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When the Sh@t Hits the Fan – Northwest Horse Source May 2016

NWHSmay2016-1Calling for Help – When the Sh@t Hits the Fan – Getting help when you really need it.

As published in the May 2016 issue of the Northwest Horse Source

It’s scary when a trail ride goes from memorable to eventful. Hurt, scared, and lying on the trail is the wrong place and time to start thinking about how to call for help when you’re beyond the reach of cell phone towers. Fortunately, we now have options that weren’t available a decade ago.

There are two main types of satellite based systems that trail riders can use after backcountry adventures take a life threatening turn and you’re calling for help. The acronyms and brand names are thick and often used interchangeably. They shouldn’t be. Some of the names refer to Satellite Messenger Systems while others refer to Personal Locator Beacons. The two are very different.  Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

  • Personal locator beacons (PLBs): These handheld devices do one thing and one thing only – alert authorities to a wilderness emergency. Think of a PLB as your best last chance for help.
  • Satellite messenger systems (SMS): InReach and spot are innovations in satellite communications. These handheld devices offer backcountry communications; namely the ability to send messages to friends and family as well as call for help.

Deciding whether to rely on a Satellite Messenger System or a Personal Locator Beacon is a big choice. Here’s what you need to know to help you decide which system is best for your needs.

DSCN1375Personal Locator Beacons

PLB’s are the land-based equivalents of the black boxes in boats and planes. These devices are high-powered transmitters of emergency distress signals. A PLB is to be activated only in situations of grave and imminent danger.

  • PLB devices communicate with a network of military satellites that relay your information to an Air Force Rescue Coordination Center who will determine the response necessary and coordinates with emergency services officials to effect your rescue.
  • PLB’s have a higher upfront cost when compared to Satellite Messengers.
  • No Ongoing Fees. Unlike with satellite messengers, Personal Locator Beacons do not require you to pay any recurring subscription fees.
  • PLB’s are equipped with a long-lasting battery designed to last for 5 years. The batteries remain dormant until you activate the PLB and are designed to power the device for 24 hours.
Using a DeLorme InReach in the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex

Using an InReach in the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex

Satellite Messengers

Like PLBs, satellite messengers are handheld satellite communication devices that are useful in backcountry areas far from reliable cell phone coverage. These devices allow you to send text messages and your location coordinates to friends or family so you can report on the status of your trip. They can also send calls for help in an emergency.


  • Satellite Messengers are much less powerful than a PLB. InReach and spot devices have about 0.5 watts of power to push your message to satellites orbiting 1,200 miles overhead.
  • Satellite messengers rely on commercial satellite networks rather than the military network used by PLBs. Emergency calls are routed to privately run coordination centers which then notify local 911 with your GPS location.
  • Satellite Messenger devices usually cost less upfront than a PLB. However, these tools will not work without a paid subscription service. Each manufacturer offers a variety of plan options that will increase your total cost for the unit.
  • Delorme InReach units can send and receive messages from friends and family where the spot device is send only.

SMSchatWhat are your priorities? Messaging, Tracking, or Rescue?

For sending and receiving messages and letting the folks at home follow your route then SMS devices such as the DeLorme InReach are reliable and convenient. If you want the best in SOS functionality, then a PLB is the device to choose.

Both types of devices can summon help where cell phones are useless. For me a satellite messenger is a tool to quell the worries of my better half when I’m out and a PLB is about calling in the troops when the “stuff” really hits the fan.

As always, for more information on this and other topics, as well as the nation’s largest source of horse trail and horse camping information in the U.S. please visit