I've been using SPOT since 2008 and I'm pretty happy with it. Until recently it had no competition. I did this writeup originally to help new users, (or potential buyers), because there is so much garbage and ignorance in backpacking forums and retailer product reviews. Not sure whether it is still useful, but data is cheap and I see no reason to take it down.
SPOT is a personal locater that receives GPS information and transmits your location and status to a satellite. The Satellite transmits to a ground station and the ground station routes the information to the people you specify. SPOT also connects you with the GEOS Rescue Coordination Center in an emergency, (used also by InReach), which routes your location information to the appropriate Search And Rescue (SAR) for your area. SPOT consists of $99 hardware, (see pictures of the various generations), and a $150 yearly subscription. SPOT was the 1st system to convey tracking, "I'm OK", "I need non-emergency help" to loved ones via web page, text message and email. SPOT has a large user base and boasts a couple thousand "saves".
Let's be rational for a moment, OK? No system is 100% reliable - not even the mysterious, magical, highly-vaunted COSPAS-SARSAT. But honestly, it doesn't take a degree in Nuclear Rocket Science to see that any of them are better than nothing. And "nothing" is what most folks have with them in the back country. Accidents are rare in the back country and one could make a really good argument that "nothing" is required for emergency signaling because "emergencies" are statistically rare. But keeping loved ones informed is not strictly a matter of rationality, rather it is being considerate to others and valuing their feelings. Since we are being rational right now, it is obvious that the main value of SPOT is making other people feel better about your adventure.
I've attached a link to a KML file that shows a hike to unnamed lakes in Idaho (they literally lack names - I'm not trying to hide the location). The hike is a typical mix of canopy, open space, bare rock, etc. Good example of the TRACK and OK message features on a real hike. TRACK messages are sent every 10 minutes - you can see where a couple didn't make it - most likely because the unit couldn't get a GPS fix. The OK messages were sent by me at lunch or when I camped for the night. All OK messages went out - if I can see the sky clearly then SPOT will get the message out.
Old Versus New Spot
Left to right - 1st Gen (2008), 2nd Gen (2010), 3rd Gen (2014)
I had an opportunity to do a long hike with my son who has a 2nd generation SPOT. So we had 1st and 2nd generation SPOTs within 100ft of each other over a total of about 14 miles. The terrain varied from forested canyon to bare alpine rock. Overall the 2nd generation SPOT was much more consistent with TRACK messages. 2nd generation was much better at signaling in the forested canyon. My 1st Gen SPOT was mounted face up on a 80Liter pack - so my head wasn't really shadowing it. My son's 2nd Gen SPOT was mounted at the top of his full-size pack, but it was facing backwards - not face up. Had his been mounted optimally, it could've done even better. Conclusion: 2nd Generation SPOT does a better job of signaling.
The user interface on the 2nd Generation is far, far superior to the 1st Gen SPOT. I can't imagine people screwing up the 2nd Gen like they do with the 1st.
Negative on the 2nd Generation: Battery life. The 2nd Gen uses 3xAAA Lithiums which is less capacity than the 1st Gen's 2xAA Lithiums. The 1st Gen will run for more than 2 weeks of use. The 2nd Gen won't go that long. Is it a big deal? I don't think so as the 1st Generation had a run time longer than I would ever use on a single trip. It isn't a big deal to carry some extra batteries - although Energizer Lithiums are spendy.
Summary: If you're considering getting a SPOT, spend the extra and get the
3rd Generation. It's smaller, lighter, better interface, and better GPS reception and signaling.
I've attached two KML files (dons_old_spot.kml, and johns_new_spot.kml) which you can load into Google Earth to see the performance difference between 1st and 2nd generation SPOT.
I finally upgraded from 1st to 3rd generation. The 3rd generation uses 4xAAA Lithiums, has much advanced power management circuitry, and should give battery life equal to or exceeding the 1st gen. Obviously the 3rd gen is much smaller and has a more intuitive interface. Note the mounting options - something I really like. I've used the 3rd gen for about 6 months at this writing and it has been perfect. The GPS reception of the 3rd gen is much better than the 1st gen, and maybe even better than the 2nd Gen - hard to split hairs between 2nd and 3rd gen here as I haven't designed any experiments, but suffice it to say that the 3rd Gen is pretty darn good.
