Delorme vs Spot – When your life depends on it

spotvsdelorme

I get asked by a lot of pilots about which tracker, SPOT or Delorme is better. This post is an attempt at a comprehensive answer to that question. I’ve used both extensively, all over the world.  I would never fly without a tracker. We all got to see the value of using one first hand at the Sun Valley PWC in 2012 when expert pilot British pilot Guy Anderson disappeared for two days after a crash in a very remote part of Idaho. The local community pulled together immediately and launched a major search, which involved 4X4 ATV’s, Dirtbikes, Black Hawk Helicopters, and thousands of man hours.  The search was successful and Guy is fine.  But if he’d had a tracking device on that day, the rescue would have been a much simpler affair and saved thousands of dollars (not to mention a mountain of stress). So, the moral here is that if you are doing something remote and slightly dangerous like flying, you NEED to use a tracking device, endstop.  If you don’t, you’re an idiot.

That being said, which one to use?

nice to let people know where you are in places like this

nice to let people know where you are in places like this

Firstly a caveat, just in the interest of transparency. Delorme Canada sponsored our X-Rockies expedition me and Will Gadd did in 2014.  They gave us two Explorer models, and we purchased two SE units- one for the ground crew, one for the filming crew, and the Explorer for each us.  We were given their highest subscription option, which allowed for unlimited texts. Until that time I had only used a SPOT. BUT- I promise this is a totally unbiased review, even though I have a great ongoing relationship with Delorme (now Garmin).

 

Here are the things that to me are the key elements of these devices, and which unit, in my opinion wins.  I’ll then discuss why:

  • Customer Support:  Delorme
  • Ease of use:  Delorme
  • Flexibility:  Delorme
  • Two-Way Communication:  Delorme
  • Associated APP (Earthmate vs SPOT Connect):  Delorme
  • Safety:  Delorme
  • Cost:  SPOT* (HUGE asterisk here, read on)
  • Size:  SPOT*
  • Battery life:  Delorme

Ok, one at a time.  First Customer Support.  I used a SPOT for over 3 years.  In that time I tried to contact tech support over 30 times, by phone and by email.  I was not responded to once. I contacted a lot of my tech friends to try to get answers to my questions, and they had the same gripe- that SPOT’s customer service is absolutely infuriatingly awful. Get on any of the forums and put a gripe on about SPOT and you will find a lot of angry people.  The only time I was actually able to get a person on the phone was when I wanted to cancel my subscription as I couldn’t figure out how to do it online (because their website is atrocious).  Cancelling took over 20 minutes, a further testament to how poor their tech is.  Delorme has fantastic customer service. I was tasked with setting up all four devices for the X-Rockies expedition and some things were not immediately clear, or easy to do (this has become much simpler now). Their tech support team was quick to respond and very helpful.  Winner:  Delorme.

Ease of Use.  If you own a SPOT and you travel, and if you are unfortunate enough to live in the US or Canada you have no doubt run into the infuriating and blood vessel exploding problem of setting up your contacts, so when you press “OK” or “CUSTOM” or “HELP” or “EMERGENCY” the device sends a text or an email to the people you have listed. One, this is painfully slow- you have do manually enter each person for each message. Takes forever and is the last thing you want to do after you get off a plane- spend hours setting up your new profile. But much, much, MUCH more infuriating than this is that if you are outside of the US and need the text to go to a foreign number say in Switzerland you cannot put a + or a 00 then the number.  You have to know what the carrier is that that person is using, then use that carriers email address. This of course is not provided by SPOT, is very difficult to find (if you need the list go here), and most of the time doesn’t work anyway. You then have a tracking device that you can’t effectively use.  Tracking still works, but god forbid you need to message someone.  At the far other end of the spectrum is Delorme.  Simply pair your Earthmate app to your device via bluetooth, use their very simple interface to send to ANY contact in your phone, to ANY address they have (ie phone or email), ANY message you want.  Not a generic message that you had to set up in advance that may actually have no relevance to what you need, but ANY message. No cell service?  No problem, you can reach out to anyone, anywhere in the world.  During the X-Rockies expedition we had no cell service for most of the trip. We could reach out to anyone to get weather updates, we could do social media updates, we could tell mom that everything was ok.  Winner:  Delorme, hands down.

