Use of GPS trackers for expeditions is growing in popularity. If you are considering using them, then it is important to understand their capabilities and their limitations. There are several popular types of GPS tracker; SPOT, Iridium, and GSM.
SPOT trackers used to be a very popular choice for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, but their popularity has waned in recent years as other competing tracker technology has emerged on the market and become more affordable. SPOT offer several different types of tracker, but the most popular unit is the SPOT Gen3 device. As the name suggests, this is a third-generation tracker. It is greatly improved on the generation 1 and generation 2 and is considerably smaller and has a better battery life than previous incarnations. SPOT trackers are powered by,4 x Lithium batteries which can last several weeks, depending on how frequently the unit is used. The Lithium cells are expensive, so the cost of these should be factored into the costs of yearly ownership. The generation 3 model will also operate from a 5v cable, and from NN12 rechargeable cells. These NN12 cells are expensive, and the battery life is less than using the lithium equivalents, but regular users might opt to use these instead.
SPOT trackers transmit to direct to the Globalstar satellite network, which gives them a good global-coverage but it is not 100% of the globe. It is important to check the manufacturer website to see if the areas you are travelling to have reliable coverage. Because the tracker transmits direct to satellite, it requires a clear view of the sky in all directions, so should always be mounted on the outside of a bag, at the top. SPOTS do not work under heavy canopy, and can sometimes struggle to reconnect and send updates if they have been out of signal. Sometimes a reset of the device is required to bring it back online.
SPOT trackers are not two-way communication devices, but they do have the capability to send a pre-set (in advance) “OK”, “custom”, or “send help” message to the SPOT tracking website. These are activated by buttons on the device. The manufacturer recommends these buttons must be left active for at least 20 minutes to give the message the maximum chance to be sent. SPOT trackers have an emergency SOS button, which will contact an international rescue service (GEOS), if the user has paid extra for the annual subscription. Finally, tracker location sharing can be activated with another button on the device. This must be activated every time the tracker is powered on.
SPOT Gen3 have a minimum subscription term of 12 months, which costs 200 Euros + Vat per year (based on 2019 prices, and payment in full in advance). It is not possible to Pay as You Go, each month, like you can with Iridium and GSM trackers. The standard SPOT subscription will allow the device to transmit one location message every 10 minutes. This can be changed to once every 5 minutes and can also be changed to once every 2.5 minutes if an extra 85 + VAT Euro annual premium is paid.
SPOT trackers natively display their location on Google Maps on the SPOT website. Google Maps are not ideal for most Duke of Edinburgh (D of E) expeditions, which favour use of Ordnance Survey Maps. In order to show the SPOT location on Ordnance Survey Maps, subscribers must seek use a third-party service who specialise in expedition tracking who take the data from the SPOT website and present it on another GPS tracking portal on the Ordnance Survey Maps for a small monthly fee.
SPOT trackers are generally reliable, providing they are carefully positioned on top of a bag, and not used under heavy tree cover. They are the most expensive trackers to operate for Duke of Edinburgh use, because the contracts must run all year around. In contrast, Iridium and GSM trackers can both be used on demand, any month of the year. I will discuss the pro’s and con’s of the Iridium and GSM trackers in separate articles. Hopefully this article has provided some useful information to help you decide which tracker is right for you.