There are other features of the 3rd Gen that I'll cover in a YouTube video.The rest of this is a bit choppy - most of the info is generic to all generations of SPOT and some is specific to gen 1 or gen 3 - nobody is paying me for my writing skills. Areas with strike through are information unique only to Gen 1 - you can still read it if you are still using one.
The SPOT Usage Model
This is where SPOT nailed it in my opinion and why COSPAS-SARSAT needs to evolve or die.
SPOT relies on lots of messages being received over a period of time to basically overcome the satellite system limitations and the user's physical state of being. Lots of messages over a period of time establishes:
- Last known location and time which gives SAR a valid starting point to save search time. They don't have to try to guess how to get to you since they can follow your exact trail.
- Trend of direction and rate for clues when messages end and the person is overdue (dead from heart attack or fell off a cliff).
- Physical points to pick up a trail and clues during on the ground searching.
Whatever device or plan you buy, send lots of messages. Leave the unit on and send messages. Is that clear enough?
I'll say this knowing full well that lots of nimrods are going to blow me off: if you only turn the unit on to send an emergency message then you are screwing up. People should know where you are. If you don't want people to know where you are then carry a COSPAS-SARSAT PLB.
Nobody knows where you are with a COSPAS-SARSAT PLB until you have an emergency (assuming you can activate it and assuming it can signal from where you are at).
Delorme's InReach is the best usage model because it gives full two-way messaging in addition to automatic tracking like SPOT.
I'll be honest - there are a lot of flat out stupid reviews circulating on forums. Some of these people are so dumb that I doubt they can use a sleeping bag correctly. So my advice is to be very picky about the information you pay attention to as some folks have one bad experience and then make a lot of noise on a lot of forums.
Is SPOT perfect? Is the COSPAS-SARSAT system better? What about Delorme's InReach?
The most common myth propagated is that the COSPAS-SARSAT PLB is superior in transmitting a distress signal. Here are the most common "misunderstandings" you'll see parroted on forums:
- Transmission power - , few users have any background in radio theory and most don't understand the basics of the various systems. The COSPAS-SARSAT PLB has to hit a satellite 22,000 miles away. SPOT has to hit a satellite 800 miles away. So yes, the COSPAS-SARSAT PLB has a higher transmit power as it has to signal a receiver 27.5x farther than SPOT.
- Testing - A COSPAS-SARSAT PLB isn't tested fully (uplink to satellite, to ground station) unless you buy a subscription. SPOT and InReach systems are tested constantly by users, thus the systems are very transparent - unlike the COSPAS-SARSAT. My point here is very simple - if you can't (or don't) test your device, then you are carrying it like a good luck charm. I don't know why people think the Government can run COSPAS-SARSAT without mistake when they can't do that with anything else. COSPAS-SARSAT is simply hidden by lack of testing.
- Accuracy - If the COSPAS-SARSAT PLB is unable to get a GPS fix, the basic doppler accuracy is a box 2 miles by 2 miles. That's 4 square miles and that is a huge area. The COSPAS-SARSAT PLB has all the same issues with receiving a GPS signal that SPOT and InReach have - there's no magic.
- The US Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue - For some reason people think that owning a COSPAS-SARSAT PLB means that the Coast Guard will rescue them. The fact is that the US Coast Guard has limited operating area on coastal US. The US Coast Guard isn't going to rescue you in the Sawtooths of Idaho regardless of the hardware you signaled with. Yes, the USCG is the standard by which all SAR activities are measured, (they are the best world-wide), but there's a reason why they are call the Coast Guard. By the way, the US Coast Guard doesn't care what system you signal an emergency with - they treat them all the same.
The InReach uses the Irridium satellite system, which provides whole Earth coverage. Spot uses the Globalstar satellite system which provides specific coverage areas - not the whole earth. The COSPAS-SARSAT is whole earth including a network of LEO satellites over the poles. What's my point? Well if you are going to be hiking in Yosemite, all of the systems are equal. However, if you are going to be snowmobiling in Nome, Alaska then only a COSPAS-SARSAT PLB or Delorme InReach should be used. Pay attention to the coverage maps.
