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The DeLorme InReach, the SPOT Satellite Messenger and the ACR SARLink Personal Locator Beacon


Page two- Follow-up blog post- 05 February 2010- Revisiting the SPOT Versus PLB Question
See also- 25 February 2010 blog post- A Phone Call to SPOT Regarding Their Product

(Reposted from 30 April, 2016 blog post- The DeLorme inReach SE Replaces Our SPOT Messenger)

The DeLorme inReach SE Replaces Our SPOT Messenger

For many years we have been fans of the SPOT messenger. It is a rugged, lightweight, and simple device that for the most part operates just as the manufacturer claims it will. There were definitely tight spots- meaning high and close canyon walls- that inhibited our ability to send messages on more than one occasion. But I think this will be the case for any satellite communication device- they must have a clear view of the sky to operate.

We have been happy with our SPOT. However, we recently received an email from SPOT that stated our subscription option was no longer available and that our annual cost was increasing by $50. There was the addition of the tracking feature with the new cost, meaning the SPOT would send a message every so often as we traveled along the trail in the same way it sends one of our preset messages. This was definitely not something we would use. It was enough to prompt me to look into other devices, and it was easy to find unlimited information on the options. If you search for “personal locators” or “satellite locators” your search will likely return the DeLorme inReach, the SPOT Messenger, and one of the ACR devices.

Since we weren’t in the market for an actual personal locator beacon (the ACR devices), we focused on the DeLorme products and found our replacement in the DeLorme inReach SE. This satellite communicator has all the features of the SPOT Messenger including preset messages (SPOT has 2, inReach has 3), a tracking option, and of course SOS mode. But it goes many steps further- it will link to your smart phone, you can send and receive text messages (to phone numbers or email addresses), it has a GPS function that allows you to see your exact grid coordinates, and the Iridium satellite network that it operates on is a step up from the Globalstar network that SPOT operates on. With Iridium you have truly global coverage with the inReach, and potentially more accuracy, speed, and better chances for getting messages out.

A Few Points of Comparison
There are really so many features on the inReach that it would take a while to cover them all, so I will point out the features important to me. The DeLorme inReach SE will cost $300, while the SPOT Gen3 will cost $150. (Note that there is also the inReach Explorer, priced at about $380, that has even more features.) My perspective is that the additional features of the inReach SE make up for the additional cost. While I won’t use most of the features, the GPS and the ability to send a text saying I am staying out a couple of more nights is worth the extra investment. There are also sounds that can be associated with the various functions, just like with a smart phone. There is a convenient “send” noise that I decided to leave in place; it is helpful to know when the message has sent so I can turn the unit off and conserve battery life.

The DeLorme inReach Se on the left, and the SPOT Messenger Gen2 on the right. The inReach is definitely larger, and a bit heavier. But the additional features and plan options make it worth it.

The inReach weighs just over 8 ounces, the SPOT just over 4.  The inReach is larger than the SPOT, but not by much. The inReach features rechargeable lithium batteries with a 100 hour life expectancy. It can be recharged via USB or a standard power outlet. The SPOT uses 4 AAA rechargeable NiMH batteries or 4 AAA disposable lithium batteries- a plus in my opinion as you will be sure that the unit can operate without having to find an outlet to recharge it.  The SPOT can also be connected to a USB power source.

Operating costs, and associated features,  vary for the inReach. There are too many options to explain them, so the chart from their website is included below. It must be noted that the inReach has an “as needed” cost option- their Freedom Plan. This means that if you need it for the summer, you pay just for the summer months, then turn your subscription off in the meantime. No data or settings are lost when you turn it off. Turning the service on and off is as simple as logging in to your online account, and following the prompts. Of course there is an annual cost for that option, but in the long run it can easily work out to savings if you are a part-time user. The SPOT cost is about $150 per year, with very few options available on top of that, mainly enhanced tracking. This simply means that instead of a tracking point being sent out every 10 minutes for example, you can choose when it goes out.

DeLorme inReach plan options.

