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.

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.

My family followed my progress on the webpage and could see I was moving along my pre-planned route.
My family followed my progress on the webpage and could see I was moving along my pre-planned route.

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.