When Personal Locator Beacons first came on the hiking scene circa 2003 the lightweight backpacking community had a mixed response. Here was an electronic device that you could use to summon help from virtually anywhere in the world with a push of a button. PLBs were a seemingly ideal insurance policy for backcountry adventurers in remote locations. But, they were heavy (initially over one pound), expensive, and as their use became more widespread, likely to set rescue operations in motion for non-life threatening scenarios.
Technology, however, does not stand still.
At the 2004 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, we reported on the 12 ounce, $740 MSRP ACR Electronics TerraFix 406 GPS Personal Locator Beacon and the 9 ounce, $999 MSRP McMurdo FastFind Personal Locator Beacon. In 2007, ACR released their Microfix PLB with further reduced size and weight. While these units were still very expensive, the trend towards smaller, lighter PLBs had begun. In addition, these units incorporated GPS technology to pinpoint the user's location with unprecedented speed and accuracy making them far more useful to hikers than older non-GPS PLBs designed primarily for ocean rescue. However, these second generation PLBs still set an expensive and possibly hazardous full-fledged rescue operation in motion when activated, with no option for a lesser response.
Last Winter, we reported on the non-satellite based 1.6 ounce, $130 MSRP TracMe locating device. At first glance, this seemed to offer emergency locating capability that was small, light, and inexpensive enough to carry anytime you ventured beyond the pavement. However, the device's short range, reliance on a third party to initiate a search, and need for specialized locating equipment (Radio Directional Finders) in the event of a rescue limit its usefulness in many situations. Nevertheless, the TracMe is still a clever device that is well suited to certain backcountry activities, such as group outings where RDF equipment is carried in the group.
The SPOT Satellite Messenger promises to overcome many of the shortcomings of these other systems. Presumably because SPOT does not use the 406 MHz PLB frequency and instead relies on a commercial satellite network, it is marketed as a “Personal Tracker” rather than a PLB. However, like conventional satellite-based GPS-enabled PLBs, SPOT has the ability to broadcast your exact position to emergency personnel at the push of a button. And, it offers this capability for less weight and cost than ever before. But what really sets SPOT apart from conventional PLBs is its ability to send out non-emergency messages containing your location. This allows you, for example, to alert your family or friends (instead of Search and Rescue) if you just become lost or suffer a minor injury. You can even send out "I'm Ok" messages with your current location, or allow contacts to track your position with Google Maps™. As any hiker who has ever left a worried spouse at home can tell you, these last features are well worth SPOT's 7.4 ounce weight and $149 MSRP.
Google Maps™ screen shot of spot tracking. Photo courtesy of SPOT, Inc.
SPOT offers four types of messages based upon varying levels of need:
- Alert 9-1-1 - Dispatch emergency responders to your exact location
- Ask for Help - Request help from friends and family in your exact location
- Check In - Let contacts know where you are and that you're okay
- Track Progress - Send and save your location and allow contacts to track your progress using Google Maps™
Specifications and Features (claimed)
- Worldwide Satellite Coverage via the Globalstar network
- 7.4 ounce weight
- $149 USD MSRP
- $99 USD annual OR $9.99 monthly service fee
- Available Nov, 2007
Backpackinglight has arranged with SPOT to test the device ahead of its November release. Check back for a complete review where we'll provide further details, specifications, test reports, and field impressions.