Safety Series: Emergency Communication Devices

One of the most important pieces of kit you will need as a 4X4 touring enthusiast is some form of emergency communications device. I like to compare these devices to the likes of insurance, it’s one of those things we don’t ever want to have to use, but when we do, we need to be able to rely on it.

These days there are some serious emergency communication technology devices available to those who venture into the great unknown, but in my experience, the two that most commonly come up for discussion are the Spot Tracker and a PLB. As an avid explorer of the Australian bush, I often get asked which one of these are better, and in short, my answer is always “it depends”.

The main thing to remember is that these are different tools, with very different purposes. Generally speaking, a PLB will be the most reliable for getting an emergency signal out, however, if you are knocked unconscious (while alone) it will be of no use. A SPOT tracker, used well (which means you have an attentive base crew and a clear agreement on how it will be used), can provide additional cover and options. With a SPOT tracker, the base crew will need to know what each button means and when it will be used.

It is important to note that both SPOT Trackers and PLBs are one-way communication devices which means they can send information, but they can’t receive any, so no-one can ask why you need help.

Personal locator beacons (PLB’s) are devices that transmit your location via satellite to emergency services. They are generally used in life-threatening situations to signal that emergency help is required, and are only activated when other forms of two-way communication such as a phone call cannot be made. PLBs are an important safety backup for those traveling through areas with poor or no mobile phone reception, and have been proven time and time again to be a life-saving device.

SPOT Trackers have a little more functionality and while they can also send a distress signal, that’s not its sole function. The SPOT tracker for instance has extra features like:

  • An ‘OK’ button. By pressing this button your position (lat/long) and a short (preset) message is sent via email and SMS to up to 10 designated addresses or mobile numbers. The email also has a link to that exact location on Google Maps. Typically, a message might say something like, “I’m OK, just delayed” or just “I’m OK” and tag on a latitude and longitude. This can be a great comfort to family and friends. I have often encountered situations where loved ones of tourers have called the emergency services because the party was delayed by a few hours. A SPOT tracker in these situations would have come in handy!
  • A ‘Help’ button, which sends an email/SMS to your chosen addresses giving your position and a short message, typically “I need help”. This is for non-life-threatening situations and relies on those receiving the message to work out where you are and/or where you’re heading and to guess what type of help you might need.
  • SOS button. If you press this button the unit will acquire its coordinates from the GPS network, then send the location, along with a distress message, to a GEOS International Emergency Response Centre in the USA.
  • The SPOT also offers a tracking service. It can transmit your location every 10 minutes for 24 hours. Everyone can go online and track your progress, superimposed on Google Maps. I have found this feature to be great when competing in adventure races for friends and family to follow me along from the comfort of their own homes, probably with a drink in hand whilst I’m slogging along on the race course, out of breath.

All this makes the SPOT tracker sound like the go-to device, right?  There is more information you have to keep in mind though.


A PLB will cost in the region of around $300 from an Australian store and once you’ve purchased the PLB, you’re good to go. Battery life is 10 years. Walk out of the store, turn the PLB on, hit the button, and emergency services will start looking for you.

A SPOT Gen 3, on the other hand, you can buy for around $239 but once you’ve purchased your SPOT you’ll still need to subscribe to the service, and that’s another couple of hundred dollars per year.

Signal Path:

So how does the signal path work for the PLBs vs SPOT Trackers?

In the case of a personal locator beacons, imagine if the worst were to happen. You have been bogged in the middle of nowhere, with no way of recovering your vehicle, you’ve only got about two days of food and water left and there is no mobile coverage. Bummer! What do you do? Ah, you have a PLB,  so you activate a distress call, what exactly happens?

Satellites pick up the distress signal and send the info to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). (When you buy a PLB you register the unit with AMSA, supplying some specific emergency information.) AMSA will look up your information and try to call you to establish if it’s a genuine distress call they’ve picked up. If you answer their call from the comfort of your own home telling them you’re sitting at home watching an episode of Pat Callinan’s 4WD adventures, AMSA will abort the search-and-rescue operation. If, however, you don’t answer, but your emergency contact does and says, “Old mate is off on another 4-wheel driving adventure in the Simpson Desert whilst the rest of us have to work”, AMSA will instigate a search and rescue operation.

What happens when someone hits the ‘SOS’ button on the SPOT Tracker?

Pretty much the same things happen, except where the PLB sends out a distress signal to a search-and-rescue satellite network monitored by search-and-rescue services worldwide, the SPOT uses privately owned Globalstar communication satellites to send a signal to the GEOS International Emergency Response Centre in the USA, letting them know there’s a problem. Essentially there will be some extra time between setting off the beacon and the notification coming to Australian authorities from the USA call centre. Once AMSA has the information, the process is the same as for a PLB.

One more thing to keep in mind is that SPOT trackers do not have a secondary distress transmitter. Most PLBs transmit an additional 121.5MHz signal that can be used by aerial or ground response teams to “home in” on the signal, so rescuers will rely totally on the position they’ve been given.