 

Not a good place to get stranded

Not a good place to get stranded

Flexibility. This doesn’t really need a discussion.  With a Delorme you can two-way text to anyone.  SPOT doesn’t.  SPOT and Delorme provide bread-crumb tracking in much the same way so no huge winner their, but the Delorme Earthmate App you can see downloadable (free) topographic maps, and you can see your partners position right on the screen (and they can see yours). The Earthmate App has all of this in a much more user-friendly Apple-like interface (on both Android and Iphones).  Winner: Delorme.

Two-way communication. Only Delorme has two-way communication. The SPOT Connect allows you to do this as well, but I haven’t yet run into someone who has a good thing to say about the SPOT Connect so until I hear otherwise Delorme is the clear winner here. One thing that does warrant discussion is just how valuable messaging is. You may think, as I did that having tracking is really the most important thing and as long as you have tracking you don’t really need messaging. This is simply wrong.  Tracking is awesome, and a MAJOR safety plus.  For cross country pilots, it’s more important than a reserve in most cases. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to radically increase your personal safety in the backcountry. But now add messaging and you’ve basically got a cell phone that works anywhere. I can’t even count the number of times having messaging has saved either myself or the people who are tracking me down hours and peace of mind.  Winner: Delorme.

 

Can you make sure we've got cold beer when we get back?

Can you make sure we’ve got cold beer when we get back?

Safety:  Delorme has two-way communication that works seamlessly with the Earthmate App, and in a bind works fine with the unit itself.  The typepad is slow and cumbersome (UPDATE- this has been improved with the new Garmin InReach), but without making the unit much larger there isn’t really a way around this.  But if your phone is dead it does work fine, it just takes longer. Clearly having messaging is major safety plus so Delorme is the clear winner hear. Both trackers provide bread-crumb tracking, and emergency SOS and both use satellites, so there isn’t much difference there.

Cost:  I’ve put an asterisk on this because the base cost of SPOT is cheaper. But it depends on how you use your device.  SPOT Gen 3 retails for $150, and if you sign up with a subscription you can get it for $75.  A subscription is $149.99 a year.  This covers unlimited tracking. You can then get message bundles for $24.99 for 100 or $49.99 for 500.  For a full list of prices and services click here.  The Delorme Explorer is $379.95, and you can currently get $75 off.  Subscription services start at $11.95/mo and up to $99.95 per month depending on if you go with an annual or monthly contract and how much messaging you need, all of them cover unlimited tracking and SOS services.  For a full list of prices and plans click here.  Delorme is more expensive, BUT, if you go with a monthly plan you can activate or deactivate whenever you want, and most of us only need to use our trackers at certain times of the year so the cost really depends on how you use it. Given everything I’ve mentioned above and given it’s your life on the line, to me cost shouldn’t really be a factor. It’s like going backcountry skiing these days without an avalanche airbag. Isn’t your life worth more than a few hundred bucks?

Battery:  The two companies have gone very different routes with batteries.  SPOT uses exclusively lithium batteries, typically 3 AAA. The nice thing about this is they last a long time- I would typically get a half a season of flying out of my batteries. The downside is you don’t know when they will go bad. Once that light goes red you’re on very borrowed time, and if you’re on a long flight you might lose it. The other downside is the cost of lithium batteries and that you’re throwing them away. Delorme has gone with rechargeables, simply plug into a USB port or in my case as I fly with an external battery so I can keep my phone charged, if I’ve forgotten to charge my Explorer I can use the external battery. It uses the same cable as an Android. A full charge on a Delorme will last me 4-5 days of very long flights, and long walks on the ground. For me the winner here is the Delorme, but it just depends on what you prefer.

Size:  The SPOT is slightly less heavy and slightly smaller. Which is to be expected as it doesn’t have a screen or a typepad. No real winner here, just depends on if you want messaging.

Feel free to ping me with any questions and of course opinions.  Fly far!

