Over the past year I have had some contact with a new satellite messenger called SPOT //www.findmespot.com). It is not a true PLB as I have found no information that would indicate it transmits on the analog SAR frequencies but it does have some very interesting characteristics that held my attention long enough to decide to try it.
First a little back story. In November of 2007 I purchased a Terrafix 406 from ACR. This is a very high quality GPS integrated PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). One of the industries best. I paid nearly $700.00 for it (and it’s worth every penny). In January of 2008 SPOT came out with their satellite messenger (not an emergency PLB) for around $150.00. Wow that’s much easier on the budget – what’s the catch? There’s a yearly subscription that runs between $99.00 and $160.00 per year depending on which options you choose. Granted, that’s just over ten bucks a month, but it can sting a bit when you pay it in one lump sum. What you get for that subscription is a very interactive way to keep track of where you are. It offers you the ability to check in with people you have listed on your account, offers the ability to send a general request for help, as well as a 911 message to local authorities and SAR teams. The additional costs are for rescue insurance (about $8.00) that will cover up to $100,000.00 in rescue costs (that you hopefully never need) and a tracking option where it will send a blip about every ten minutes that is viewable on a web page provided by SPOT so others can track your progress. This is the other $50.00.
I have had it about a year and I have been fairly impressed. It links directly with satellites – no cell service needed so it works even in the most remote back country or even on the water (it is waterproof to IPX 7 standards and even floats). I have had good communication for the most part. It does require a reasonable view of the sky (around 30 degrees) so if your GPS doesn’t get a signal, neither will SPOT. This is the main difference between this and a true PLB. A PLB signal goes out no matter what. As I live in AZ, I have yet to see how SPOT does under cloud cover. I guess I’ll have to wait for the next monsoon season… I have had less than spectacular results with this while Canyoneering, but in all fairness to the device, it was never really intended for this kind of environment. The only downside to this is I would not get satellite communication to signal for help should it be needed. However if I send my “I’m ok” message before I enter the canyon (which I always do), then those concerned can look at the website and see where this message was sent. This will give them a pretty good idea of where to start their search should I become over due. Those who would contact authorities would also know me well enough to tell them to find the deepest, darkest hole or crevice and start looking there.
The interactivity of Spot is what I like the best. On my ACR unit, I won’t ever pull it out unless I need it. And then it’s only when the situation is truly dire. SPOT lets me tell people when I get to my destination, track where I am, and even to ask for assistance if I need to without a full scale rescue. There have been many rescues credited with this device but it’s no substitute for a knowledgeable companion, proper preparation, and letting someone know where you’re going and how long you intend to be gone. If you feel you will be placing yourself in truly risky circumstances where an accident would leave you in a place where you’re not likely to be found until rising water levels from Global Warming float your bones and backpack to the nearest beach, you may want to consider purchasing or renting a bonified PLB.
The only other draw back to this unit is it requires Lithium Ion batteries only. If you are using the tracking feature, you can expect them to last about 24 total hours. If you just use it to send your “I’m ok” message and continue keep it on to send the possible emergency message should it be needed, they will last a bit longer (I don’t know how long exactly as I don’t ever use mine this way). lithium batteries are fairly pricy considering I go through them at a rate of a set of them over the course of two long days of canyoneering or hiking. Fortunately it only takes two. The other drawback is trying to switch from the “I’m ok” message transmission to the tracking transmission. You have to wait for it to either complete the twenty minute cycle needed to ensure the “I’m ok” transmission went through or you can wait five minutes after activating the “I’m ok” message, turn it off, then turn it back on and enable the tracking feature. I would like to see this remedied on future units but all in all it is a great product at a reasonable price.
This pretty much sums it up. For more clarification on the unit, it’s features, and subscription options, visit the SPOT website posted at the beginning of this article.