Simple break down of cost and functionality:
- COSPAS-SARSAT PLB ($280 hardware till batteries need replacement - no subscription) - Cheapest 5 year cost. Widest coverage world-wide. One way only communication. Most difficult to deploy in an emergency (have to deploy antennae). Least amount of functionality as it will only signal an emergency. Most expensive to test as it has limited battery life (and the batteries are not user replaceable). Most mechanically robust.
- SPOT ($99 hardware plus $167/year subscription) - middle of the pack cost-wise. One way only communication. Usage model (lots of messages) superior to COSPAS-SARSAT single message. Push button SOS. Easily tested. Keeps loved ones informed with different levels of messages. Less than world-wide coverage. Very easy on batteries that are user-replaceable. You buy a minimum 1 year subscription. SPOT is the most widely used commercial personal locater.
- Delorme InReach ($299 hardware plus $80 - $700/year subscription) - the most expensive. True two-way communication. Usage model (lots of messages) superior to COSPAS-SARSAT single message. Limited battery life (9hrs), but battery is rechargeable. Push button SOS. Whole Earth coverage. Basic tracking, (like SPOT), and two-way text messaging. You can buy a subscription a month at a time. Relatively new system but it is getting great reviews and I think it will become quite popular.
Some basic real-life problems that can happen (need to be realistic as none of these systems are perfect);
- Hardware failure - The hardware can fail and you only know if you can test it. Delorme's InReach 2-way communication provides the best testing. SPOTs one-way messaging can completely test IF you have a cell phone with text message reception. COSPAS-SARSAT PLB has a built-in loop test, but you can't actually test the Satellite path unless you purchase a subscription (and have a cell phone handy with text reception) - and then you only have a limited number of tests possible before you must send the unit in for battery replacement.
- System failure - The "system" in this case is everything other than the hardware, not including SAR. Rare, but it has happened, information does not get routed to the proper destination in a timely manner. I say "rare" because 99.999% of the time it works perfectly and with SPOT and InReach it is tested constantly (cause there are a lot of users sending messages). The take away here is that it is none of the systems are perfect, but failures are very rare (important to remember when you read stuff on forums - especially when a "hater" keeps parroting some failure around and around).
- SAR failure - No, they don't always fly out to rescue you, and they'll probably walk in on the same trail you took (it can take a while for them to get to you). Sometimes they can't even use the coordinates they are given because they don't own a GPS (the average map won't work with WGS84 coordinates). SAR is made up of average people - like you. SAR is managed by the county Sheriff in most states in the US. Some SAR units have lots of resources and some don't. Some SAR groups have been known to be risk adverse, and the injured people died awaiting rescue. My point here is that SAR is a wild-card and if you are counting on them then you better check them out ahead of time.
Usage Conditions and Limits
- Clear view of the sky - SPOT is not magic. You shouldn't count on it to get a signal out when you are trapped in a hole in the ground (more on how to handle this later). You need to give the unit a clear view of the sky. I can block messages by shadowing the unit with my body. If I can see a 20-30 degree slice of the sky, SPOT will get message out.
- TRACK and OK messages must get a GPS fix to send a message - I'm not going to delve into technical details, but know that the GPS receiver and GlobalSat transmitter are separate systems. The unit must have a GPS fix to send TRACK and OK messages.
911 SOS and HELP messages will be sent regardless of GPS reception.
- OK and HELP messages are sent to designated email and text message recipients. TRACK messages only go to the shared web page.
911 SOS messages are sent to shared web page before they are verified, but they are not forwarded to email and text message recipients until the 911 GEOS center has verified an actual emergency. This behavior could cause some confusion if you accidentally hold the 911 SOS button down for 2 seconds.
- Leave it on - Don't turn SPOT off to "save the batteries". I've got over 100hrs use on one set of batteries. I recommend turning it on in the morning and turning it off in the evening.
- Read the manual - I'm tired of reading negative reviews from people too stupid to use SPOT correctly.
From best to worst:
911 SOS and HELP - messages will sent with or without a GPS fix.
- OK - unit will try to get a GPS fix and transmit message 3 times. This can take up to 20 minutes. You don't have to sitting still for this to work.
- TRACK - unit will try to get a GPS fix and transmit a message once every 10 minutes.
