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Satellite Rescue Beacons: Call for Help

While you can use a satellite phone (see previous post) to keep in touch when travelling in remote areas, calling to chat does defeat the whole idea of getting away.

Especially for shorter less rugged trips, the SPOT Satellite Messenger is an inexpensive beacon that can signal your status while travelling. Press the OK or Help buttons to send a pre-determined message to a pre-selected e-mail and text message list. Or press the 911 button in a serious emergency to call out search and rescue. The transmitted message also includes your GPS coordinates.


The basic SPOT device costs $149, and requires an annual service plan of $99 a year to forward messages. Add a $49 per year Tracking option that updates your location on a shared Google Maps website. There's also a a $7.95 per year private Search and Rescue option that manages the rescue process when official emergency services are not able to respond fast enough.

The SPOT unit is palm-size and relatively lightweight (7.4 oz.), and is designed to be drop-resistant, waterproof, and to float. My SPOT worked fine in most circumstances. I received text and e-mail messages within 5 to 10 minutes of pressing the buttons, but received only 2 to 4 of the 6 messages per hour sent during a hike through light woods, or when clipped to my car's sun visor.

The SPOT is a fun and useful product at the price for some get-aways, but if you're concerned about needing to be able to call for help in an serious emergency, you can carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) instead. PLBs have only one function -- to broadcast a distress signal that will activate the international Search and Rescue (SAR) system to respond to a life-threatening emergency, using the same international satellite system used for marine and aircraft distress beacons to coordinates through national authorities to deploy and coordinate search and rescue.

PLBs from companies including ACR Electronics are available from outdoor and sporting supply retailers for around $500 to $700, or you can rent for around $70 a week. There are no additional costs or annual subscription fees.

PLBs typically are rugged and waterproof, and transmit the signal for 20 to 40 hours. The batteries typically have a 5 year replacement cycle.

Just don't press the big red button by accident -- unless you have a real emergency and need to call out the rescue helicopters.


See my full article on Satellite Rescue Beacons, for more on these products and services.

See my article, Trip Tech: Far and Away, in the Oct. 2008 issue of Condé Nast Traveler for summaries of these products.

    Find the ACR TerraFix PLB and ACR MicroFix PLB
    and SPOT Satellite Messenger on Amazon.com

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