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Your beacon, be it a PLB or EPIRB, is a key piece of safety equipment to have with you when you’re exploring the great outdoors – whether on the water, or on land.

An emergency beacon, also known as an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), is a great tool to be able to communicate where other devices can’t. When set off in an emergency, it’s used to alert the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) in Wellington by sending coded signals via satellite and ground stations.

If you’re going out of cellphone or VHF range, a beacon might be your best lifeline if you get into trouble. It’s a ‘one touch’ way of sending out your location in an emergency.

To be clear, both work exactly the same way – but there are key differences between the two.

PLBs are small, light and designed to fit in your pocket, on your lifejacket or perfectly in your grab bag. Great for hiking, hunting, mountain biking or for confined boat cabins – if you have a smaller boat, this is the beacon for you. For bar crossings we would recommend that you use a waterproof PLB that is carried on you as opposed to an EPRIB, as you may end up in the water with little or no time to grab the beacon.

  • Minimum 24-hour battery life
  • Manually activated
  • Flexibility to take it with you and use in a range of conditions, as it’s not mounted.
  • Registered to a person
  • Some have GPS capability

Waterproof versions are the way to go, especially for boaties or if you’re using them near rivers. Having one that floats is also ideal, but not all come these features so it’s worth checking. 

An EPIRB, while being slightly larger in nature, is designed specifically for the marine environment so is perfect for all types of private and recreational vessels. It's also a required safety device for commercial vessels.

  • Fully waterproof and designed for a marine environment
  • Designed to float upright and can be easily mounted to the vessel
  • Minimum 48-hour battery life (twice as long as a PLB)
  • Registered to a vessel, not a person
  • You can choose between a manual- and an automatic-activation version
  • Some versions will self-deploy should the vessel sink
  • You can get versions with additional optional extras such as a strobe light which we’d highly recommend

While most modern EPIRBs have built-in GPS capability (allowing the RCCNZ to accurately locate you to +/- 50 metres), some don’t – we highly recommend getting yourself sorted with a GPS version as it greatly reduces that time it takes to find the location of your beacon.

TIP: Make sure your EPIRB is under 10 years old. This not only ensures the battery is still in good condition, but also that it transmits on the 406MHz rather than the older (and now only occasionally monitored) 121.5 MHz band.

When boating, EPIRBSs are best kept in the mounted bracket that they come with somewhere that’s visible and easy to access when you get into trouble.

If your beacon is designed to self-deploy, it needs to be mounted in such a position that it can float free from your boat should you run into trouble.

If you’re on land, then your PLB is best physically carried on your body or within arm’s reach – some hikers have found out the hard way when their packs (containing the PLB) have been swept away by raging rivers.

If you’re taking your PLB on the boat, most are small enough to fit on your lifejacket or in a pocket. You could also pop it in a grab bag along with flares, a torch and other key safety equipment - just make sure it's close by so you can grab it if you need to. 

FIND OUT:  What other safety gear should I have?

Stow your beacon in an easy to access location where it’s not likely to be damaged or switched on by mistake. In boats, a great place is in your grab bag or mounted to an easily-accessed surface.

Test the beacon in between the manufacturer's recommended maintenance and battery replacement cycles (roughly every eight years). Your beacon will have a self-test capability to ensure it’s ready to go.

If you were to switch it on by mistake give us a call on 0800 BOATIE so that we can advise RCCNZ immediately. You can test your beacon without needing to notify RCCNZ.

Check that the battery is always within the expiry date as all 406MHz beacons have a limited battery life to meet the requirements for the minimum operating time once activated.

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