An ELT For the Rest of Us?

SPOT is (as far as I can tell) a company that maintains it’s own satellite capability in order to provide a sort of enhanced emergency locator transmitter capacity for hikers and other regular folks. It has the basic functionality of the kind of ELT that planes and arctic canoeists carry — push the big red button and a signal goes out to emergency responders with your gps location. Unlike an ELT it’s designed to be always or often in contact with the satellite network. This enables some somewhat gimmicky tricks: “messaging” (I think there’s actually a button that sends a canned ‘I’m OK’ signal to your parents), and pushing your location to Google Earth, so people can follow your progress on your big trip.

I’m not salivating about the gimmicks, but if you ever do get a long way from people, having access to emergency services is a legitimate consideration. Canada and the US in particular are huge countries, with genuinely vast zones that are a) prime wilderness travel areas and b) totally outside of cell range. Having an ELT is probably overkill if you’re going up to Metcalf Rock on the Bruce Trail, and stepping over all the picnickers along the way. But if you’re contemplating a longer or more remote excursion, especially solo, it could matter. (And I’ve found myself thinking vaguely about the Pacific Crest Trail lately. Not sure where that’s coming from.)

I haven’t gone shopping for an ELT lately, so I don’t know what the costs of the units or the service charges are, but $170 plus $10/month for one of the SPOT devices is probably substantially cheaper. One prime question for either service: where does the emergency signal go? ELTs traditionally broadcast directly to some governmental dispatch headquarters, usually military. They probably didn’t contemplate every weekend warrior having a line in to their little room, so it isn’t surprising that the SPOT does not communicate to the government. Rather they maintain a contract with the pseudo-official “GEOS International Emergency Response Center“. The employees there will decide who is the most appropriate agency to respond to your situation and get in touch with them. That could be a feature or a bug, depending on the quality of said employees and who is willing to pick up the phone when they call. It’s sort of an On-Star service for the crippled and mortally injured. Cross your fingers they don’t go out of business while you’re out.

One thing that SPOT (and GEOS) can do that, as far as know, a standard ELT cannot: sell you $100 000 worth of extraction insurance for $7.95, via Lloyds of London. Or, strangely, $150 if you wait until after initial activation to make the purchase. Rescue cost liability is a very big deal in the remote outdoors scene these days. If that really is the deal it appears to be, that could be a very good deal. If only Lloyds sold lawsuit-liability insurance at those rates, maybe commercial wilderness guides wouldn’t be suffering the way they are.

So does it actually work, mechanically speaking? GPS magazine says they’re well built (!) but lack in gps sensitivity. I’m not sure if that is a deal-breaker, I guess it depends how far you’ve fallen down the box canyon when you break your leg on that Utah overland hike.

update: the consensus of the commenters at GPS Magazine, who have actually used the service, seems to be not recommended. If you think you seriously need an ELT, get yourself a serious ELT I guess. Maybe future iterations will be superior.


I was on a 7 week solo canoe trip in the arctic this summer. Thus, I have given emergency communication some thought. If I may – a couple points:

Spot is an excellent evolution in this field. However, as Hugh notes, there have been mixed reviews. I looked into Spot for my trip and found that their system was not necessarily reliable in the far north (One person told me that this is because they rely on the Global Star Satellite system, which is not usually as reliable as Irridium systems at high latitudes). Nonetheless, Spot is far, far cheaper than the alternatives and I think they are onto something – though I’m not sure they are there yet.

Sorry Hugh – but DO NOT buy an ELT for personal use. They are intended for aircraft. EPIRBs are intended for boats. If you are doing some wilderness travel what you need is a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), which are intended for recreational use and are registered to the owner. Mountain Equipment Co-op sells two models. The smaller one is about $680 Cdn. There are no activation or service fees and they are very very reliable.

If you are on a wilderness, trip and trigger an ELT or EPIRB you risk launching an innappropriate and expensive response to your situation. This might get you in trouble – and you should – these evaculations cost big big money.

I do not know how emergency evacuation insurance works with SPOT, but I bought mine through INGLE insurance and it was not expensive. However,one problem with INGLE Insurance is that you must call them before you call for help – or you get dinged for more expenses. Clearly this is not exactly reasonable in an emergency situation AND it assumes you have some means (say – a satallite phone) to contact them before instigating an emergency evacuation with your PLB. They tell me that if you can provide reasonable justification for not calling them first, then you will still be covered, but it sounds kinda sketchy to me and I was never really comfortable with it. So, maybe it is worth looking into what SPOT offers for insurance – but be sure to read the fine print.

What did I use?
I carried a PLB in the pocket of my life jacket (yes it is waterproof). In the worst case scenario that I capsized and lost my boat nd all my gear I would still be able to initiate an evacuation. I also carried a Irridium Sat phone. The sat phone has the advantage that you can make a non-emergency communications (like with SPOT), but there are lots of things that could go wrong with a satallite phohe. The PLB, on the other hand is only meant for situations of “grave and imminent danger”, but is very reliable. Was it overkill to carry both? Maybe. But, my family was sure happy that I did and when I was alone in the middle of one of the biggest wilderness areas on earth – I didn’t mind either. That said – if nobody loved me and I didn’t have to worry about them, I would just carry a PLB.

Bottom line:
None of these devices will do you a lick of good if you’ve already drowned, cut your femoral artery, fallen off a cliff or any other number of imaginable calamities. Regardless of advances in emergency communication, good judgement will always be more important that your emergency communication device.

Simply a smiling visitor here to share the love (:, btw outstanding style and design.

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