No matter how “mature”, “responsible”, “traveled”, and “experienced” I am, Mom always wants to know that I’m okay.
Sure, I get it. Like during my first offshore sailing passage from North Carolina to the Bahamas, via Hurricane Sandy, she slept a little better when she got an email reading “My current coordinates. Everything is OK.”
This is just one application of the increasingly popular GPS tracker and satellite messenger devices. Here we’ll look at the two most popular satellite messengers on the market.
Personal GPS Tracking
There are three reasons why I use satellite messengers:
- Let the family know I’m safe with pre-written “I’m Safe” messages when out on solo treks or sailing adventures.
- Let you (my fans) engage with my activities by being able to track my progress when it posts to Facebook, or by checking the link that’s sometimes on this site’s sidebar when I’m out on an adventure.
- Get emergency help should I find myself in a situation where I know I won’t otherwise be able to get home.
Now some words of caution to go with that.
- These satellite messengers are not a “get out of jail free” card. Do not allow yourself to feel invulnerable to natural disasters or major accidents just because you’re carrying a satellite messenger, and don’t do things you wouldn’t otherwise do without one.
- Don’t abuse the emergency SOS system. Years ago I read an article in Outside Magazine about this abuse. Check it out, it’s rather interesting, and notes that 48% of all rescue calls have no merit. This not only costs money but puts rescue crews at risk.
GPS Satellite Messengers Are Not PLBs
There is a difference between satellite messenger devices and personal locator beacons (PLBs). PLBs are “emergency only” devices which utilize the military GPS satellite network, and they also operate on the radio frequency spectrum to aid rescuers to your exact position. REI offers a great comparison here.
GPS satellite messengers use a different network of satellites and do not use radios, limiting their accuracy and field of view (requires an unobstructed view of the sky).
If you read reviews of these devices you’ll see one-star ratings crying, “it wouldn’t get a signal in the jungle!” No, of course not, it needs a clear view of the sky. Keep that in mind.
First Glance, Comparing the DeLorme inReach vs SPOT
- Both devices are built to withstand the abuse that I subject myself (and my gear) to.
- They both have the same tracking, sharing, and emergency functionality.
- They both have messaging capability but the SPOT messages must be preset while the DeLorme allows you to type your own messages from the device.
- The DeLorme inReach will give you verification that your SOS has been received while the SPOT will not.
SPOT Gen3 Personal Satellite Tracker
Requires an annual subscription of $149.99 (or $14.95/mo) Upgrades available. Click Here for details.
I’ve been very happy with the predecessor to the Gen3, and this unit only improves on the original design. What I like about these SPOT satellite messengers is that they’re small, rugged, and waterproof. The batteries seem to last forever.
The Gen3 allows tracking (leaving breadcrumbs) at intervals from 2 1/2 minutes to 60 minutes. And here’s the really cool thing about this one – it has a vibration sensor so that it only transmits the information while you’re on the move, further saving the battery.
I only turn on the device for tracking every twelve hours while sailing and every couple of hours while hiking, for ten minutes at a time, to further increase battery life.
Buttons on the SPOT Gen3:
- S.O.S. This is your 911, and the device will send a message to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center to get rescue assets moving in your direction. Only to be used when all other options have been exhausted!
- Check In. Your pre-programmed message with coordinates is delivered via email or text message to your contacts. You can also choose to have the message repeated on social networks with a link to your map.
- Help/SPOT Assist. This is the “I don’t want to call 911 but maybe I should flag down a car for help” button. Sends a message and coordinates to a pre-programmed contact. Can also be integrated with roadside or maritime towing.
- Custom Message. This is similar to the Check In function, allowing you to program another message of your choice that will go out to contacts in your list.
- Tracking. Enabling this button will leave the breadcrumbs along your trail at an interval you choose, and only when you’re on the move.
These units come with a strap, carabiner, batteries, and a USB charging cable.
Why it works for me and might work for you:
It’s small and simple. I don’t care about creating custom text messages on the trail.
DeLorme inReach SE
DeLorme just rolled out a new Freedom plan for $24.95 annually plus reasonable usage fees for occasional users. Annual plans for regular users go from approximately $145/yr to almost $1,000/yr. Click Here for details.
This is a SPOT device on steroids (and so is the price). It’s about just as close to a satellite phone as you can get, without the voice functionality.
Like the SPOT, it’s also very rugged and can withstand a lot of abuse. It’s slightly bigger, a requirement of its enhanced functionality.
The inReach allows you to both send and receive text messages of up to 160 characters via satellite (a sigh of relief after your 140-character limit on Twitter). Most of this functionality takes place on the screen, where you can activate tracking, send and receive messages, post to social media, and send an SOS, all like SPOT.
The SOS also has a hard key on the exterior (with a lockout) so that you don’t have to fight with the screen when you’re in desperate need of help.
If the screen seems a little clunky (remember predictive text?), the inReach will pair to your iOS or Android device with a free DeLorme app. You can access the unit’s functionality through your smartphone, and also have access to pre-loaded maps that show your location.
Because this is a relatively new satellite messenger, it isn’t without its bugs. Make sure you get the latest firmware update if you purchase one of these devices.
DeLorme also makes the InReach Explorer ($379.95), which is similar to the SE and also adds your standard handheld GPS navigation functionality.
Why it doesn’t work for me:
I don’t like the interface, even with the phone app. There’s also a significant up-front cost and additional monthly cost just to be able to send a custom text. Although with the new plans it would actually be cheaper for an occasional user, it’s still more for regular users for everything except the most basic plan.
Price of owning a SPOT Gen3 for one year, year-round use: $150 purchase + $150 plan = $300.
Price of owning an inReach for one year, year-round use, basic plan: $300 purchase + $20 activation + $144 Safety Plan = $464.
Price of owning an inReach for one year, using only three months per year: $300 purchase + $20 activation + $45 Freedom Safety Plan = $365, then $45 annually.
Price of owning a SPOT Gen3 for one year, using only three months per year: $150 purchase + $150 plan = $300 then $150 annually.
I still think I’m going to have to stick with the SPOT GPS satellite messenger. The only reason I’d get the DeLorme is to be able to type custom messages, but I found the interface very cumbersome, and I don’t want to be tethered to my phone for that functionality. Custom two-way messaging isn’t that important to me; I’m not going hiking to text people. What’s your messaging priority? Two-way or pre-defined one-way check ins?
For explorers who are going to be using their device throughout the year, the above cost comparison shows that the SPOT will be cheaper in the long run. But for those who will only be using it a few months per year, the inReach will be significantly cheaper in the long run (you make up the difference after only one year then save $100 annually). But, check out their plans and see what would work for you.