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SPOT vs PLB (now that prices have changed)
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Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
SPOT vs PLB (now that prices have changed) on 11/02/2009 12:16:16 MST Print View

When PLBs used to cost ~$700, SPOT's expense seemed reasonable. Nowadays, SPOT is clearly more expensive. I appreciate the added value in features that the SPOT carries, but in relative terms you're definitely paying for them. It used to be that they were simply added value. There are multiple PLBs below $400 and they're more reliable in an emergency.

SPOT II: $150 + $100/yr

McMurdo Fast Find 210: $300

I want a SPOT but now I'm leaning towards a PLB because they're much cheaper. I figure this is a device that I don't want to place more than once every 6-8 years. Anyone else consider PLBs over SPOTs again due to the price change?

If I keep the unit for 6 years, the SPOT 2 would cost $750 plus batteries and the McMurdo would cost $300 (it's unlikely that I'd have to change the battery).

Jeff Antig

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: SPOT vs PLB (now that prices have changed) on 11/02/2009 12:20:31 MST Print View

Unless you don't carry a cellphone and would like your friends/family know how you're doing, the PLBs seem better. The $100/yr is a big put-off and I think PLBs have more reliable signals.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
SPOT vs PLB on 11/02/2009 13:42:23 MST Print View


Edited by skopeo on 04/27/2015 17:03:49 MDT.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: SPOT vs PLB on 11/02/2009 14:40:22 MST Print View

Mike, the SPOT signals are received by a commercial company from a commercial satellite. The PLB signals are received by the military from military satellites. Night and day difference to me. I would not own a SPOT for the purposes of rescue if I am hurt.

Spruce Goose
(SpruceGoose) - F

Locale: New England
SPOT vs PLB (now that prices have changed) on 11/02/2009 14:50:19 MST Print View

To me, SPOT is something to keep the wife/husband happy while you're out on the trail.

PLB is about calling in the troops when the sh*t really hits the fan.

Jason Elsworth
(jephoto) - M

Locale: New Zealand
SPOT or PLB on 11/02/2009 15:23:27 MST Print View

If SPOT worked with high reliability it would be the greatest. However, as it is I think my family would just be more worried when they didn't get any messages from me and were left wondering.

There has been a high level of PLB take up here in NZ over the past 12 months and SAR are right behind them. I plan to get one next year, as I mostly hike solo and seldom see anyone when I am out.

Larry De La Briandais
(Hitech) - F

Locale: SF Bay Area
Spot problems?!? on 11/02/2009 15:48:54 MST Print View

What kind of reception problems are the spots experiencing?

A friend of mine has one and it hasn't had much for reception problems. The only time it has ever failed to send a transmission was in a very steep canyon. Trying again worked. So, if it had been an actual emergency it may have been delayed slightly, but it would always have worked.

Roleigh Martin
(marti124) - MLife

Locale: Moderator-JohnMuirTrail Yahoo Group
Re: SPOT or PLB on 11/02/2009 15:49:09 MST Print View

To me whether you get a SPOT or a PLB, you should get a rescue recovery insurance policy in case you are charged for the rescue. My understanding is that if the rescue involves an area OTHER than a National Park, the sheriff has the option to call in a private sector helicopter service if the public-owned one is busy or non-existent or in maintenance, and in that case, if you are out of state, their might be an attempt to have you pay a part of the recovery cost. An insurance policy protects you. Spot's insurance policy is about $8 per hiking party member, dirt cheap. McMurdo and the other PLB companies have not worked with insurance companies and 90% of travel medical evac insurance policies are worthless as they require a pre-authorization phone call from the victim, which is non-sensical for PLB use. I have found 1-2 companies that may, just may cover one. Dirt poor wording to use "may" in their qualifiers. For the insurance reason only, I favor Spot.

As for reliability of getting the signal through, a Sequoia/Kings Canyon ranger I talked to on the JMT (at McClure Meadow ranger station in 2008), he told me his supervisor finds Spot to be better than a PLB, as Spot immediately called the wilderness back-country office to help in the rescue of a person who needed a same-day evac and operation for appendictomy (and got it, and the surgeon said he'd have died if not operated on that day). The supervisor said that with a PLB it takes up to 3-5 hours for the NOAA office to contact the wilderness back-country office. Now maybe it was the PLB owner's fault not to give the phone number of the wilderness back-country office (when I owned a PLB I did that at the NOAA PLB registration page)--I don't know. But anyway, just that there are additional factors to think about.

Jonathon Rogers

Locale: East TN
SPOT reliability on 11/02/2009 17:08:12 MST Print View

Posted this same info in another thread, but I have one of the new SPOT units and I believe their claims of upgraded GPS chipset and resulting better signal reliability are accurate. I have used it over the last couple of months around North and South America in tree cover and jungle and have kept my wife happy with every message coming through.

I agree the rescue insurance policy is cheap for the peace of mind.

