GPS tracking device
Some pick up a dog on their road trip and take it home. Others might pick up a chicken or a parrot. My faithful companion from the first day of my trip to the last one was a GPS tracking device.
In the dashcam videos, sometimes you may have seen an orange dot on the windshield. Especially when the sun was coming straight ahead. This is the reflection of the GPS tracking device. It was always lying in front of me on the dashboard while driving.
On the road, I didn’t even notice that the GPS tracking device was reflected in the windshield. Only after my return, when I watched the dashcam videos. However, I wouldn’t have had a great chance of preventing that reflection either. Because this was the best place in the Landcruiser for unhindered satellite reception while driving.
I got the idea for the GPS tracking device from a website (in German only). Several young people had made a trip through the regions I also wanted to drive through. And with one of them I had talked on the phone for a long time. Actually because of the route. By chance I learned about the possibility of GPS tracking.
It was interesting for me for three reasons: First, family and friends could see live where I was at any given time. On the other hand, this served my safety in case something should happen to me or to the Landcruiser on the road. And thirdly, I was able to use the tracking data later to precisely track my path again. For example on this blog.
After the phone call it was clear to me: I had to take such a GPS tracking device with me on my trip.
GPS tracking device hardware
There are certainly different devices and different providers on the Internet. But shortly before leaving Germany, I didn’t have much time to research. That’s why I decided to use the system the young man told me about on the phone.
In this respect, this is not meant to be an advertisement or marketing for a specific provider. But for me this offer fit right away.
My GPS tracking device is from the company SPOT LLC. And is called SPOT Gen3. It has exactly the features I wanted to have for my road trip. Tracking my route and a function to get help in case of an emergency. There are only six buttons and six LEDs on the device. On/off switch, tracking, and four message buttons to go with it (more on that below).
With a few phone calls I quickly found out that a company in Darmstadt had the SPOT Gen3 in stock. For about 180 US dollars I was able to pick up the device the very next day.
Before that, I had checked the internet to see if this GPS tracking device even covered the area I wanted to drive through. Yes, it does (shown in yellow-brown in the picture). So, like almost the entire world.
Only the northeast of Canada and Greenland are not covered. And the Arabian Peninsula and Central Africa are only weakly covered (shown hatched in the picture).
In this context I also learned that the company SPOT LLC is a subsidiary of Globalstar Inc. which operates a network of 48 communication satellites.
GPS tracking device registration and activation
You can’t do anything with just the device. You have to register it on the Internet at findmespot.com and to create a user account there.
By the way, on this page you will see that SPOT Gen3 tracking device is no longer sold.
There is a successor, the SPOT Gen4. It doesn’t seem much different to me. But I think the eye-catching design of the SPOT Gen3 is better than that of the successor model.
Best before the start of your trip
Registration and activation should be done best before departure.
In order to be able to check out the device before a trip.
Activation and registration are not possible via the tracker itself. You must have an Internet connection for that and the easiest way for registration is a laptop.
The service costs about 240 – 300 US dollars for one year. Depending on which options you choose.
Whether you only want to track every 10 minutes, for example, or every 5 or even every 2½ minutes.
And whether you book a complete Search and Rescue Mission with reimbursement of up to 100,000 US dollars.
However, this is not available for all countries.
For example, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and a few more countries are excluded. Bad for me, if I would cross the Iran on a possible route to Dubai…
You then have to make various settings for the GPS tracking device in your user account.
For your tracking device itself, for your preferred map display and for your personal data.
Here you also get a link to access your tracking data.
And finally, you can enter three messages there. Together with e-mail addresses and/or telephone numbers of the wanted recipients.
If you then press the corresponding button on your GPS tracking device while on the move, the message will be sent out to the defined recipients via email and/or SMS.
The GPS tracking device in action
As already mentioned earlier, there are only six buttons on the device.
One on/off button.
And one button for tracking.
Both should be switched on when you start driving, biking or hiking.
And four buttons for the messages that you have stored in your account and now want to send.
You can define three of these messages yourself.
For the OK message, for example, I have stored in my SPOT account: “Everything is fine, no reason to worry. Just wanted to get in touch via GPS.”
And for the own message (custom message): “I’m fine, I’m just without cell phone reception right now and I’m staying here a little longer too.”
Then there are the help and SOS message buttons. Both are specially covered with a lid that you don’t accidentally press them.
For the help message I had stored the following text: “I have problems and need help. Will contact you as soon as cell phone reception is available.”
The SOS button
Pressing the SOS button, a Search and Rescue Center in the USA is activated immediately. If you booked this option.
Three teams are then formed there. One that keeps an eye on the position of the tracker, one that activates authorities, embassies and private service providers in the country and sends them to the point from which the current tracker signal is coming from. And a third, which contacts your relatives you have stored in the system.
In the end, I would not have needed any of these messages. But my son wanted to try it out with sending mails. So I sent an OK or a custom message every now and then.
Batteries for the GPS tracking device
One more word about the power supply. The GPS tracking device can run on four batteries (AAA) or equivalent rechargeable batteries. I had taken batteries and also brought 12 spare batteries with me on the trip. Because SPOT only recommends a very specific type of battery.
And you should take this one too. Because I have noticed that these batteries do not get weaker at the end of their life time. But then they simply no longer supply any electricity at all. So they either work fully or not at all.
