Gear Guy

TerraFix 406 Personal Locator Beacon     Photo: courtesy, ACR Electronics

Q:

What’s the cost/benefit ratio of sat. messengers and personal locator beacons?

Have you tested the SPOT satellite messenger, specifically the tracking function that adds extra cost? Do you think it’s worth it? Stephanie Providence, Utah

A:I've used a SPOT satellite messenger, but I haven't "used" one—that is, I haven’t had to send a message.

The SPOT certainly is an interesting concept. It uses a private satellite network to track the SPOT user's GPS coordinates. The unit can send a signal that people back home can use to track your location on Google Maps. Or, if need be, the user can send a distress signal, with GPS coordinates, that alerts authorities to a problem. Then, voila! A big helicopter drops out of the sky and hauls your sorry ass to a hospital. Alternatively, a user can signal for "non-emergency" assistance, such as a sprained ankle that renders a user immobile but within reach of their cache of Wild Turkey and beef jerky.

Cost for the SPOT unit is $169. An emergency-only service plan is $100 a year. To add the tracking feature is another $49. So, that can add up.

The device certainly works as advertised. But, some reviewers have noted that it needs a really clear view of the sky to get out a signal—something that may not always be easily achievable.

The alternative is a more traditional personal locator beacon. These send out an emergency-only signal and don't have the tracking feature. That would include units such as the ACR Electronics TerraFix 406. It's a tough little unit that uses non-proprietary tracking technology to notify emergency workers of your location. It also sends a homing signal that brings them that last mile right to you—a nice feature. It will cost you $500, but that's a one-time cost. The ACR unit seems to have more power and more ability to "hit" a satellite than the SPOT.

Myself, I'd probably go with the ACR. I just find the SPOT's features somewhat frivolous. Sure, it's kind of cool that your friends can track you on Google Maps, but really, so what?

Plus, I remain wildly ambivalent about units such as this. Studies have shown that all the safety features on modern cars, such as anti-lock brakes, airbags, etc., actually convince people to push the limit more than they otherwise would. I think the same thing happens with "safety-related" outdoor gear. That has to be weighed against the fact that bad things can happen, regardless of whether we're being careful or not.

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