There are many companies that have Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) approved by COSPAS/SARSAT, but there are only a few that are trying to market PLBs to the average back country hunter, hiker or adventurer. In the U.S, that segment of the PLB market is dominated by ACR and McMurdo. (ACR Electronics Inc. cooperates with Cobham Beacon Solutions and McMurdo is owned by Orolia Limited, which also owns Kannad).
McMurdo was first on the PLB market in the U.S. with the small FastFind unit and was also first with the FastFind 210 GPS unit that sold for around $250. ACR quickly brought the ACR ResQLink to the market that nearly matched the FastFind for price and is currently the smallest available PLB. ACR offers other PLB models that are slightly larger, but have more transmitting power and can transmit for a longer period of time, but also cost a bit more. The Fast Find 210 has now been replaced by the Fast Find 220.
Which PLB is Best, McMurdo Fast Find or ACR?
So which is best? All of the PLB models in the table have approved by COSPAS/SARSAT, the FCC (U.S.),Canada and RTTE (Europe), so each approved model can do all of the following:
- communicate with the COSPAS/SARSAT satellite rescue system
- transmit your GPS location and your personal information
- has GPS accuracy less than 100 meters with clear view of the sky
- transmit emergency signals for at least 24 hours
- simultaneously transmits on local SAR frequency (121.5 MHz @ 50 mW +/-3dB)
- function in very cold temperatures -4°F (-20°C)
- function at high elevation
- has 5 year lithium batteries (the batteries will probably last much longer, but are conservatively guaranteed for 5 years)
- Self-testing of circuitry, battery and 406 MHz transmission
The table below shows how the McMurdo Fast Find and the four ACR PLB models do differ and includes current prices (as of July 2012) at both Amazon and REI.
McMurdo FastFind and ACR PLB Comparison Chart
Evaluation of McMurdo Fast Find vs ACR ResQLINK
The top choice for a small, simple inexpensive PLB with GPS in the U.S and Canada is either the McMurdo FastFind 220 or the ACR ResQLINK. At just under $250, the FastFind is still a little cheaper, but not by much. The ResQLINK is slightly smaller and lighter. Both units transmit at 5 watts, but the ACR beats the McMurdo for emergency transmit time with 30 hours instead of the guaranteed 24 hours. I am not sure this matters too much if you have an open view of the sky (read more about worse cast PLB testing).
ACR also has 66 channel GPS instead of McMurdo’s 50. I have read conflicting information about how many GPS channels are really needed. Some say that even 50 is overkill since there are only 32 GPS satellites in orbit and that the higher numbers are just for sales purposes. But others that seem to know what they are talking about say that more GPS channels are better because more channels makes satellite acquisition faster, reduces power consumption, improves 3D fix in canyons and forest and improves overall GPS accuracy. So, if all things were equal, I would choose more GPS channels.
ACR 2014 Summer Promotional Rebate
The Rebate has passed. We bought the McMurdo FastFind 210 about three years ago for about $250 when the least expensive ACR was closer to $400. If I were buying a PLB unit today, I might choose the ACR ResQLink.
Do You Want More than a Basic PLB?
If you are looking for a PLB with more options than the basic PLBs, your options will be for 35 hours of emergency transmission time and 6.3 watts of power instead of 5 watts. If so, your choice would be ACRs SarLink PLB unit. For the extra 5 hours of transmit time and the extra power, the cost will be about $100 more.
ACR 406 Link Non-Emergency Testing and Messaging Service
ACR also offers both the AquaLink and SarLink as View Models, which includes a display screen and the option that includes non-emergency email options with a subscription through their 406 Link service.
For $39.95 per year, you can use the 406 Link Basic service to test your PLBs connection to the satellite system and receive an email or text message confirming that you have a good connection. You can test your connection 420 times. You can also test your GPS 60 times.
So to make sure this is clear, the self test of your connection to the satellites is to be done before you get into the back country, otherwise, you would never receive the email.
For $59.95 per year, you can use the 406 Plus service which in addition to the testing service, also includes the ability to send a pre-programmed “I’m OK” type message to at least 5 email addresses or phones. You can also send your location data so that your contacts can view your location on a map.
The view screen on the ACR AquaLink and SarLink View models displays a continual stream of data informing you that the PLB is active, the GPS is active, it confirms that the 406 signal has been sent and that the GPS location has been sent. It also confirms that the local SAR 121.5 signal is active. I also alternately shows your GPS coordinates. The screen also reminds you to keep the PLB unit in an upright position and to keep the antenna clear so the GPS location can be acquired. It also reminds to to leave the unit on until you are rescued.
It is important to know that the ACR AquaLink and SarLink View models displays all self test data (circuit, battery, 406 signal and GPS self testing) on the view screen without subscribing to 406 service. Both the ACR AquaLink and SarLink View models used to cost about $500, but are now around $350.
McMurdo Fast Find 210 with GPS PLB Review
When my niece broke her leg in a snow machine accident, we didn’t have a PLB. But we bought one almost immediately. We bought a McMurdo Fast Find 210 with GPS for about $250 (No monthly service fee). We were tempted to wait because the prices of PLBs have continued to decrease, but decided that would be foolish.
Think of it as an insurance policy that costs $50 per year for five years. If we need help, help will come.
How much would you pay to send an SOS signal if you had a broken leg five miles from your truck? Especially if nobody knows exactly where you are.
How To Use The McMurdo Fast Find PLB
The McMurdo 210 (now 220) with GPS is a small, simple device. It does not have any frills, such as display screens or messaging ability, but it is capable of connecting with the SARSAT satellite system and sending your location and your personal information (if your PLB is registered). So SAR will know who you are and where you are and will have your personal contact information.
The battery is supposed to be good for five years (our battery expires May 2016), so we plan on sending the unit back to McMurdo for new batteries after the 2015/2016 hunting season. But who knows what will be available then. Both PLBs and SENDs will be much more advanced and probably cost even less and custom messaging options may be very affordable.
We take it with us every where we suspect we will be in areas without cell service and I know my wife feels better knowing I have the PLB with me when I am out hunting alone. She is my lifeline, so when its two hours after sunset and I still haven’t found cell service she doesn’t have to think about calling Search and Rescue. I also have a little more flexibility because I know she’s not worrying or calling SAR.
If you Hunt, Fish or Hike in the Backcountry, You Need a Personal Locator Beacon
If you are thinking about getting a PLB, then you obviously need one, so quit thinking about it and buy one.
If you already have one, make sure it is registered.
Why not make sure that you help the Search and Rescue people take the “Search” part out of the equation?
You can read more about what PLBs are and what they are not, how they work and why you should have one on our PLB information page.