Demystifying the Tracker!
20 October, 2022
Have you signed up for a race where you need your own tracker and have no clue where to start? Here’s a handy how-to guide for sourcing, registering and racing with your tracker.
Many races, especially very remote, off-road events such as trail races, divides and loops, will require your own tracker. This means the tracking we all enjoy following via DotWatcher is now in your hands but, often, this can be confusing for the uninitiated.
This handy guide will explain what trackers are and how to set them up including estimated costs and potential benefits
Costs will be based on location, we are using Euros as this is the currency we used.
To keep you entertained throughout our rather dry article we've concealed trackers in the photos. Make sure you can spot one in every picture! Some are easy, some are hard but keep looking. See the bottom for answers, with photos by Kitty Dennis.
Costs will be based on location, we are using Euros as this is the currency we used.
What is a GPS tracker?
Trackers are small devices the size of a pack of cards that allow you to be tracked via GPS.There are 2 main types of trackers used in ultra-distance cycling races and 2 others.
The first is a small, simple tracker that is often provided by tracking companies themselves, they have one button which is the function button, it can be programmed to do different functions depending on the race need. For the majority of ultra-races these are now standard. They are GSM-based GPS trackers, which use GPS satellites to ascertain their position and transmit this back over any available cell network. For the majority of races, they are much more reliable, even some off-road ones. The coverage is more reliable with less effect from tree coverage and other missed “pings” and buffer untransmittable pings. They also allow remote diagnosis from the tracking companies which can fix a dodgy tracker on the fly. The only scenario that they are less reliable is with extremely vast areas of limited mobile reception such as deep desert races.
The second is a personal tracker such as the SPOT Gen3/Gen4 or the Garmin In Reach Messenger. These devices are used for their secondary function in ultra-racing. They are primarily used by expeditions or adventurers who require one-way messaging such as location pinning and SOS communication. When used by ultra-cyclists their TRACK function is utilised and the other buttons tend not to be required. The SPOT Track strips the messenger feature and is simply a tracker. These were primarily designed to use to track objects (think following your dinghy) but can also be used in ultra racing if the organiser is happy for you to use a device without SOS functionality.
There is a 3rd type of tracker that is not useable in ultra-racing. It is called a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and a common model is the ACR ResQLink. These don’t have a tracking feature and are only useable in an emergency scenario when you need to be located via a single point. Great if you need a safety net on an adventure but ultimately not useable in racing.
The final type is a full GPS unit such as the Garmin Inreach Mini or the Spot X. These not only provide GPS tracking functions but also provide GPS mapping. Often these aren’t useable in races as the battery life is lower and some race organisers aren’t keen on them being used for navigation. They are also much more pricey than other devices.
What is ultra-distance GPS tracking?
If you’re using DotWatcher already you probably know what tracking is. It is the way we follow ultra-distance athletes as they move from point A to point B. They are shown as small callout bubbles on the map with initials or cap numbers and will move along as the trackers send out the GPS position at certain time intervals. These maps are used by DotWatchers, to see the progress of their friends, family or favourite athletes. They are also used by the organisers to follow the athletes ensuring they stick to the route and primarily to look out for any issues.
The most common tracking companies that will enable you to register your own tracker are Follow My Challenge, Trackleaders, Map Progress and Legends Tracking. These companies can offer the whole package, supplying the tracker without having to register, but this would require coordination from an organising body. There are a few “lo-fi” races that require no entry fee and have no official organisation other than a route file and a link to the tracking company, in these scenarios the organiser leaves the rest up to the racer.
Firstly, assess how often you’ll use the tracker.
Before we go into how to register a tracker and pay for it, you need to assess how much you’re going to use it. If this is the only time you’ll ever use one then potentially look at renting a unit. You can rent them from 3rd party companies, make sure that the rental company caters for race tracking.
However, if you’re a (very) regular racer at these above remote, off-road events where your own tracker is compulsory, then it may be worth the investment to purchase a tracker yourself or between a group of friends. They can also be useful in your training if you often venture out of mobile signal or out alone you can use the messaging function of the SPOT trackers and Garmin devices and the SOS feature. Equally, your friends and family could even follow you as you head out into the wilderness.
If you’re looking to purchase your own tracker it isn’t simply “switch on and go, it requires a little more than that…
You’ve decided to get a tracker, how does this work?
There are a few costs associated with trackers that are similar over models but we’ll use SPOT in this example.
The unit itself will cost different amounts around the globe. In the US they are a little cheaper but still over $100, SPOT often has large sales and discounts for the devices there. In the rest of the world, the devices are more costly and often don’t have any discounts, they would be around 200-400 Euros depending on the device chosen. If you’re looking to cut costs a little you can also look for second-hand devices, but be sure to make sure they are functional!
The next cost is the subscription plan. These come in two forms: flex and standard. The plans can be confusing and costs aren’t always clear.
Both plans require a standard Activation Fee, which is a one-off fee that only happens when you register the device to your account and activate a plan. This is around 30 Euros. This is a one-time fee unless you deactivate your device (this is different to suspending a flex plan).
Plans renew automatically at the end of the year so make sure you note in your diary when you’re activating your device!
