Monday, 9 September 2019

PLB's, SPOT's and the Garmin inReach - A comparison and guide.

A comparison between Personal Locator Beacons, Spot devices and the Garmin inReach

I bought myself an emergency communication device this summer for personal and professional use and after lots of discussions with people, I thought it would be useful for others if I shared my findings/thoughts to help others decide if a device is for them, or which one might suit them best.

Firstly, mobile phone signal in the Mountains of Britain has improved greatly over the last few years but certainly in the Scottish Highlands and the Glens especially, mobile signal, even for emergency calls cannot be relied on. It was only a decade ago that hardly anyone carried a GPS device with them for emergency location, now we nearly all have some means of GPS on our phones and more and more people use GPS devices as their main navigational tool. Times change and new technology arrives and soon becomes available for the masses. You alone are responsible for the ‘tools’ you carry into the mountains and can choose to be as free from technology as you like. This article is written from the perspective of personal and professional use.

Why use a PLB/SPOT/Garmin inReach?

All these devices can be used as an emergency contact device in the case of an emergency. All have the basic function of sending an emergency message with a location for the emergency services to find you. Should you be in a situation where you have no mobile signal you can use these to send a request for help. Some of the devices have many more functions available to you, which may or may not be of interest/use.

PLB's, SPOTs and Garmin inReach comparison

Which device is for me?

I’m not going to list the function of each device; these can be found online easily but I am going to give you an idea of what device might best suit which users, in my opinion.


PLB’s are the cheapest option out of the three styles of device's as they have the cheapest purchase price and do not require a monthly subscription. They have the least options available to the user, but they do their one job very well and reliably.

Probably best carried by people hoping to never use it unless in an emergency. Maybe you head into the mountains only rarely or usually with part of a larger group, where you have more people on hand to help or find a signal in an emergency, or just heading out for mostly single day trips maybe the odd overnight, where a simple route card can be used by the emergency services. There is no tracking available and you need to be conscious and able to use the device.

As a professional usually working with small groups either on foot or MTB, my PLB stays in my bag much like my first aid kit, I hope not to use it, but it is always there ‘just in case’. I have very little need for any other features, and I am mostly leading or part of a larger group. If I do head out on my own on MTB, I will often use other tracking features alongside it, such as Garmin Connect but these often rely on phone signal.

SPOT devices

The most up to date version of the Spot (Gen 3) is the next option up in terms of price. It costs about the same to purchase the device as a PLB, but it has a monthly subscription, how much depends on what you want from the device.

These monthly subscriptions offer lots of options in terms of price from monthly to yearly plans and more options available to you the more you pay. They have the option of having predefined messages that can be sent with the push of a button, such as. ‘Safe’, ‘Back at base’, ‘at camp’ etc as well as the SOS button.

The SPOT also offers the chance to have live tracking and a motion alarm, how often your device sends your location again depends on the subscription, and the same again depends on how long it takes before the Movement alarm ‘kicks in’. The device uses AAA batteries and SPOT says it has long battery life but the more functions you use the shorter the battery life, such as live tracking every 10 mins but you should always carry spare batteries.

I have heard some stories of reliability issues with SPOT devices sending and They say that the device needs a clear view of the Sky and that dense tree cover may affect its performance, which may be an issue for you depending on where you plan to use it.

The SPOTs may be a better option if you do a larger number of multi-day hikes as a solo traveller or if sending a group out into the hills for a few days, such as a D of E group or if you intend to travel greater distances like a Fell runner/ or multi-day MTB trips. The greater options for preset messages means you can at least let someone at ‘home’ know you are safe at camp if out for a few nights and also the option to let someone know you need help but it is not an emergency. The ‘tracking’ feature may also be of use to you as someone at home will be able to see where your device is at regular intervals. How often it sends that data will depend on settings and subscriptions.

Due to the monthly costs it probably best suits someone who is going to be using it on a very regular basis or if you are planning a big trip abroad where you want some increased communication.

