Trampers, climbers, backcountry skiers and hunters going off-track or deep into the bush or mountains should carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) that works on the 406MHz range. It’s a single-function device that calls a search and rescue (SAR) team if it all goes horribly wrong.
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But for less extreme wandering beyond the “grid”, that is out of mobile phone range but within reach of civilisation, a device like the Spot Gen3 satellite GPS messenger could be the perfect companion to keep loved ones informed of your location and well-being.
The Spot Gen3 is not a PLB. It uses a privately owned set of satellites and transmits with less power – it isn’t as reliable under tree cover or mountain valleys. It does have an SOS feature, which goes to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, a company in the US, who forward it to local emergency services. It’s a good backup, but not something to rely on in life-and-death situations in the middle of nowhere.
However, the Spot has some useful functions a PLB doesn’t – live location tracking and non-emergency messaging. An annual subscription is required to enable these functions and the GEOS SOS. The device is a one-way communicator that sends but can’t receive. It can transmit a signal with your GPS location every 10 minutes, which can be viewed on Google Maps in real-time via a dedicated webpage or on an iPhone/Android app. It has buttons for sending pre-defined “check-in” and “custom” messages to a list of email address and mobile phones. Another button sends a “help” message asking friends or family for assistance – an SOS for non-life-threatening situations. The “help” and “SOS” buttons are hidden behind covers, so they can’t be accidentally activated.
Power comes from four AA-sized lithium batteries or a 5V USB input. Tracking signals are motion activated to save battery when stationary. Spot claims batteries will last for more than eight days of continuous tracking.
I used the Spot Gen 3 on an all-day bicycle trip around the remote coastline from Wellington to the Wairarapa and back over the Rimutaka Incline rail trail. The Spot is a little bulky and needs an uninterrupted view of the sky, which limits where it can be mounted. I strapped it to my handlebar with the supplied velcro strap and carabiner. It is waterproof (IPX7) and rated for temperatures between -30 and 60°C. While my ride included rain and hail, it didn’t quite reach those extremes.
The tracking function worked well. My family followed my progress on the webpage and could see I was moving along my pre-planned route and knew roughly when I’d get home. Apart from the peace of mind of the SOS alert, that’s really what I wanted this device to do. When I got home, I noticed three areas where my tracking signal didn’t get sent – where I either passed through dense tree cover or underneath high cliffs. But with a tracking signal being sent every 10 minutes, my progress could still be followed. On my ride, I also sent a check-in message, which got through to a pre-defined email address and mobile phone number within 10 minutes.
The Spot Gen3 indicates when it is on and has a GPS fix. LEDs also show when it is sending tracking signals and messages. The buttons need a firm press to operate, but are easy to use with gloves on. Once turned on and set to track, there is little interaction with the device – it just does its thing unless you need to send a message or call for help. Fortunately, I didn’t need to test the SOS call-out.
Price: $299, plus subscription to tracking service (US$165/year).
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By Paul Smith.