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No worries on the trail with the SPOT Gen3 satellite messenger: Gear review

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SPOT Gen3

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A major advance in the pursuit of outdoor activities has been the development of lightweight, affordable satellite communication devices, such as the SPOT Gen3, that enable people to stay in touch with loved ones, track their progress and call for help in the backcountry where the cellular reach is spotty at best. Some have gone so far as to call SPOT “marriage insurance”. Spouses, parents and partners don’t have to worry needlessly for days or weeks on end, wondering if their special outdoorsperson is injured or worse. Some prefer to keep technology to a minimum but if you’re hurt in the backcountry it’s invaluable to be able to summon help.

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SPOT has been a leader in the area of satellite messaging since launching in 2007 and the list of stats is impressive. There are over 200,000 SPOT devices in service and, since its inception, has been involved in over 3,000 rescues. Rescues initiated with a SPOT product average about one per day.

SPOT, a subsidiary of Globarstar, Inc., has three different products in its lineup.

  • The SPOT Gen3 is the latest GPS messenger offered by SPOT, the bright orange device seen hanging off many packs in the backcountry. As the name implies, the Gen3 is an updated version of the original, now with enhanced tracking and messaging capabilities. Tracking options include custom tracking (2 ½, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minute tracking intervals available), motion-activated tracking and continuous tracking. Three different predefined messages can be sent to family and friends, or they can monitor your progress on the SPOT website, and emergency responders can be summoned if needed. The Gen3 is available for $99.95 after rebate. Monthly service plans start at $14.99/month.
  • The SPOT Global Phone is available for those who need to maintain voice contact in remote areas. The Global Phone also offers email transmission and file transfers. The SPOT Global Phone is ideal for emergency responders and those who want to be able to speak with family, friends and co-workers anytime, anywhere. The SPOT Global Phone is currently available at no cost, after rebate. Monthly service plans start at $24.99/month.
  • SPOT Trace is a unique antitheft tracking device designed to monitor movement of assets such as boats, kayaks, canoes and jet skis. Users can receive theft-alert SMS texts or emails when movement is detected. SPOT Trace is currently available for $74.95, after rebate. Monthly service plans start at $9.99/month.

SPOT Gen3

The SPOT Gen 3 is a small, four-ounce device that is about half the size of a cell phone and a little thicker, that fits in the palm of your hand. It comes with a carabiner and Velcro strap so it can be easily attached to the outside of a pack. Across the top of the front panel are 3 LED lights that light up in different sequences, depending on the action. The buttons used to send messages are arrayed on the bottom of the front panel. The buttons have icons and two acronyms, SOS and OK. It is strongly recommended that the User Manual be reviewed and that testing be done prior to a backcountry trip so the user is familiar with the light sequences and what the icons mean. The device is waterproof so a little rain shouldn’t interfere with operations. One set of four AAA Energizer Ultimate lithium (L92) or Energizer NiMH rechargeable batteries should last two years if powered off, deliver 1,250 Check In messages or last for 7-45 days of tracking depending on intervals set by the user and the amount of movement.

Field Testing

I had the opportunity to test a SPOT Gen3 throughout the summer. I used it in early summer when performing foot patrols at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where I volunteer. There is no cell service at the park and I tested the device regularly by sending Check In messages to myself and my husband. After I familiarized myself with basic operations I started planning for the real test, which occurred in the month of August when we hiked 170 miles of the John Muir Trail over 23 days. We went on a couple of training trips in June and July and I worked with my best friend, whom I listed at the primary contact person, to establish my Check In, Help and Custom predefined messages.

Setting Up SPOT Gen3

I went to the SPOT website before my backpacking trips to set up my Contact Details with predefined messages and email addresses. The SPOT Gen3 is not a phone so you cannot edit the messages or email addresses once you’re in the backcountry.

  • Check In Message: I edited the Check In message to say, “I’m checking in. We’re having a great time and are A-OK.” I listed my friend and my parents as contacts, and every time I sent a Check In message they would get an email with the message and GPS coordinates along with a link to a map that would show our exact location. I also included my own email address so I would have a record of the exact locations where we camped.
  • Help Message: After talking with my friend, who would be unlikely to be able to help us if we were far from civilization, we decided on this message, which would alert her that all was not right, but not request any action: “Having some difficulty. Please monitor my locations & stay tuned. I'll send updated locations if moving.” The idea was that if we could get to a place where we might get cell service we could call with more information, or we might be able to send a message out with another hiker, and if we were able to move at all, but slower than planned, she would be able to see our locations. This would also put her on alert that an SOS message might be coming.
  • Custom Message: We decided to use this one to notify my friend that I had activated the SOS button so she would be aware that the authorities had been summoned, so it simply said, “I’m sending an SOS.” We hoped we wouldn’t need to use that one.
  • SOS messages, which the user can summon for critical life-threatening emergencies, are automatically handled by the GEOS International Emergency Response Center in Houston, which notifies the appropriate authorities depending on the GPS location. The user cannot edit this message. However, I did need to add my friend’s contact information as the Primary Emergency Contact and there was a space to enter notes, so I entered information about our planned itinerary: “My husband, Steve Mullen, and I will be hiking the John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Kearsarge Pass from July 30 to August 22.” The Help and SOS messages are located under a cover on the SPOT device so they can’t be pressed inadvertently.