In the long run, if you are looking for a means to send an SOS if it ever came to it, both devices are good options, although as noted above the satellite system is better with the inReach. If you want features- texts, GPS,  sounds, and a Bluetooth link to your smart phone, then the inReach is for you. You can see the DeLorme inReach SE at Amazon.com. The SPOT Messenger Gen3 is also available at Amazon.

The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger and the ACR SARLink Personal Locator Beacon

(Reposted from 10 November 2009 blog post- The SPOT Messenger and Personal Locator Beacons)

Until recently I had never heard of the SPOT. I was familiar with the Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB, but  I had never considered using one.  As we sat around the campfire during a recent North Wash canyoneering trip, people talked of their experience with SPOT- how well it messaged, how they used it for pickup at the end of their treks, how it kept their families happy knowing they were safe, and how it creates an online GPS coordinate database of the ground they cover.

The SPOT sounded interesting, but I have always been one to leave technology behind when going into the wilderness. I have never carried a cell phone, any type of two-way radio, or even a GPS in the bush. For more on my thoughts on the GPS, see my recent blog post. But after listening to peoples’ experiences with SPOT, after doing research for a blog post on rattlesnakes, and after reading recent news articles regarding the use (and misuse) of SPOT and PLB’s  (see Ramkitten’s collection of articles) I have been thinking more about how I could use the device.

The safety of my five year old has also prompted me to take a closer look at the SPOT and PLB’s. In recent years my son and I have been spending more time together in the Utah desert. Rattlesnakes have always been my greatest concern in the bush, and I seem to meet up with them frequently enough. Now that my son is along with me, that concern has become heightened. If keeping him safe means merely carrying another 6 or 8 ounces in my pack, then that is easily done. There is no question that these devices save lives, and are worth their weight and cost during emergency situations.

SPOT, PLB’s, and Avalanche Beacons

SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger Being relatively unfamiliar with both SPOT and PLB’s, I began by seeing what retailers had to offer.  Most carry a number of PLB’s and both versions of SPOT including the latest Spot Satellite SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger, ACR PLB-375 ResQLink+ PLB, and the McMurdo Fastfind Max-G PLB. Both ACR and McMurdo have a complete line of PLB’s and related survival equipment for all types of outdoor activities.  Do not confuse these devices with avalanche beacons, or transceivers, which are a separate device altogether.  Avalanche beacons transmit a homing signal locally, so that others with a transceiver are able to pinpoint a person’s exact location under the snow.



Above- The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger (SPOT 2 pictured)- 5.2 ounces without batteries (about 6 ounces with lithium batteries), costs abotu $150 for the device and $150.00 per yer activation fee for basic features.

Common Features

In my research I focused my attention on devices for “land-based” activities- hiking, backpacking, floating rivers, and biking for example- where you might find yourself far from help. The information I provide comes from the spec sheets for the respective devices and phone calls to customer service for each.  Speaking of customer service- I spoke to representatives at SPOT and  ACR  immediately after placing my calls.

ACR SARLink PLBFor purposes of presenting SPOT and a PLB, I chose to focus on the ACR SARLink (now discontinued- see link to PLB-375, above for comparison) and the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger. Pictured at left is the ACR SARLink PLB- 8.9 ounces with battery, cost- about $400 with no yearly activation fee.

Should you use either one to call for help, both devices use GPS satellites to find your location and then transmit those coordinates and a distress call to other satellites, which in turn transmit them to a call center. A distress call using the ACR SARLink goes through the government’s SARSAT system, ultimately ending at their control center in Maryland. When you register your ACR SARLink you are given a unique identification code which allows rescue personnel to know exactly who you are so they can seek additional information about your situation. The ACR SARLink transmits a local 121.5 mhz homing signal (line of site), much like avalanche beacons, to search and rescue personnel in your vicinity. The SARLink also has a built in LED strobe.

Unique SPOT Functions

Activating the SPOT S.O.S. function will send your GPS coordinates and distress call through a commercial satellite to the GEOS Alliance, a private company in Texas. In Tracking Mode the SPOT will retrieve your coordinates every 10 minutes and store them on your SPOT personal web page for 30 days. This page can be shared with friends and family. The coordinates can be exported and saved in Excel or Google Earth formats. The Track function continues for 24 hours after the Track button is depressed. You must reactivate the Track function every 24 hours.