I have used SPOT in blowing snow, rain, fog and hot sunny days. It just works. The coldest I've used it has been in the mid-20's F, the hottest has been in the high 90's or perhaps much hotter on the dash of the car.
I've got about 100hrs of use on one set of batteries. I'm not sure how long they will last, but SPOT is very easy on batteries. As I said earlier, if I can see the sky clearly SPOT will get the message out. It works on the dashboard of a Ford Ranger pickup - so auto glass doesn't seem to bother it.
I recently buried the SPOT in 12" of soft snow to see if TRACK and HELP messages would get out (see photos below). SPOT is designed to only send TRACK & OK messages if it can get a GPS fix. But SPOT is also designed to send HELP &
911 SOS messages with or without a GPS fix. Results? It worked. Burying it in snow reduced the accuracy of the GPS location. To give a perspective:
- clear-blue skies yields accuracy of 90+% of messages being within 20 feet or less of dead on.
- When used in a blowing snow storm, 60% were within 20 feet or less, others were off by 60 feet.
- When buried in 12" of snow, no TRACK or HELP were within 20 feet, 80% were within 30 feet and the rest within 100 feet.
- A Quirk to mention - sometimes when standing next to a lake, SPOT will get a GPS fix off by 100 feet or so. In fact you'll see one of these in the attached KML file.
Is SPOT sufficient for an avalanche beacon? Not enough data. Does snow effect SPOT? Not by much. Could I send an OK signal from within my tent buried by the snowfall? Maybe. Could I send a HELP signal? Probably. You have to decide if the "maybe" and "probably" is sufficient for your needs. By the way, make sure you tell those on your contact list that you are testing HELP before you do it.
OK, I'm upside down in a hole
The SPOT usage model is really simple - lots of messages. There's no reason not to send lots of messages. If you don't buy the tracking feature, then push the OK button every so often. This is in stark contrast to the EPLB usage model - one bullet-proof message when you are in trouble. With SPOT, everybody should have your whereabouts frequently during your adventure. With an EPLB nobody knows where you are until you are in serious trouble. You are screwing up big time if you try to use the EPLB usage model with SPOT.
Here's how the "hole" scenario works with SPOT. I'm wandering around sending TRACK and/or OK messages frequently. I fall into a hole and my arm is wedged by a falling rock. I don't feel it is time to saw off my arm just yet, so I push the 911 SOS button and wait. After an hour or so I make sure the unit is transmitting the 911 correctly (no user error) and I throw the unit up and out of the hole because I'm delirious.
911 SOS signal doesn't make it out - Now I wait (what else can I do?). Meanwhile, back at the ranch, loved ones notice that the TRACK messages stopped - they get a little concerned. Folks who were receiving text messages wonder why they haven't received anything. When I'm overdue, they contact SAR. They tell SAR the coordinates from the TRACK/OK messages. SAR may even contact the SPOT Emergency Response Center to create a direct line of communication in case a new message is received. SAR goes to work. They find me in a hole in less than 48 hours. I might get lucky and keep my arm.
911 SOS signal is recieved by the SPOT Emergency Response Center - the ERC starts calling the emergency contact list I set up. They determine that there is a very high probability that this is a real emergency. Elapsed time so far is 10 minutes. ERC contacts SAR coordination for the area where the coordinates say I'm at. At this point, if the 911 message was received with GPS coordinates - great, if not they still inform SAR of the TRACK/OK coordinates and time. Elapsed time of about 20 minutes now. I'm still stuck in the hole, but SAR is on their way. In Oregon, this would likely involve the 309th Rescue unit with a Blackhawk helicopter. These dudes and dudets will find me in a hurry and I'll get to keep my arm.
If I drop dead from a heart attack, which is a high percentage of all heart attacks, SAR will still find me. The electronic bread crumbs I've been leaving will lead them right to me. Every year or two in NW Oregon, a hunter will disappear, never to be found. I have to believe SPOT could prevent this tragedy.
A Real Life Unhappy Ending (sober reminder)http://www.news10.net/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=48747&provider=top
This was a case where the hiker carried SPOT, got into trouble, signaled
SOS and SAR couldn't save him. SPOT worked as advertised. But SPOT isn't a magic key to safety - SAR is staffed with people and these people have lives too. In this case the SAR teams couldn't get to him even though they knew where he was. This sad story should serve as a reminder that your safety is primarily your responsibility
. SPOT is just a tool. SAR is just a bunch of dedicated people. And the world is full of harsh realities.
