The Yellowbrick Tracker is a two-way messaging device that uses the Iridium satellite network. It seems to be marketed primarily to the sailing world, but I decided it might be useful for lightweight backpacking trips, and I'm going to review it in that context.
You can check out all the manufacturer's information on their website here...
The manufacturer is based in the UK, and at the time I purchased mine (April 2013) there wasn't much information on the internet from actual users, so I had to take a bit of a gamble that it was all it was cracked up to be. I heard about the device from an interesting article on Backpacking Light by Rex Sanders. I was looking for something to use on a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in September 2013, and I did not want to rely on my Iridium phone or my SPOT locator, for reasons I'll get into later on. I placed the order on the manufacturers web site and was pleased to have it in my hands four days later in California.
The device is completely self-contained, sealed, waterproof, and rugged. The claimed weight is 305g, and that is pretty accurate. Mine measured 10.85 ounces. The dimensions are roughly 7" x 3" x 1.5". About the size of an Iridium phone, and about the same weight, but much more useful. Here is a photo of mine next to an iPhone 4S for comparison...
The Yellowbrick comes in a nice box, complete with a world-wide type 2 Amp USB charger that has multiple prongs for fitting into pretty much any AC outlet you might encounter. Also in the photo below you can see the optional yellow holster and the optional rail-mount. The rail mount screws to the back of the Yellowbrick and lets you then attach it to a vertical or horizontal pipe, such as bike handlebars or boat hand rails. The yellow holster has a multitude of velcro straps that should cover just about every possibility.
I was interested in the weight of the Yellowbrick. As most backpackers know, manufacturers figures are rarely to be trusted, and you have to be very careful to read the fine print. so I popped this on the scale and was pleased to find that the weight was exactly as specified...
10.85 oz sounds a bit heavy for lightweight backpacking, but on the plus side, you don't need to bring anything with it - no spare batteries, cables, connectors, cases etc. It stands completely on its own and the battery will last for the duration of your trip (I'll get into the details of that later). If you are comparing this to an Iridium phone or to a SPOT, remember that you will definitely be bringing spare batteries for those, even on a short trip.
The physical design is really first-class. The whole thing is made of hard rubber and plastic, and feels very tough. There is USB connector at the bottom, and it has a waterproof cap. The rest of the unit is sealed. There is a red button under a lift-up cover that you can set up to be your SOS button. There is no way you can set this off accidentally, and it is very obvious what its for. I like this much better than the competing SPOT rescue beacon, for example, which has confusing buttons and LED indicators that you need a handbook to decipher. The menus are accessed by a central button, with four scroll buttons around it. At the top is a protrusion for the Iridium antenna. The handbook says that this should point upwards for best results, and the device will stand on its base to achieve this. I found that it worked fine in pretty much any orientation.
So what does it do? Basically four things:
1. Tracking: You can set the Yellowbrick Tracker to wake up at regular intervals and report your GPS location using the Iridium data connection. The location can be sent to a blog page, to email addresses you previously set up on your Yellowbrick account page, as texts to mobile phones you likewise previously set up, or any combination of those methods. Note that you have to set up all the email addresses and phone numbers before you go on your trip, you can't send anything on the spur of the moment to a new address. The tracking intervals are selectable on the device itself, and you can choose from continuous, 5 mins, 10 mins, 15 mins, 20 mins, 30 mins, 1 hour, 90 mins, 2 hours, 3 hours, 4 hours, 6 hours, 8 hours, 12 hours, or "burst" (where it saves the tracks until you next check in). The default is 10 minutes, but I would suggest using 1 hour or longer to maximise battery life.
2. Messaging: You can send and receive text messages to/from the email addresses and mobile phones you previously set up as for tracking. Actually you can customise who gets what (location updating and/or messaging). Incoming messages can be read directly on the Yellowbrick screen, and outgoing messages can be created by either:
a) Direct text entry using the scroll buttons to select each letter from an alphabet screen (clunky, but at least it's there if you need it); or
b) Selecting a "canned" message from a list. You can use the default set of canned messages, or you can download load your own canned messages to the Yellowbrick Tracker before you go on your trip. I used things like "Camping here tonight" and "Can you send me a weather forecast?"
