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December 2016

SPOT versus inReach


With the ubiquity of satellite messenger devices, they have become an essential piece of kit for any outdoor adventurer. Their prevalence, affordability, and ease of access remove most excuses to not carry one, and while you may never use the SOS function, they can – and indeed have – saved lives The two main players on this market are the Spot Gen3 Messenger and the Garmin inReach devices who are since 2016 part of the Garmin family. One of the most common questions we get in the shops is from those customers wondering what the difference is between the two. These both share the same basic functions, but one has many added capabilities to go along with its slightly higher price point. There is a lot to this conversation, and it differs greatly for each individual, but here is the quick nitty-gritty. If you are solely looking for a device that will enable you to send out SOS and “I’m ok” signals and nothing more, you are looking for a safety device. Both Spot and inReach will do the trick, the Spot will do so at a lesser up-front hit on your credit card bill. If you are looking for a device that can send out SOS signals, as well as send and receive text messages (2-way communication), then you are looking for a communication device. In this case the inReach is your better choice. The new inReach models also include GPS navigation and even maps! Both inReach and Spot start with a basic plan for emergency use at $19.95/mo. With Spot you need to add a service plan of 12 months whereas with inReach you are free to pause your plan and upgrade or downgrade it multiple times during the year. You are looking at a bigger initial investment with inReach.

"The big takeaway here is that there really is no reason to go into the backcountry without one of these"

Having had the opportunity to use both devices in many different types of trips and scenarios, I have come to love both, but for varied reasons. The Spot is more affordable. At $170 the device is less than half the price of the inReach. It is also half the bulk and weight – a real bonus for the weight conscious climbers or ultralight backpackers out there. The Spot has the ability to send one way messages, but these messages must be programmed through the Spot website. There is no way to change these mid-trip without a smartphone and LTE service, something you will not find in most backcountry locations. This is not necessarily a deal-breaker; it just means you need to tailor it to your needs. For example, when I took off on long, rough, logging roads with my spot device, I would make sure my custom help message (not SOS), was programmed to say “Truck broken down, please come find me at this location”. This is an emergency, but not an appropriate scenario for the SOS button. My check in message would usually say “I’m safe! Here I am”, or something to that effect. So when I drift beyond my designated return time I can send messages saying I am OK to folks who may be concerned, and thereby quell their desire to call for help. In my experience the Spot device proved reliable, lightweight, and convenient… it also provides a healthy peace of mind knowing it is inside my backpack.

The one limiting factor of the Spot is the lack of two-way communication and the inability to customize your messages in the field. This is where the inReach shines. In the above example of the truck breaking down in the middle of nowhere, with the Spot I can only communicate my location and the fact that the truck is broken. With the inReach device, I can send a custom text message to a friend asking them to come help me with the toolbox from my garage, some booster cables, and an alternator for a 2004 Dakota. Two way communication is extremely handy in situations such as this. It can also make an SOS response easier and more effective by providing the opportunity to communicate specific details of the emergency to the responders. With the Spot, Search and Rescue will only get the news that there is an unspecified emergency at this location. With inReach, you could communicate details about the emergency that could help rescuers prepare before they even reach you. Beyond the beauty of two way communications, the inReach also features a more powerful antenna, getting messages out faster in deep canyons and dense forest. The difference in the antennas and messaging times has been noticeable for me deep in the coastal rainforests of Vancouver Island. Another nice extra of the inReach is the ability to receive a weather forecasts. This works the same as messaging - you can request a basic or premium weather forecast for your location or a specific waypoint/ GPS coordinate. Since inReach is part of Garmin, they brought out two new models that have the unique functionality of two-way communication combined with GPS navigation and even detailed maps! This means you do not have to bring a separate GPS with you - one less thing to worry about and weight to carry. The new inReach SE+ features 2-Way Messaging, SOS, Tracking, Weather Forecasts and basic GPS navigation. Whereas the new inReach Explorer+ also has Preloaded TOPO Maps, GPS with Robust Navigation and Navigation Sensors. The Explorer+ and SE+ don't need to be paired up with a mobile device in order to compose and send custom text messages, This is still possible though and their Earthmate® app gives you additional map options and the convenience of using your own phone.

The inReach is the more costlier and heavier device of the two, 213 grams vs 114 grams for the Spot. The initial cost is $359 - $599 depending on the model plus a $30 activation fee. This does inspire a few people to reconsider taking the Spot instead, but I feel it is important to think about what the device is going to be used for. Ultimately, both devices can – and have – saved lives. This function remains the same between the two. If you wish to be able to communicate two ways, like the idea of the more powerful antenna and potentially even the combination with GPS navigation, then the inReach is for you. If you are simply looking for a lightweight, safety only device for a cost friendlier to the pocket-book, then the Spot Gen3 is a proven device that will serve you well.

The big takeaway here is that there really is no reason to go into the backcountry without one of these. Everyone who has seen the film 127 Hours (we highly recommend this movie/book!) can imagine it may have had a far better ending if the protagonist had a Satellite communicator along with the camcorder and the dull knife. Have a look at the available Satellite Communicators on Author: Karsten Klawitter Update: Petra Hekkenberg 5-1-2017