The Personal Locator Beacon PLB Guide

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McMurdo Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon Review

McMurdo Fast Find 210Ok, so I’ve written a tremendous amount about personal locator beacons without really getting to the heart of the matter. Though the warnings centering on misuse and the stories covering personal locator beacons in the news should not be overlooked, I know many of you come here specifically for recommendations on which PLB you should buy. I’m always hesitant in this regard because I don’t want to play corporate favoritism. The message there is that you should read several product reviews here (I’ll be adding more soon) and make your own informed decision.

Perhaps the biggest flaw with personal locator beacons (aside from user abuse) is that they are often considered cost prohibitive. With models running anywhere up to $500 or $800, potential customers often find themselves turned off. After all, it’s a heck of a financial outlay for an item you might NEVER have to use. That’s certainly one way to look at it but one should also consider how little money that is in terms of saving a life.

We’ll save the debate over rational purchases for a later post. What matters now is that I’m acknowledging that, relative to all the other outdoor gear you may want to buy, $500+ is a lot of money to invest in something that might never do more than occupy pack space. And that’s where the McMurdo Fast Find 210 personal locator beacon comes to the rescue.

The McMurdo Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon does a lot to overcome the sticker shock many prospective PLB purchasers face by offering a very good product for only $299.00 (retail). Of course that might lead some of you to wonder if this PLB is a cheap undependable model. Don’t worry. Though it could use some improvement, the McMurdo Fast Find 210 addresses most of the important elements at a much more affordable price than some of its competitors.

Let’s review this PLB in a pros and cons approach so you can decide for yourself.

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What’s Good about the McMurdo Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon

Price – As already mentioned, the Fast Find 210 retails for around $299.00. What I haven’t already noted is that this is your bottom line price. Period. There are no hidden subscription fees associated with this PLB. Does that make this the cheapest personal locator beacon available? Maybe, but by the time I write this I’m sure there will be a competitor out there slashing their prices or designing a new, lower-cost model so I won’t bother making that claim. What I will commit to is that there’s generally a reverse correlation between price and size in electronics. The more compact the electronics, the more you usually have to pay. Yet the Fast Find PLB bucks the trend here by offering a very compact device at what can at least be described as one of the lowest priced personal locator beacons out there.

Subscription – There is none. While some of you might recognize that there’s a potential downside there such as the lack of “concierge” services some subscription based PLBs offer, I consider the absence of additional yearly or monthly fees a good thing. God forbid I accidentally let my subscription lapse, after all. The good news is that you can register your Fast Find 210 with NOAA free of charge. The 210 transmits an identification code with the distress signal which rescuers can cross-reference against your registration information to identify you and to reach family contacts you’ve designated.

GPS Functional – Yes. The Fast Find 210 comes with 50-Channel GPS. For those of you who are unfamiliar with GPS as it relates to personal locator beacons, please read my earlier post – How Do Personal Locator Beacons Work – to ensure you understand what GPS in a PLB really does. You’ll find it in the sub-heading – What Information Does My PLB Provide to Search And Rescue Services? Just a hint, it won’t help you find a nearby restaurant. As for its importance, I wouldn’t buy a personal locator beacon that didn’t help narrow the search for me. GPS is, in my book, an essential feature.

Battery Life – The McMurdo Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon comes with an integral lithium battery rated at a 5 year life. That’s the good news. There are some downsides we’ll come back to later.

Size – The McMurdo Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon is advertised as the “Smallest, lightest PLB on the market.” Generally speaking, the smaller a piece of electronics, the more you wind up paying for it so this is really a pleasant surprise. It’s worth noting that being the smallest personal locator beacon is only a positive if you don’t lose or misplace it. In my book, every ounce I can save when I’m hiking is a good thing.

Simplicity – I give this PLB high points for ease of use. To activate it you first remove the antenna cover (see my comment in the negatives section of this post on this one thing), unwrap the antenna into a vertical position and press the prominent “ON” button. Easy as pie. Of course, as with any satellite device, you must ensure a clear overhead environment when you use it. That isn’t anything specific to the Fast Find 210, but a simple fact of life when you’re trying to signal satellites orbiting miles above the planet.

