SPOT Trace
Credit: SPOT

Oh, how we loathe thieves.

Bane of the bicyclist; plague of the paddler. If you know the sick sensation of discovering your prized possession gone—stolen—then you know you’d have done just about anything to prevent this.

Enter the SPOT Trace, a little black box that aims to end the era of the gear-thief. Noted for their highly successful SPOT Personal Locator Beacons (which have assisted in more than 3,500 rescues worldwide), the company's new Trace is like a pared-down version of a PLB. It’s designed for things, not people.

But how effective is it, really?

SPOT Trace
Credit: SPOT

The Trace is smaller than a folded-up flip-phone, weighs 88 grams, is weatherproof (submersible to one metre/operates at temps as low as -33 degrees Celsius) and runs on three AAA lithium-ion batteries. Expected battery life is based on a gamut of variables, but I’d estimate about three months or more in the real-world, unless your stash is constantly being pillaged. (Powersports users can wire-in line power.)

The Trace costs $120 and service costs $99 per year. It’s no free lunch—but your composite kayak costs $4,000. The Trace's value becomes even more evident if you store your gear off-site, at a sailing club or marina, and you’re prone to paranoia.

The Trace will track through glass, fiberglass and plastic—but not metal. It also relies on a clear view to the sky—so you can't leave it in an underground parkade. Furthermore, according to the manual, GPS tracking degrades once the asset hits Mach 1. (Yes, it really says that. Do not use on an F-16!)

Tracking is via satellite, with coverage in: “virtually all of North America, Europe and Australia; portions of South America, North Africa and Asia; as well as hundreds of thousands of square miles off-shore from these areas.” For purposes of this test, I can only vouch for Vancouver—though I once successfully used a SPOT Gen3 in Nunavik’s remote wilderness, so their coverage claims seem legit. 

Before you ask, the conspicuous dimensions (6.8cm x 5.1cm x 2.1cm—see photo below) preclude it from reasonable use on skis or a snowboard. No doubt the engineers at SPOT are working with some impressive nanotechnology, but you’ll have to wait a few versions before it’s truly incognito. The SPOT Trace is meant for boats (paddle or otherwise), bikes and power-toys. (On a bicycle, you’ll need to be cagey with the mount-point, lest the thief locate and remove the device before he peddles off. Under-seat should work.)

Credit: David Webb

This is the third SPOT device I’ve tested. And, much like the rest, if you can get it updated, activated and in-use in less than an hour, you’re smarter than me. Expect to grow a couple of grey hairs during this process. But once it’s done, it’s a set-it-and-forget-it affair.

My first concept for this review was to affix the Trace to my Linus Roadster Sport and leave the bike unchained. In East Vancouver, a hipster city-bike is more desirable than a Tesla. No... terrible idea. Better to do the deed myself than play party to such entrapment.

After powering-up the Trace and grabbing a satellite signal (which it did faster than my SPOT Gen3; could have been the weather), I feigned bike thief. Underway, my iPhone buzzed with twin notifications (email and text):

"Message: SPOT Trace has detected that the asset has moved."

This message included the asset’s current coordinates, time/date and a link to a map. The map is viewable on your computer or smartphone; there’s even a new app. Users also get a notification if the unit is powered-down, if the batteries run low and, if you so desire, a once-per-day "all clear" message.

The movement alert could be the best feature of all. Trace users who are woken at 2:00 a.m. to notification of their kayak paddling itself down the sidewalk could well interrupt the crime in progress. Thieves, being cowards, will usually drop-and-run after a hearty “HEY!

If you can’t stop the culprit in the act, the map is here to help—it leaves a virtual breadcrumb trail from your backyard to the chop-shop.

With the SPOT Trace transmitting, I headed out on a short joyride. I set it to track movement every 2.5 minutes (the shortest interval; 60 minutes is the longest). Here are the results:

SPOT Trace
Credit: SPOT

As you can see, the SPOT Trace will assist in tracking down your stolen property—simply find the last known location on the zoomable map and you'll have a fairly narrow window to look through. (In this case, waypoint #25.) Specific coordinates and detailed data complement this geo-visual, accessible through your SPOT online account. Movement alerts also contain a Google Map link to the asset’s immediate location.

Remember though, this information is best used by the authorities—vigilance is not the same as vigilantism. From the company: “Confirm with family and friends that no one you have authorized to use the asset has moved it without first notifying you. Notify local authorities, and then maintain an open line of communication, including providing updates of your asset’s location as needed. You may be requested to verify details and may need to file a report with local law enforcement.”

The SPOT Trace seems well worth it for high-value items, such as powerboats, canoes, kayaks, snowmobiles and motorcycles. It’s generally cheaper than an insurance deductible and may just help you rest easy and take vacations with impunity. I look forward to watching this unit shrink and evolve over the next few years—to tackle those pesky ski-bandits as well.