Adventures Guaranteed

Gear: GPS Trackers

When I made the decision to go on a big adventure along the Trans-Canadian Adventure Trail (TCAT), one of the first things that sprang to mind was personal safety. Sure, I’ve done trips in Europe and into the desert in Morocco but these have always either been within mobile phone signal range, or with a group and only an hour or two from hospital should the worst happen – even in the desert.

Reading the information about the TCAT you realise that sections of it are actually a long way from community centres. Looking at mobile coverage maps it looks like most of my time in Labrador and Quebec will be out of range of any mobile signal:

Mobile Coverage

Now, that in itself isn’t much of a worry to me as an individual. However, when I head off on my trip I’m going to be leaving loved ones behind. Whilst I may be quite happy having an adventure of a lifetime and enjoying life to the max, my parents, partner and any friends following this blog would prefer to at least get messages that I’m OK and where I’ve got to. I’m also not planning on having an accident, or getting attacked by a bear, but if the worst does happen it’s good to know that help is only a button press away, no matter how far from the nearest mobile signal I am.

The Options

When I started thinking about getting a GPS tracker there was only one supplier in my mind: SPOT. These appear to be the tracking device of choice in the UK and I know several people that have used these. They have several devices available, depending on your needs.

I was torn between which to get and so reached out to fellow adventurers on Twitter. What I was expecting was opinions on SPOT devices but what I actually got was a bit of a wild card from Gary S France in the form the DeLorme inReach.

How They Work

GPS Trackers really are incredible devices. There are a host of other cheaper GPS tracker alternatives out there. If you are planning on going on an adventure you need to be aware of how and where they’ll work. All GPS trackers use the GPS satellite network to determine your location. When it comes to transmission of your location there are two types of communication networks that can be used. The more expensive devices like SPOT and DeLorme use commercial communication satellites. The cheaper alternatives use mobile phone networks.

How they work

Depending on where you’re wanting to track your location the mobile network may be fine. Where I’m going I’ll definitely be needing the satellite communication capability.

SPOT

SPOT offers two devices that offer the type of functionality that I’m after:

  • SPOT Gen 3
  • SPOT Connect

The communication side of the SPOT trackers is based on the Globalstar network. In fact, SPOT is a subsidiary company of Globalstar. Whilst this network has mostly global coverage, there are a few areas that aren’t covered such as southern Africa and reduced coverage in India and southern Argentina (somewhere I want to go).

Globalstar Coverage

GEN3

The GEN3 is a standalone device, i.e. you can’t connect it to your phone or other device. It’s essentially got five buttons:

  • SOS: Contacts the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, only to be used in real emergencies.
  • Check-in: Lets friends and family know your current location and that everything is OK.
  • Help: Lets friends and family know your current location and that you need assistance – but that the situation is not life threatening.
  • Custom Message: Sends a pre-programmed message to friends and family with your current location, e.g. I’m delayed but everything is OK. This is like a secondary Check-in message.
  • Tracking: Turns on/off constant tracking functionality which transmits your location to the SPOT mapping website up to every 2.5 minutes (intervals below 10 minutes require additional subscription).
    SPOT-GEN3

    The battery life in the GEN3 is supposedly double that of the previous generation device but what that actually equates to has been hard to find out. The nearest I came was that it should be capable of sending 1250 tracking messages on a single set of batteries. The batteries are 4xAAA batteries and the device can be powered via a USB cable. However, when connected to USB the device does not recharge AAA rechargeable batteries and the device is not waterproof.

Being a technophile the features of the GEN3 are somewhat limited but this is reflected in the price. If you’re just needing a device for emergency situations only and you’re within the coverage area the GEN3 seems like good value for the money.

Connect

The Connect has basically the same functionality as the GEN3 but this is controlled by Bluetooth from a mobile device running the SPOT Connect app. The Connect has an SOS button, so that users are able to summon help without needing to have a mobile device connected.

SPOT-Connect

The tracking on the Connect is limited to once every 10 minutes. Unlike the GEN3 it isn’t possible have more frequent tracking (down to every 2.5 minutes) with the Connect.

Where the Connect improves on the GEN3 is when you connect it to a mobile device. Currently apps are available for Apple iOS and Android devices, plus it is possible to connect it to a DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w GPS. When connected to a mobile device, you’re not limited to sending existing pre-set messages; it is also possible to also possible to create an additional 14 pre-set messages of up to 140 characters that can be sent to contacts or social media services (Twitter or Facebook). Alternatively, with the mobile devices you can type custom messages of up to 41 characters.

DeLorme

DeLorme also has two devices:

  • inReach
  • inReach SE

Both of these are Bluetooth devices that can be connected to mobile phones with the DeLorme Earthmate app. The Earthmate app supports all the functionality outlined below. In addition to the tracking and messaging, the Earthmate app also offers the ability to download topo maps. Whilst I’m not sure I’d use this as a primary GPS device it would be ideal as a backup.

DeLorme uses the Iridium satellite network for the communication connection. This network is global and doesn’t suffer from the same blackspots as the Globalstar network.

InReach

The inReach is the DeLorme equivalent of the SPOT Connect. Like the Connect, the InReach has an on-device SOS button that sends your current location to the GEOS Response Center. When you connect the inReach to a mobile device, or DeLorme PN-60 GPS, you can type and send custom messages. Unlike the Connect, the inReach custom messages can be up to 160 characters. Where the DeLorme devices really come into their own is that they are not just limited to sending messages but they can also receive messages.