Orientation and Pack Mounting
SPOT should be mounted face up towards the sky for best results. It will work when hanging from your belt, but you'll have a higher message miss rate. When mounted face up on my pack I have a 90% TRACK message success rate (look at the attached KML file for missing messages at 10 minute intervals).
When hiking I mount the unit face up on the top of my pack. I sewed a little loop on my pack and I use a rubber band around the belt clip and unit to secure it to the loop. I've also got a little lanyard on the unit to the pack in case it get's knocked off in heavy brush and I have used this crawling through the brush (See the photo's below).
When driving I've placed the unit face up on the dash of a Ford Ranger pickup and a Mazda 5. Worked fine in both cases. TRACK message success rate of near 100% when driving on the Interstates in Oregon,Idaho and California. When driving down the backwoods roads in NW Oregon, TRACK message success rate is only about 50% due to the heavy forest.
Shared webpage, Text Messages, Emails
The messages shown in the attached KML were available to my family via a shared web-page, email and text messages (only the OK/HELP messages via email and text message, TRACK only shows on the shared web-page). They could follow my adventure real-time, which provided peace of mind. Had there been a problem, loved ones and Search And Rescue would've known where to find me. Setting up the shared page was very easy. Initially I set up a different page for each adventure - seemed like a good idea at the time. Now I have one "where's Waldo" page. I tell those who care where it is and they can follow my wanderings.
Although Google Maps is plenty good enough for the shared web-page, I prefer Google Earth. I log into my SPOT account, select the appropriate messages, and save them as KML. Then I save the kml file along with the pictures/videos of the adventure as a way to enhance the memories. Also, anytime I see a lot of TRACK messages around some lake I know the fishing must've been good. By the way, the SPOT account only keeps messages for 30 days (which is incredibly stupid given the low data storage requirement), so you have to save them yourself.
I modified my OK & Help text messages and embedded the URL to my shared web page. Both Android and IOS will pull up the page from the URL. Neither will pull up Google maps with the coordinates in the text message. By the way, I put a bunch of info in my web page to help the viewer.
SPOT App for Android and IOS
Now this is an excellent solution for today's mobile world. Basically you give this app access into your SPOT account and it displays your way points on Google maps. Why is this such a big deal? Because neither Android or IOS have an easy way to identify WGS84 coordinates in a text message and display on Google Maps/Earth. So this app does it for you. Let me list the good & bad:
- Good - the user doesn't have to know anything - just start the app and look at the map. This is really great for those who don't understand the coordinate system, and is so much more convenient than having to type coordinates from a text message into Google Maps or Google Earth.
- Good - not tethered to a PC. Duh.
- Bad - Can only access one spot account. So if you have multiple loved ones who carry SPOT and have different accounts, this app can only show one of them at a time. And reconfiguring for another account is work.
- Bad - Doesn't highlight the latest track/OK point. If the latest point blinked, then you could easily tell where the person was without having to zoom in and read the time-stamp on each message.
- Bad - Only works when you have a data connection. It isn't capable of accessing coordinates from text messages and displaying them on a map.
So a couple tweaks (all my complaints can be fixed) and this can be a really great App. I'm glad SPOT did this because a browser web page is just the wrong way to aggregate data for mobile.
SPOT is, amongst other things, an emergency beacon. But it is not a satellite phone, so you need to think ahead of time before activating it. Here are a few things to consider:
- If you trigger SOS for your rescue - STAY PUT. Don't trigger SOS and then start wandering around - if you do, and it looks like you're headed towards safety, the local SAR may decide to call off the search. Meanwhile you die.
- if you decide to trigger SOS for somebody else you come upon on the trail - STAY PUT. Remember that GEOS and your loved ones don't know that you are OK and the other guy needs emergency help. Stay with that person until SAR arrives, then send a CANCEL message and maybe a couple OK messages. SAR can relay back to GEOS and your family that the emergency was for somebody else.
