GPS Tracking – Spot vs Delorme vs PLB

Spot vs Delorme vs PLB

SPOT Gen 3

DeLorme inReach ExplorerACR ResQLink

Over the past 10-15 years, Gen Y and a few Baby Boomers have taken to the mountains, to the sea and everywhere in between seeking adventure and freedom from the doldrums of their daily desk jobs. Of course, this caused a spur in the portable electronics market leading to a plethora of “must have” outdoor devices including portable solar panels, micro-sized video cameras and of course GPS tracking and locating units. Oh, and lets not forget, the cell phone has become so ubiquitous that every secret spot now has been geo tagged and “selfied” for all to see. But I digress.

If you’re into adventure, certainly by now you’ve heard of one of these locating/tracking devices and you probably either own one or have considered the purchase of one (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this). Well, lately I’ve been considering buying one myself and since I plan to get into some deep back-country in 2015, I thought it was time to take a moment and share the findings from a few years of research and some personal experience.

So what’s the difference between these devices and how do they work? Well, let’s start with the lesser-known unit, the PLB.

Personal Locating Beacon

When PLBs were introduced many years ago they were very cost prohibitive. Spending $1000 or more for one of these devices was not uncommon. However, if you owned a sailboat or piloted a light aircraft, this was not an “optional’ decision. Extreme mountaineering folk have also been using these for a long while as well.

So how do they work? When activated, PLBs send out a 406 MHz signal that both NOAA and ARFCC monitor. Your global position is then identified by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites and forwarded to ground crews to organize your rescue. Many of the newer PLBs even include a GPS chip that allows your precise location to be sent along with your PLB distress signal. This can reduce the recovery process by more than half the normal time. In addition, a secondary 121.5 MHz signal is sent that allows ground crews to track you down to a 100m circle, further reducing time and cost.

Imagine this scenario: You’re out hiking with some friends in Utah, maybe 10 miles out when one of your group trips and breaks a leg. Realizing he or she can’t be carried out and is going to need evacuation, you reach for your PLB… Oh wait, you don’t own a PLB. Of course you don’t, up until just a couple years ago, PLBs were still over $800. Enter the Spot and Delorme.

Enter the SPOT

SPOT uses the Globalstar satellite system to locate you and their proprietary GEOS system on land to relay this information to rescue ground crews. The Delorme, on the other hand, uses the Iridium satellite system and then relays info to ground crews. Prices for each range from $170-300. However, in addition to the upfront cost of the unit, you will need to supply additional cash each month for the mandatory “subscription”. Unfortunately, this subscription is required to enable the alerting of rescue teams if needed; however, both SPOT and the newer Delorme device offer a couple other features as part of their service, including… messaging!

Both the SPOT and the Delorme offer the ability to send text messages to preset recipients. The Delorme goes one step further and can interface with your smartphone’s contacts and allow for two-way texting if the satellite signal is strong enough. In addition, both devices can allow you to be “tracked” online, live, so that your global position can be shared with friends or family members if they have a computer and an internet connection.

So, these devices aren’t just for emergencies like the trusty PLBs, they’re designed to allow you to let your family know you’re a bit slow on the trail today and might not be back in time for dinner, kiss the kids goodnight.

The downside to the SPOT is that there is no way to know if your intended recipient has received your message. The Delorme, on the other hand, has a small screen to show you the message was indeed received and of course to read your incoming messages should any be sent. It is likely, however, that SPOT will release a new version with this 2-way feature soon, so stay tuned.

Hero of the Day 

So, back to our story. You reach for your Spot or your Delorme because of course you brought one; $200 is a low price to pay for peace of mind. You press the rescue button and within 2 hours help arrives and airlifts your pal to safety. You are the hero of the day.

Could you have achieved the same result with a PLB? Yes! Now that the price of a PLB has come down to under $300 with no monthly fees, PLBs are looking like a pretty good bet – especially for those of us not interested in sending “I’m Okay” messages.

But many of these weekend warriors aren’t really looking for a PLB, they’re simply looking to “get out of town”. They’re the type of folks that stick to the trails and follow the signs. Thankfully, this is the majority. But for us Cross Country pilots, this is not an option. Landing “out” may be just what the doctor ordered… Real Adventure!

What happens though, when you land out with a broken ankle or you experience a hard fall on a sharp rock and break your back? While these are the rare, but potentially deadly situations that we do our best to avoid, if you do find yourself in one of these unfortunate situations, it’s time to call for help.

If your friends are close by and your ground grew has been following your SPOT or Delorme tracking beacon, you may be fine, but if you’re alone, without friends around, you’ll either have to self-rescue or trust your device. With a signal power up to 10 times that of a SPOT or Delorme device and a secondary locating beacon to hone in on your exact position, I’m going with the PLB.

Check REI or your local sporting goods supply store for a SPOT or PLB today and stay tuned for the next post covering “Rescue Insurance” and how to avoid paying thousands of dollars if you ever have to call for help.

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1 comment

  1. Great Article thanks for posting

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