What's the best tracker for expeditions; DofE®, Scouting, or planned hikes?
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
What is the best tracker for expeditions?
The answer is, as always, it depends. Here are some considerations
Which areas will you use the tracker
What safety/SOS features do you need
How much battery life do you need
Do you require two-way SMS, weather or navigation
This is typically the main driver for any organisation. The first decision is hire or purchase. As a general rule of thumb, if you intend to hire a tracker more than 4 times in a year for use over more than 2 years, it will more than likely be cheaper to purchase one.
LTE/GSM Trackers are hired for £15 for a typical 3-day long expedition. SPOT are hired for £25 for the same duration, and InReach are hired for £45.
If you decided to purchase, an LTE/GSM and SPOT both cost £125, and an inReach mini costs £280. The yearly operating costs of owning the devices vary considerably. An average organisation uses a tracker for 6 months a year, and hibernates it for the other 6 months. Based on that, an LTE/GSM costs £63 per year to operate. A SPOT costs £150 for the same period usage and an inReach costs £270.
Areas of Use
All trackers have pros and cons in terms of geographical areas where they may perform better than another model.
An LTE/GSM tracker fitted with a "multinet" SIM will transmit its location back to the internet (so you can view it) on almost every network in the world. They transmit on 4G (a type of LTE) and also on 2G where there is no 4G. They need only a faint signal, so will work in areas where your mobile phone will not. If there is no mobile signal, on any mobile network, these devices store the locations and retransmit them when back in an area of cover.
A SPOT tracker transmits its location via the Globalstar constellation of satellites. There are 24 Globalstar satellites in orbit. The SPOT advantage is that they are not reliant on mobile networks. However, there may not always be a Globalstar satellite in line of sight for a successful transmission. SPOTs work in most areas all over the world with the following exceptions; no coverage in the Polar regions, and intermittent coverage around the equator and oceans. SPOT do not transmit under tree canopy or anywhere they are unable to get line of sight to one of the satellites in their constellation; this can include hilly/steep sided terrain and valleys.
A Garmin inReach transmits location back via the Iridium constellation of satellites. There are 82 of these in orbit, and this provides 100% global coverage. However, they also require line of sight, so may not work under heavy tree canopy. In our experience inReach are considerably more reliable under tree cover and in hilly areas than SPOT devices. This reliability is reflected in the high cost of purchase and the high cost of satellite data plan.
GSM/LTE trackers have an SOS button which, on the Track Trail platform, sends an SMS message to up to 3 x mobile phones numbers. The SMS has a weblink to the tracker location, the grid reference, long/lat and a timestamp. The recipient can then triage the message and decide if to pass the details along to emergency services.
The SPOT tracker can send preset OK, custom message, and Help message. Those messages can be sent via email and SMS to multiple recipients. The SPOT also has an emergency SOS button which contacts an external emergency rescue service, and will iniate a rescue. In some countries rescue is chargable, so the user may be liabe for costs unless rescue insurance has been purchased.
Identical to the SPOT, the inReach can send from a choice custom messages. Those messages can be sent via email and/ or SMS to multiple recipients. The inReach also has an emergency SOS button which contacts an external emergency rescue service, and will iniate a rescue. In some countries rescue is chargable, so the user may be liabe for costs unless rescue insurance has been purchased.
A LTE/GSM will last for around 6 days if the location update frequency is set to send every 2 minutes. The battery is internal lithium, and rechargable via USB.
A SPOT requires 4 x AAA batteries. Energizer Lithium (£7 for 4) provide the best battery life of up to several weeks. They can use rechargable AAA but battery life is only 6-9 days typically.
An inReach Explorer+ has a 4-day battery life if sending one location update every 10 minutes and the screen is not used often. An inreach mini has a 2-day battery life when sending one update every 10 minutes.
*DofE is a registered trademark of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme
Two Way Communications
Neither GSM/LTE or SPOT devices have two-way communication.
Only inReach devices have this capability. The inReach Explorer+ has the capability to send and receive SMS messages to a normal mobile phone number, as well as communicate with another inReach device. You can send an SMS from the device itself using the arrow keys and the buttons, or you can connect a mobile phone via bluetooth, and use the Garmin App to send SMS. Similarly the inReach mini you can connect via bluetooth and send SMS.
For almost all areas of the UK, an LTE/GSM tracker will outperform the other models, and cost considerably less to operate.
If you are going to be in an area where there is zero mobile cover for large areas (there are few of these in the UK, but some exist for example in the most remote parts of Scotland. THere are also some valleys in Wales and even the Yorkshire dales where there is no mobile coverage), then a SPOT device maybe be helpful in those circumstances.
If you need two-way communication or guaranteed service all over the globe, the only choice is the Garmin inReach.