3. Blogging/Messaging App: You can link the Yellowbrick Tracker to a smartphone via Bluetooth, and use the Yellowbrick App to write text blog entries and/or messages to your previously set-up contacts. This basically lets you have a keyboard. You can also post to Facebook and Twitter.
4. Alerts: You can send an emergency message to a previously set-up list of contacts. Raise the cover and press the red button. Wait for the helicopter.
These different modes worked very well for me on my hike of the John Muir Trail. I set the tracking frequency to one hour, I sent and received four or five canned messages every day, and I turned on the bluetooth for about 20 minutes twice every day to use the Yellowbrick App. After 14 days, the battery was down to about 36%. You can see how the tracks were displayed on my Yellowbrick blog.
For extended backpacking trips such as the John Muir Trail (220 miles), battery life is the about the most important feature, second only to weight. So the first thing I did when I got my Yellowbrick was do some experimenting to see how long the battery would last, and how it could be maximised by selecting the correct settings on the device. It quickly became apparent that each location update consumes a fixed percentage of the battery life. So if you double the number of updates, you halve the battery life. I wanted to have a good grip on this before I went on my hike, so I did some long experiments with different update settings. If you pick the wrong settings, the battery life can be as short as one day. With the right settings, you can go for three months or longer. Here's a graph of the battery life with everything dialled to the maximum (worst) settings:
Well that loooks pretty terrible you are probably thinking. Well, it's not so bad. For the worst case, the red line, I had the Yellowbrick Tracker indoors where it could not see any GPS or Iridium satellites. This is the absolute worst scenario, it forces the Yellowbrick to keep all its power-hungry receivers turned on all the time. There is a caution there - be sure to turn the Yellowbrick off if you are indoors, otherwise you will kill the battery quite fast. For the blue and the purple lines, I had the unit outside where it could see the GPS and Iridium satellites. That improves the battery life quite a lot, but it is still only a week or so. To get really good battery life, you need to set the tracking reports to once every two hours (shown as the green line on the same graph for comparison). Anyway, that is just a quick look at what happens if you set everything wrong. If you set everything right, here is what you get...
Ignore the gap in the data points after day 26 - I was on a business trip that week and couldn't check the readings. But you can see that when the location updates are dialled back to once every two hours, then after 37 days of reporting we still have 60% battery life remaining. The Yellowbrick Tracker seems to work fine right on down to about 4% battery life, and then it shuts down cleanly. So it looks like it would run for about three months on the 2-hour setting. If you use the Bluetooth a lot, it will go down from that.
To get the maximum battery life, I used the default settings that the device came with, except for the following:
Set tracking status to "on" (default is "off")
Set tracking frequency to 2 hours (default is 10 mins)
Set screen idle to 10 seconds (default is 20 seconds).
Set GPS early wakeup to "none" (default is 20 seconds).
Set screen brightness to 25% (default is 50%).
Set bluetooth timeout to 5 minutes (default is 20 minutes)
Set GPS Fixes to 20 seconds (default is 5 seconds). Not sure if this actually has any effect if you do 1-hour tracking.
If you use the default settings, the battery life is still very good, I was just trying to find the absolute maximum in case I needed it. In fact, the battery life is comfortably in excess of any hiking trip I am likely to undertake, so that gives the option of using more frequent updates (eg one-hour) and relaxing the bluetooth timeout (its difficult to complete a sesssion on the Yellowbrick App in less than 5 minutes). The bottom line is that if you set the device up correctly, or use the default settings, you can forget about battery problems. No need for solar panels, no need to carry extra batteries, no need to to send batteries in your hiker resupply. Turn it on, leave it in your pack, forget all about it, it will run for months. The one thing to watch out for is that the Yellowbrick comes with tracking off by default. If you turn it on, as I suspect most people will want to, then it picks up a default tracking interval of 10 minutes, which is far too frequent for long hiking trips, and will drain the battery really fast. So be sure to change the interval if you turn on tracking.
