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?
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.
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.
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!