 

Gavin on glide towards Mt Robson during the Rockies Traverse this August

Gavin on glide towards Mt Robson during the Rockies Traverse this August

 

 

 

 



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53 thoughts on “Delorme vs Spot – When your life depends on it

  1. I am all with you on this. We love our Explorers as we arre travelling together and flying both, but no always landing at the same place or where there is cellphone reception. Also we had dead on arrival explorer and it was exchanged by delorme in a hurry (24 hours no questions asked). Perfect customer service.
    What I would like to know how you download the topographic maps to see them on the screen of the explorer…i always tought the maps are only downloadable to the smartphone app??

    Regards
    Moritz

  2. +1 for Delorme !!!!!!!!!!!

    Like yourself, I’ve used both. I had never been in a real emergency and, as long as my friends could see the bread crumbs moving on the SPOT, I was fine. Couldn’t see the use of paying extra for tracking with a tracking point every minute with Delorme (you pay by point transmitted) or for texting.

    But, one day, we found ourselves with a motorcycle mechanical problem in the middle of the Utah backcountry – not a bodily injury. The ability to communicate by text via Earthmate and really reassure our friends that we were fine, had plenty of food and water, give them a description of the problem and a list of parts required was amazing. Couldn’t have done this with the preset messages on a SPOT.

    I now use a $25/mth plan on Delorme when I activate it that gives me 50 text messages ($0.50 for each extra) and a track point every 10 minutes.

    Needing such a device only 2-3 months out of the year, after 2 years, total cost is lower on the Delorme since I can put my account dormant at $4/mth when not in use.

  3. Hey Gav. Thanks for you candid comparison between the Spot and Delorme. Ive got a spot but can see greater benifits to the Delorme. Can the Delorme register altitude as well as im needing a tracker style better than Spot for my hike and fly up the Aussie Great Dividing Range in October this year

  4. Hey Gavin. Any ideas how the accelerometer and altimeter of the Explorer would work from a flying/thermalling perspective? And also the waypoint setting, in terms of flying comp courses? Cheers Bernie.

    • Hey Bernie,

      Short answer is not very well. They aren’t built for flying or using as a Vario. The waypoint could work…but really you need a dedicated instrument for flying for sure, and the Delorme for an awesome way for people to track, and for retrieves/ Safety.

      Thanks!

  5. Nice overview of the finer points between the two. Saw Will when he came by Colorado College to talk about the Rockies trip – looked sweet!

    I’ve used the SPOT and DeLorme for kayak multi-days, so exact, frequent positioning is less important than flying, but they’re great as rescue tools. Did a little cost analysis on my site ( http://www.johnnestler.com/blog/2015/11/choosing-a-satellite-device-delorme-inreach-se-vs-spot-gen3 ), really highlights the savings if people are doing just a couple big expeditions a year. Just

  6. Nice overview of the finer points between the two. Saw Will when he came by Colorado College to talk about the Rockies trip – looked sweet!

    I’ve used the SPOT and DeLorme for kayak multi-days, so exact, frequent positioning is less important than flying, but they’re great as rescue tools. Did a little cost analysis on my site ( http://www.johnnestler.com/blog/2015/11/choosing-a-satellite-device-delorme-inreach-se-vs-spot-gen3 ), really highlights the savings if people are doing just a couple big expeditions a year. Certainly something to think about given the higher upfront cost of the device.

    Do you ever carry a PLB as well, or do you consider that redundant?

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  8. What about the SPOT GEOS service that cover up to 100k USD of search and rescue wich you can pay only 2$ /month or 18 / year?
    SAR cost can climb up fast.

    • Hey Eric,

      Problem with SPOT service is they EXCLUDE flying: http://www.inreachdelorme.com/assets/pdf/GEOS_Search_and_Rescue.pdf. For example: Exclusions / The entitlement will not apply in the following circumstances:
      • Circumstances which could have reasonably been anticipated at the date
      the trip began e.g. forecast of adverse weather conditions
      • Emergency caused by inadequate provision or training or competence needed to complete the planned trip
      Ondrej Prochazka
      22:49
      Ondrej Prochazka

      and also others**

      Accidents arising from sky diving or sky surfing

      Accidents arising from hang gliding or paragliding

  9. Question – how often did any of you find the spot3 failing to deliver a msg or track – mine (which have been replaced) fail on the regular – we are considering the switch to inreach

    • Hey Joel,

      We didn’t use SPOT, we used InReach (Delorme). Spot doesn’t have two-way texting except through their maddeningly frustrating Spot Connect App, which is totally unreliable The InReach devices worked perfectly- literally sent thousands of messages over the 37 days of the expedition to the film crew, to get weather updates from the outside world, etc. We didn’t have a single problem. The only thing that can be annoying is keeping your bluetooth connected to the device from your smart phone. It stays connected if you have the app open and on, but if you shut your screen or stop using it you have to re-connect, but it only takes a second. Frankly, SPOT sucks- I used them for years, it’s cheaper but you get what you pay for:)

      Have fun, good luck!

