The SPOT Gen3 Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). A personal locator beacon of this type is like a combination GPS and satellite phone. It sends the device’s GPS coordinates via the satellite phone network. This purchase was a concession to my sweetie so she would worry about me less while I was out alone in the boonies. The Gen3 has two basic functions: it transmits its present location every 10 minutes and it transmits messages, both via satellite. The messages are sent by pressing one of four message buttons: OK, custom, friends please come help, and direct to SAR help. While it can send messages, it cannot receive them.
The Gen3 can have the satellite signal blocked just like any GPS unit but I did not have any troubles with it. In fact I found it pretty robust even in what was fairly dense tree cover. While I was hiking around all over the hills I left the Gen3 in a pouch at the top of my pack with the logo shown in the picture facing the sky. It rarely showed that the signals were not being sent and when I pulled it out of the pouch and held it flat in my hand the tacking signal went through.
As I mentioned before there are four messages I can send. All except the S.O.S. message can be customized to display any message I please but I have to set them up prior to the trip. It is a pretty simple process for customizing the messages and it is all web based. The first message is the checking in/I’m OK message. The second message is labeled as a speech bubble. The third message is a help message that goes to the emails you designated online while setting the device up but the message does NOT go to emergency services. The last button sends a message to emergency rescue. The button is labeled S.O.S. but it should really be labeled $.O.$. This is the money button. When you press it you are mobilizing resources and somebody has to pay for them and that somebody could be you. You press that button when you don’t care about being on the hook for $10,000-$60,000 and perhaps much more. One of the neat things about the SPOT is that you can buy SAR insurance through them. I paid about $18 for it. For more information on SAR (Search and Reascue) costs check out this article, Who pays for search and rescue operations?
A really cool feature of the Gen3 is the message confirmation. There are eight lights on the Gen3. The top three are power, GPS, and send confirmation. The bottom three are custom message, tracking, and Ok. There are lights on the side for friends come help and S.O.S. Here is how they work. Let’s say we want to send a check-in message. We press that button down for about a three count and the light below it begins to flash. This means that the Gen3 is trying to send that message. You will know it has been successful when the message sent light (at the top right) is also flashing green. If the message sent light is flashing red then you know something didn’t work. If for some reason the PLB does not have a good GPS signal the GPS light will also flash red instead of green.
I paid $150 for the Gen3 at REI. There was a $75 mail-in rebate which is just now processing. Then to buy the insurance and a year’s worth of satellite coverage I paid $170. Other devices offer monthly arrangements but I like the idea of the PLB being good to go at anytime.
Once you get it all setup it is very simple to use. There is a power button on the side. Hold that down until the lights start flashing. This is apparently some sort of self diagnostic. Once this is completed the lights stop flashing and the power light starts flashing slowly. When you want it to begin tracking you press the center bottom button with a boot print on it. The device will send a message via satellite every 10 minutes to the app with your GPS location at that time. It’s sort of like a breadcrumb trail on a GPS. The frequency of breadcrumbs varies based on the plan you get. It was a 10 minute interval for the basic plan I got. This allows those at home to see your progress and to have your last known location should a search and rescue be initiated by them. There are other plans which offer greater tracking frequency and some other features. I imagine there are situations which call for these services but I didn’t need them. With regard to the plan, my sweetie found the level of notification completely satisfactory (Except the first morning when I forgot to hit the check in button when I woke up!).
When looking for a PLB we read about a bunch of different devices. Some have a long antenna while others have two-way texting capacity. With all the technology available it is tempting to not simply want a satellite phone. There were complaints about the texting PLBs not reliably sending or receiving the messages. While I’m sure they were all great devices, it seemed to me that the more the unit could do, the more that could go wrong. After reading online and talking to the guy at REI I decided that the Gen3 had the right balance of features.
This device is for improbable and extreme emergencies. I have found that when dealing with this kind of emergency equipment one starts using fear instead of thinking to make decisions. When you look at these plans don’t get sucked into worrying about all the “what-ifs.” An examples of getting sucked into the “what-ifs” is buy a plan for services that you don’t need. Remember that this is just a machine and no machine will work in all situations. Don’t stress out about finding one that will. Just remember that it will work most of the time and when it does it gives you a huge advantage in an emergency and folks at home piece of mind.
The tracking feature is accessed via the website:
or the SPOT App: