By Chris Andrews

June 15, 2024

Pros and Cons of Sat Phones vs PLB

Away from civilisation you need reliable communication tools. You might be wondering whether a satellite phone or a personal locator beacon (PLB) better suits your needs. A personal locator beacon is best for sending emergency SOS signals, while a satellite phone excels in comprehensive two-way communication.

A satellite phone and personal locator beacon sit on a rugged, mountainous landscape. The satellite phone is held in hand, while the beacon is attached to a backpack

Key Takeaways

A PLB is essential for straightforward emergency SOS signals

PLBs can avoid subscription fees

Satellite phones offer comprehensive two-way communication

Choose based on your specific situational and locational needs

A handheld satellite phone lets you call for help and even share location updates, making it ideal for extended trips. On the other hand, personal locator beacons are compact and dedicated to sending distress signals, which can be more straightforward in emergencies.

Each option has unique benefits and drawbacks, depending on the specific requirements of your adventure. Understanding these differences can help you make an informed decision, ensuring your safety during your wilderness excursions.

Understanding Personal Locator Beacons

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are critical tools for safety in the wilderness and other remote areas. They use satellite technology to send distress signals, offering reliable emergency communication options.

Technology Behind Personal Locator Beacons

PLBs use the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system, a global network designed for search and rescue. When activated, a PLB sends a distress signal to satellites, which then relay the signal to ground stations. These ground stations alert local search and rescue teams. This system ensures that your emergency signal reaches rescuers even without local cell service.

Most PLBs broadcast on 406 MHz, a frequency monitored by search and rescue agencies worldwide. They also often include a 121.5 MHz homing signal that helps rescuers pinpoint your location once they’re nearby. The devices are generally rugged, waterproof, and designed for extreme environments, ensuring that they perform reliably when you need them most.

Advantages of Personal Locator Beacons

One key advantage of PLBs is their no-subscription fee. Unlike satellite messengers, which often require ongoing service fees, PLBs involve a one-time purchase. This makes them a cost-effective option for those who want emergency communication without monthly costs.

PLBs are known for their reliability. Since they use the dedicated Cospas-Sarsat network, their signals are less likely to fail compared to devices relying on commercial networks. This dedicated connection significantly increases the chances of a successful rescue.

Their simplicity is another strong point. With just one button to press, you can send an SOS signal without worrying about complex interfaces. This can be crucial in high-stress situations where quick action is essential.

Disadvantages of Personal Locator Beacons

Despite their benefits, PLBs have limitations. One major drawback is the lack of two-way communication. Once you send an SOS, you won’t receive confirmation that help is on the way. This can be stressful and leave you uncertain about the status of your rescue operation.

PLBs also lack additional features such as messaging and navigation. Devices like satellite messengers allow you to communicate with loved ones and navigate using GPS. PLBs are primarily designed for emergency use only, which might be insufficient for longer or more complex trips.

Registration – you will need to register your PLB with the government network in order to have it tracked. This is a one time thing but is absolutely crucial if you want your PLB to be of any use whatsoever. If using it overseas away from the United States then you will also need to research the local registration scheme to be confident in being able to be tracked in the event of an emergency.

Finally, PLBs need to be manually activated. If you’re incapacitated and unable to press the button, the device won’t send a signal. This makes them less suitable for scenarios where injuries could prevent you from using the device.

Understanding Satellite Phones

A person holding a satellite phone and personal locator beacon in a wilderness setting, with mountains and trees in the background

Satellite phones are a reliable form of communication, especially in remote areas where traditional cell service is unavailable. They use satellites to connect calls, providing a vital link during emergencies or when traveling off-the-grid.

Technology Behind Satellite Phones

Satellite phones work by communicating with satellites orbiting the Earth. Two primary networks are Iridium and Globalstar. Iridium provides 100% global coverage with a network of 66 low-Earth orbit satellites. This ensures connectivity even in the most remote locations. Globalstar offers more limited coverage focused on populated areas but uses a simpler and less expensive network. Satellite phones transmit signals from the phone to the satellite, which then relays the call to a ground station connected to the phone network.