When I used the Yellowbrick on the John Muir Trail, the temperature dipped below freezing several nights, and I just had the unit sitting outside on the ground. It did not seem to have any impact on the battery life (well, not the reported percentage in the display anyway).
The battery takes about 10 hours to charge, using the 2 Amp charger that comes with it. I measured the current drawn by the Yellowbrick from the USB port when it had just started charging, and the maximum current was about 450mA, so you could probably just use any old USB charger you have lying around.
Here's a few more pictues of the Yellowbrick Tracker just to give you an idea how it looks.
First, sitting next to an iPhone 4S. You can see it is a lot thicker. It is really too big to go in a shirt pocket or trouser pocket. For hiking, the best thing is to just put it inside your backpack, on the top. Or, in a side pocket.
Yellowbrick supplies a holster with the Tracker, so you could attach that to your backpack, possibly on the shoulder straps. I elected not to use mine, mainly on account of the weight (1.25oz is a lot if you have to carry it for 220 miles). But it is quite a good holster, and gives many options for strapping it on, so some users will like it. Here is a photo of the tracker in the holster...
With the Yellowbrick in the holster, you can quickly peel away one velcro strap to get to the Alert button, you don't have to take it out of the holster. On the back of the holster there is a loop for a carabiner and two sets of velcro straps, one vertical and one horizontal. That should allow you to mount it on any backpack...
I found that I never really needed to have instant access to the Yellowbrick. I tended to just use it when I stopped for a break. So it was not necessary to have it accessible in the holster on the outside of my pack. Inside the pack was just fine.
Here is a photo of the back of the tracker...
The round yellow holes are where you screw on the rail-mount, if needed. Not really relevant to backpacking, but here's some photos anyway...
Once you have that assembled, the Yellowbrick can be quickly detached from the rail or bar by pressing a tab and sliding it off.
The round cap at the bottom is the cover for the USB port. That is used for charging the device (about 10 hours to charge the internal 5300mAh battery) and also for connecting to a computer to update the firmware or set up canned messages. Here's a closer look, with the USB cover off...
You can also see how the cover over the alert button has to be raised up to press the button. It's very simple and clear. It takes a positive effort to lift the cover, so there is no way you are going to send an alert by accident.
Using the messenger is very simple. The designers did a really good job of setting up the menu navigation.
To turn the display on, you just press the center button (the "select" button). This is what you see...
If you press the same button again, you get to the main menu...
Then you navigate up and down that list of options with the scroll buttons, and use the center button to select the one you want. Once you have used this a few times, muscle memory will take you quickly and positively to the the item you need with a minimum of button presses. It is simple, but very effective. It works with gloves too. You use this system for sending and receiving messages, sending location updates, and for setting the operating parameters (about 35 of them).
When you get a message, it looks like this...
That message was from Jackie. The text follows immediately after the sender name. It can be up to 234 characters. When you reply to a message, your reply goes to everyone on your list that you previously set up.
When you want to compose a message to send, you can use free-text method, which is laborious....
You use the scroll buttons to hunt and peck for letters, just like a TiVo. If you need it, it's nice to have, but I found it much easier just to set up a list of canned messages and download them to the Yellowbrick. Then it is really easy to select one of those canned messages and send it with a few button clicks. Here's a view of the first three canned messages on my list...
I have to give some points here to whoever designed the menu system - whenever you want to send a canned message, the menus are structured so that your key presses are really easy - you just keep pressing the "select" button and it takes you straight through all the menus to your first canned message. You never have to scroll up or down. Brilliant! It's great if you have gloves on and you just went to send a quick "I'm OK" message. If you put a bit of thought into what might happen on your particular trip, you should be able to come up with a list of canned messages that will cover most of what you will ever need to send. Remember to put your "I'm OK" message top of the list, so that you can send it just by pressing the "select" button four times. For the stuff you didn't think of ahead of time, you can either free-text it or use the Yellowbrick App with your smartphone.