Finally, SPOT is a commercial venture. If you’ve let your subscription lapse, you really are on your own. If you activate a PLB, a rescue will be on its way. If you activate the SPOT, a rescue will be on its way, as long as you’ve paid your subscription.

Battery Life

Battery life is another important consideration. With a PLB the inbuilt battery will last on average for about 10 years, you can leave it in your car and pretty much forget about it until you need to activate it in an emergency.  For a SPOT tracker, on the other hand, the battery will only last a few days if used actively. You’d have to be a lot more organised if you are relying on the SPOT tracker as a life-saving device. Don’t forget the spare batteries! (I don’t know about you, but the odds of forgetting to pack some spare batteries are higher than I feel comfortable with for a life-saving device. So the PLB score some major points in this regard)

It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want a dedicated distress beacon for life-or-death situations or a tracker with the ability to send a distress signal.

So which one’s for you? The SPOT Tacker offers some really cool features and it’s something that can be used on every 4X4 trip, even if you’re not in trouble. The PLB might sit in your car from the day you buy it until the battery expires and, hopefully, if you are lucky won’t be used even once, but you will have comfort in knowing it won’t have run out of battery when you do need it…

What emergency communication device will you carry in your kit? Me? I like to carry both a PLB and SPOT Tracker on my adventures.

Leave us a comment below and let us know which one you prefer!


Happy Touring


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Comments 14

  1. RE: Safety Series: Emergency Communication Devices

    Effective devices with 2 way satelite communication abilities are the Inreach Garmin devices which go 1 step further that the Spot Trackers and PLB’s.

  2. I’ve got the PLB and take it with us even when bushwalking and am very happy with it it sits on the belt very compy

  3. I now have had a Garmin Inreach Explorer+ for about 6 months. Had 2 SPOT units for the last however many years.
    Considering the reasons I use this technology there is only one real choice for me, being a traveller in remote places. It’s the Garmin Inreach Explorer+

  4. I had two spots over the years, but the yearly subscription is now $267, so I’ve now bought an PLB for $300 with 7 years coverage.

  5. There was case in NZ recently where rescue was hampered because they had to continually call US for updates on persons position wheras PLB would have continually broadcast location , not sure if it was a Spot or some other device

  6. Both InReach and PLB for me when 4×4, XC skiing and bush walking/ fossicking . 2 different devices and functions as described in the well written article above.

  7. Good article, however there is another message type available on the SPOT–the “custom” message.
    We use SPOT for mainly personal messages to family and loved ones letting them know that we are OK if we have been out of mobile phone range for a few days and am hopeful that road service organisations will respond to a family members request if they are given our co-ordinates.

    We will be getting a PLB of some sort for future trips away as we can take it bush-walking . Undecided yet whether to let the SPOT go.

  8. First, SPOT has another customisable button. You can define your own message using your account, as well as a recipient list. You might choose eg. “Delayed but OK”.

    Second, the SPOT annual sub does indeed cost a couple of hundred, but they’re US dollars. So the bill is approaching 300 Aussie dollars (since the SPOT company made tracking mandatory and upped the bill).

    Third, SPOT 3 will run on a USB power lead.

    Fourth, SPOT sends its message to the GlobalStar satellite I believe. That’s in our northern sky and if you have a steep spur or ridge on that side of you then the connection may fail. I’ve tested mine scores of times in the Vic High Country and this happens. You may get the message-sent light blinking but all this means is that you’re in an area that should be able to connect. It’s not the communication satellite doing a handshake with your unit. So you don’t know whether your message has been received. All you can do if you suspect this is the case is to move to a place with a clearer view of the northern sky.

  9. I hired both a spot and a sat phone on a previous solo adventure. It allowed loved ones to track me. We pre arranged that if I stopped for the night or more than 2 hours I would hit the ok button. If I rolled the car they’d know my position within 10minutes

    The sat phone was if I got stuck and needed to call.

    It also had sms capability. I’d want one locator and one two way communication device rather than 2 one way that had no verification of signal being received

    The sat phone

  10. I considered a spot 3 and plb, but then I decided on a sat phone. Some spot devices allowed you to send pre formatted texts to mobile numbers (family) and this was ideal in case we wanted to send a message to say we ran out of fuel etc, but the ongoing service costs per year were more than the poverty pack plan for a sat phone. We would be going into remote locations, so the sat phone could summons help, order parts and allow us to chat to family if we needed to. The call costs are about a buck a minute, but I can recall the days when a mobile phone call was not much cheaper. So it doubled at emergency back up and a phone that worked when the mobile had no range. The sat phone can easily be sold after we complete our lap, and we would not lose a lot of money selling it.

  11. I’ve owned two Spot messengers and both have ended up failing on me numerous times.
    One of them had the batteries leak and destroy the circuit board and when I bought a replacement it also broke on me as well. The subscription fees for these are also outrageous.

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  13. I like how you said that an emergency communications device should be like insurance where you won’t want to use it, but will be glad when you have it. My brother likes to go out hiking for days at a time before returning home. It would make his family feel a lot more comfortable if he were to purchase a satellite phone that he can use if he is ever in an emergency.

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