Advantages of Satellite Phones

One of the biggest advantages is their ability to provide communication anywhere, making them ideal for wilderness trips or at sea. They enable SOS alerts, allowing users to send distress signals to emergency services. Satellite phones offer text messaging and customizable check-in messages. Some models include advanced mapping and weather forecast features. They are beneficial in disasters when cell towers may be down, ensuring you can contact help or stay in touch with others.

Disadvantages of Satellite Phones

Despite their benefits, satellite phones have several drawbacks. The cost can be high, with devices ranging from $200 to over $1000, and monthly plans costing $11.95 to $52.95. They also tend to have limited battery life, making frequent charging necessary. Another downside is their larger size and weight compared to cell phones. Additionally, satellite phones may experience delays or dropped calls due to poor satellite positioning or obstructions like buildings and dense trees. Unlike traditional phones, they require a clear line of sight to the sky for optimal performance.

Key Factors for Wilderness Communication

A satellite phone and a personal locator beacon are placed side by side on a rugged wilderness terrain, with mountains and trees in the background

When you’re planning a trip into the wilderness, considering factors like coverage, battery life, ease of use, and costs is essential. These aspects will determine the reliability and functionality of your communication device.

Coverage and Reach

Coverage and reach are crucial when selecting a device for wilderness communication. Satellite phones typically offer 100% global coverage, making them reliable almost anywhere on Earth. On the other hand, personal locator beacons (PLBs) use satellites dedicated to emergency services which ensure distress signals are received globally.

Satellite messengers also provide good coverage but might rely on commercial satellites that could have blackspots. Always check the coverage map for the specific device to ensure it meets your needs in the areas you plan to travel.

Battery Life and Power Options

Battery life varies significantly between satellite phones and PLBs. Satellite phones often provide an active talk time of 4-8 hours and standby time of several days. Some models come with replaceable batteries, which can be handy during extended trips. PLBs, however, usually come with non-rechargeable batteries designed to last several years and withstand harsh environments.

Satellite messengers typically balance between the two, with some offering USB-rechargeable batteries that can last for days or weeks on intermittent use. Always consider carrying a solar charger or extra batteries to ensure continuous power in remote locations.

Typical Battery Life (usage dependent)

Satellite Phone

Satellite Messenger

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

Standby Battery Life




Regular usage life




(Note: Each device will have differing battery life depending on design and methods of usage. For actual device battery usage durations check the manufacturer’s specification)

Ease of Use and Portability

Ease of use and portability are significant considerations. PLBs are generally compact and simple to operate, often requiring just the push of a button to send a distress signal. Satellite phones and messengers, while slightly bulkier, offer more communication features like texting and GPS tracking.

Portability is key; you need a device that is easy to carry and doesn’t add substantial weight to your pack. Devices with intuitive interfaces and clear instructions are preferable. Evaluate your trip’s demands and choose accordingly to ensure efficient and hassle-free communication.

Subscription Costs and Fees

Subscription costs and fees can greatly impact your budget. Satellite phones usually require a monthly plan, typically ranging from $12 to $60, depending on data and talk time requirements. These plans often include additional fees for features like weather forecasts or extra data packages.

PLBs generally have no subscription fees but might incur costs for battery replacement or registration. Satellite messengers fall in between, sometimes offering flexible plans that can be paused during off-seasons. Carefully compare the plans to find one that aligns with your communication needs and budget. Check for hidden fees or additional charges that may apply.

Understanding these factors will help you make an informed decision on which communication device is best suited for your wilderness adventures, providing safety and peace of mind throughout your journey.

Comparing Features and Functionality

A satellite phone and a personal locator beacon sit side by side on a rugged wilderness terrain, showcasing their features and functionality

When deciding between a satellite phone and a personal locator beacon (PLB) for wilderness use, it’s important to evaluate their characteristics in terms of emergency services, communication options, and durability. Each tool has its strengths and specific uses.