The Yellowbrick App gives better options for composing and reading messages. Also, the maximum received message length increases to 1,000 characters. Here are some photos of how that looks:
The Yellowbrick comes with a default set up that is very close to what you need for hiking. I noted earlier some changes you can make to wind out the battery life even further. It's worth pointing out that the Yellowbrick is amazingly configurable. There are about 35 separate parameters that you can set yourself right on the device, without even needing to connect to a computer. That gives the user a huge amount of flexibility to optimise whatever is important to him/her, whether it is battery life, accuracy, or something else. It's all in the handbook, but just to pull out a few examples:
- Geofence: Set up a radius and if you go outside it, an alert is sent.
- Deadman: Requires you to press a key on a regular schedule, if you miss one an alert is sent.
- Temperature: Define a high temp and a low temp. Alert is sent if exceeded.
- Collision: Set a threshold for the internal accelerometer to detect a crash. Alert is sent if exceeded.
I haven't really explored all the possibilities yet, but it's good to know that my Yellowbrick can be set up for other activites (surf trips to Mexico being an important one).
For reference, here is my own spreadsheet of all the parameters and what I set them to...
The Yellowbrick has one pricing plan, which I like. Too many options can be confusing. Just look at Iridium phone subscription plans if you want to get really overwhelmed with options. With the Yellowbrick you pay a monthly fee of 8 UK Pounds, but you only pay that during months that you want to use the device. You can stop paying once your adventure is over. On top of that, you have to buy credit units which get used up each time you send or recieve a text, or send a location update. Those credits are 12 UK pence, but if you buy in bulk the price goes down to 6 UK pence. Boy did I use a lot of those credits when I was testing the Yellowbrick at 5-minute reporting intervals. The bottom line though is that the Yellowbrick is pretty cheap to run, especially compared to a satphone. Bear in mind that if you want a rescue service, you are going to have to set that up and pay for it separately, it is not an option like it is with SPOT.
Performance on the John Muir Trail:
Days used: 13
Battery condition at start: 97%
Battery condition at end: 37%
Tracking: 1 location report per hour.
Incoming messages: 44
Outgoing messages: 61
Blog messages sent: 14
Facebook updates: 3
Bluetooth useage: Approx 8 hours
Missed reports/messages: 0
To me that represents a very acceptable outcome. I had the Yellowbrick inside my backpack most of the time, and it never missed a report. This is an important consideration for anyone following your progress. My experience with the SPOT system (which uses a different satellite network) was that it was quite common for manual location updates not to go through, and this would inevitably cause concern at home. It is also an improvement on using an Iridium satphone, where the call often is cut off in mountainous areas as the satellites come in and out of view. With messaging, you don't care about that, as the handshaking in the system ensures your message goes through even if there is an interruption in coverage. Also, I found it useful to get weather reports sent to me in text messages, where I could review them later, rather than play chinese whispers with someone on the phone. My family found it more convenient to just send a message and forget it, rather than trying to schedule voice calls. Overall, I was really pleased with my decision to buy the Yellowbrick for this particular trip.
There was only one thing that I thought could be improved in the operation of the unit. When you use the Yellowbrick App to compose a message, the reply-to address that goes out with that message is different to the address used when you compose a message directly on the Yellowbrick. So if someone replies, that reply only goes to the Yellowbrick App, and it is not seen directly on the Yellowbrick itself (ie you have to read it on your iPhone). I found that a bit tricky to manage. I had to try to explain to everyone when they should use this address and when they should use that other address. Even I got confused. It would be better just to copy everything to everwhere, so that you can read all your incoming messages on the device or on the iPhone.
Also, it would be nice to have an audible alert on the Yellowbrick when a message is received. These are minor quibbles, the messaging is very good on the whole.
The Yellowbrick is very suitable for lightweight backpacking trips. The main advantages and disadvantages are as follows:
- Light weight (10.85oz)
- Very long battery life (3 months)
- Easy to use
- Highly configurable
- Ability to send location and text messages to email, SMS, blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
- Works from inside a backpack
- Not linked to a rescue service