05 November 2010


A few years ago I purchased a PLB for sea kayaking.
It was the new GPS enabled unit that pin points its position more accurately for easier location by the emergency crews.
While I would technically (and legally) be better served by a proper EPIRB, the PLB size makes it a safer unit for sea kayaking, in my opinion.
I can wear mine attached to the shoulder of my life jacket (aka as PFD... dang there are a lot of acronyms in this write up :-).
An EPIRB would probably be stowed below deck when out at sea in my kayak where a possible emergency situation could see me getting separated from my vessel.
No good having that emergency beacon below deck then...
While my PLB is small and light enough to not be felt when paddling I have not been totally satisfied by its reliability.
I hear of way too many units failing due to water intrusion (see this post).
The initial purchase cost is also a bit on the steep side for some paddlers.
How much does your life cost?_ is a typical question but one has a hard time coughing up that kind of money on a safety unit that most likely (and hopefully) will never be used.
That made me think of the alternative: the SPOT.
While SPOT can still be used as an emergency beacon (some argue that is not as effective: longer response time) the little unit offers more features that would make the purchase more "justified".
SPOT has the ability to send out a signal for emergency as well as one that just asks for help, but not rescue.

One can pre-write a message that can be sent out to his/her contacts (email or mobile txt message) and alert them of your wish.
Any message: "need more food" , "come and  get me, I'm chucking in the sponge", "" "all is good, I just hit a snag"... you name it.
SPOT also can send out your location position to your contacts.
It can be sent out as a Google Earth placement and your "support crew" can determine your whereabouts.
And that's a great feature, in my opinion.
I wish I had a SPOT when on a trip where I could not communicate via cell phone (too remote, no coverage) to my land crew on the estimated meeting time for the arrival pick up.
Sure, a satellite phone would have solved that but that gadget is even more expensive than the PLB.
SPOT uses less power than a satellite phone too: no need for recharging.
Initially costsing considerably less than a PLB, SPOT requires an annual subscription to the service.
After 4 years of SPOT use (including unit purchase), the costs equals to the one of an inexpensive PLB.
I can't comment on reliability, yet.

Is SPOT the perfect tool?
Not really.
I would like to see the ability to send out more than just pre-recorded messages.
I hope that in the future SPOT will offer a unit that might do that.
Or maybe there will be an "emergency beacon" app for the iPhone :-)


  1. The SPOT subscription is predatory and should not be rewarded by succumbing to it.

    People need to subscribe with their credit card before they can start using the spot. The credit card information is set up as AUTOMATIC RENEWAL.

    There have been numerous reports of people who got rid of their spot, sold it, lost it, stopped using it ... and these customers had horrific time talking to SPOT customer service about cancelling their subscription, especially cancelling the automatic renewals. In many cases the person thought the subscription was cancelled only to see the charges again on the card.

    The SPOT pretty much subcontracts call centers to deal with customer service and billing issues. This creates a very impersonal experience and lax results.

    There have been also numerous issues with SPOT failing to work. One good example is Jake Stachoviak's Portage to Portage web site in which his SPOT failed to work on several occassions and calls to customer service for help, replacement and activation resulted in multiple days of inactivity. In other words - the unit can not be relied upon to work.

    Finally, the dissemination of SPOT devices to the masses created a backlash from the rescue agencies who now keep getting people pushing the RESCUE ME button for the most trivial tasks.

    Buyer Beware

  2. - ACR offers a "real" EPRIB the size of a SPOT, maybe even smaller, which can be easily put in the pocket of a PFD.

    - The subscription costs of a SPOT are higher after 3 years than the costs of an EPIRB.

    - The SPOT works on the satellites of the unreliable satellite phone network, the 406 mHz ACR EPIRB works on a dedicated satellite system, which so far never had failures and is run by NOAA/US COAST GUARD, and has no subscription fees.

    - The so called "rescue-stories on the SPOT website are laughable to say the least ( a man pressed the RESCUE ME button in the car driving on the way to the hospital etc.). The much publicised rescue story by SPOT of the kayaker rescued off Tasmania was not true, since he got rescued and seen from the shore.

  3. I to yous a spot , but ther no way I wold youse it for an emergancy ther just to unreliabal, on a bad day I can even get it to send in my back yard. I only youse it for contact with frends and family , to let then know wher I am and what im doing , the googal earth feature is grate ,my mum and dad love to see wher we are on the satalite pic . and the spot team are bad news to deal with , its also not recognised by AMSA as a PLB so of shore you wold stil ned a 406 becon with you
    Mick M,
    flat erth sails

  4. Anonymous, I like your enthusiasm on warning me and my readers on the shortcomings of the SPOT however you seem to come across just a bit over zealous.
    Are there any personal experiences with the malfunction of the SPOT ?
    I would like to hear more on the SPOT…

  5. Mick, thank you for your comment.
    I know you are a reliable person so I will take your findings seriously.
    Now let me go down to the rubbish bin and resurrect that PLB I tossed out last night :-)
    (just kidding)

  6. no no you got me all wrong. Overzealous is not it. When I write, I just focus directly to stay on topic and many times it comes across as too direct. Take it any way you want. I'm just a guy and I have no vested interest in the demise of SPOT.

  7. Little known fact is that PLB batteries are guaranteed for 5 years. Replacement can only be done at an authorized dealer and is $150 in the US. I was told the the manufacturer would not sell you the battery direct.

    The new PLBs have a non-emergency button through 406Link.com at about half the price of SPOT subscription.

    New PLBs transmit at 6W. What is the power SPOT transmitter?

  8. SPOT transmits at 0.4 Watts.

  9. Hi Gnarly,

    SPOT is a nice toy to have if you are out of phone range of your friends. As others have said it is expensive on the subscriptions.

    I have a 6 year old ACR PLB and had its battery replaced and the unit tested at 5 years. It was returned with a number of technical test certificates showing it was fully functional, despite 5 years dunking in sea water. An EPIRB/PLB emergency signal goes straight through to the coastguard it is registered with. The SPOT signal does not, it needs to be relayed by SPOT employees.

    I have no personal experience of the reliability of SPOT but Patrick Winterton used one on his crossing from The Outer Hebrides to the Faroes. It failed.

    If you are seperated from your kayak and trying to hold a beacon above the water, to ensure the best signal goes out, I would rather have the power of a PLB than a SPOT at less than 10% PLB power.

    In the UK there are a number of cheaper PLBs on the market now. They have a 24 hour transmit life rather than the 48 hour transmit life of the more expensive models. You can now get a McMurdo Fast Find 210 GPS for £200 to £230. A SPOT is £150 plus subscription. I know what one I would rather have!


  10. I'm a virgin when it comes to PLB, EPIRB, SPOT, etc. I have aversion to electronic gizmos in general, for various reasons. I just heard about the DeLorme PN60w with SPOT that can supposedly do everything. I mention it on my latest tsunami rangers blog, but wonder if it works.

  11. I have yet to use a spot but in the NWT in Canada it is very popular with small plane pilots. I know one airline that has one in every plane and my neighbour never flies without his. I have a friend that is a long distance solo canoeist and he uses nothing other than a map and compass and has paddled across Canada touching every ocean. Map and compass only does not even know how to use a GPS never mind anything else.

  12. I have been very happywith my SPOT that I have used on the coast of BC and in Ecuador for 3 years now.

  13. There's no question that the rollout of the second generation SPOT was a corporate disaster of the highest order, what with all the stories of limited availablility and the apparent lack of quality assurance.
    That said, I use a first generation SPOT and find it works great.


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