A vehicle tracker for the SilkRoute.

It is now (2017) possible to buy a Vehicle Tracker for less than 20 Euros and to use it in Europe for less than 10 Euros a year!

Although the theft of overland campervans seems to be rare it does happen. If it happens whilst you are travelling and all your money, documents and equipment is on board it could be "inconvenient". Obviously you should take steps to make it as hard as practicable to steal your vehicle, but even the most secure campervan can be loaded onto a trailer and towed away.

One method of increasing your chances of getting your vehicle back is to fit it with a "tracker". However most of the systems advertised in the UK are expensive and unlikely to be of much use in Bolivia or Mongolia. This page is concerned with finding a cost effective tracking system more suited to the needs of SilkRoute network members.

Anti-theft vehicle "tracking" systems can be divided into four types.

Radio Beacon Systems: Before the widespread use of GPS and GSM phones most "tracking" systems used in the UK were based on fitting a hidden radio beacon to the vehicles at risk. If the vehicle is reported stolen then the beacon is activated by a country wide radio signal and the vehicle is then located using directional radio receivers operated by the police. Most UK ports are also equipped with receivers that should prevent a vehicle being taken out of the country if the beacon is activated.

Centralised GPS and GSM Systems: More recent tracking systems rely on combining the ability of a GPS receiver to determine the position of a vehicle and the GSM phone system to transmit this information to a central control centre. If the vehicle is stolen the control centre is able to liaise with the police to recover the vehicle. The vehicle owner may also be able to track the the vehicle on screen via the Internet. There is usually a significant annual fee for this service.

Direct GPS and GSM Systems: These tracking systems do not rely on a central control centre. The vehicle owner can directly interrogate the tracker hidden on the vehicle usually using a mobile phone.

GPS and Satellite Systems: These systems (all centralised at the moment) use GPS to determine the vehicle's position and a commercial satellite system to relay this information to a control centre. No GSM phone system is used.

Will it work in Argentina and Mongolia?

Of these four types of tracking system, the first (Radio Beacon) can be ruled out immediately (the infrastructure for using it is not available outside Europe).

In principle the second type of system (Centralised GPS and GSM) could work worldwide, but because of the way these systems are targeted on Europe (or North America) and the way they are priced I have not yet found one that could be recommended.

The third type of system (Direct GPS and GSM) can be made to work at a sensible price if you select the right hardware and the right GSM service provider.

The forth type of system (GPS and Satellite) are available but are expensive both to buy and to use. (I did use a SmartOne B Satellite Tracker when I left my van in Canada over winter.)

Finding out where your vehicle is using GPS will work well worldwide (if your tracker can see the sky) but getting the data back to you via the GSM phone system is a lot more complicated.

Warning: The technology involved with data transfer via GSM is very complex and the number of acronyms in use is formidable. What follows is much simplified. If you want more information see here.

GSM Coverage: There are many different mobile phone technologies in use around the world of which GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) is only one.

The very success of GSM in Europe has made Europeans tend to equate "mobile phone" with GSM. (You can download detailed maps of where GSM phone services are available.) The problem of GSM non-coverage however may not be as bad as it seems. If your vehicle is stolen in central Brazil, for example, you may not be able to track it immediately. However as soon as it is taken into a major city it will be within range of a GSM phone system.

Dual-Band, Tri-Band and Quad-Band: In the UK (and most of the rest of Europe) the GSM phone system operates on the 900 MHz or 1800 MHz bands. As a result most tracker systems installed in the UK only work on these two frequencies. In Argentina they use 1900 MHz. In Nicaragua they use either 850 MHz or 1900 MHz. So a standard European Dual-Band tracker (and mobile phone) will not work in either of these countries.

You need at least a Tri-Band tracker, and preferably a Quad-Band one.

GPRS or SMS: There are two common technologies used to send tracking data over the GSM phone network. GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) is a way of sending data "in the background" over the GSM network usually to an IP address on the Internet. GPRS is often charged per megabyte, and it is common for "connections" to be open for long periods with only a few bytes of data being sent every few minutes. If you need to track a fleet of vehicles in "real time" in the UK (or any other individual European country) then GRPS is the technology of choice. However GRPS is not implemented in all countries and even when it is there may be roaming problems (see below).

SMS (Short message service) is a way of sending short (160 character) human readable messages from one GSM phone to another. SMS messages are usually charged per message (sometimes there is a charge for receiving as well as sending). In terms of roaming (see below) SMS is often grouped with voice services rather than data services.

You need a tracker that can be used entirely by SMS (it may be ably to use GRPS as well, but that is less important).

Roaming: If you have a GSM phone contract with a UK provider (O2, Vodafone, Three etc.) your ability to use your phone (or GSM tracker) in another country is dependant upon your UK provider having a roaming agreement with a suitable provider in the target country and you having a suitable contract with your UK provider.