SPOT has just released the SPOT X which has the same ability to send messages as the Garmin inReach and at a similar price, this may be an option too.

Garmin inReach

The Garmin inReach is the most expensive option out of the 3 styles of the device, it has the highest purchase cost along with a monthly subscription but offers you the most amount of options, with live tracking, messaging, the option to download and use maps and pair to your other Garmin devices. It is all ‘singing and dancing’.

It contains an internal rechargeable battery which boasts a 90-hour battery life (depending on settings) but can be recharged if on a multi-day trip using a Micro USB port.

As with the SPOT you can choose annual or monthly subscriptions depending on your level of use. One thing that does differ with a SPOT device and a PLB is that you will receive a delivery confirmation of your SOS.

A great device that offers lots of options depending on what you might want from it and a device that those wishing to cover greater distances or go on solo multi-day treks/journeys or trekking/climbing abroad regularly should be thinking of investing in. There is nothing online about any reliability issues with sending messages and I have heard nothing but good feedback from users that I have spoken too.

As with many things in the outdoors, there is no black and white answer as to which one is the best option for each person or situation. We are quite often forced to decide between budget and usefulness, hopefully, the above will help you with this decision. If you have anything you would like to add to this or wish to discuss, please feel free to contact me at

Monday, 8 July 2019

Climbing Ben Nevis - What you need to know. A Ben Nevis guide.

Kirkhope Mountaineering Logo

Climbing Ben Nevis – What you need to know.
A Ben Nevis guide.

So, you have decided to climb Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. This guide is here to hopefully, answer all your questions. I have been Guiding and Leading on Ben Nevis for years and hear the same questions from clients and visitors repeatedly. Everything I write here is just advice, you are responsible for your own planning and actions whilst out on the hills. I am just trying to help some people that may never have been out in the Scottish hills before.

The route.

The most popular and easiest route up the mountain has many names, the Pony track, the Mountain path and even the Tourist track or path. Don’t be fooled by these names, you are heading up high into the Scottish mountains and the conditions can be difficult or dangerous if you are underprepared.
The main path is 1300m of ascent and descent and is approximately a 16km round trip. Average times range from 6-9 hours and although it is achievable for most people you do need to be exercising regularly before you try, it will make the route and your day more enjoyable. I promise you; you will enjoy it more if you have done at least some training. The route starts at the Ben Nevis Visitors centre in Glen Nevis from here it crosses the River Nevis and heads uphill towards the Achintee, from here it starts climbing and traversing around the flanks of Meall an t-Suidhe.
After about 1 Km another path joins from the right, this is an alternative start to the path and comes up from the Glen Nevis Scottish Youth Hostel.

From here the path starts to climb more steeply with a couple of Zig Zags up towards the ‘Halfway Lochan’ (Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe) the path is well constructed but it is rocky and rough underfoot with several larger steps. This is one of the steeper sections and it doesn’t seem like much now but wait until you are tired and, on your way, back down in a few hours.

Just below the ‘Halfway lochan’ the path turns sharply left at what is known locally as ‘Conservation corner’. Please stick to the main path, the path leading left up the hill is an old section of path that suffers badly with erosion and even after lots of effort by many people it still sees a huge number of traffic and it is not getting the chance to regenerate. I promise you it really isn’t that much quicker up or down.

As the path passes by the ‘Halfway Lochan’ it eases in angle and you get a chance to have a breather just before the halfway stage. Average times to this spot are about 1 ½ hours to 2 hours. The Mountain path now turns sharply right and continues to rise gently up towards the Red Burn. The path that heads left at this junction either takes you round under the North face or to the end of the Lochan. After you cross the Red Burn you start what is known as the upper Zig zags, the path goes back and forth with a total of 8 corners leading onto the edge of the Ben Nevis plateau. The distance between each corner gets smaller as you get higher (overall) and as you gain height, so the path becomes more and rougher underfoot.

Ben Nevis map

The Mountain path follows the Red route.

