SPOT -vs- PLB

When I started riding my Harley, I bought a SPOT Satellite Messenger. It is a small GPS Tracking device that you can carry with you. One of its functions is that it can make a map of places that I rode my bike to. As an added bonus it allowed my girlfriend to see that I was safe. Because the SPOT works off satellites and not a cellular network, I could even send an “I’m OK” message to her when my phone didn’t have service or, if things got bad, I could send a “Help!” message that would send rescuers to help me.

So this SPOT thing is pretty darn cool! It does a couple of things pretty well and all for a small fee. Over time though, I noticed that I wasn’t logging my trips as much as I used to, and my girlfriend never checked the online webpage that would show her where I was. So as time passed my reasoning for carrying the SPOT Messenger started to change and the main reason that I carry the SPOT now is for the peace of mind that it brings in case I need help outside of my cellular coverage area. This got me thinking though, is the SPOT Messenger the right tool for the job? So I started looking around the Internet and started reading up on Personal Locator Beacons or PLB for short.

A PLB is similar to the SPOT Messenger in that it relies on satellites and not cellular towers, and it too can send a distress beacon if you need help. But that’s where the similarities end as a PLB does nothing else. It has one singular purpose and that is to get help at your side when you need it the most. So why consider a PLB if it only does one thing? Because it does this one thing exceptionally well.

In Brief, both of these devices when activated will send out a signal to their satellite network with the GPS coordinates of the device. This signal is then received by someone at a monitoring center and sends help to those coordinates. The big difference is how these two devices accomplish this.

A PLB will send out a distress signal without a GPS lock, it will broadcast on a specific frequency and as satellites move over the area it will triangulate your position. With each satellite pass, the monitoring center is able to pin point your location, this entire process takes only a few minutes but once the PLB has a satellite lock, it will update its signal with your exact GPS coordinates. 

The SPOT Messenger uses a network of commercial satellites to transmit your signal to their own Monitoring Center. Whereas a Personal Locator Beacon uses a government network of satellites that was specifically built for Search and Recovery and is monitored by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) and the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA).

A PLB will also broadcast a second signal on a different frequency. Remember those Wild Kingdom episodes where Jim Fowler would tag a Lion with a special radio transmitter and then Marlin Perkins would use a funny looking TV antenna to find the Lion and take all the credit? Well that is what this second signal does but luckily, it won’t be Marlin Perkins that comes to help you.

The other draw back of the SPOT Messenger is its low transmit power, which means that it needs a direct line of sight to the sky, so people that use it for motorcycling will end up mounting it to the motorcycle in some way. Which means in the case of an accident, you would have to make your way back to the motorcycle to activate it.

So which one did I decide to go with? Well both. I like the mapping and check-in features of the SPOT Messenger but I wanted the extra security of the Personal Locator Beacon. 

If you are considering buying one, do your own research and choose one that best suits your own needs.

 SPOT MessengerPersonal Locator Beacon
Price$120 to $170$200 to $300
Transmit Power0.4 Watts5 Watts
Transmit Frequency1610MHz406MHz and 121.5MHz
Time between Help Beacons5 Minutes50 Seconds
BatteriesAA User ReplaceableSealed Non-Replaceable
Battery LifeDepends on UsageOne Time use or send in for replacement every 5 years, whichever comes first.
Satellite SystemGlobalstarCOSPAS-SARSAT
Additional FunctionsTracking and Custom Check-In MessagesNone
Annual Costs$99 to $149 YearlyNone