    • I have been using the GEN3 in a flying application for 2 years. While I never had problems with the SPOT GEN3 messages, the tracking repeatedly shows gaps of up to 15 min (even at 2.5 min tacking interval).

      Messages are sent several times; position updates for tracking on the other hand only once. Or not at all, if at the scheduled time for some reason there was no GPS fix available. It also appears that sometimes the Globalstar satellites (the network SPOT is using) have problems seeing our SPOT device in mountainous terrain if we fly below the ridge line. This may further depend on the latitude you are operating on.

      SPOT support (and I confirm they do not respond to email at all!) says that’s normal and to be expected for their system.

      Having gaps of up to 15 min from a flight following point of view is totally unacceptable. If you cannot be sure that all position updates are reliably received, your search area quickly expands to a circle with 50 to 100km diameter centered around the last position report received before the crash.

      Iridium (the network used by – amongst other – inreach and Spidertracks) promises to be better in this regard, but I have not yet tried this yet. However, for the above reasons I have decided to move away from SPOT and to switch to an Iridium based tracker.

      • Hey Tim, see my response above re Globalstar vs Iridium. I also ran a boat around the world twice and we were using Iridium- it is truly “world coverage” so I don’t see inReach dropping out anywhere, and in fact has never done so for me.

        • Gavin, thanks for your reply!

          The global coverage is one dimension. The reliability with which a signal is received in an area with otherwise good coverage, is another dimension. While in our area we have, in principal, good Globalstar coverage, under certain conditions the signal doesn’t get through. These ‘certain conditions’ are not limited to, but correlate well with being in a valley (not even talking Grand Canyon here!), having a mountain shadowing the normal earth horizon, or flying below a ridge line.

          It may have to do with the low relative azimuth of the satellites the SPOT device has to connect to. And that may again vary with the latitude you are operating in (Globalstar might be optimized for 50 degrees North or latitudes, i.e., for North America and Europe). The relative azimuth at those latitudes might be higher than closer to the equator, or closer to the poles (for example, Africa spans between 25 deg North and 25 deg South).

          Problem is: Where do you need protection most? It is in the desert and at the poles. It is when flying low, in the mountains, or in valleys. It is where Globalstar doesn’t work, at least for me.

  10. Great article mate. Just wondering if you carry a satellite phone as well or if you find the Delorme capable enough to keep you in touch with everyone?

    I’m riding a motorbike (its not a plane but it’s more my style) from Alaska to Argentina later this year and I’m torn between the Delorme and an actual sat phone. I’ll probably be hiding a SPOT Trace on the bike somewhere so tracking might not be so critical, though the emergency sos could be. What do you think?

    • Hey Mick,

      No, we passed on satellite phones on this one just due to weight and space, find the InReaches more than enough. They are AWESOME- seriously we could not have done it without them. Messaging was perfect, locating each of us was perfect, etc. SPOT sucks, a far inferior system/ device. The two-way texting and even the new weather updates were invaluable.

      Sounds like an awesome trip- have fun!

    • All comparisons that I have read so far focus on features and pricing. There is far to little research done into the actual tracking performance (read: Will the satellite actually receive my position update?) and how this may differ between the two platforms.

      This is a very pertinent question, as the two products use different satellite networks (SPOT uses Globalstar, inreach uses Iridium). I personally have only been using SPOT (for two years now), so I cannot vouch for Iridium. Globalstar however (based on my experience in a flying application) shows critical gaps in the reporting of position updates. In other words, there is no guarantee that all the tracking transmissions (that the SPOT device sends and which you pay for) are actually received by the satellites. And frequently, there it misses 3 to 4 position updates in a row!

