28 October 2011

Spot Tracker or Personal Beacon?

In my opinion an "adventure trip" on a motorcycle means going to remote places, riding lonely roads, often unpaved, sometimes trails. Going to places like the Death Valley or Mojave back country. Riding in places where you might not see another person for hours.

Yes, this kind of riding can be dangerous. Small things that on a normal paved road with traffic wouldn't be a problem can become a major issue in the back of beyond. A flat tire or broken down bike 50 miles or more away from the next water supply in 40C heat, an injury from a fall on the tough terrain - you name it and you can probably imagine what I'm talking about.

So, what are the typical pre-cautions? Of course, proper riding gear, boots, gloves, helmets, sometimes even dirt riding gear like pressure suits or similar. Having a basic repair kit. Tools for fixing a tire. Water. A first aid kit.

But what happens if you really need help?

How do you notify somebody if you have no cell phone coverage and there is nobody around that might be able to ride out and alert someone?

The tools for this are basically two different flavors of GPS enabled devices:
  1. Tracking tools with two way communication like a SPOT tracker.
  2. A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which you only activate when you need help.
There are some major differences between the two:
  • SPOT is more active. It sends your position to a Satellite system on a regular basis so that you can lay out a "breadcrumb" trail other people can follow, e.g. on a website. There is nothing like this with PLBs.
  • The SPOT backchannel (sending messages to the system) is supported by a commercial entity while PLBs use SARSAT, the federal Search And Rescue system.
  • When you hit the "help" button on a SPOT device, your call is routed to a "call center"-type support group which will then alert local authorities and communicate your GPS to those. When you activate a PLB, federal and local authorities are notified directly without a man in the middle.
  • The SPOT system communicates your GPS position to the SPOT communication center. You can only hope that this is precise and actually works. A PLB sends your GPS position and turns on an analog "beacon" radio signal that can be used by search and rescue teams for finding your position.
  • PLB signal strength for sending the help signal is many times stronger than the SPOT signal. 
  • Even if your satellite signal is not making it, there is a chance that the analog radio emergency signal is caught by someone listening on the official emergency channel.
  • With SPOT you can send a "I'm okay" message. There isn't really something comparable with PLBs. With those "no news are good news".
  • SPOT has been known to work only in 98% of the cases at best. Many people had trouble with the actual devices, hardware and software glitches were very common for the first as well as the second generation.
  • There is no yearly fee for a PLB, SPOT service costs around $100 / year.
Now, you can probably already see where this is heading. 

To make it short: if you want to signal "I'm okay", have someone follow your "trail" actively and maybe have a chance of calling for help when you're in trouble, SPOT is what you want.

Personally, I'll rather go the route of not sending my position all the time, having the nice tracking website that tells people that the house is empty and they can break in, but instead I want to have a device I can really rely on when I'm in trouble. Something I will only turn on when I need help. But then, when I need help - I want to be as certain as possible that someone actually receives that call. 

Therefore, a Personal Locator Beacon is the tool for me. This is what I'll get for the adventures to come (motorcycle trips to California deserts and other trails, a planned hiking trip through the Grand Canyon, Andrea's climbing tours, etc):

ACR ResQLink

It's an ACR ResQLink Personal Beacon. When activated it locks on the GPS satellite system to get the current position, communicates this position to SARSAT, meaning to special authorities that actually know something about Search And Rescue, and then continues to send an analog signal that can be used for locating the device. It also has a bright LED strobe light at the front, adding a visual effect to the mix.

This is probably the only gear that I hope I will never ever use. But if I need to - I'll be glad to have it and I want the best chances that it actually works.


  1. An interesting discussion on the convergence of people and technology: http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=613416

  2. Sonja wrote and me clumsy deleted by accident:

    It is hard to believe that in our high-tech world there are indeed wide areas that don't have cell phone coverage, which is awesome if you want to get away from work for a while but not so desirable when in trouble.
    Good idea to carry one of those homing beacons. Hopefully you'll never get to use it (you know what they say: it never rains when you carry an umbrella with you...).

  3. I read Beemer Bob's story when it happened. It's always interesting. Nevertheless - SPOT only helps you when the HELP button actually works which isn't as reliable as other devices, and the first line of defense is a call center ... not Search and Rescue personnel like with a PLB.

    As long as both work - this doesn't matter. I'd nevertheless rather rely on a PLB.

  4. Guido:

    I like the PLB better as well. I've read of problems with the SPOT system due to human failure(s). Can't wait to read about your upcoming adventures

    Riding the Wet Coast

  5. I've played with Spot up north and there have been many times when it hasn't worked. Can't rely on it so why bother. There are so many places even on the road system where there is no cell coverage that the PLB sounds like a great option. Though it's size may discourage folks from actually having it on their person while riding in case they get seperated from their bike.

    Great summary!