At the edge of the Plateau and just after corner 8 there is a small circular shelter, your journey time to this point will probably be between 2 ½ and 3 ½ hours. This is the point at which the path starts to cross the plateau with the final two short steep rises towards the summit. In Summer the path doesn’t completely follow the line of Cairns, but they will be visible as should the path be. You will then pass Tower gully and Gardyloo gully, both of which usually hold snow until July/August, at the top of Gardyloo gully, three cairns mark the change in direction, and you are just 150m, (2-3 mins) from the top. This last section will take you about 30mins – 45 mins. Awesome, you made it, well done. Grab a photo and enjoy the view, if you have one and then head back down the same way.

Descent times are usually 1-2 hours quicker than the time it will have taken you to get to the summit.

What is the weather really like?

In one word, changeable! I am asked all the time about whether it is safe to climb Ben Nevis in bad weather and the answer is, it depends on you and your experience. The summit of Ben Nevis reliably has snow on it from November through to August with the Mountain path covered completely by snow at any point between September and May, usually. It is rare but not uncommon for it to snow on the summit of Ben Nevis at some point through the summer months, so you should be prepared to navigate yourselves off the mountain, change your plans and climb another day or turn around.
So, it is changeable, what can we do about that? Modern weather forecasting is great, and they are very accurate nowadays even knowing when the weather will change down to the hour. I suggest you look at both forecasts before you make your plans and if you can get more forecasts, even better! The Mountain Weather Information Service forecast is great, but the Met office Ben Nevis Forecast is even better, with an hour by hour breakdown of the weather. With all this information you can then decide whether you want to be tackling Ben Nevis on your planned day or it can help you decide what kit you will be taking for the day.

Do I need a Guide?

Hiring a qualified guide to lead you on your Ben Nevis day has several advantages. They can show you the way in poor visibility or if the path is covered in snow, they can advise you on pacing yourself for the whole day, inform and educate you about the mountain’s environment and local history, keep your group together, help you to manage your temperature throughout the day, when and what to eat and just be good company. Just some of the things that a guide can do for you. The downside, they cost money.

Ben Nevis summit on the 21st June 2019

The Summit of Ben Nevis on the 21st June 2019. Photo: Andrew Hague.

What kit do I need?

Ah, the big one. There are loads of reports out there of ill-equipped walkers on Ben Nevis, flip flop wearing walkers with just a carrier bag, people wearing jeans and trainers. But what should you be wearing? The simple answer is it depends on the weather, again.

Poor weather kit list.

· Comfortable walking boots or approach shoes, that will offer grip and comfort preferably waterproof.
· Waterproof jacket and trousers.
· Comfortable walking socks.
· Base layer t-shirt to be worn next to the skin, merino wool or synthetic (not cotton).
· Comfortable walking trousers, something light and breathable (not jeans).
In your rucksack: -
· Warm mid layers. At least two, one to wear and one as an emergency layer.
· Hats and gloves.
· Head torch, it depends on the time of year in my opinion and what time you are walking.
· A small personal first aid kit containing plasters, ibuprofen, pain killers etc.
· A flask and/or drinks bottle, 1L should be enough.
· A rucksack. About a 30L pack will do.
· An orange emergency survival bag.
· Food (A collection of high sugar foods and some carbohydrates will help you through the day)
·A mobile phone in case of emergencies.
·Some way of navigating, a map and compass preferably.

Good weather kit list

· Comfortable walking boots or approach shoes, that will offer grip and comfort.
· Waterproof jacket and trousers if any rain or strong winds are forecast.
· Comfortable walking socks.
· Base layer t-shirt to be worn next to the skin, merino wool or synthetic (not cotton).
· Comfortable walking trousers, something light and breathable, could even be shorts on hotter days.
In your rucksack: -
· Warm mid layers. At least two, one to wear and one as an emergency layer. If it is due to be hot, just one will suffice.
· Hats and gloves.
· Head torch? it depends on the time of year in my opinion and what time you are walking.
· A small personal first aid kit containing plasters, ibuprofen, pain killers etc.
· A drinks bottle, 1L should be enough for most but you could take more if it is due to be hot.
· A rucksack. About a 30L pack will do.
· An orange emergency survival bag.
· Food (A collection of high sugar foods and some carbohydrates will help you through the day)
·A mobile phone in case of emergencies.
·Some way of navigating, a map and compass preferably.
·Sun cream and sun hat

They might not seem that different, but you can select what you think will be needed on the day after having gathered information about current weather conditions and the weather forecast.

