Q:

What’s your opinion of this year’s new personal locator beacons?

This year, at least two new quasi Personal Locator Beacons are coming out. One is called TracMe and the other is SPOT. Being a known gear junkie (the first step is to admit you have a problem), I'm getting hit up by my associates to get the low down on these critters. So, can you help us out and do a side by side comparison on these new products? Ranger Randy Grand Junction, Colorado

Oct 5, 2007
Outside
Outside Magazine
SPOT Satellite Messenger

SPOT Satellite Messenger

A:

Well, you have at least taken that first step. I remain wildly ambivalent about locating devices, or many “self rescue" gadgets. Yes, they often work. But are they apt to lead you to try things you wouldn’t otherwise try? I know that being on my own in the wilderness makes me considerably more cautious. On the other hand, I was simply hiking along a trail a month back and rolled my bad ankle. It wasn’t serious, but it could have been—and I was a long ways from anyone. So there’s that.

And then there is the fact that technology HAS changed, becoming more affordable and simpler. Hence your question about the TracMe and SPOT.

The new, Australian-developed TracMe ($150; tracme.com) is about the size of baseball. When activated, it sounds out a radio signal every 15 seconds that says “Help…emergency!" Search and rescue units using special kits supplied by TracMe, or with a radio tuned to the TracMe frequency and a GPS, can use the signal to hone in on the sender. The advantage to this is that TracMe is simple, uses a widely-monitored frequency, and reduces the risk of accidental notification should a satellite-based beacon ping a satellite. Once that happens, a search is underway with no callback. It’s also very light, at 1.6 ounces.

The down side is that someone really has to be looking for you before the TracMe beacon works. So if you’re out on a long trip and break your leg on the second day, that’s not so good. Plus, as a radio device, it is line-of-sight. I can picture situations where even if rescuers are fairly close, they wouldn’t pick up your signal. But overall I think it’s a good concept and well-suited for day hikers and people such as that.

The SPOT Satellite Messenger ($170; findmespot.com) is shaped a little like a PDA. It sends signals to a proprietary satellite system operated by Globalstar, the parent company of SPOT. What’s really interesting about the SPOT gadget is that it uses GPS satellites to constantly update your location. And it can be used to do different things, such as calling for help or just sending a signal so that friends and family can track your location on a map. If a distress call is sent, however, the SPOT device promptly notifies searchers and pinpoints your location to 20 feet. Battery life is impressive: 14 days in “track" mode, and seven in “911" mode. It’s a little heavier than the TracMe, but not too bad at about 7 ounces. And it works anywhere on the planet, or very close to it. The biggest drawback: You pay a fee to be “in the club." The SPOT service is $99/year, plus $49/year for the tracking feature. But for folks on long trips or who might need help RIGHT AWAY, I like SPOT. It’s easy to use, compact, and affordable. I think its technology is better and more reliable than the TracMe, too. I might have to buy one.

Check out the new 2007-2008 Winter Outside Buyer’s Guide, packed with reviews of more than 300 new gear must-haves. It’s available on newsstands this month.

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