- Be prepared - GEOS is fast - SAR is not. Personally, I think you should always plan on hunkering down for 24 hours. You don't know how long SAR is going to take.
Running the unit, switching modes, avoiding mistakes
SPOT is very, very easy on batteries. I have about 80hrs continuous use of TRACK mode on my first set of Lithium AA batteries. Because of the long battery life, I switch SPOT on at the beginning of my adventure and switch it off when I'm done. I don't recommend turning the unit on for a single message and then off. I think it is better to let the unit continuously update it's GPS fix.
At the trailhead, I'll typically set SPOT on the ground with a clear view of the sky, push OK and do something else for 20 minutes. This OK message does a couple things:
- It establishes my starting point for SAR - SAR doesn't have to hunt around for my vehicle at all the possible trailheads. Nor do they have to rely on my loved ones recollection of where I was going.
- Notifying loved ones - Since an OK message is sent via text message and/or email to designated recipients, lots of people are informed (a) when my adventure has begun, (b) where I'm at and (c) that I'm OK. They don't have to know the area, as they've got the coordinates.
I mount the SPOT on my pack (see photos), turn the unit
off and then on. Then press the OK button for 5 Mississippi's (until I get both LEDs to flash) and I know the unit is in TRACK mode. Press and hold the TRACK button for 2-3 seconds until the TRACK light flashes. Strap on my pack and get moving. I've tested my setup crawling through the brush, so I don't give the SPOT unit another thought for the rest of the day.
I turn the unit off then on again. Then I select the mode I want. I've used 911 by accident, so I know it works, I've tested HELP once and I know it works. To turn on TRACK mode, I power on the unit and press the OK button for 3-5 seconds or until I see both LEDs flash. To send an OK message, I turn the unit off then on again and press the OK button for 1 second. The key message here is that I turn the unit off/on to clear the previous mode - I don't try to decipher the state of the unit from the LED interface.
strike-through above is the best practice for a Gen 1 SPOT, but Gen 3 is a lot more intuitive. Power the unit up by holding in the power button - pretty easy to tell it is powering up by all the flashing. If you are in TRACK mode, you can send any other message by simply pressing the appropriate button for 2-3 seconds until that message's light flashes GREEN. If the unit is currently sending a HELP or SOS, you should let the unit send the CANCEL message first. To send cancel, you simply hold down the appropriate button for 2-3 seconds until that message's light flashes RED. Remember that you can test this operation - don't be lazy.
I accidentally sent a
911 SOS message while traveling down the road in my pickup. This happened because I smashed the SPOT unit into a Kleenex box on the dash to keep it from vibrating against the windshield. The cardboard folded over in such a way to push the 911 SOS button for 2 seconds. The Emergency Response people called my wife first - left a message. Then they called my daughter who was sitting next to me. We told them what happened and they canceled the 911 SOS message. Less than 10 minutes. I was embarrassed and relieved at the same time. It was good to know that the 911 SOS service is real. My point here is that although the Gen 1 911 button is recessed, protected by a raised ridge, and requires a continuous 2 second push, I managed to do it with a Kleenex box.
Gen 2 & 3 have covers over the SOS button. So it is near impossible to send an accidental SOS message. However, I know there is still a bit of a temptation to push those buttons, so don't let folks play with the unit when it is powered up. AND LEARN HOW TO CANCEL AN SOS OR HELP MESSAGE so you can call off the calvary in case you have a senior moment.
With Gen 2 and Gen 3 it is pretty easy to send a CANCEL message, that will let everyone know that there is no longer a need for HELP or SOS. Just press and hold the HELP or SOS button for 2-3 seconds until the HELP or SOS button light flashes RED. The unit will continue to flash RED for a couple minutes while it is transmitting the CANCEL message.
The best way to test SPOT is to create a second profile in your account. Put just your cell number for TRACK, CUSTOM Message, HELP and SOS. NOTE: YOU CAN NOT TEST SOS WITHOUT CAUSING A GEOS RESPONSE - SO DON'T DO IT.
Now you can head to your favorite wooded park and see how well SPOT will TRACK you, send a CUSTOM Message, and transmit OK messages. Since you've only got your cell number in the test profile for HELP, you can play around verifying that SPOT will send a HELP message regardless if it can get a GPS fix. (Note that Gen 3's GPS receiver is so sensitive that it might get a GPS fix even though it can't transmit a signal to the satellite - I've had that happen).
