Satellite Trackers

15 Dec 2015 11:06 #66169 by AndrewP
Satellite Trackers was created by AndrewP
A satellite tracker differs from a GPS unit in a simple but important way. A GPS unit tells you where you are. A satellite tracker transmits your signal back to the rest of the world so that everyone else knows where you are.

I have now used 3 types of trackers in the Drakensberg. Before I get to the comparison, here is a basic idea of what each of the devices can do:
- Your location is submitted on a regular interval;
- You get a website that will show the current and previous locations of your device. This page can either be password protected or made available to the world at large. Typically the bread-crump trail will allow you to click on each point to see what time you were there and a few other stats at the same time;
- The webpage typically uses a Google Maps interface and you can switch between a satellite view or a map view. I normally use the map mode with contours switched on;
- The device has a button you can press when in trouble. A message is then sent to a pre-programmed email address or telephone number. This message includes your exact location and the fact that you need help;
- All of them are very sensitive to signal strength. They have to be at the very top of your pack to have a chance of working, and will invariably not work at all in a pass or deep valley, to a much greater degree than a normal GPS unit;
- The tracker does NOT tell you where you are, and you cannot use it for your own navigation;

Cellphone based trackers.
I have used these during the x-berg races of 2014 and 2015. They seem to use GPS to determine your location, but use cell networks to transmit your (current) location. Limited cell network access in the deep valleys of the little berg or within Lesotho have caused a lot of stress for race organisers who simply do now know what a competitor is up to.
They are of very limited use in the berg, so I will not go into extra details here.

SPOT GEN 3 and YB tracker side by side.

YB tracker:
I first used a YB (in those days called yellow brick) in the “race” that started the GT Race thread. The device was well named: it was the size of a brick, weighed a ton, and unfortunately, for whatever reason, on the day failed to work at all.
Since then, I have bought myself a modern unit (the same one Ryno and Ryan carried with them for their GT). It has 2 modes of operation:
In the normal mode, you decide how often it should transmit your location, and it does exactly that. For good entertainment to your followers, it submits the current temperature as well, and if you get a high end device and a few accessories, it can submit other data as well. I assume this is how the Redbull website was able to tell us details like Ryan’s heartrate and calorie usage.
It has a burst mode which sends less info, but accumulates 3 positions into a single burst. It is thus cheaper, but you miss out on the surplus info such as temperatures. Someone following you also has to wait for the 3rd signal and then suddenly see 3 signals pop up at once, so it shows your route well, but the updates are less often.
- Proven track record with several GT’s that have been tracked by the device as well as a few day trips;
- The online support is great. The guys really have helped me get the best out of the device;
- You can set a “warm-up” period (I use a minute) where the device switches on a minute before the signal is due to be sent so that it can lock onto your location in advance. This means a much higher percentage of signals get sent;
- The device has a proper screen, which makes it possible for you to follow a menu to get to a transmission log. It is priceless to know that your location has indeed been sent (or not);
- You can see the percentage of battery life remaining;
- The same screen and joystick type cursor make it possible to compose a custom and unique message that is specific to your situation. So, you could for instance tell someone (the recipient list is pre-programmed) that you have cramps and are thus going to bail via Giants Pass at a slow pace, but no need to send in a helicopter for help;
- Expensive. The unit costs about R10 000. Then, you have to pay not only for a “monthly” connection, but for each “transmission” as well. This is why I used a 1 hour transmission for the GT with Ghaz recently – it would have been rather expensive to track us every 15 minutes for example;
- The device is designed for use on boats. So, it is more waterproof than your skin and it has an in-built rechargeable battery with an almost infinite life. So, it still weighs a good 350g and is about the size of 3 eTrex GPS units;
If you are serious about being tracked, this is the device to go for.

The SPOT GEN 3 is appreciably smaller and lighter than a YB device. It is also a lot cheaper. But, it took me 2 months to get it to work.

It has only 5 buttons, and everything is programmed in advance. You can track yourself, and can also send 2 different “OK” messages and 2 different “help” messages, each being sent to different groups of SMS/emails with a different message.
- It costs about R2000 for the unit and you then pay a subscription of about R2000 per year., For this, you can track yourself at 10 minute intervals for the entire year if you really want. Not cheap, but getting affordable;
- Small and light weight;
- It uses 4 AAA batteries, which have thus far lasted me about a week’s worth of 10 hour days. If you are going to exceed this, you can of course carry extra batteries, but even so, it will always be a light weight mission;
- The device has 5 buttons and thus comes with a manual that is only about 4 pages long yet describes every function in all the detail you could need. Except that the flashing lights do NOT work as per the manual. So, you press the “I am in trouble and need help” button and have no way at all of knowing if the signal has been transmitted to the world.
- SPOT have 2 tracking websites. One for realtime tracking and one for historical adventures (if anyone can suggest why you are using a satelite tracker do document what you did, please tell me, it makes no sense at all. You buy a satelite tracker so that people can see where you are now!) Nothing on either website tells you this or refers to the other website. This is why I spent 2 months getting it right;
- The device is VERY sensitive. If you put your hand over the unit to block out the sun so that you can see the lights flash, then it will block the GPS signal;
- Even if you get the website right, it gets overwhelmed with data. So, by the end of a long day, it will only show the last 6 hours of travel and you need to be a 6 year old to successfully navigate the website to get to the data that tells you what time the hike started for example;
- Online support is a myth. During the 2 months it took to get my device going, I sent about 10 messages to the online tech support. I did not get a single reply, which is pathetic on their side;
This should be the unit of choice. But, after all the troubles I have had with it, I am not so sure.