The Flex Plan is a plan where you pay for the month you think you’ll use the device. So if your race is in September, you only pay for September. But be warned! There are 2 other costs associated with the Flex plan. One is the Flex Charge which is a 35 Euro charge once a year on the date you activated the device. This payment allows you to use the Flex plan over the Standard. The Flex plans are also more costly than the Standard by 2 Euros each month. So say you are looking to do a race in September and that is the only time you used the device this year, you’re looking at the device costs (around 200 Euros) and an overall activation cost of around 80 Euros. You must then suspend the plan as soon as that month is coming to a close or another month will be charged on the Flex plan which is around 15 Euro a month.
We would highly recommend this option if you’re doing a couple of races a year and a few wilderness training sessions or solo adventures. It keeps you in contact with your loved ones and allows you to avoid the hassle of renting a tracker for every race.
The Standard Plan is cheaper per month by around 2 Euro per month, however, this cannot be suspended and switched back on as and when. If you chose this plan it requires you to DEACTIVATE to stop the payments and the tracking. This is only useful for year-round use, if you’re a guide or an expedition leader this is perfect for keeping you and your team safe. With ultra-racing, this could be a significant cost in the off-season that may not be worthwhile. This would cost the device cost, the activation fee and then the standard monthly fee which is around 13 Euro per month.
There is also a custom plan which can allow you to pay for SOS services via a subscription, this is an OPT-OUT when activating your tracker. The subscription works almost like insurance, this is something that is definitely worth personal research depending on your needs and where you are planning to use the tracker.
We'll cover the SOS more in troubleshooting, but please make sure you're fully aware of the associated risks and costs!
You’ve rented a tracker or bought your own, what next?
Now that you’re ready to be tracked you need to get on that map! But how does this work? The organising party of the race will send you a link to register your device to the tracking company map. This will require you to generate an XML feed, you do this via your tracking device host site and copy and paste it into the tracking company for the race. All the race-tracking companies have a guide on how to do this and which feed they need, Follow My Challenge is here and Trackleaders is here for SPOT trackers.
Something to note is the tracking interval. This is how often the device “pings” and is different depending on the race. The organiser will decide with the race tracking company what the appropriate interval is, however, this needs changing via plugging into the computer for SPOT devices on your end. For example, a short race may require a more frequent track as it makes it easier to follow and the battery life is less important. A long race may require less frequent pings as the race is longer so the interval is less crucial and the battery life is preserved. (There is also a small difference between the cost of both for the organiser).
This is where another fee pops into the equation, the tracking company will require a fee of around 30-40 Euro depending on the race to add your device to the map.
You’re set up, but coming up to the race. What’s next?
Many organisers will ask you to switch your tracker on before the race, this allows the device to settle and pick up your GPS. Depending on your device different lights will flash depending on whether or not they’ve picked up the GPS signal. This will mean you’ll come up the minute you hit the start line. If you’re using your own device (Garmin or Spot) the tracking companies would most likely require you to switch it on the week before so they can verify the XML feed is working correctly and any issues can be ironed out.
For SPOT devices the tracking needs to be activated! Make sure you press the tracking button on your SPOT device to allow you to be tracked. On the spot Gen 3 and Gen 4 there is a footprint button. Hold this down until the lights flash and then emit a signal every 10 seconds to show you’re GPS is being tracked rather than just your point location.
Now it’s time to race!
Racing! What to do with your tracker during the race:
During the race make sure your tracker is in direct view of the sky. A great one we’ve heard is to make sure a bird can see it and you’re good to go. If you have it on your saddle pack, angle it away from you so that your body doesn’t block the precious signal!
Know what fuels your device. If you have a SPOT they often use AAA batteries so make sure you’ve got some spare (Garmin’s don’t require these, if you’re keen on reducing battery waste this may be something to think about). The tracking devices that are provided by the tracking rental companies often require a micro-USB or, the newer USB-C, so ensure you bring along a cable to plug it in. It is your responsibility as the racer to make sure your tracker is charged. Keep an eye on it and make sure you’re still moving on the map!
Another quick note, trackers are often not waterproof. They’re usually water resistant so, chuck them in a small ziplock bag to make sure they’re going to keep on pinging throughout the day.
Having reliable tracking is imperative for enjoyable DotWatching but mostly for your safety! Don’t hesitate to reach out to DotWatcher, your race organiser or even the tracking company if you have any more questions.
Not pinging? If your tracker is pinging once every ten minutes then the most regular movement you could possibly achieve on your race mapping is ten minutes. This is the most frequent it could be however if one of those pings is interrupted by a tree or you go into a cafe then you lose that 10-minute interval and the next ping will be in 10 more minutes. It is common to miss these pings so sometimes riders can seem stationary, actually they may be closer than you think. SPOT devices can miss these pings more commonly than Garmin devices in some cases.
Make sure as a racer and a DotWatcher that you are looking at the Last Seen function on the race page.
The SOS button can be quite intimidating. For the GSM trackers, these are function buttons that have been agreed between organiser and tracking company. Pressing this is not an SOS necessarily and will be explained to you by an organiser.
SOS buttons on your own personal device are programmed to alert the local equivalent of emergency services, moutain rescue or relevant service. If you subscribe to the specific plan this can be covered. However, it is most likely not! This means pressing the button will leave you liable to cover the costs incurred for the rescue. The button is difficult to press (almost impossible to accidentally press) and can be "un-pressed" by holding down for 10s. They are a great tool, but understanding how to use them and knowing what the relevant rescue services are in the area you're riding in is imperative.
We’d like to thank Rob Gardiner from Follow My Challenge UK for some tips and information on how to use your tracker. To see more on how to check out this page here.