Remember to switch your profile back when you are done testing.
SPOT is a one-way communication tool with a limited message set. Beginning with Gen 2, SPOT added a Custom Message to the mix. So if I'm solo Elk hunting, I might setup the profile for CUSTOM to include the cell numbers of a couple young & strong guys who have agreed to help me pack out should I be so fortunate. If I'm backpacking, and I'd like to have the option of extending my trip, (without my family freaking out), I program my CUSTOM to say "I've decided to extend my trip by a day. Each day I'll send one of these if I'm going to stay longer." This custom message can be very useful.
http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg534/EmergencyBeacons/2012SarsatConf/Presentations/SAR2012_Feb15_SENDs_Turner.pdf - an overview of how the Coast Guard views personal locator beacons.
So here's the gist of the above links:
If they have a 92% false alarm rate with EPIRBs, then I would imagine a similar or higher false alarm rate with SPOT. Here are a couple things to consider to avoid wasting SAR resources:
- The Coast Guard response to SPOT is the same as the response to an EPIRB. They don't slack off just because the notification came from a commercial company.
- The EPIRB false alarm rate is 92%. That means that 92% of EPIRB activations are because owners screwed up. This the "stupid" factor with people - it is very difficult to "accidentally" trigger an EPIRB (can't do it by smashing it into a Kleenex box on the dashboard) yet they do it somehow.
- Don't put stupid people on your contact list or let them access the shared web page - I know this sounds harsh, but the fact is that some folks just don't think before they act. Think of your emergency contact list as your lifeline - you need folks you can count on. Think about the folks you want receiving emails and text messages. Don't let an airhead call the Coast Guard because they see your boat changing directions.
- Make sure that the people on your contact list know you and what you are up to (trip plan). Make sure they are the sort of people who actually answer their cell phone. Add additional contact numbers to the "information" section of your SOS profile. The idea is to help the GEOS folks determine whether or not this is a real emergency.
- Make sure ahead of time that the conditions for "over due" are understood. Work out ahead of time what OK means if you are overdue. Talk about what to do with a HELP message. "HELP - I've got an Elk down and I need some extra muscle", "HELP - I've got car trouble and I'd like you to call OSP/AAA/etc." Some folks work out a code with multiple OK messages. Make intelligent use of the CUSTOM message and learn how to cancel HELP/SOS.
- Follow through with OK communications - don't get lazy or forgetful. If you said you were going to check-in every two hours then do it. It couldn't be easier with SPOT.
- Be mindful of how you storing and carrying SPOT when it is powered on. Hey, I caused a false
911 SOS activation because I smashed it into a Kleenex box.
- Don't play with it - SPOT isn't a toy so don't let the kiddies or stupid brother-in-laws play with it.
- Take it seriously - You don't signal
911 SOS because you spilled coffee in your lap. You don't signal 911 SOS at an accident where emergency responders are already on location.
Summary, Concern, Conclusion
It just works
I know that the 1st generation user interface sucks, but I used it just fine. I know that Gen 2 & 3 are much easier but there are people who are going to use it wrong and have lousy results. But I'm not a nuclear rocket-scientist and all generations of SPOT have worked for me. At some point I quit caring whether or not anybody else likes SPOT, because the world is full of people who do stupid stuff. My family loves it.
My family and I like itWhy do they like it? SPOT does 2 things for them:
Why do I like it? Well:
- They know where I'm at - I wander around in Oregon and Idaho - that's a lot of area. My family, (except for my son), is clueless about the areas I go into, because it isn't their hobby. The coordinates on Google Maps empowers them with information. They feel more at ease. They don't have to know how much I'm struggling to haul myself up over some ridge or what a pain a cloud of mosquitoes can be -
they're my family becomes a part of my adventure.
- They know when I'm OK and when I'm not. - I'm like most guys - I'm OK until I'm really broken. They know I'm not going to
911 SOS because of mosquitoes or HELP because I need a latte. OK means just that. And 911 SOS means I'm in a heap of trouble. Once again they are empowered through knowledge.