Do I need poles?

For some people walking poles can be a saviour, especially if they have sore knees on descent. It is well documented that poles help to reduce the amount of force on your knees, but some people just don’t get on with them. If you have used poles before then I would suggest you use/carry them again if you haven’t don’t worry, plenty of people don’t’ use them but if you feel they may be of some help then I suggest you use your poles before your Ben Nevis trip so as you are more familiar with them.

Are there any toilets?

There are no toilets on the mountain, the only access you have to toilets is at the Ben Nevis Visitors centre. The opening hours of these change during the year so it is worth checking with them if you have any questions.

Where do I go to the toilet on the mountain then?

If you just need to urinate, then pretty much go wherever you want if it is not directly into a water source. I suggest you try to plan in advance but If you need to take care of something else whilst on the mountain, I suggest you carry some poo bags so you can carry your waste and tissues/sanitary items down with you. This might sound disgusting but so are the piles of rotting faeces and baby wipes that litter the few places on the mountain that you can get a bit of privacy. There are approximately 120,000 people that head up Ben Nevis each year and if even just 1% of them decide they need to ‘leave a small package’ that is 1200 ‘packages’ being left in just a couple of locations.

Can I drink the water on the Mountain path?

I used to happily drink the water from the Red burn but having seen the rise in numbers on the path and considered the above information about toilets, I no longer drink from this side of the mountain. Carrying 1-2 litres of water should be enough for all but the hottest days.

Where do I park to walk up the Mountain path?

You have four choices really, you can either park at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, at Achintee, the Ben Nevis Visitors centre or leave your car at your accommodation and catch the bus or a taxi into Glen Nevis. Parking at the Youth Hostel and Achintee is limited and free. I would recommend parking at the Ben Nevis Visitors centre, yes they do ask for a small charge but this charge is to help with the facilities at the start of the path, such as the toilets and a portion of this parking charge will also go back into maintaining the Mountain path.

Ben Nevis litter

The usual haul of litter after a day of guiding on Ben Nevis. Photo: Scott Kirkhope

Is there anywhere I can leave my litter on the Mountain?

No, please take all litter with you! It is very simple if you carried it up please take it back down with you. Absolutely everything should go back down with you, cigarette ends, Orange and Banana peel and any waste food and packaging. The environment on Ben Nevis is a delicate and balanced system and it is already changing due to the high level of Potassium from rotting Banana skins.

Can I leave a memorial or spread my relatives’ ashes?

If you wish to leave a memorial, there is an area down by the Visitors centre and the John Muir Trust, who own the upper parts of Ben Nevis would wish that any memorial was placed at this location. Any memorial left on the mountain will probably be removed at some point during an organised litter pick. The spreading human ashes fall into the same category really. No one can stop you but please think about the effect you are having on the environment and other users, who may not really want to be sat having a bit to eat whilst surrounded by human remains.

Can I take my dog with me?

Dogs are allowed on the Mountain path but please be aware that there will be sheep on the Mountain and that your dog should be under your control, whether on a lead or comes when you call it. Please also bear in mind that it is a big day out and the path is all bare rock and gravel and that your dog should be accustomed to walking on this terrain or have protection, so their paws do not get damaged.

Still, have some questions?

If you do have any questions then please feel free to send them to and I will get back to you as soon as possible. I also run a Mountain Guiding company based in Fort William that offers a wide range of courses and routes to take you to the summit of Ben Nevis in Summer and Winter.