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: Re: SPOT or PLB on 11/02/2009 17:17:03 MST Print View

"90% of travel medical evac insurance policies are worthless as they require a pre-authorization phone call from the victim"

That is not how I understand it. I was in an autorickshaw that flipped over in rural india this year. I called my travel insurance company (IMG) to "pre-authorize" a flight to a hospital and medical care. They were a little dumbfounded and explained worriedly that I should just do what I need to do and that pre-authorization is only needed before overnight hospitalization and advanced procedures. And that in an emergency like what I was in, no pre-authorization was needed. I think that this is the case with most travel insurance policies. One does not need pre-authorization to be rescued (be it by SAR or an ambulance).

Lots of discussion about reliability, but little consideration of cost. The low prices on PLBs have made the SPOT's "I'm OK" button and expensive luxury.

Larry De La Briandais
(Hitech) - F

Locale: SF Bay Area
Re: Re: Re: SPOT or PLB on 11/02/2009 17:29:27 MST Print View

"The low prices on PLBs have made the SPOT's "I'm OK" button and expensive luxury."

Yes it is. However, that is why my hiking buddy has one. His wife bought it for him when he started taking their 8 year old son along. It keeps Mom happy. And when Mom is happy...

With the new lower prices spot may need to make some changes to stay competitive. Being able to use the spot for other than emergencies helps sell them, but how much is it worth? Right now, I'd probably purchase a spot because of the lower initial cost AND the "I'm Okay" button. But...

Christopher Plesko
(Pivvay) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Re: SPOT vs PLB (now that prices have changed) on 11/02/2009 17:44:15 MST Print View

"To me, SPOT is something to keep the wife/husband happy while you're out on the trail.

PLB is about calling in the troops when the sh*t really hits the fan."

Yup. Luckily SPOT does both which is why I've been happy with mine. Looking forward to an updated chipset version.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
SPOT vs PLB on 11/02/2009 18:01:33 MST Print View


Edited by skopeo on 04/27/2015 17:03:06 MDT.

Brad Smith
(DocOne) - F

Locale: Southwest
SPOT vs PLB on 11/02/2009 20:27:44 MST Print View

I personally own a McMurdo Fast Find 210 PLB and given the 5.3oz weight and high reliability I'm happy with it. It has a 50 channel high sensitivity GPS receiver and transmits 2 homing signals when activated.

The first 406MHz signal is part of the NOAA SARSAT program operated by NOAA (department of commerce and not military satellites). The signal can be received by both the low earth POES weather satellites and the geostationary GOES satellites.

The GEO satellites can instantaneously detect and relay the location of GPS enabled PLB beacons (like the McMurdo 210) to NOAA's ops center in Maryland. If the PLB is registered with NOAA they will start calling the registered emergency numbers immediately and notify emergency personnel.

If you don't have a GPS enabled PLB or the PLB cannot get a GPS fix the emergency signal will still be sent out and received immediately. In this case it can take longer to get a location fix without GPS as it requires one of the low earth satellites to fly by. This could take a few hours worst case to get a firm location.

You can read about it here:

With a 50 channel GPS receiver like the McMurdo the performance is comparable to what you would see from a modern garmin handheld. Even in difficult conditions, it should work well.

Finally it also sends a 121.5 MHz signal which emergency personnel can use for local homing.

If you want to see how well the McMurdo performed (quite well actually) under some fairly difficult tests, take a look at this site:

The first generation spot, in contrast, had many problems including poor GPS reception and significant coverage gaps. SPOT relies entirely on its GPS receiver for location, so poor receiver performance in the first generation systems is a major shortfall. If you do even a cursory search you will see many reviews highlighting the problems.

The second generation SPOT 2 is reported to address many of the shortfalls in the original as well as being smaller/lighter at 5.2 oz. The Spot does offer additional features ("I'm OK, custom messages") over the PLB which basically has one button to call in the troops. Unfortunately they won't be released for a few weeks so it will probably be a while before we have an accurate picture of performance of spot 2.

As the original poster pointed out the McMurdo PLB costs a lot less to operate ($50/yr if you operate over 6 years) vice SPOT ($125/year if you operate for 6 years).

If I were to purchase today, I would go with the McMurdo PLB for better performance/cost for the basic beacon rescue function.

If the ability to check in or send custom messages is important and worth the extra cost to you I would definitely wait for SPOT 2 to see how well it performs.

Edited by DocOne on 11/02/2009 20:29:59 MST.

Hikin' Jim
(hikin_jim) - MLife

Locale: Orange County, CA, USA
SPOT vs PLB Reliability . on 11/02/2009 20:47:44 MST Print View


You can't test reliability but people with the right equipment (and connections) can. The tests are pretty conclusive that a PLB will work under almost any conditions in any terrain. The main PLB signal (406MHz) is 10 times stronger than a SPOT's signal. The PLB also has a secondary signal (121.5MHz) which is used by SAR, CAP, etc. as a homing signal. SPOT has no homing beacon.