- I've spent my life taking care of my family and I act responsibly - SPOT gives me the freedom to change my mind about trail heads, fishing spots, etc. knowing that I'm keeping my family in the loop.
- Cell phones suck - I don't even carry one most of the time wandering around. I'm reminded of the Kim family that got off on a back-road in Oregon and were stranded in the snow for 2 weeks. Eventually the husband tried to hike out and never made it. They were out of cell range, not far from town. Cell phones suck.
- Reliability and battery life - cell phones suck. My stupid cell phone can't be made to stop searching, so it runs the battery down. SPOT runs for a very long time on two AA Lithiums. I never worry about battery life with SPOT. SPOT is weatherproof. Spot is brush proof. I'm not going to throw SPOT against a wall or sink it in the bottom of a river to see how it holds up. But my guess is that SPOT would hold up better than me for the kind of boo-boos I'm likely to make.
- Smart people get involved in the
911 SOS process - I love my family. But they may not answer their phones, or they may have crashed their computer, or whatever. Meanwhile I'm in trouble. It is nice to know that professionals will get involved if I have an emergency.
Not a replacement for a COSPAS-SARSAT PLB in all situations
SPOT is very rugged, reasonably priced and offers unique communication features. In most cases, SPOT is more than adequate for communicating an emergency situation. And given that most people lack any means beyond a cell phone, (with its limited service area), a SPOT represents a huge step forward in responsible back-country practice. But, and this is important, as good as SPOT is, there are better PLBs for some activities. IF you are engaging in ultra-nasty activities, like climbing Mt. Everest (or climbing Mt.Hood in Oregon), wandering the southern tip of Africa, chasing penguins in Antarctica, then you would be better served with a COSPAS-SARSAT PLB. Why? Because a COSPAS-SARSAT PLB is spec'd to work at a greater temperature extremes, possibly more rugged, and uses world-wide satellite coverage*. OK, having said all that, SPOT is plenty for me - I hunt, fish, backpack and generally wander around.
* ACR ResQLink check-in message testing has shown that PLBs have similar signaling limitations to SPOT - they aren't magical.
Summary: A couple expert climbers get clobbered by rock & snow while scaling a cliff in Alaska, breaking both legs of one climber. Their 1st generation SPOT worked and all ended well. But this was an adventure where they should have been carrying a cospas-sarsat PLB instead. Here are my thoughts on the problems with using SPOT:
This climbers blog answers important
questions about the incident that would've been skipped by the mindless media. SPOT got the signal, with GPS coordinates, out - how I don't
know, but it did. Both the GPS and Globalstar satellites were shaded by
the mountain. Signals must bounce around a lot on the ice & granite.
- Globalstar satellites run at a 52 degree inclination (middle of
Canada) and they have to be able to line-of-sight hit a receiving
station from about 800 miles up. Mount Osborne Alaska is at 64 degrees. My point here is that folks should take
the coverage maps seriously because SPOT doesn't cover everywhere.
- Hanging on a north-facing cliff at the base of a mountain while
trying to hit a low-earth orbit satellite behind you on the other side of the
mountain is a bit of a long shot. cospas-sarsat PLBs have Polar Orbit Low-earth
satellites available which is why they are ideal for far-north
Banging into the side of a cliff in cold weather is exactly the
scenario where I would have a PLB. Why? Lower temp rating, and studier
construction - based on their name-plate specifications.
GlobalStar financials - the real concern
The SPOT unit is well designed and the message service is pretty good. But SPOT fundamentally a good idea to breathe some much needed life (I.e. cash) into the other-wise failed GlobalStar satellite network. Even though SPOT uses the simplex portion of the satellite receivers, which is in good shape, satellites are expensive and you can't "upgrade" a satellite network like a cell phone network. GlobalStar could be ready to slide into bankruptcy at any moment leaving SPOT users stuck.
The good news is that Globalstar weathered the great recession and upgraded their satellite network. So they're not going to disappear anytime soon.
I don't sell SPOT, I'm not some sales-vermin on commission, and I'm not some journalist-wannabe cranking out a review for a magazine. I'm just a happy user (got one for Father's day). I hope this information helps you decide if SPOT is right for you.
Here are two pictures showing me burying the SPOT in a foot of soft snow. I wanted to see if it could get TRACK and HELP messages out in these conditions.