This is important for a GPS tracking device. Because normal batteries become weaker over a longer period of time. This could mean that it looks like the GPS tracking device is still working. But in reality the transmitted signal is then too weak for the satellite.
Without SPOT it doesn’t work – but with Spotwalla it works better
Unfortunately, registering and activating the device with SPOT is not enough. At least not if you expect a somewhat prettier map display for your route. And you want to keep the tracking data for a long time.
Because the map display on SPOT is pretty unattractive. And the tracker data are stored there for only 30 days.
So you would have to go back to the site all the time and download your newly added data points, if you want to save a longer trip altogether.
But help is at hand for these problems! And it comes in the form of the
free Spotwalla program.
UPDATE JAN 2022 – Now, as of FEB 2022, Spotwalla is unfortunately no longer free of charge. Therefore, I have deactivated my account there for now. Until I need it maybe again someday. Before deactivation, I downloaded my tracker data of course.
Once you have created an user account there, you can automatically transfer your tracking data to Spotwalla. Live, in the moment of their creation by the GPS tracking device.
And they will stay in Spotwalla until you delete them there. Even if they are long gone in the SPOT program itself.
And the map display of the route in Spotwalla is also a bit nicer than in SPOT.
Set up an user account in Spotwalla
In Spotwalla you register your tracker and enter your profile and different preferences.
Then you create a new trip. This you link to your data at SPOT. Then they will be transferred here immediately.
You will also receive a link to your trip in Spotwalla. And you can then integrate this link into your own website. That’s how I did it for the route of my road trip here on the blog.
How this works in detail, a motorcycle blogger has described in a very detailed tutorial. Therefore, I do not need to repeat everything here myself. Thanks Phil!
Even though SPOT and Spotwalle have revised their websites in the meantime, the instructions are still very easy to use. Mainly because the terms in the programs have basically remained the same.
Deficits in Spotwalla
But even Spotwalla still has deficits. Mainly because the time of the displayed tracking points shown is relative. It always starts from the current day. And you have to constantly readjust the display of a completed trip on your website.
Example: Today (January 31, 2020) there are 1,027 days since I started my road trip on April 11, 2018. So 24,648 hours. Tomorrow it will be already 1,028 days, 24,672 hours.
And this number of hours must be entered on my website in the link to the Spotwalla data. Otherwise, over time, more and more data points of the route will be missing on the website. And at some point the trip is not displayed at all anymore.
What also doesn’t work (so easily) with Spotwalla is the limitation to a certain part of the trip. But that’s exactly what I needed for the maps of the individual countries in my posts.
And finally I would like to have it displayed in Google Maps instead of in Open Street Map as in Spotwalla. Simply because I think that’s prettier.
I then browsed the internet a bit to find a solution. And I found a route converter that provides me with the features I need.
RouteConverter for GPS tracking device data
A small, free, but pretty powerful program. For post-editing of a route. So not for live tracking of a trip. That’s what Spotwalla is for.
You download it and then you can play around with your GPS tracking device data as you like. And also add some data points, if you forgot to turn on your GPS tracking device somewhere.
And the best thing is: The program can handle a wide variety of GPS data formats. Because in this industry, unfortunately, every provider does its own thing.
Garmin, Google, Haicom, Magellan, SPOT und Spotwalla, TomTom and others can only read or save very specific file formats, mostly their own 😉
So I downloaded the entire 8,359 data points of my route from Spotwalla and read them into RouteConverter.
And there I created a separate map for each country I crossed. By simply deleting the GPS tracking device points before and after the respective country from the list. With 21 countries this was a bit of hard work.
Then you only need to export the map data for each country from RouteConverter.
In my case into the .gpx format, which in turn can be read in Google Maps.
But there are also many other export formats possible for different navigation systems.
Import into Google Maps
You need a Google account for this. But I think most of you have one already.
You log in to your account and go to Google Maps.
There you will find in the menu (the three dashes) under “Your Places” – “Maps” at the very bottom the item “Create Map”.
You select that and under “Import” you can read in your GPS tracking device data previously saved from the RouteConverter.
The rest is still a little cosmetics 😅 Choose the type of map, the color and width of the route, maybe then add some photos and/or labels.
It is also useful that Google Maps directly shows the length of the route.
Finally, you can copy the link to your created Google Map and distribute it to your friends or integrate it on your website.
You can also take a picture of the map with a screenshot or a tool such as Greenshot. And then post the image on your website. That’s how I did it.
You can see the result, for example, in the cover picture above. And in each of my country posts.
Geo tracking is fun
Now I hope that your question “How does it actually work with the GPS tracking device?” is answered. And maybe one or the other of you is thinking about taking a GPS tracking device with them on their hiking or biking trips.
I have no problem with that. But especially in Germany a lot of people are quite data-sensitive. Yes, geo tracking means that others know where you are. At least if you post the data live somewhere.
But you can also turn off your GPS tracking device. For example when you visit someone in the evening 😉
And you can create a geo-fence in Spotwalla. For example around your apartment. So that no one knows where it is located when you are far away from home on your tour…
In this case the data on the live map does not start and end at your home, but for example only from a radius of 15 – 20 kilometers around it.
One possibility that I miss (or haven’t found so far) in Spotwalla would be the time-shifted display of a tracking. For example 24 hours later.
If you have any further questions about GPS tracking, feel free to contact me.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