YES While a PLB screams for help in an efficient manner--just activate and it sends a distress call--that's all it does. With a satellite phone, on the other hand, you can tell rescuers the nature and seriousness of the situation. Partner comatose from a head injury? Broken back? Bring ropes or you can't reach me? A sat phone lets you communicate all of this and more, even the more embarrassing but equally useful message: Abort the rescue, I found the trail.
Satellite phones have excellent coverage throughout North America and most of the world. I've found signals to be robust everywhere but in narrow canyons and under thick tree cover. The rechargeable batteries last for 2 to 4 hours of talk time and hold a charge for weeks, and the phones are easily protected with a waterproof, padded case.
Basic sat phones rent for $20 to $50 a week and sell for as little as $325. When travelling with a sat phone, you must know or preprogram the relevant local phone numbers (911 doesn't work), but you can also call home and have friends or relatives contact the authorities.
I'm not knocking PLBs as a emergency resource in remote, ultra-committing situations. If you'll be camping in 40°F temps or treading salt water until help arrives, get a PLB. For everything else, I'll opt for the two-way communication of a sat phone.
Steve Howe is BACKPACKER's Rocky Mountain editor. He spends about 120 nights a year in a tent as far away from civilization as he can get.
NO You might never have heard of Aron Ralston if he had carried a PLB, a device unavailable in the United States at the time of his accident. That's because he would likely have been rescued within hours of getting his arm jammed.
When activated, a PLB sends a distress call and location data via two separate satellite systems to the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Langley, VA. From there, your exact location goes to local rescuers. If you registered your PLB, they can quickly access your emergency contact and trip info. The result: Rescuers can be on their way long before you'd be reported missing or a partner can hike out for help.
PLBs are lighter and less fragile than satellite phones. They're waterproof, the batteries last 5 to 10 years, and you don't have to identify your exact location to rescuers. Most importantly, PLBs are more reliable, because they put out a much stronger signal that can punch through dense forest canopy or bounce off canyon walls. Plus, a PLB only needs to "see" a satellite for about 50 seconds to put out an SOS, whereas a sat phone needs to maintain contact throughout a call.
Cost is the main deterrent. PLB units currently go for $500 and up, or you can rent one for $49 a week (plbrentals.com).
The bottom line: A sat phone may save your life; a PLB will save your life.
Doug Ritter is editor of Equipped To Survive and executive director of the nonprofit Equipped To Survive Foundation (equipped.org).