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16 Dec 2015 18:20 #66176 by kbresler
Replied by kbresler on topic Satellite Trackers
My experience with the Spot device has generally been excellent. Also took me a while to figure it out but I managed with some private coaching. I have not tried the online support.
There has only been one day where the device did not track the way I intended but I suspect this had more to do with me.
It is very sensitive but once you understand this it is an easy issue to overcome. Battery usage is pretty good and all things considered it offers great value for money in my humble opinion.
I must add that I've had units to play with and have not actually had to buy one yet.
The YB device seems excellent and reliable and has a strong reputation. I've been impressed by it mostly for all the reasons mentioned by Andrew. Again I've had the opportunity to play with it on a number of outings and have not had to buy one yet. And to be honest, at that price and size I probably won't.
The Spot offers much better value when on foot and the optional global rescue is well tested.
What I don't like about cell trackers is that you need a GSM signal to activate and transmit. It has stacks of applications but is not always that practical in the hills.

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16 Dec 2015 19:11 - 16 Dec 2015 22:23 #66177 by intrepid
Replied by intrepid on topic Satellite Trackers
I've only started using the SPOT Gen 3 recently. So far so good. Will definitely check for signal sensitivities based on Andrew's experience, as well as the tracking issues going forward. I find that sending messages takes 10-15 minutes, during which time you can have up to four flashing lights if you are tracking too. When the green message light stops flashing then the assumption is that it has gone through.

Satellite trackers are extremely useful here in Canada since the mountainous areas are vast compared to SA and cellphone signal is limited or non-existent, even where you park your car. The custom message is awesome for letting my wife know that I have reached the goal of a trip (like a summit), or back down at the car safely. The "I am OK" messages are equally useful for putting minds at rest during the trip, like when you reach your camp for the day.

I have also opted for the GEOS Member Rescue Benefit at an extra USD17.95 per year. This covers you for up to $100 000 in Search And Rescue costs, especially if they have to hire a private company to do the rescue. I'm not sure that this is necessary in a South African context though. It is definitely handy in the Himalayas where you literally have to have your credit card number handy if you request a helicopter evac on your sat phone. In Europe you generally need mountain SAR insurance, which is often covered by relevant alpine club fees if you are a member. MSAR seems pretty good in Canada from what I have seen so far, but the extra benefit may be a very good thing to have for mountain trips in the neighbouring US where personal liabilities may come into play more (not totally sure though).

Take nothing but litter, leave nothing but a cleaner Drakensberg.
Last edit: 16 Dec 2015 22:23 by intrepid.
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18 Dec 2015 10:27 #66187 by AndrewP
Replied by AndrewP on topic Satellite Trackers
Good to see a few success stories for the SPOT GEN 3.

I am continuing to use mine. I fairness to the device, the trick does actually seem to be to turn it on and then let it be for a few hours. The tracking mode works perfectly well with the obvious exception of inside deep valleys. It is when you try to send 5 messages in an hour that it falls apart (how else do you test it?)

I am also doing much the same as Intrepid. I use one button to say i have reach a checkpoint or summit or whatever. And the other ok button to say all is well but I am going to sleep now so do not expect updates for a while.

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18 Dec 2015 11:05 #66188 by Stijn
Replied by Stijn on topic Satellite Trackers
Hi Andrew - do you have the link to the Spot tracking you did on our recent hike?

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21 Dec 2015 08:52 #66197 by AndrewP
Replied by AndrewP on topic Satellite Trackers
SPOT tracking is only displayed for a max of 7 days so it is no longer showing. You can import the track into the spot adventure page but that seems a lot of work to upload a track of significantly less accuracy than my GPS track
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16 Feb 2016 11:57 #67045 by AndrewP
Replied by AndrewP on topic Satellite Trackers
Update on the battery life for a SPOT. When you buy the device it comes with a set of 4 Lithium batteries. I have now been using them ever since and the battery indicator (as seen on the tracking website) still shows as "GOOD".

I have done the following with the SPOT:
- a few hours of testing in Gauteng
- an 18 hour hike up Cockade Pass and the Bell Traverse
- 4 days of cycle GT
- a 15 hour hike over the Knuckles and Thaba Ngwangwe
- a 12 hour run up Mashai and down Saddle Neck
- 2 days of tracking up Hanging Valleys Pass
- the 4 passes in a day trip
- a 15 hour day up Apes, down Ships Prow
- 4 long days at the end of last year
- the loop near Afriski
- when will it finally die?

I honestly do not have the exact numbers to add it all up, but the SPOT is literally running loops around the Duracell Bunny!
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15 Jun 2017 12:21 #71737 by ruthtbl
Replied by ruthtbl on topic Satellite Trackers
Check out this story from the Fish River Canyon, involving the Garmin InReach:

Anyone tried this device out yet?

'Please accept the stimulation'
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15 Jun 2017 12:56 #71738 by ghaznavid
Replied by ghaznavid on topic Satellite Trackers
The cheapest package is $12 p.m. (if you take a 12 month contract) - rather expensive if you are unlikely to need it. I also wonder what the help centre would do when you SOS them from the middle of the Sahara or near the top of K2.

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20 Jun 2017 09:48 #71754 by Pyro
Replied by Pyro on topic Satellite Trackers

ruthtbl wrote: Check out this story from the Fish River Canyon, involving the Garmin InReach:

Anyone tried this device out yet?

I have the delorme inreach, the predecessor to the Garmin. but basically the same device. Ive been using it for about 5 years now and thankfully never needed to the SOS yet. as tracking and messaging, its never failed me except in deep kloofs.

If you would like to see how it works, you welcome to try mine.
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