Editor's Note: This article was opened to the public on July 22, 2010. To subscribe and see Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010 articles as they are published, click here.
Marketing Reassurance for the Masses
Andrew Skurka’s mother would rather he have a SPOT Personal Tracker than a sleeping bag when on one of his epic treks. This dumbfounded him, but knowing he’s OK when out of communication on the trail makes his mother feel much better than knowing he's warm at night. My father feels the same way. He starts niggling me a week or two before a big trip, asking me if I am going to carry the SPOT this time. I think this mirrors the sentiments of many close to outdoor enthusiasts who push the edge (or even those who don't push it). Our close ones start worrying about the time we put our first foot on the trail. It’s a huge relief to them to get that OK message once a day.
It’s no wonder that personal locator devices (PLDs), SPOT Tracker, PLBs, etc. are a hot and rapidly evolving area for the outdoor market. My guess is that use of PLDs will explode in the next five years, especially as they get smaller, more sophisticated, easier to use, less expensive, and more reliable. At some point this technology will mature and offer dependable, affordable, off-grid communications and emergency notification/SOS signals. In the meantime, there are some excellent concepts that could do a bit better at in-field execution but will only improve over time.
PLBs seem the most robust for emergency notification, since they have a locating beacon that airplanes and SAR personnel can home in on. They have dual antennas, one optimized for GPS reception and one optimized for distress signal transmission, and they transmit at much higher power. But PLBs do not provide non-emergency communications. A daily OK and last point known message not only reassures loved ones, it also provides critical backcountry rescue info “date/time and of last known location” if a distress signal cannot be sent. It wasn’t until I went on my first search and rescue (SAR) for a missing hiker that I understood just how important this date/time of last known location information is. It can limit a search area to a few square miles versus a 300-mile radius. That can make the difference between being found in hours or days. Checking in once a day is definitely a safety measure, not just a reassurance to loved ones.
Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other
The SPOT Personal Tracker concept does a great job of tracking and checking-in to notify loved ones you are OK. For emergency notification, it does not provide a locating beacon and may be more challenged than a PLB to successfully transmit a distress notification in difficult areas like heavy tree cover or deep canyons.
My guess is that PLBs will soon add messaging functions and that the SPOT type messaging units will improve their distress signal transmission capabilities. In time, the distinction between the two approaches will blur.