GPS Tracking: Spot PLB & Map My Run

I’ve used the Spot PLB a few times now and I’m pretty confident that it’ll have my back if I really need it. (And hopefully I don’t really need it, right?)

Spot PLB clipped to my bag.

Spot is as a satellite-based one-way communication device that functions when a traveler moves outside of cell phone range. The device offers a line of communication to authorities in an emergency. Spot also sends non-emergency check-in messages to loved ones so that the user can stay connected in remote locations.

The device also has a tracking function, which is pretty much a bonus feature. With the Spot cell phone app (or on their website) you can view your own pinged locations at pre-set timed intervals. If you’re summiting a mountain, it’ll be pretty cool to go back and see your approximate path. However, since the device only pings every few minutes (down to two-minute intervals for premium subscribers), it doesn’t offer the kind of resolution that most phone apps offer in terms of route tracking. Instead, the user would have to play connect-the-dots a bit with the lat/long pairs in order to reimagine a travel route.

Even though tracking isn’t Spot’s primary function, I wanted to test it against the Pixel’s phone GPS. (Robert invited me for an impromptu walk to get dinner, so I thought it would be a good time to double-task.) If for nothing else, I wanted to see how consistent the device’s pinged locations appeared on a base map – could I approximate a path using only a few points? What if I were re-drawing points without an established path as I would be in the backcountry?

View from the Congress Bridge. We got lucky with our timing and stopped to see the bats.

I went on a 4.5-ish mile walk through Austin (to get wings!) with the Spot device set to ping every five minutes, which is the highest resolution ping for my subscription level. Then, I set my phone to record my path through Under Armor’s Map My Run app, which allows users to map, upload, and share their workouts and routes through social media. Whereas Spot tracks at intervals of five minutes, Map My Run seems to track constantly (maybe every few seconds?) using your phone’s GPS. The difference in tracking resolution is clear when you see the maps side-by-side.

To recreate my route using Spot points, I download the data as a .csv and import them into Google Earth. Then, I manually mapped my route. Tedious, but pretty close. (Map My Run said the walk was 4.68 miles, whereas my Google Earth route measured to 4.55 miles.)

The conclusion is something along these lines:

I got the device so that if there were an emergency in the field (someone gets hurt, we get stranded, etc…), we’ll be able to contact someone to get help. In a worst, worst case scenario, we could even get patched through to rescue authorities. I have no reason to doubt that the Spot PLB would work in those scenarios – so far, the GPS is accurate and the test messages have gone through.

The tracking feature is a bonus and I think it’ll be nice to review my backpacking route when I get home, but it’s not going to offer much more than a few GPS points for me to connect – in the backcountry and off trail, that will be difficult to do. For all other tracking purposes (at least when I’m in cell range), I’ll use my phone GPS.



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