DeLore-InReach

Consider the situation in which you have had an accident and are injured. With the SPOT Connect you’re limited to pressing the SOS button and hoping help reaches you soon. With the inReach you can receive feedback that the message has been received and that help is on the way. You’re also able to follow up the SOS message with information about your situation, e.g. that you have shelter and water for two days, or the rescuers can ask additional questions about medical conditions and whether you’re stable or deteriorating.

Like the SPOT Connect, the inReach functionality beyond an SOS button is limited by you having a mobile device to connect to it.

InReach SE

DeLorme has struck gold with the inReach SE. The SE in the name stands for Screen Edition. That’s right, this one has a screen on it. So whilst the communication and tracking functionality is the same as the basic inReach, with the SE you’re not forced to carry another mobile device to use it.

You can type messages of up to 160 characters, enable and disable tracking and use the SOS functionality all on the device itself.

Like the basic inReach, the inReach SE tracking is limited to a maximum of once every 10 minutes. I’m still undecided as to whether I’d prefer a more frequent tracking rate. I can understand from a battery performance perspective that there is a trade-off between more frequent transmission of location and longer battery life and that when hiking or cycling 10 minutes is probably fine. However, given that the RAM mount for the inReach SE has a power cable I’d like to see tracking up to every 2.5 minutes, like the SPOT GEN3. This is another advantage the inReach SE holds over the SPOT devices. When you plug a USB charging cable into the SPOT devices they’re no longer water resistant but the inReach SE has an external waterproof power connector for use with the RAM mount.

Pricing

The prices in the following table are in British Pounds and are approximate prices. The SPOT prices have been converted from Euros and the DeLorme prices have been converted from US Dollars using Google currency conversion, so the actual price at time of purchase might be different.

GEN3 Connect InReach InReach SE
Device 147 164 149 300
Annual 113 81 179 179
Tracking   32
Messaging   37
GEOS 12 12 12 12
1st Year 272 326 340 491
Subsequent Years 125 162 317 317

I have tried to make the comparison between the SPOT and DeLorme as close as possible by going with the following options:

  • Subscription: annual
  • Tracking: every 10 minutes
  • Messages: approx. 500 per year
  • GEOS: Search and Rescue subscription

These are equivalent to the package that I have gone with but both SPOT and DeLorme have both cheaper and more expensive options. For example, DeLorme offers a four month seasonal subscription and with the SPOT GEN3 you can pay for enhanced tracking (up to every 2.5 minutes).

And the winner is…

After weighing up the options, one thing really tipped the balance for me: two-way communication. On previous travels I know I’ve suffered from homesickness and knowing that no matter where I am I can talk to someone is a weight off my shoulders. On the safety side, if the worst happens and I need to use the SOS function I’m going to be on my own – knowing that a call for help has been received and assistance is on the way is definitely worth the expense.

That’s why I’ve gone with the DeLorme inReach SE.

But that’s just my personal opinion. Had I have been travelling in a group, wasn’t going to be travelling out of mobile signal range or was a more experienced adventurer then I would have been perfectly happy with any of the other devices listed above.

For use on a motorcycle I would probably rank the devices in the following order:

  1. DeLorme inReach SE
  2. DeLorme inReach
  3. SPOT Connect
  4. SPOT GEN3

Hat Tips

Gary S France

A massive thank you to Gary S France. Without his response to my request on Twitter I would probably have gone for one of the SPOT trackers. He’s also got a lot of information on his website about touring the USA on a motorcycle which has helped me immensely. If you’re a Harley rider in Europe check out his H-D Rally Tours.

You can also find Gary on twitter: @garysfrance.

Global Telesat Communications

When I finally decided to get a DeLorme inReach SE at 7:30pm on New Year’s Eve 2013, I fired an email off to Global Telesat Communications in the UK to find out about shipping and VAT for orders to Guernsey. Given that it was late on New Year’s Eve I wasn’t expecting to hear back until several days later. I was amazed to receive a response 5 minutes later from David Phipps, and not just a “we’ll be in touch soon” but with answers to my questions. That to me is good customer service, which won them my order.

When I placed the order on New Year’s Day, David emailed me again to let me know that my order would be delayed due to their holiday closure and to find out if that would be a problem for me. To me, that is great customer service which you’ll never get from the likes of Amazon.

Global Telesat Communications sell both the SPOT and DeLorme trackers. If you want expert advice on which is best for you then you won’t go wrong by giving them a call.

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About The Author

Adrian Ritchie

Aidy has been riding motorbikes since just after he left university in 2003. His first bike was a 1988 Suzuki GSX-R750 bought for £1000. His second bike was a Suzuki GSF600 Bandit, bought for his adventure to Norway in 2005. Two years later he sold the Bandit to Shane (for him to learn on) and upgrade to a BMW R1200GS... which was promptly trashed one month later by a SMIDSY. Having had the R1200GS repaired, Aidy has spent the next three years giving it a damn good thrashing off-road. 2011 saw the R1200GS take to the remote tracks and desert pistes of Morocco... it managed to keep up with the 650 enduro bikes that make up the rest of the group and made it back to Guernsey in (mostly) one piece. In January 2012, he traded in the R1200GS for a new R1200GS Adventure, planning to use the Pegaso 650 for off-road racing. However, the lure of smaller enduro bikes proved too strong and in April 2012 purchased a BMS G450X