Using the Check-in function you can send your present coordinates and a custom message to up to 10 email addresses or phone numbers as a text message. Using the Custom Message function you can create a different message to be sent to the same or other email addresses or phone numbers.  Finally, you can create a custom “Help” message for up to 10 contacts- this can be used to notify contacts that you are at a resupply or pickup location, for example.

Cost and Activation Fees

There is a difference in the initial cost between the two devices. PLB’s are more expensive across the board than SPOT.  But it is important to look beyond the initial cost of the device.  You will spend 400 dollars on the ACR SARLink. You will spend 150 dollars for the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger.

To keep your SPOT active and to use the basic functions- S.O.S., Help, Check-in, and Custom  Message- costs another 100 dollars per year. Additionally you can choose to pay $7.95 for yourself and each family member, per year, which covers up to $100,000 for each individual in search and rescue costs (see the GEOS Alliance website for full details). The Track function costs $49.99 per year, Road Assist can be added for $30.00 per year, and replacement insurance for the unit can be added for $17.95 per year.

There is a one-time activation for the SARLink, and that is included in the initial cost of the device.

Batteries and Battery Life

The ACR SARLink uses a proprietary lithium battery that is costly. A replacement battery for the SARLink will cost around 160 dollars, not including shipping. The battery only needs to be changed every 5-6 years, or after emergency use of the device. The battery change should be done by an authorised service center where they will also verify the seal on the unit, reset the battery use indicator, and perform a number of tests on the unit to insure that it is ready for use. Battery life in emergency mode is rated at about 35 hours.

The SPOT uses 3- AAA lithium batteries, available at your local grocery store for about 7 dollars (the first generation of the device uses 3-AA batteries). The use life of the batteries in the SPOT depends on the operation of the device. In tracking mode you will get about 14 days of use on one set of batteries. If you use the message functions- the Help, Check-in, or Custom Message function, you can send up to 1900 messages on a set of batteries.  So if you use the Tracking function and send a message or two a day, you can probably expect to change the batteries every 10 or 12 days.  The SPOT will send a  message every 5 minutes for 7 days in the S.O.S. function.  All of these time estimates are assuming new batteries.

Waterproofing and GPS Accuracy

Both devices are rated waterproof to 5 meters in depth for 1 hour. You could safely swim with either for extended periods, for example making your way out of rapids or swimming across a river.

There is a difference in GPS accuracy in the devices. The SPOT is accurate to about 6 and 1/2 meters.  The SARLink is accurate to within 100 meters.  The homing feature on the SARLink more than makes up for its being less accurate than the SPOT.

Rescue

According to the SARSAT/NOAA website, there were 282 rescues in the United States in 2008 initiated through SARSAT. Of these, 68 people were rescued in 35 incidents using the PLB to call for help. No further details were given about the rescues. You can read a few ACR PLB rescue stories at the ACR website.  According to the GEOS Alliance website, 400 people were rescued using the SPOT to call for help in 2008. No details were given regarding the number of incidents involved. You can read about some of the SPOT rescues at the SPOT website.

After researching the SPOT and the ACR SARLink, I cannot say that one is a better choice than the other. If you are looking for peace of mind in the form of 6 or 8 ounces, you have found it in either device.  If your goal is to carry a device to call for help in the event that rescue is needed, the PLB will suit your needs.  If you are interested in communicating your location daily, and tracking your progress in the wilderness, then the SPOT is for you.

Ultimately one of these devices may save your life, but they are not a license to act without caution.  A PLB or SPOT is not a substitute for knowledge, preparedness, or common sense.  Recent unnecessary SPOT distress calls may signal the need for a closer look at who pays for search and rescue costs. Proper use of these devices by everyone will keep us all safe at a reasonable price.

Next page: Follow-up blog post- Revisiting the SPOT Versus PLB Question


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