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What to look for in a PLB?

I started to post this in reply to @Dad_Aint_Hip 's post about experience getting started with the Zoleo and then decided it'd be better to start over. 

So I've been looking at PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) for awhile and thinking about getting one more for kayaking probably but I want to do some solo backpacking as well, and thought it would give me some confidence/peace of mind that I'm not out there totally alone and on my own.  What should I be looking for in a PLB?  After reading @Dad_Aint_Hip 's post, I read the article in OUTSIDE about the Zoleo and thought it sounded good.  I've looked at the SPOT's and Gramin's, but I'm clueless, well maybe not clueless, but don't have enough experience with this type of thing to make an educated decision.  (I'm a map and compass type of person.)  Any thoughts, suggestions, ideas would be helpful.


3 Replies

Hey @Luv2Kayak - yeah, it was a researching nightmare figuring it all out. 🙂 

In a nutshell, here's how my decision-making process went (in no particular order):

  • Reading reviews of Spot's customer service seemed to go 50/50 with people either liking it or hating it. Considering the amount of money (initial purchase plus monthly plan), I wasn't going to give it to a company that may be good to deal with or not. So I ruled out Spot from the start. It may not be fair but, in day to day life, I am so tired of paying for things and then getting treated like a nuisance if I need support that I just wasn't going to chance it. And, since Spot doesn't offer any phenomenal or unique features that the others don't, it was a pretty easy decision not to get one. My first and only experience with ZOLEO's customer experience was really positive. The last time I dealt with Garmin was 8 or 9 years ago when I had a couple of their GPS units and, back then, they were great. I've not heard any bad reviews of their service recently either.
  • Garmin v. ZOLEO. I love Garmin and always have. But their devices are at least twice the price of the ZOLEO and considering everything I've bought lately, that was a factor. Not THE deciding factor but a crucial one. 
  • Although the base plan for Garmin is $5 a month cheaper than ZOLEO, Garmin only provides 10 texts whereas ZOLEO offers 25. I won't be going over 25 but there's a good chance I'll go over 10
  • ZOLEO allows you to cancel or suspend your service only after the first three months. Sice I got this in May and will use it all season, that wasn't a problem. But when I first started looking last October, I didn't like that I had to have it for three months. To suspend ZOLEO will cost $4 per month but i keep the SMS number and can access my dashboard. Canceling is free but will cost another $20 subscription fee when I turn it back on. So I'll see how late inthe season I stop using it and that will determine if I suspend or cancel it. Whatever works out cheaper (probably suspension and paying $4).
  • Garmin is a standalone device and that may appeal to some. ZOLEO connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth. Since I have my phone with me anyway, I kind of prefer looking at my phone's screen instead of the smaller screen on the InReach. Ahhh the joys of 50 year old eyes LOL
  • ZOLEO does NOT track your movements so you can't pull up the map and see where you are. If you want GPS tracking, go with Garmin (there is a legitimate reason they're more expensive and this is it). I am not (yet) doing crazy backcountry navigating so this isn't an issue for me. I'll be able to use the built-in GPS on my phone along with the Gaia app for that. And, of course, I have my map and compass anyway.

Finally, I told my wife that, with the money I saved by going with ZOLEO instead of Garmin that I could get a marine radio for the kayak...  Long story short, there were some disapproving looks, a sarcastic comment about "saving money" while holding up my REI credit card statement, and some other words that the family-friendly nature of this forum prevents me from detailing. Suffice to say, I'm not getting a marine radio.


“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

First you are going to have to make a choice if you need to text in your emergency/ communication, if your looking at texting, checking in, then it will be a subscription service no matter which company and unit you choose.  If you are looking for a unit that is emergency only with no text, basically an SOS and your location, then units like the ACR  RescueME or the ResQlink. No subscription, NOT cellphone or internet dependent, communicates to satellite only.
 When it comes to Marine Radios in a kayak you are probably going to have a limited range of several miles, if that, due to the short antenna with a handheld. Some handhelds and all fixed mount marine radios have a function called DSC/ Distress, I will just get into the distress part. You register the radio and apply for an MMSID# this info is your name, emergency contacts, medical info, make , model, color, registration of your vessel. You load the MMSID# into the radio. On the front panel there will be a red button under a cover. If you have an emergency you push the SOS button, the radio hails an emergency and transmits your location. The radio also has to be connected to a GPS for the location. When the Coast Guard receives the message they look up your ID #, mark the location and help is on the way. Our travels are usually out of cell range. So we opted for the ACR RescueME and Global Rescue for Emergency Medical Evacuation. Our skiff also has a Marine radio with DSC/ Distress, if it would come down to a breakdown or non life threatening it would be the radio. Life threatening, true emergency….. The PLB. 

One more point. A PLBs battery is good for 5-6 years, then it has to be replaced by a factory authorized service center. 



@Flipperfla - those are good points!

The other question, @Luv2Kayak would be about your intentions/desire - both for hiking and kayaking. At this point, my kayaking is limited to small lakes and gentle rivers/streams within a short distance from my house and, more to the point, well within cell range. So my "need" for a maritime radio is primarily because I like tech and buying tech. LOL. As we venture onto larger bodies of water where there is more boat traffic, a radio will become more useful. Right now, in case of a mayday situation, I'll hit the SOS on the ZOLEO.

I should point out that, for a while, I thought about getting just a PLB (the same ACR model that Flipper mentioned) because there's no monthly plan. But, for me, it came down to the solo backpacking.

I ultimately decided on a sat-com for two reasons: in case of emergency where I am still communicative, I want to be able to communicate with SAR to provide whatever information I can (prominent landscape features, extent of injuries, etc.) and also because I have a wife and kids at home, I want to be able to check in when I reach camp to let them know I am safe. Additionally, with doing some more solo trips while I am traveling with my family, I will be able to give them an appropriately-timed heads up for when to meet me at the trail head.

So, for those two reasons, I went with a communicator instead of just a PLB. It's going to cost me more because of the monthly plan but, ultimately, those two reasons won out. 

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.