Who you gonna call? (Why you need a Personal Locator Beacon)


We’re not the best planners. Don’t get me wrong, we try – but somehow it all gets forgotten amongst the craziness of daily routines and episodes of Masterchef. Then Departure Day arrives and we still haven’t packed, read the maps, or skimmed any of the awesome blogs we bookmarked in a one-off Googling frenzy.

So in New Zealand, when we met our first group of fellow Te Araroa hikers, heading on the boat out to Queen Charlotte Sound, we were pretty surprised to find they were carrying a Personal Locator Beacon.

Wait, what’s a Personal Locator Beacon?!

A Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB to seasoned trampers, is a kind of personal alarm you carry while hiking. When the beacon is activated, it transmits a signal that’s picked up by satellites and bounced down to the designated people. Depending on the circumstances, that could be the emergency services or your mum! A PLB doesn’t require a mobile phone signal to work,  it relies on a satellite signal, which you can get even in the most remote places.

When we were starting out on the TA, carrying a PLB seemed a little extreme. Would we really be in a situation where we’d need to hit an emergency escape button and get to the chopper, Arnie style? Really?


Lucky for us, we weren’t. But we did meet two people who hit their beacon for help in sticky situations.

As chance would have it, the first was in that group of women we met on the boat. While hiking in Mt Richmond Forest Park, one of the hikers rolled her ankle and was in a lot of pain. This doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re halfway through an 8-day hike in the middle of the mountains, limping out to the nearest town isn’t an option.

The second was an American lady who was solo hiking the Te Araroa, north bound. She slipped in the middle of a tricky section near Mesopotamia and dislocated her shoulder. Ouch.

Both ladies pushed the button for help and were picked up by the Search and Rescue chopper.

Did they need to push the button for rescue? Or were they trigger-happy? It’s impossible to know what we’d have done in the same situations, and it’s easy to judge after the fact. But I bet they’re both glad they made their choice.

It’s a topic that came up many times with fellow hikers. One memorable discussion was with a young couple that was carrying a beacon but hadn’t needed to use it. That’s not to say they hadn’t been in trouble (they had) but – and here’s the thing – they found another way to get help. For example, when Helen sprained her ankle going over a stile (it always happens when you least expect it!), rather than using their beacon, they remembered that they’d passed a drag racing event some hours ago. Her boyfriend, Alex, determined not to take what he called “the easy way out” called the organisers, who sent a tractor to scoop them up – quite literally!

But what if they hadn’t had any mobile signal? What then?

For our upcoming road trip, travelling without a PLB is not a risk we’re willing to take again. The country is too big. The trails too remote. The mobile phone coverage too sporadic – even if we are both on Telstra.

That’s why we’ve ordered the SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger. The great thing is it’s not just an emergency beacon – we can also use it to let our family know where we are and that we’re safe.


(Hold tight, here’s where I start to sound like an infomercial!)

And that’s not all. There’s a cool check-in feature that sends a pre-programmed text message to up to 10 contacts, including GPS coordinates, or an email with a link to Google Maps. Say we’ve told our parents we’ll call them at the weekend. Then the weekend comes and the phone doesn’t ring. There’s nothing to worry about – we’ve simply taken a detour for a run. But we can’t tell them we’re okay because we don’t have mobile phone signal. The SPOT Gen 3 lets us send a message to stop them from freaking out and calling the police.

There’s also a feature that means we can get our family to send help if the Old Girl breaks down – scratch that – when the Old Girl breaks down. We love her but, let’s face it, the Old Girl keeps us on our toes. And while that’s all very entertaining in Melbourne where we can call our mates at the RACV, it might lose its shine if we’re stuck in the middle of the desert with no mobile phone reception. I get the feeling we’re going to be bloody glad we bought the SPOT Gen3!

It’s not cheap – the SPOT Gen3 comes in at around $239 for the device (when bought online) plus you pay $US169 for an annual subscription to the satellite messaging service. Sure, you can hire them but we figure it’s a small price to pay if we need help in the middle of nowhere.

Now, I suppose we need to get our butts into gear and actually program the thing before we  set off!

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