SPOT-trackers vs PLBs.

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  • #15694 Reply
    Margaret Craigie

    Just wondering if anyone has an opinion as to the advantages or disadvantages of a SPOT-tracker over a PLB. Weight, waterproofability, available functions etc, I’m all ears!
    Margaret Craigie

    #18806 Reply
    Pete G

    My short take:

    PLB’s don’t require a subscription but only should be set off in an emergency. Very good coverage and set up internationally to work and equipment is tested to standards so should be reliable.

    Spot trackers, require subscription as run by private company. Don’t provide direct emergency link to the RCC in New Zealand – Someone in the States has to ring someone to let them know you are in trouble. Does provide optional messaging capability and tracking of movements so your journey can be tracked over the course of your trip.

    Both types of units should be suitable for outdoor use, so don’t worry too much about that. Pick which options you want / desire and buy the product of your choosing.

    #18807 Reply

    Hi Margaret.

    No strong opinion, but as Pete said I think it depends on what you want to do with it.

    If there’s another person whom you want to keep updated about where you are, so they can feel better or if you like broadcasting what you’re doing real-time on Facebook or elsewhere, and as long as you don’t mind paying the regular service subscription on top of the device cost, then a SPOT’s great. They also let you send the pre-programmed messages, like “I’m OK” or “Collect me from somewhere else”, which can be useful. In case of an emergency you’d probably be at least comparable reception-wise as someone with a satphone or mountain radio, though you’d not have the two-way communication. Pete’s correct that emergency calls go through a centre in Texas. Everything I’ve heard is that it’s very reliable when it gets a message, though, and the officials in NZ know enough about SPOT to not be confused when they get a call.

    Keep in mind that there are black spots. SPOT connects through the Globalstar network, for which all satellites stay within 52N and 52S, so you definitely need to have a view of the sky to within 52 degrees of the celestial equator to have a hope of getting a signal out. And if you could only just see the edge of that you’d be lucky. This is usually a large portion of the sky, but if you’re stuck in a gorge or next to a steep hill-side facing south, it might be a while for a satellite to fly over, and in a few cases that might never happen. They’re also low-orbit, so although there are 52 satellites, most will be below the horizon at most times, and each individual satellite will zoom over its arc in the visible sky in a matter of minutes—you can get an idea of how quickly individual low-orbit satellites pass over if you keep an eye open for them in early evening (or late morning) when they’re lit up in the night sky by the Sun. On the other hand, anyone searching, after you’ve been reported overdue, will probably still have most of your track to work with, as long as you’ve arranged for your trusted contact to know where to find it so they can hand it over.

    For a serious emergency like a head injury, heart attack, possible secondary drowning… the sort of thing where someone might be dead within hours or sooner if they don’t get help, a SPOT’s probably going to work as well as anything might but if forced to choose with such high stakes I’d definitely prefer to be activating a PLB. They go through the Cospas-Sarsat system which has 5 high-orbit satellites in geostationary positions above the equator and another 6 low-polar-orbit satellites to cover everywhere else on Earth. On the off-chance that the device can’t see one of the equatorial satellites, which will be visible on the celestial equator most of the time, it’s very likely that one of the others will zoom over in its polar orbit within a few hours. The obvious down-side is that a PLB is really nothing more than a brick when you don’t have an emergency. There are lots of people out there spending $400-$500 who will never use what they’re buying.

    Anyway, if I had a SPOT for other reasons then I’m not sure I’d bother also carrying a PLB, but as I don’t personally care about the other reasons for having a SPOT, and don’t want to be tied to a subscription, I’ve gone with a PLB.

    Another one you could also consider, more along the SPOT way of thinking, is a DeLorme inReach. I don’t know much about them, so see if you can find out how they go in NZ before you consider them too seriously.

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