Emergency Services and Safety Features

Satellite phones and PLBs both offer essential emergency services. With a PLB, you can send an SOS signal to the Cospas-Sarsat satellite network, which notifies search and rescue teams of your location. This is crucial for quick response in life-threatening situations.

Satellite phones provide emergency communication through the Iridium satellite network. They allow calling emergency services directly, providing real-time interaction. The Garmin inReach Mini and Mini 2 also integrate with services like GEOS for additional safety.

Messaging and Communication Options

Satellite phones offer comprehensive communication options. You can make calls, send text messages, and access emails. This is essential for maintaining contact with others during long trips. Devices like the Garmin inReach Explorer+ support two-way messaging and provide accurate GPS coordinates.

PLBs like the ACR ResQLink View are more limited in communication functionality. They primarily send distress signals without confirmation of receipt, offering fewer messaging options. Meanwhile, products like the ZOLEO and SPOT Gen3 messenger provide basic text messaging capabilities and check-ins.

Durability and Environmental Adaptability

Durability is paramount in wilderness tools. PLBs typically have rugged designs to withstand harsh conditions. They are often waterproof and built to endure extreme weather, making them reliable in various environments.

Satellite phones are also durable but slightly more susceptible to damage due to their electronic components. They offer good environmental adaptability with advanced mapping and weather forecasts. Several models, such as the Garmin inReach series, include Bluetooth connectivity for ease of use with smartphones, enhancing their practicality in remote areas.

Use Cases and Practical Considerations

A person holding a satellite phone and a personal locator beacon while standing in the wilderness. The satellite phone has a clear signal, while the beacon is small and easy to carry

Choosing between a satellite phone and a personal locator beacon (PLB) depends on your travel frequency, group size, and the risk level of your destinations. Each device offers distinct benefits tailored to specific scenarios and needs.

Occasional Trips vs. Regular Expeditions

For occasional trips, especially day hikes or weekend camping, a PLB, like the ACR ResQLink, may be sufficient. PLBs are easy to use and provide reliable SOS signals in emergencies.

For those who frequently go on long expeditions or backcountry adventures, a satellite phone like the Garmin inReach Mini 2 might be better. It allows two-way communication with family and friends, weather updates, and mapping functions. Regular travelers benefit from the constant connectivity and added features.

Individuals Versus Group Scenarios

If you’re traveling alone in remote areas, carrying a satellite phone offers extra safety. It allows you to stay in constant contact with emergency services or your support network if something goes wrong. The two-way messaging features keep you connected.

In group scenarios, a PLB might be more practical. Only one device is needed to alert rescuers in case of an emergency. This approach is cost-effective and ensures everyone can focus on their tasks without worrying about who has the communication device.

High-Risk Areas and Remote Destinations

In high-risk areas, such as remote wilderness locations, having a satellite phone is crucial. These phones ensure that you can reach help whenever needed. Products like the Garmin inReach Explorer+ offer advanced mapping to navigate safely.

For remote destinations with strict regulations, a PLB can meet specific safety requirements. Some regions might require you to carry a PLB, as it ensures that local rescue services can locate you quickly. The SPOT Gen4 is an affordable option that meets many regional guidelines.

In summary, the choice between a satellite phone and a PLB depends on your travel habits, group size, and the specific requirements of your destinations. Make sure to evaluate the available options carefully to choose the device that best fits your needs in the wilderness.

Decision Making and Final Thoughts

When choosing between a satellite phone and a personal locator beacon, you need to consider several key factors. Your decision hinges on personal preferences, cost considerations, and the balance between features and necessities.

Assessing Personal Needs and Preferences

First, think about your specific needs and preferences. If you often venture into remote areas for long periods, a satellite phone like the Garmin inReach Mini 2 may be useful for constant communication through the Iridium network. It allows two-way messaging and can track your location with tools like breadcrumb maps and waypoints.