If we assume that you will keep your tracking system for (say) five years and only use it once a month (just to be sure it is still working) then during its lifetime you will only receive and send 60 SMS messages. Even a very cheap monthly contract with a UK provider will cost you around £300 (say €350) over 5 years.

In terms of cost and functionality the choice of service provider (SIM) is considerably more important than the choice of tracker hardware.

A suggested Tracker for the Silkroute.

There are many suitable GPS/GSM trackers available to purchase in the early part of 2017. In many cases the exact specification of each unit is hard to find. Many of them are being sold by people who do not understand how they work.

The one I selected to play with (in 2017) was the AH207. (It seems to be offered under a number of different names including TK110 and GT02A.) You can buy one on Amazon UK for around £15 in January 2017!

The AH207 is not water proof and needs to be mounted in a plastic (not metal) box with a view of the sky and a permanent 12/24 volt power supply.

The "user manual" is not well written and it seems from information on the Web that some functions of the AH207 do not always work well. There are also many slightly different firmware versions around.

You can use the AH207 in one of two ways. With SMS or with GPRS. Each method has it's advantages and disadvantages.

SMS Mode.

This is the easiest way to use the AH207 and does not require access to the Internet. You send it a text (SMS) message from your mobile phone ("Where are you?") and it replies directly to your phone with a text (SMS) message ("I'm here, and not moving").

What you actually send is the text (SMS) message URL# and after about 20 seconds it replies (by SMS) with something like

http://maps.google.com/maps?q=+53.038440,-0.825006
SPEED:0.1KM/H
Date:17-2-5
Time:20:44:19
SN:352887073179977

If you receive the SMS message on an Internet connected smartphone you can tap the link and you will be taken straight to a Google map of the location of your vehicle.

GPRS Mode.

In GRPS mode you use text (SMS) messages to set up the AH207 after which it sends its location reports via GPRS to an IP address of your choice. The advantage of GPRS mode is that each message is very very cheap (compared to SMS) and so you can realistically instruct the AH207 to report its position every 60 seconds.

The disadvantage of GPRS is that you need quite elaborate software running on a server to interpreted the messages sent by the AH207. This was a major problem but GPS-Trace have made their excellent tracking system available free of charge for private use.

Once you have your AH207 working with GPRS you can display an automatically updated on-line map available to anyone you chose (including the police after your vehicle is stolen).

A SIM card for the Silkroute Tracker.

To make the AH207 viable in this application you need a service provider (i.e. a SIM card) that is:

  • "Pay as you go" without credit expiry.
  • Works for SMS/GPRS in the countries you intend to visit.
  • Can be topped up without access to the "phone".

The best SIM card I have found (in 2017) is GiffGaff. When you activate your GiffGaff SIM card do not buy any "Goodybags" (these will expire in 30 days) just add credit, £10.00 should keep you going for a long time!

The SMS commands you need to set up your AH207 tracker with a GiffGaff SIM to use the GPS-Trace system are below. (You should substitute your own mobile number for 44yyyyyyyyy and your partner's mobile number (or any other spare mobile number you will have access to whilst traveling.) for 44ppppppppp.

  • factory# - Return the AH207 to default state.
  • Admin#1#44yyyyyyyyyy# - Set your mobile phone to be in charge.
  • Admin#2#44pppppppppp# - Set your partner's mobile phone to be backup.
  • apn#giffgaff.com#giffgaff# - Set up GiffGaff's APN and default password.
  • ip#193.193.165.166#20488# - Set up GPS-Trace's IP address and port number.
  • upload#120# - Send location updates every 2 minutes*.
  • param# - Returns the tracker's IMEI number etc.

* Although the AH207 claims you can set the "Upload" time between 10 and 600 seconds, values above 120 do not seem to work and some (i.e.240) may crash the AH207!

To see your AH207 on GPS-Trace you need to set up an account (free) and then add your AH207 as one of your five free devices. When you add an AH207 you should add it as a vehicle (not person) tracker. You will then have to enter five items of information.

Unit Name: - Anthing you like e.g. Motorhome.
Phone Number: - The international version of your GiffGaff SIM number e.g. +447999385121.
Device Type: - Select TK110 from the list.
Unique ID: - This must be 0 followed by the last 11 digits of the tracker's IMEI number.
Device Password: - Leave blank.

Where to Instal your Tracker?

The tracker will need to be hidden in/on your vehicle with a good view of the sky, either on the roof or within a skylight or possibly in a (dummy) external light fitting.

It is probably a good idea to site the tracker away from any radio or audio equipment in the vehicle so that any interference caused by the tracker when it is transmitting will not be noticed.

Stephen Stewart

Home - This page last changed on 2017-02-13.