How To Track And Map Your Location
You may have looked at the maps that show the tracks of the trips I’ve taken and wondered how I was able to transfer my location points to the maps. In this article I’ll explain how to use smartphone apps and satellite tracking devices to plot your location.
A few years ago a friend of mine rode to Alaska and wrote about his experience on his blog. He included a map that showed his current location. It was a lot of fun to look in on him each day and see where he was. I learned he used a satellite tracking device – a Spot Connect. I didn’t start tracking my trips until 2014, when I went on my first Iron Butt Rally ride with a friend. We wanted our families to see our progress.
I did some research to see if there were any options available to us besides the Spot Connect. I discovered there are several smartphone apps that will track your location.
This is the first app I used. It periodically sends your smartphone’s GPS location to a cloud server where the points are stored. You can also send messages to the server and “friends” can send you messages. The stored location points and messages can be displayed on a website map. You begin by creating an account at the Real Time GPS Tracker (RTT) website. Then you download the app to your smartphone (only available for Android) and connect it to your RTT account. When you are traveling you start the tracking feature in the app and stop the tracking whenever you want to. RTT will store the last 1000 location points for free. If you want to store more points, you have to pay for a time-based subscription, which is 2.40 Euros per month or 12 Euros per year as of the time of this writing.
The app has many features for handling the transmission of your location points and the website has many security features for managing who can see your track. One great feature is the ability to define a “blackout” area, allowing you to hide the location of your home. Location points inside this area will not be shown on the map. RTT is a very solid system with superior features. I stopped using it, however, because 1000 points is not enough for long trips and I do not want to get locked into paying to keep a history for the maps on this site.
When I stopped using RTT, I needed another way to display my trip tracks on the web. Through the Iron Butt Association I found Spotwalla Secure Personal Location Manager. This website accepts track location points from a number of devices. The iOS app is SWConnect and the Android app is Bubbler GPS. I don’t have an iPhone, so I use Bubbler GPS. There are free and Pro versions; I paid for the Pro version. In addition to location services, these apps allow you to send pre-defined messages to the Spotwalla server.
Start by creating an account at Spotwalla and downloading the app for your phone. In the app, connect to your Spotwalla account. On the web, identify your phone in the Devices section. Next define a map for plotting the locations transmitted by your phone. The website has many settings for the maps, including “Safe Zones,” which are areas where the locations will not be plotted on the maps. There are public and private settings that determine who can see your maps. The maps you see on this site are generated by Spotwalla.
I had some trouble with the Bubbler GPS app at first, but updates over the last couple of years have made the app rock-solid. I have found it not running at times and have not been able to determine what causes it to stop. Also, I’m never sure it’s working correctly when I start the tracking function. The app doesn’t transmit a location until you have moved 100 yards from the point where you started it.
There are several items to be aware of when using a smartphone to track your location:
- The apps transmit location points over the internet.
The transmissions aren’t large, but they do use your data plan if you aren’t connected to a wireless network. Transmissions over the cellular networks is no longer a concern now that most cell phone plans include unlimited data.
- You must be in an area that has cell phone or Wi-Fi service in order to transmit your location.
The Bubbler GPS app will save locations on the phone and transmit them when internet access is available. If you want others to see where you are at all times, then you have to be in an area with cell phone service is available or use a satellite-based device.
- The apps use your phone’s GPS to determine your location accurately.
The GPS circuitry uses a lot of power and will run down your battery quickly. The only practical way to use these apps is to keep your phone plugged into a charging source.
If you don’t want to use a smartphone to report your location or you are going to be in an area where cellphone and Wi-Fi service are not available, then there are a couple of tracking devices available that communicate with satellites to transmit your location.
SPOT makes a number of satellite connected tracking devices for hikers, motorcyclists, ATV riders, etc. For testing, I borrowed a SPOT Connect, which is a very old model and difficult to find on the website. Their latest personal tracking devices are the SPOT X and SPOT Gen 3. (They also have a vehicle tracking devices and a satellite phone.) In addition to purchasing a SPOT device, you must purchase services for a minimum of 12 months. There are various levels of services with corresponding levels of features, such as frequency of location updates and number of messages you can send.
The SPOT Connect device requires a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone and app in order to start the device in tracking mode and to send messages. The phone does not need cell service since it connects to the device via Bluetooth and is not used to transmit data to the SPOT server. The SPOT Connect is designed to use 2 AA lithium batteries. You can use alkaline batteries, but they last only a day or two. The SPOT Gen 3 uses 4 AAA batteries, which can be lithium or NiMH. It also has a micro USB port so it can be powered by a cell phone charger.
I’ve used the SPOT Connect for the past six months. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of starting it each morning it works well and it works where cell service is not available. The drawbacks are the battery life, the price of lithium batteries, and the fact you need a smartphone to start it. The Gen 3 has a motion detector that automatically starts the tracking service when you start moving and stops when you do.
Important: Only 30 days worth of data is saved at SPOT, so if you want to keep your data, you must login and export it once a month or it will be lost. If you setup the SPOT device as a device on Spotwalla, the data are transferred to Spotwalla and that data will not be not lost.
My friend who used the SPOT Connect on his Alaska trip is now using an InReach on a trip across the Australian Outback and another friend is using an inReach on his Alaska trip. Based on their experiences, I decided to buy an inReach SE and put it to work.
The Garmin InReach devices are more advanced than the SPOT devices. The Explorer model has trip routing capability; you can plot a route on your computer, transfer it to the device and then let the device guide you as you would with any GPS. The SE model does not have the GPS routing capability. Both devices track your location and allow you to send and receive messages. The messages limit is 160 characters as opposed to 40 characters with the SPOT devices. The units are powered by an internal rechargeable battery that lasts up to 100 hours and can be charged as you would a phone.
You do need to subscribe to tracking and message services with the Garmin products, but the minimum service period is one month and you can keep your data for a small fee while the device subscription is suspended. This pricing plan is ideal for seasonal use.
The Garmin InReach devices are more expensive to purchase, but the features and the subscription plans are a much higher value than the SPOT offerings.
Satellite Device Considerations
- Device features vary greatly.
Important features such as purchase price, location tracking intervals, message length, battery life and subscription terms differ. Be sure to review these features and select the device that has the features you need within the budget you can afford.
- Service subscriptions are part of the cost of using the devices.
The vendors have to pay for the use of the satellites to transport the location and message data. They pass that cost along to you in the form of a subscription.
Final Considerations For Tracking Devices
Whatever method you use to track your location, consider these points when evaluation your selection:
Who do you want to see where you are? Do you just want close family members to see where you are or do you want a larger group to follow along with you as you travel? Can you define safe zones where your location isn’t reported?
- Where will you be going when you want to track your location?
If you are going some place remote, a satellite tracking device is the only viable option. Smartphone-based solutions are much less expensive, but only work when you have phone or Wi-Fi service available.
- How many location points will be saved?
If you are going on a short trip, then the number of saved points is not important. If you are going on an extended trip, then the number of saved point may be important if you want people to be able to see your entire journey.
- How long will your data be saved?
Again, this might to be a concern for short trips, but for long trips you probably don’t want to take the time along the way to download your data before you get home.
- Price / Cost Benefit
Each of the solutions I’ve outlined will work to track your location. Prices for these solutions range from nothing to several hundred dollars; however, the solutions with the greatest value to you depends on your needs.
Please contact me if you would like assistance in selecting a tracking device, configuring Spotwalla, or embedding a map on a web page.