Not more than a few years ago, a personal locator Beacon (PLB) was an unreasonably expensive gadget to own. Even renting a quality PLB was cost prohibitive for most adventurers. That all changed less than five years ago when the Spot Personal Tracker entered the market at the low entry point of $100. That put life saving satellites within reach of Joe Consumer. That device has now evolved into a more sophisticated offering called the Spot GPS Messenger.
With the success of the Spot, other manufacturers have jumped into the market with their own price point offerings. The McMurdo Fast Find Ranger is such a product, and has stolen some of the thunder from the ever popular Spot devices. The one thing that makes the Ranger attractive to most consumers is the lack of an annual service subscription. It does command a higher price at $299, but that's still a fraction of what a good PLB would have cost just a few years ago. So, what sets these two devices apart? Let's put them head to head.
Spot GPS Messenger
To say the Spot GPS Messenger is a PLB is accurate, but it does so much more than just call in the cavalry. The Spot is a multi-message communicator. Using the Spot web site, users can manage contact lists and construct multiple personal messages the device can send with the push of a button. If a true emergency strikes, pressing the "911" button sends your location to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center. They in turn will dispatch the appropriate authorities to come to your rescue. If you want to summon help from family or friends, pressing the "help" button will send a text and/or email to as many as 10 contacts of your choosing. If you're not in a jam and just want to let your friends and family know you're okay, pressing the "okay" button will send them a message letting them know all is well. Each of the above functions alerts your contacts of your exact position which can be viewed live on Google Earth. Some users may find daily utility in the messaging functions of the Spot GPS Messenger. It can be a fun way to let friends and family follow your adventures in real time.
There is one aspect of the Spot GPS Messenger that is a stand-out feature. With all other PLBs, you have to actually press a button to summon help. Think of all the scenarios that might prohibit your finger from pressing that little help button. Maybe you've been rendered unconscious. Maybe your vehicle rolled into a river with your PLB in the glove box. Perhaps a Russian meteor smashed into your PLB and reduced it to dust. The Spot GPS Messenger has a tracking feature that when activated records your position every ten minutes. Should you be unable to press the Spot's "911" button people can view your last known location and start their search there. Is that worth the $150 annual subscription? In a word––yes.
McMurdo Fast Find Ranger
The McMurdo Fast Find Ranger may lack some of the messaging bells and whistles of the Spot unit, but it is a remarkably capable PLB for the low asking price. When the moment comes to press the help button, users can rest assured their mayday will be heard. The 406MHz GPS emergency signal goes directly to the international COSPAS SARSAT emergency system. This is the system that facilitated the rescue of more than 2,000 people in just 2010 alone. That signal also carries a specific unit ID marker so rescue teams know exactly who they're coming to save. What's more is that the Ranger transmits a 121.5MHz signal that rescuers on the ground can use to zero in on your exact position.
Some have argued the Ranger is a one-trick pony as it can't send any personal messages or link up to a fancy web based service. But if your pony's one trick is to save your hyde, that's trick enough, right? The Ranger is a survival tool, pure and simple. The batteries have a six-year shelf life, and the rugged case is waterproof to ten meters. Those same batteries will continue to send a distress signal for 24 hours. A built in LED flashlight and reflective accents ensure the Ranger will not get misplaced when needed most. At only 165 grams and slightly larger than a deck of cards this micro-sized PLB more than justifies its space in your pack, ditch bag, or pocket. This is a practical tool for serious business. The lack of a subscription just speaks to the simplicity of the Ranger.
Which one is best for you?
If all you want is a rescue option, the Ranger is hard to beat. If you don't mind shelling out for the $150 subscription, like the idea of using a GPS transmitter to track and share your adventures with others, the Spot GPS Messenger is really slick. We've used the Spot GPS Messenger almost daily to share and communicate our travels with friends and family. It works exactly as advertised and the web based Spot services are easy to use. How well does the Ranger work? We just have to assume it works. That's a bell that cannot be unrung and we've fortunately not had a reason to ring it. If you own a Ranger, hopefully you'll never have to use it, but can have faith that if you do, help will hear your call.