guaranteed 24 hours of emergency beacon operation. They specify a maximum of 10 GPS tests over the life of the device and recommend testing this function once per year. Again, happy to report that my device passed with flying colours.
(You have to have the antenna extended for both tests)
You have to replace the battery any time you activate the device, even for a short time. Note, this means “activated”, not “tested”. The battery is replaceable, but you have to send it back to an authorised dealer to have this done. Honestly, if I’ve activated it and it’s saved my life, I’ll be more than happy to send it back to the dealer to replace the battery!! You can also replace the battery after the expiry date. I feel like technology will have changed so much in the next 7 years, that this is unlikely to be necessary – a new, smaller, cheaper, faster alert device will certainly be available!
My rescueME PLB1 cost me £199 (RRP £282), delivered to my house from a shop in Inverness. This is quite expensive, but there are no ongoing subscription fees and it should last for 7 years. Plus, I had enough people telling me they’d buy one for me if I didn’t get one for myself!! It is a lot to pay for a device you hope to never use, but a small price to pay for peace of mind and potentially your life.
The locator device which seems most well known is the SPOT tracker (technically “SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Tracker/Messenger”). This device is a similar size and weight to the rescueME PLB1 but has replaceable AAA batteries (they last between 3.5 and 52 days if turned on and tracking, dependent on tracking frequency and sky visibility, or for at least 6 days in SOS mode) and the emergency location works through a different system (I think it works through the SPOT satellites whose system then contacts the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center?). The SPOT has a load of extra features, including being able to send pre-programmed messages to friends or family (eg saying “All OK” or “All OK but running late” or “Help please. Come pick me up”) and having an online live tracking system so family and friends can follow your adventures. The initial cost of the SPOT is less (~£120 – £160), but there is a mandatory annual subscription fee of £130/year.
Based on this, my rescueMe PLB is a fair bit cheaper already! I also only want an emergency device. I’m not interested in the hassle of checking that my SPOT batteries are charged, programming in messages to friends, and setting up my online tracking all the time. I also don’t have any specific adventures that I want all my friends/family/general public to be able to live track me on and, frankly, am not interested in paying £165/year just so you can see where I am. Sorry about that guys!
Because I’m an engineer, here is a table with some comparison stats:
|Device||rescueMe PLB1||Spot Gen3|
|Size (mm)||71 x 51 x 31||87 x 65 x 25|
|Battery Life (days)||2,555||52*|
|Purchase Price (£)||200||130|
|Annual Subscription (£/yr)||0||130|
|Price over 7 years (£)||200||1,040|
*This is SPOT battery life while tracking at a certain frequency, in 50% clear skies. Sorry, I can’t re-find the very detailed SPOT FAQs on battery life that I used to calculate this. SPOT Gen3 battery life is 2 years on standby, and 156 days tracking every 60 minutes (probably in 100% sky exposure?).
That’s the end of this review. All good so far and hopefully I never have the opportunity to report on the efficiency of the rescueMe PRB1 in operation!
On a slightly different scale of cost and importance, I’ve also just received my new watch for hiking (since the band broke on the old one). It’s a Casio W-59-1VQES and cost me a whole £7.95 including postage! Pretty exciting! So far it is small, lightweight and easy to use. Now let’s hope it lasts!
Actually, I’ve just found another really interesting link, and review site, here.