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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org