On the other hand, PLBs like the ACR ResQLink View are simpler, lighter, and solely designed to send distress signals to emergency response teams. They are invaluable in cases where you need a quick, reliable emergency response with one-touch activation.

Consider frequency of use, communication needs, and how much tech you’re comfortable carrying. Both devices offer benefits, but the right choice depends on your activities and how often you need to communicate.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Cost is another important consideration. Satellite phones typically involve higher upfront costs and require subscription plans. For example, the Garmin Messenger requires a monthly fee, which covers messaging and tracking services through apps like Earthmate.

PLBs, such as the Ocean Signal RescueME PLB1, have a lower upfront cost and, importantly, no subscription plan. This one-time investment can be more attractive if you primarily want an emergency device.

You must weigh the features against costs. Those who need continuous communication and mapping capabilities might find satellite phones worth the investment. In contrast, occasional hikers and those focused on emergency use may prefer the simpler, cheaper PLB option.

Making the Informed Choice

To make an informed decision, consider all factors carefully. A satellite phone offers two-way communication, global coverage, and additional mapping functions, making it ideal for extended trips or professional use. Devices like the Garmin inReach models amplify your safety net by providing constant connection.

On the contrary, a PLB is designed for reliability in distress situations, sending your location coordinates to emergency services quickly and efficiently. Choices like the SPOT Gen4 provide affordable, one-time emergency messaging.

Evaluate any tools and features you might need, such as an altimeter, waypoints, or pre-programmed messages. Whether navigating a national park or embarking on a solo trek, understanding these devices enhances your safety and preparedness.

Frequently Asked Questions

This section covers the limitations and factors involved in using satellite phones and personal locator beacons (PLBs) for emergencies. It also looks into costs, marine suitability, and advantages of satellite messengers.

What are the limitations of using a satellite phone for wilderness emergencies?

Satellite phones often require a clear view of the sky to ensure a strong signal. Dense forest cover, mountains, or heavy cloud cover can disrupt communication. Additionally, satellite phones can be more expensive and heavier compared to other emergency devices.

What factors should be considered when choosing between a satellite messenger and a PLB for hiking?

When deciding between a satellite messenger and a PLB, consider the need for two-way communication, battery life, and ease of use. Satellite messengers like the Garmin inReach Mini 2 allow for texting and tracking features, while PLBs like the ACR ResQLink View offer robust SOS functions with no ongoing fees.

Are there any subscription-free options for emergency locators suitable for wilderness use?

Yes, personal locator beacons (PLBs) generally do not require a subscription. Devices like the ACR ResQLink View operate on a one-time purchase basis, making them cost-effective in the long run.

How does a personal locator beacon perform in marine environments compared to satellite communication devices?

In marine environments, PLBs are highly reliable as they send distress signals to a network of satellites linked to search-and-rescue authorities. For instance, the McMurdo FastFind 220 includes a homing transmitter and flashing SOS light, which are crucial in marine emergencies.

What are the cost considerations when purchasing a personal locator beacon?

PLBs typically have a higher upfront cost but no recurring subscription fees. Prices vary depending on features, but they usually range between $200 to $400. For instance, the PLB1 is noted for being an excellent value for pure SOS functionality.

What advantages do satellite messengers offer over personal locator beacons in SOS situations?

Satellite messengers like the Garmin inReach SE+ provide two-way communication, allowing you to receive confirmation that help is on the way. This feature can be reassuring in emergencies and allows for better coordination with rescue services, unlike PLBs that only send out a distress signal.

Chris Andrews

About the author

Hi, I'm Chris and these days I love nothing more than spending quality time with my son outdoors. As an army cadet in the 80s I was given a real insight into how to look after myself and those around me in unfamiliar environments. No huts, no tents, just survival rations for food and ponchos for makeshift shelter. This started a drive within me to be able to take care of myself and, nowadays, my family in any eventuality.

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