EPIRB versus Satellite Phone

by Martin G. Schofield
(Oldham, England.)

When travelling on The Great Central Road from Uluru to Perth, which is it more favourable to have with you, EPIRB or Satellite Phone, or would it be advisable to have both?

Response to: EPIRB versus Satellite Phone

Hi again Martin,

Short answer: sat phone.

Ok, here's also an explanation, and some more info for other people who may not even know what you are talking about.

What is an EPIRB?

EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. They are also referred to as distress beacons or emergency beacons.

The EPIRB was actually developed for maritime use, and the correct term for the personal beacons would be PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), but everybody calls them EPIRBs.

These beacons are electronic devices that can be activated in an emergency situation. They then send a distress radio signal that is picked up by satellites and allows rescue teams to locate you. The older beacons can home in on a 20 km radius, newer digital ones get as close as 5 km.

(Anybody thinking about getting one, or people who have older beacons, should read this page:
It compares the older analog beacons that transfer at 121.5 MHz to the newer digital beacons that transfer at 406 MHz. The old beacons will become obsolete in 2009!)
Edit: the above link is obsolete now, too. The page does not exist any more.

Another useful source about EPIRBS is this collection of FAQs.

Do you need an EPIRB?

To travel the Great Central Road? No. Well, it would not have crossed my mind to take one. You are not allowed to even leave that road, so you can't get lost. If you are not lost nobody needs satellite navigation to find you.

Every EPIRB has a sticker that contains the following warning (or something similar): "ONLY USE IN SITUATIONS OF GRAVE AND IMMINENT DANGER"

An EPIRB should be the last line of alert. If available and there is time, you should use use your cell phone, satellite phone, or radio transceiver first. It is actually illegal to activate a beacon, even if you are lost and in trouble, if you are not in grave danger or a life threatening situation. This is not about convenience but about saving lives.

If you do find yourself in an emergency situation, say a medical emergency or a car accident, you can ring someone with a satellite phone. No matter if they come by plane or car, they just need to follow the road to find you, plus you can tell them where approximately you are anyway. If you break down you wait for the next car. You won't wait long.

The only situation where a beacon would be required is if you find yourself in an immediately life threatening situation and your satellite phone fails. (But even then there'll be other traffic...)

You are on a tourist drive. The road is unsealed, the area is remoter than other tourist regions, but it's still a popular tourist drive. You will not be alone out there and you can't get lost. A satellite phone is useful, but I don't see much use for a beacon.

If you wanted to venture into any regions that are not frequented by other tourists, tracks that may not see traffic for days, then a beacon is a definitely handy thing to take for back up. (Phones can fail, batteries can go flat etc...)

I don't want to give the impression that I think beacons are overkill. They save lives. I also don't want to leave the impression that it's not necessary to be well prepared. It is important to be prepared. But it is also important that people understand how beacons are meant to be used.

Out of every 100 alarms only 3 are genuine emergencies... (Some sources put this figure at 2 out of 1000!)

Take a satellite phone, and if you think you may go adventuring somewhere take a beacon as well.

Comments for EPIRB versus Satellite Phone

Click here to add your own comments

Appropriate Uses of EPIRB
by: Kate

My elderly dad has moved to the bush into a small yurt he has had built (a bit against every bodies advice). He refused to get electricity or a land-line phone in so setting up a Personal alarm system is not possible in case of medical emergencies. He has a mobile phone and a neighbor who is not always around. The nearest ambulance is 2km away in a small village (he is accessible by round but last bit is a dirt road). He is frail & unstable on his feet and is probably developing dementia. He wants to purchase and set up an EPIRB system instead. I have a sense from what I have read so far that using an Epirb as a personal alarm in this way is not an appropriate (or even legal) use of this system. But I cannot get clear info about this and I need to find this out for sure before my dad goes ahead purchase an Epirb!! Can you help please?

Locator beacon alternative
by: Maurice

Buy a 'spot' GPS messenger. See www.findmespot.com
3 buttons for activating messages and one for emergency.
You'll know where he is and his status.
$300 TO BUY. $150/yr to operate depending on options purchased.
My son & I go walkabout all over the world separately and mum knows where we both are within 10 minutes of sending our messages.
Not two way but that's not an issue unless we need help and request emergency assistance.

Thank you
by: Lee O'Neill

I've been told by some to get an EPIRB and others a sat phone. I plan on staying on the roads so feel a sat phone will be satisfactory.

Thanks for this explanation, you have made me feel relieved that I've done the right thing.

What to buy
by: Anonymous

I'm single and about to travel to the outback.
I know I will be on the tourist track, but last year when I travelled across the Nullarbor I nearly got bitten by a snake while looking for fire wood.
What emergency beacon should I buy? Sat phone, EPIRB or LPB. I need something that is light weight.
Thank you.

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Australian Outback Travel Questions.

Return to top

Return to Outback Australia Travel Guide home page