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Tips for Using an Emergency Beacon in the Backcountry

Life is unpredictable and, despite your best preparation for a hike, you may get into trouble. If you do, having a device that can call for rescue may save your life, or the life of someone else.

By Jessi Loerch

When you head out on trail, it’s always good to be prepared.

Have the Ten Essentials, know how to use them and always tell someone you trust where you are going and when you’ll be back. But life is unpredictable and, despite your best preparation, you may get into trouble. If you do, having a device that can call for rescue may save your life, or the life of someone else. 

At WTA, we send our trail maintenance crew leaders out with emergency beacons, although we hope to never have to use them. An emergency beacon is just one part of the puzzle for staying safe when adventuring outdoors. We send all of our crew leaders out with first-aid training, as well as the essentials to stay safe in a variety of conditions.

With that in mind, you might consider adding a beacon to your gear. But what kind should you get? There are two main types of devices that will allow you to call for help when out of cell phone range. Which you decide on will depend upon your needs.

A prominently displayed SPOT device hangs off of a backpack. A tent and some campers are out of focus in the background.
A carabiner can be used to attach your emergency beacon to the outside of a backpack for easy access. Photo courtesy SPOT.

Personal locator beacons: emergency use only

    • Emergency use only devices have — you guessed it — one purpose. They allow you to send a signal requesting help. You press a button that sends a signal with your location, and that information is routed to potential rescuers. There’s no two-way communication. 
    • They do not require a subscription.
    • They use a global satellite network and can pinpoint your location extremely accurately. However, just because the beacon can contact a satellite doesn’t mean you will definitely be rescued. Other factors, like where you are in the world, play into that. 
    • If you call for rescue in the United States, your information will be routed to a search and rescue near your location.  
    • Some models have bright lights, which can help rescuers pinpoint your location. 
    • They have batteries that will last for years if not activated. Batteries have to be replaced by a dealer after a set period of time or if the device is used.  
    • Examples of emergency only devices include the ACR ResQLink and the Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1.

A hiker stands calmly holding a SPOT device in their hand and overlooking a rocky hillside.
Photo courtesy SPOT.

Satellite messengers: for emergencies and communication

    • These devices have more than one purpose. In addition to signaling for help, they allow you to send, and sometimes receive, messages. In some cases, you can also use a satellite messenger to communicate directly with possible rescuers, to give them additional information beyond your location.
    • They require a subscription. Plans vary in price and may require an activation fee.
    • Some include GPS and navigation features. Some will also provide information such as weather forecasts. 
    • Some have an option for tracking and can send your location to your contacts. 
    • Include rechargeable batteries. (For long trips, you might need a battery backup.) 
    • Use private satellite networks — if you’re traveling outside the U.S., you should check to see where the device you are considering can be used. In the U.S., calls are routed to a central center, which will coordinate with search and rescue near you. 
    • Some messengers pair with a cellphone via bluetooth, making various features easier to use. 
    • Examples of satellite messengers include the Garmin inReach Mini, Garmin inReach Explorer, SPOT Gen 4 and Bivystick Blue.
An outstretched arm holds a small Garmin device in their palm, with a scenic desert expanse beyond them.
Emergency devices has become incredibly compact over the years. Photo courtesy Garmin.


Whatever device you have, be sure to register it. That will provide potential rescuers with the information they need about you, such as medical conditions, as well as your emergency contacts’ information.

Before you leave, prepare your emergency contacts with the information they will need. Ideally, the person who is an emergency contact on your device will also have the relevant information about your trip: where you were going, who you were with, etc. 

Remember that rescues take time. If you know you need rescue, don’t wait to call for help. If, for instance, you are lost, don’t wait until you are out of food and water to send a signal. While of course beacons are only for emergency use, they only work if you use them. Calling sooner gives rescuers more time to reach you and get you the help you need.

If you need to use your device, try to get a clear view of the sky. It will be harder to get a signal if your view of the sky is blocked by cliffs or heavy foliage. If possible, move to a more open area.

If you use the device for someone else not in your party, stay with that person. If you move with your device, you could confuse rescuers. 

If you have a satellite messenger, consider your present messages. In case you have to use your device to call for help, you could use those messages to easily give your contacts back home some information. Potential messages:

  • Pressing SOS for myself. More info to come when possible.
  • Pressing SOS for someone in my party. I am fine. 
  • Pressing SOS for someone not in my party. I am fine.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.