One year my son and I rented an EPIRB for a trip, to give my wife peace of mind while we were off in the mountains. The next year, I bought a Gen 3 SPOT. It works fine, but my son is now doing stuff on his own and carries it. I'm considering getting another something, but I'm not real impressed with the Gen 4 SPOT (although I like the idea of all of our tracking information in one place). I don't need or want two-way communication.
Who uses what? Would you recommend it?
Garmin InReach Mini is the best choice for most people imo.
But it does require a subscription so tracking is not "free" and it is not cheap although I think it is reasonably priced. Generally goes on sale once or twice a year for around $50 off.
It is an SOS (GEOS) and two way messenger which uses the iridium satellite network. Tracking is basically a form of messenger requiring satellite time which costs money. I prefer it over other brands because you can compose (with practice) and read messages on the device and it has other useful GPS functions (position, direction, approx altitude, log tracking with basic track back, time and distance) and message based weather reports which you can use without a phone
On the base plan you can use the unlimited preset (3 varieties) in the base plan to do manual tracking. Or you can pay as you go to get auto tracking if you don't go out for that many days a month. There are other plans that may be a better deal if depending how often you go out. You can suspend a monthly plan subject to an annual activation fee and 1 month minimum.
You can use it with a Phone app which makes messaging easier but the current phone app really needs an update imo. The Mini is a Garmin product but it uses the rebranded legacy Delorme In Reach app. Possibly the new Garmin phone app that works with their handheld GPS devices (some of which now have an InReach feature) will be updated to support the Mini someday...possibly not.
An alternative is the larger Zoleo which also uses GEOS and Iridium but can only be used with a Phone to do custom messaging and any other features except for SOS and Checkin (a bit like Garmin's Preset). It is cheaper up front, and the plans are balanced differently but the running costs are similar. It did not have tracking until recently. There is an extra fee I think.
Note: GEOS is now owned by Garmin.
Bivvy Stick is another option (now owned by ACR who make PLBs) Don't know the ins and outs but looks to be similarly priced and requires a subscription. SOS and checkin on the device but requires a phone for messaging. Uses Global Rescue. Not sure about tracking or which satellites are used.
Generally Iridium has fuller coverage and is apparently more reliable than the satellite network SPOT uses.
PLBs, generally, do not do tracking. There is no subscription but you must (by law) register your device with the region you are using it in. They use the Government sponsored EPIRB system. Modern ones also have a build in GPS to transmit the location. The radio location used is probably more robust than the satellite messengers but there is no two way communication...just an SOS. There is no way to cancel the request so you must be more cautious when activating the device. They will use your registration information to attempt to contact you if you activate it.
I’m a Zoleo user and really happy with it. The device itself is about half the price of the Garmin devices and that was an influencing factor. Of course, the good reviews helped!
the monthly plans are about $5 per month more than Garmin. I have the basic plan at $20 per month (vs. the $15 of Garmin) and it gives me 25 texts per month (vs. 10 with Garmin). so for me, the additional $5 is worth it.
Yes, you do need to have your phone with you for sending and receiving messages other than sending an SOS or a preset check-in. But since I have my phone anyway for my Gaia app, as my camera, my Kindle/e-reader, and I may download a movie for camp, so using it with Zoleo was not an issue.
I can also attest to Zoleo’s excellent tech support.