      For this reason we found that the SPOT GEN3 was insufficient our requirements (flight following; directing Search & Rescue).

      • Hey Tim,

        Great point. I should have made that part of my post but I’m not an expert. I’ve heard from many people like yourself who have also experienced problems with Globalstar and to me this is yet another reason to go InReach. We used the InReach devices on the north slope of the Alaska Range for 40+ days without a single hitch or drop, where our Inmarsat phones rarely worked or could get a satellite. SPOT is just inferior if you ask me on every level.

  11. Hi Gavin,

    Thanks for the interesting comparison, agreed on SPOT user service, they’re surprisingly bad with support.

    You also wrote:
    “if you are outside of the US and need the text to go to a foreign number say in Switzerland you cannot put a + or a 00 then the number. You have to know what the carrier is that that person is using, then use that carriers email address.”

    This is not correct. There is a country selection on the “add phone” dialog, so there is no problem in adding a phone number from pretty much any country. It’s quite old feature, it’s been like that since about 2012 when I started to use SPOT.

    Maybe for U.S. users the SPOT web UI looks different? I live in Australia, use it here and in the countries I travel – and never had problems with foreign numbers…

    Cheers,
    Mikhail.

    • Hey Mikhail,

      Yes, this is a US spot user problem, and it still exists. Many, many people have complained to SPOT over the years about this (they make you pick the carrier, you can’t put in a + and the country code, or like you say- choose a country, which is pretty much impossible when you are overseas to figure out), and as you know- even it does work, going through making a contact and messages to certain people every time you go somewhere is a real pain in the ass. With Delorme you just bluetooth it to your phone and contact anyone you want! Presto. Simple and in an emergency- really really important. As you can tell, I hate SPOT- they have the most useless customer service I’ve ever used. Frustrating and at times, totally pathetic.

    • I’m also in Australia and own an Inreach SE. The device is awesome, but the service provider here in Australia, Pivotel, is very disappointing for the following reasons:

      * On one trip we couldn’t send or receive any messages for a period of 2 days because their message gateway server needed a reboot (ie, they have no redundancy — which was a shock as the device and service was sold on the basis of SAFETY).

      * When sending messages to different recipients, the “sent from” number changes from time to time and from recipient to recipient so you can’t actually just give someone your “satellite” number for them to message you (instead you need to send everyone a msg via the Inreach at the start of each trip to ensure that they can contact you).

      * Their customer service portal has login problems and their bills occasionally don’t add up.

      • Shoot! I’ve never heard of these problems. Are you still receiving them? I know satellites do have trouble from time to time as we experience on our boat operation with the Inmarsat equipment. I’ll forward this info to Garmin.

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  13. Hi Gavin,

    Thanks for your review. I’ve had a SPOT2 for the past 3 years but like you say disappointed with the customer service. Their latest trick is to not send renewal emails and quietly bill the credit card, very naughty.

    I have now ordered an Inreach Explorer for Quixida this Autumn/Fall.

    Cheers, Mark.

  14. Hi Gavin,
    first of all thanks for all you are doing for the flying community, you trips and reports are immensely incouraging!

    I am using a SPOT at the moment, but after my last trip to Bir/India where I discovered that half of the “OK”-messages have not been delivered, I will switch to the Inreach Explorer.

    One point that persuaded me to getting a SPOT in the first place is the fact that it sends tracking points every 5 minutes, while the Delorme Inreach only sends every 10 minutes unless you are on the extreme plan at rather high costs.

    How important is the tracking intervall for you? Are you fine with 10 minutes (which equals a distance of up to 8 km when flying at bar!), or do you pay the higher price for the shorter intervals?

    I know in the end it is a personal decision, but I would love to hear your opinion on this!

    Cheers
    Boris

    • Hey Boris,

      Thanks much for your message and stoked you have made the decision to move to Delorme, you won’t regret it. A FAR superior device. I have the extreme plan, so use the 2 minute send interval because I might as well. But I don’t think that’s all that important. 10 minutes is really sufficient because it’s not so much that we need the tracking in the air as much as we do on the ground or if we crash. Both of which 10 minutes is plenty. The more important thing is to get the plan that allows you enough 2 way texting- this is really where the Delorme excels and makes life a lot easier!