Additional Positive Features – This PLB also includes an LED strobe that flashes in an SOS pattern. It’s the kind of feature that can mean a lot for night time search and rescue. In addition to transmitting on a 406Mhz standard, the McMurdo Fast Find 210 also transmits a 121.5Mhz “beacon” signal similar to an avalanche beacon which will help rescuers pinpoint your location onsite.

So you can see that this little personal locator beacon packs just about everything you could want in its tiny body. But it isn’t all roses and pie. As mentioned, there is some room for improvement.

What’s Wrong with the McMurdo Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon

Waterproofing – Of all my concerns, this is where the Fast Find 210 falls down the hardest. First of all, it doesn’t float. Granted, you should be using the lanyard attachment to keep it secure to your pack or body, but things break and accidents happen so I’d rather be chasing a floating beacon down stream than having to dive in and hunt for it in 15 feet of freezing, murky water (particularly if my emergency involves any kind of injury).

Worse than the fact that your personal locator beacon might sink, is that you have only 5-60 minutes to find it (depending on depth) if it does take a spill into the drink. The included documentation warns you of 5 minutes submersion at 33ft and up to an hour for 5 feet or less. I once dropped my favorite knife in a river. It took 2 hours to find it. Had it been a Fast Find 210, it may well have been rendered useless by the bath. Given the option, I’d like this PLB more if it advertised better water endurance.

A final element surrounding waterproofing requires you understand something about signaling. In order for a PLB to signal a satellite, you have to eliminate overhead obstruction. That means trees, caves and, yes, even water. Though not designed specifically for marine use, the fact that this thing will sink means that you don’t even have an option to use it in a water emergency unless you’re comfortable treading water with one hand while holding the beacon above water with the other for extended periods of time. Granted, it isn’t a marine PLB, but I spend my fair share of time moving from camp site to camp site in a kayaak so I’d really be more comfortable knowing this thing COULD work in water (without me having to hold it verticle with the antenna out of the water the whole time myself) in the unlikely situation that I might need it to.

Battery – I mentioned this one already as a pro but warned there was a downside too. Specifically, the Fast Find 210 advertises a 5 year battery life but only a 24 hour transmit life. Though that’s acceptable, it could be better. I’d prefer to see 48 hours given how often rescues are delayed by weather. It’s entirely plausible that I could be stuck in a snow cave beyond this device’s 24 hour transmit life. Of course, a shortened transmit time is only a natural extension of making this thing small so you’re kind of accepting that as a tradeoff.

Another downside on the battery issue is that it is integral. That means you have to send the unit back to the manufacturer to have the battery replaced. Now, while that’s a bit of a nuisance, there is a silver lining to consider too 1) letting the manufacturer handle the battery replacement means that what little water resistance the McMurdo Fast Find 210 does offer won’t be compromised by clumsy amateur hands 2) the device will get a professional once-over to ensure it is in good shape and good working order.

Antenna – In giving this product positive points for ease of use, I mentioned there was a downside. Step one requires stripping off the antenna cover. The unfortunate thing is, once done, you can’t replace it yourself. For that you have to ship it off to the manufacturer which, to my thinking, is a frustratingly needless hassle.

McMurdo Fast Find 210 Personal Locator Beacon Review Summary

All in all, the McMurdo Fast Find 210 personal locator beacon gets a lot of things right. For size and weight, in fact, it is largely unbeatable. It provides two types of signals and GPS coordinates to rescuers as well as a light signal which meet all my needs when it comes to expediting search and rescue efforts. It’s 24 hour minimum transmit time (temperatures will do a lot to dictate what you can really hope for) and the less than perfect water resistance bring it down a bit as does it’s dependency on manufacturer intervention for 2 separate features (battery and antenna cover replacement). Ultimately, for the money, it is still a fantastic deal and worth considering for anybody interested in the comfort and security a personal locator beacon offers without the painful cost often associated with owning one.