Personal Locator Beacons and Their Use: What They Are, How to Use Them, and When to Use Them

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about personal locator beacons in the news. What exactly are these devices for, and how can they be effectively utilized by hikers in distress?

What are Personal Locator Beacons?

Personal locator beacons are small, electronic devices that can be easily carried by a hiker or other backcountry traveler when in remote locations. When activated, the beacon sends a signal to satellites, which is then retransmitted back to Earth and alerts local law enforcement or E.M.S. A hike in distress does not need to talk, just push a button. Thus, even if somehow incapacitated, as long as the hiker can push the button, the equipment will work.

Advantages of Personal Locator Beacons

The major advantage of having a personal beacon is that it can cut down on the time needed to alert search and rescue personnel of a problem. It can also be used in places where cell phone reception is non-existent or where hand-held radios won’t work.

Criticism of Personal Locator Beacons

The major criticism of these devices is that they are being used for situations that would not require a rescue if those in need had some basic outdoor knowledge. Also, by having this equipment, a hiker or climber may be tempted to try a riskier route, under the belief that help will be on the way at the push of a button.

Another thing to consider is that although a beacon can reduce the amount of time to alert authorities, it could still be many hours or days to reach a stranded party. This is dependent on organizing the rescue team, getting to the trailhead, and ultimately to the patient. In some states, it is the person being rescued who may have to pay for emergency services.

How to Use a Personal Locator Beacon Correctly

First, read all instructions carefully before taking the equipment into the hills. It may be necessary to enter some data into the device or online, such as where it will be used, who is using it, etc.

When in the field, keep the beacon readily accessible, such as in the top-loader of a backpack. Even though it should be waterproof, it wouldn’t hurt to keep it in a plastic, resealable bag for extra measure. If part of a group, make sure that everyone knows where the beacon is and how to use it, and under what circumstances it can be activated.

Conditions Under Which to Activate a Beacon

The circumstance and decision-making process can vary greatly depending on the situation. However, some possible scenarios could include:

  • An immediate, life-threatening condition.
  • A traumatic injury in which the victim cannot evacuate themselves.
  • Becoming lost, in which the individual or party is completely turned around and has not been able to reorient themselves for 24-48 hours.

What has gotten some people in trouble is activating a beacon when conditions are not life-threatening, but where the party did not have enough knowledge to solve the problem themselves.

Remember, the personal locator beacon can be an effective tool when used correctly and for an appropriate reason. However, nothing substitutes for having a good first-aid kit, wearing appropriate clothing, and of course, knowledge.