Also, a SPOT is dependent on first getting a GPS signal, otherwise it cannot transmit your position. A PLB can still be used without a GPS signal, although the position is always more accurate if it can acquire a GPS signal. In other words, a SPOT is dependent not on one but two satellite networks. If either network is unreachable, you've got a nice paperweight.

PLB coverage is world wide. SPOT coverage is not. Again, SPOT is satellite phone technology. Look at a map of the coverage areas for sat phone providers. There are a lot of places that have no coverage, particularly in the third world or at sea. Probably not a big deal if all you do is hike in Europe and the US, but something to bear in mind.

The COSPAS-SARSAT network is run by governments worldwide and supports the maritime and aviation industries. There's huge support for COSPAS-SARSAT since world commerce depends on it. SPOT is a new venture by a commercial operation that reaches a fairly small, specialized audience. Will SPOT still be there in three years? Five? No one knows, but we can be pretty much assured that COSPAS-SARSAT will still be there.

The COSPAS-SARSAT network is a fairly large network with both low earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) satellites. It's fairly well documented that the satellite phone network is very thin in terms of the number of satellites. In some areas of the US, some satellite providers tell people what hours the sat phone service is unavailable due to "holes" in satellite coverage. Gotta wait to make that call until the next satellite comes into view. No such holes in the COSPAS-SARSAT network.

On the other hand, SPOT unquestionably has nicer features. The tracking feature is fabulous. The ability to send less than "emergency call SAR now" type messages is wonderful as is the ability to just say "I'm OK". Very reassuring to family and friends. Combine the tracking with the "OK" messages, and your family and friends know where you are and that you're OK throughout your entire trip. Can't argue with that feature richness.

So, if you want high reliability, low cost, and a service that is pretty much guaranteed to be there (short of WWIII or the second coming of Christ), then a PLB is the better answer.

If you want the truly wonderful features of SPOT, then you'll have to pay for them and make a significant sacrifice in reliability. And there's always the threat that SPOT may go out of business and your investment will be all for naught.

Personally, I chose a PLB, but in all honesty there have been a couple of hikes where I dang sure wished I had a SPOT so that I could let my wife know I was OK but just delayed.

Perhaps if you hike in a group or with a club regularly, having one SPOT and one PLB in the group would be the ideal situation?

Each to his own. HYOH,


Hart -
(backpackerchick) - MLife

Locale: Planet Earth
SPOT is a cute toy on 11/02/2009 23:20:35 MST Print View

I got one and have been playing with it as I go about my day. Took it walking near my home. I have sent a couple hundred OKs -- probably 1/2 got through. Sometimes the tracking turns on, sometimes it doesn't. Read that you're lucky if 50% of your signals go through. The new slimmed down spot is supposed to have a slightly better signal.

SPOT is not going to change my behavior in the least! I do have a SPOT adventure page now!

I am walking in the mountains of Turkey for a month after the BIG storm rolls through tomorrow. Perhaps, I'll post my link here!

Edited by backpackerchick on 11/03/2009 01:57:12 MST.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Spot vs PLB on 11/02/2009 23:58:15 MST Print View


Edited by skopeo on 04/27/2015 17:02:19 MDT.

Jack H.
(Found) - F

Locale: Sacramento, CA
Re: SPOT vs PLB (now that prices have changed) on 11/03/2009 01:21:00 MST Print View

Great responses ya'll.

Hikerchick, definitely go ahead and post your SPOT info, I'd love to see where your hikes in Turkey lead.

I think that the GPS location emails to friends and family is a very neat feature. And, I'm a more extreme risk taker (solo, cross country, etc, etc). I think I'm leaning towards the PLB and the cheaper cost and reliability are big factors.

Hart -
(backpackerchick) - MLife

Locale: Planet Earth
Don't depend on any of it on 11/03/2009 01:54:39 MST Print View

Wouldn't want to rely on ANY of these. Period. In the event of a true emergency, getting a signal through only initiates a rather complex chain of communication. There are so many contingencies.

SPOT IS fun if a little clunky. And others like knowing you have it. Don't have to feel as guilty. It's a feel good sort of toy.

Think the market will be flooded with this sort of stuff over the next couple years. Lighter, better, cheaper.

I'll try to post my Lycian Way (if you're interested in the walk, check out for info) breadcrumbs. Thinking twice about posting real time location data on the web for all! I'll do it for sure after I'm done :)

Waiting for a BIG weather system to pass. (And reconsidering footwear as the terrain is often very rugged with tufa and razor sharp limestone.) Then I will travel by bus to Fethiye and walk 500+ km through the mountains back to Antalya (below).


Edited by backpackerchick on 11/03/2009 02:08:13 MST.

Christopher Plesko
(Pivvay) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Re: SPOT is a cute toy on 11/03/2009 07:54:46 MST Print View

Hey Hartley,

Tracking always turns on for me if you follow these directions.

Turn SPOT off if in another mode
Turn SPOT on
Press OK/track button and hold down until the light goes back off
You are now in tracking mode for 24 hours

I've used this a LOT and it always works for me.