The tests went well for the two preliminary backpacking trips and my friend received the messages. We decided that I would send one message per day, when we reached the location where we could camp. Several friends were interested in monitoring our progress but didn’t want the daily emails so I set up a SPOT Shared Page and shared the link so they could check in on our trip whenever they wanted.

I attached the SPOT Gen3 device to my pack, where the bright orange color attracted several questions about what it was and I noticed many other backpackers with a SPOT also. I sent Check In messages every afternoon as soon as we set up camp. I never forgot because, as I opened my pack to get my sleeping bag out, I’d notice the SPOT, remove it, find an open place on the ground so it would have the best chance at locating a GPS signal, and fire off the message.

When we returned from the trip we found that my parents had greatly enjoyed following our locations on a map of the John Muir Trail and that my friend had no trouble following our trip plan. In fact, she knew right away that we were over Kearsage Pass a day early. Other friends said that they had checked the Shared Page several times and were relieved to see where we were. I was able to download the last 30 days of locations to several different file formats, including CSV, KML and GPX. The GPS locations are only stored for a maximum of 30 days, though I also saved all the emails with my GPS locations that were sitting in my mailbox when I returned.

Emergency Rescue

Thankfully our trip was without incident but one of our trail friends wasn’t so lucky. Hiking to Muir Pass one morning we were startled to see a yellow helicopter circling the small valley we were in, eventually landing just a few hundred feet from us. As we hurried to see who it was we realized it was our friend, The Texan, who was having trouble with the altitude. The medic efficiently assessed him and before we knew it he and his wife were flying off to Bishop over the peaks of the Sierra. The Texan didn’t have a device but an early morning hiker did and used his to summon help. It was a sobering experience but made me feel much safer to know that my trusty SPOT was there if I needed it. After the excitement of the rescue subsided I realized that there was a yawning hole in the preparations I had made with my friend—we had never considered the scenario of me using the SOS for someone else. We decided after the trip that we would come up with some special sequence, perhaps an SOS followed by 2 Check In messages, so when case she was contacted by authorities that she’d know we were ok but that someone else needed help. You can read other rescue stories involving SPOT on their website.

It is important to be aware that, if a costly search and rescue (SAR) is initiated, you will likely receive a hefty bill from the emergency responder. GEOS offers separate Member Benefit SAR insurance, underwritten by Lloyd's of London, to SPOT owners for $17.95/year, which consists of reimbursement of up to $100,000 of SAR expenes ($50,000 per incident for up to two incidents per year) for the SPOT owner (they also have family plans). If necessary, GEOS will contract with private SAR providers to extract you anywhere in the world, with the exception of six conflict-ridden countries (other exclusions for extremely risky and/or highest altitude expeditions apply).

Message Reliability

The only glitch was that, even though I know I sent a message every day, there was a 3-day gap in the middle and then a skipped day when my contacts did not receive a message. Luckily no one panicked, especially with the 3-day gap, but somehow some messages didn’t get through. It may have been that I didn’t leave the device on long enough after sending the Check In message. The GPS and Message Sending light blinks green in unison when the message is being sent. If you leave the device on for at least 20 minutes after the message sending light flashes green, the message is sent three times to the SPOT network, though the message is only delivered to your contacts once. This redundancy ensures maximum reliability and I probably turned the device off too soon, thinking that the message had been sent. Part way through the trip I reviewed the SPOT owner’s manual, which I had scanned into the Evernote app on my phone, and was reminded of the 20 minute rule so after that I made sure to leave it on longer. I recommend bringing the User’s Manual or scanning important information into your smartphone or tablet for reference in the backcountry for the SPOT and any other devices you have with you. In an emergency you don’t want to be wondering what red blinking lights or other signals mean.

Pros

The SPOT Gen3 is a lightweight, compact satellite messaging device that can send three different predefined messages to anyone you choose with the push of a button, which gives family and friends peace of mind. In an emergency you can summon search and rescue. The operation of the device is not difficult to master but does require some practice.

Cons

The device does not allow for customizable communication in the backcountry, so if there is a medical or other emergency the first responders will only have your location. It is not always possible to confirm that a message has been sent, but leaving it on for at least 20 minutes gives it the best chance for successful transmission.

Recommendations

  • Test the device thoroughly before you need it to assure that you understand all the light sequences.
  • Take the user manual with you or scan key pages, including the chart with the message indicators to your phone so you can refer to it if you are unsure about the status of your message.
  • Talk with your contacts prior to creating the predefined messages and come to agreement about what action, if any, is expected of them.
  • Bring extra batteries, as you would for any device, thought the SPOT can last a long time on a set.
  • Don’t press the SOS button unless it’s a true emergency.

The SPOT Gen3 offers peace of mind for adventurers who can rely on satellite technology to send an SOS for help and allows family and friends back home to breathe a sigh of relief every time they get a Check In message. The small, lightweight device can be hung off the back of a pack so it’s available when needed. It’s easy to operate and affordable, with different pricing plans to meet different needs.

Product Information

SPOT Gen3

  • Weight: 4 oz with lithium batteries
  • Batteries-4 lithium ion batteries
  • Price: $99.95 after rebate. Monthly service plans start at $14.99/month.
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