      Good luck, fly safe and have fun!

  15. Hi Gavin,
    Thanks for this great direct comparison!
    Two big questions left:

    I saw a lot of complaints on the ruggedness/ reliability of the Delorme InReach Explorer posted on the REI Houston site. A bunch of people have had trouble especially this last year– Is it reliable and robust in field environment?? Maybe this was user error or something but one guy had to replace unit twice. Not life saving if it doesn’t work!

    Second, if you are in a wooded area can you expect it to work OK, if not perfectly? Purpose of this would be for my daughter who is travels in Peru and Columbia a lot as a reliable emergency alert especially.

    Last if you have any guidance on which apps allow access to geological maps etc. when viewed, I would love to know!

    Thanks, hope to get this for her for Christmas!

    Jan

    • Hi Jan,

      Thanks for your comment. I have used my Delorme extensively backcountry skiing/sledding and used it on both the Rockies Traverse and Alaska Range Traverse, which are about as rugged as you can get and have never had any problems. BUT…they are water resistant, not water proof so that may have been what some folks have had trouble with, but that to me is a user error/ mismanagement with a tool that is very important. You wouldn’t leave a cordless drill out in the rain:)

      But yes, in my experience it is extremely reliable and and robust. We were using them sometimes as much as 150 text sends per day on the north side of the Alaska Range, where Iridium doesn’t even work (SPOT network), and we never once had a delay in sending/receiving or live tracking updates.

      The only time the units struggle is if they can’t see a satellite, so your questions about wooded areas- they are usually fine, but when you’re down in a narrow canyon that can cause delays for sure.

      For maps, the Earthmate app which pairs with the Delorme is great, and their topo maps that you can download for particular areas get better and better all the time. If you need more robust mapping I find a combination of caching google Earth (MUST do this in advance) and GAIA (again- you have to download maps in advance, so you don’t suck down cell data when underway) works great. Gaia has amazing topo maps for most of the world and “snap-to” trail navigation. The Earthmate app is awesome where there are multiple people using the Delorme’s as you can see precisely where your partners are at as soon as they send you a message. To me the two-way messaging of the Delorme’s are more reliable and better than even a satellite phone.

      Hope this helps!

    • Good reading. The second article also included a link to an Iridium value-added service (VAS) provider who offers alternative, and more flexible data plans for the inreach devices: http://www.protegear.de

      I contacted them and they proved to be very responsive. They also offer emergency alerts in case of no position updates received, or in case of no movement. This used to be the unique value proposition of Emergency Locator Transmitters (406 MHz ELT’s) that get activated by the g-force of the impact (although with a fairly poor record of actually getting the signal through).

      To my knowledge, out of the Iridium-based satellite trackers, only Spidertracks emulates a similar, automated watch mode, based on no position updates being received for > 10 min.

      It is great to hear that – with ProteGear’s SmartSafety feature – inreach can be made to do the same and more, at lower cost. In terms of device and data costs, Spidertracks can easily be twice as expensive as using inreach.

  16. props for replying to comments almost two years later. 😉

    From the article:
    “Flexibility. This doesn’t really need a discussion. With a Delorme you can two-way text to anyone. SPOT doesn’t. SPOT and Delorme provide bread-crumb tracking in much the same way so no huge winner their, but the Delorme Earthmate App you can see downloadable (free) topographic maps, and you can see your partners position right on the screen (and they can see yours). The Earthmate App has all of this in a much more user-friendly Apple-like interface (on both Android and Iphones). Winner: Delorme.”

    am i correct in taking away from this paragraph that two people, two inreach SEs (with service plans), two smart phones with Earthmate app = ability to track each other while in the wild?

    • What??? Donald I’m sorry man, I just saw this, thought it was recent. Tech?.

      But answer is yes- w InReach devices as long as u have the maps downloaded in advance (assuming you don’t have cell service/data or of course then you just check map share page) when you text a msg to another device u can see exactly where they are. Dave and I used this a ton in Alaska when we’d get separated.

      Sorry again for the delay, yikes!

      • compared to many sites i visit, that was blazing. thank you for the answer and the excellent article.

        don

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