December 12 Update — Reliability Test
I set the unit out in the yard this morning and invoked the “Help” button, which sends a message every 5 minutes unless canceled. If the satellites were unreliable, I figured we’d see glitches in this, instead it appears excellent. I also did this test in the afternoon and it worked fine as well. Check out the screen shot from my email client:
|Screenshot of Spot Messenger emails|
Perhaps some blog readers out there are getting tired of gear reviews. Indeed, I’m looking out my window and it’s dumping snow — so I’m thinking I should be out there letting it fall on my shoulders. Instead…
Please know we’re hitting it heavy with the gear writing because I do hear from many folks who say if we’re going to cover gear, we might as well do it at the start of winter and up through the Christmas shopping season. After which we’ll blend in more trip reports, opinion and stuff like that. (As always, we generally only review gear we like and use, hence our reviews tend to be on the positive side, with a sprinkling of crit because nothing is perfect.)
To that end, we were out Christmas tree logging this past weekend, in a remote area with zilch for cell phone. I used to revel in being totally isolated in the wild, knowing that if anything bad happened it could be hours or even days before possible help could be notified. Now with a family, I like more communication capability and have carried everything from a sat phone to a handheld radio programmed to contact nearby amateur radio operators.
Nonetheless I still feel it’s appropriate to make choices about the level of contact during an adventure. Some might like a sat phone, others figure their cell phone might work if they get up high enough. others leave it all behind for extra spice. In the latter case you indeed have ethical issues of how much effort and money a search might entail — but that’s fodder for another blog.
Today, we’re covering a comm device that’s somewhere between a sat phone and amateur radio in terms of flexibility — but does give you communication from nearly anywhere.
Said item is the Spot Satellite Messenger. If this thing doesn’t represent tech 2.0 — or even 4.0 — I don’t know what does. Here we have the convergence of technologies such as GPS, Google Maps, satellites, lithium batteries, the web and more. Indeed, offhand I can’t think of something that brings more to the table in terms of tech blending, in this small a package.
Basically a personal locator beacon on steroids, Spot is a hand sized, 7 once (202 gr) one-way sat phone and GPS wrapped in a waterproof case. The unit easily survives a 7-foot drop on concrete ( I verified with three 8-foot drops and it’s still working).
Spot does just a few things, and in our testing it did them adequately.
– If you have a true emergency you hit the 911 button and the unit sends a message to what Spot calls their “Emergency Response Center.” There is a bit of mystery to this, as one has to wonder how responsive the “Emergency Response Center” actually is. I’m not clear on how all the big communications corporations relate, but Spot is a Globalstar subsidiary and the Response Center is run by the GEOS company. If anyone can clarify all that be my guest — but know that the “911” button does not actually dial 911 for you — a person at the “Response Center” ostensibly does it.
This is what they claim:
“… if you’re ever in a situation that threatens your life or safety and you have to press the “911” button, one of our Duty Officers at the GEOS Emergency Response Center in Houston, Texas will be dealing with your emergency, liaising with Police, Coastguard or any other relevant authority as well as coordinating any additional private Search & Rescue resources that may be required to rescue you or save your life…”
I did find out that the first thing the “Emergency Response Team” will do is try to contact the same person the “OK” and “Help” buttons contact, so it’s perhaps somewhat redundant and perhaps more of a marketing feature than anything else. Whatever the case, the fact that Spot also provides a “Help” call to anyone you choose somewhat obviates any issues with the 911 option, as your designated message recipient can also instigate a rescue (provided they’re in the same country and speak the language — and if rescue service is available.)
– Don’t need 911 yet but want your buddies to hike in and help you because you sprained an ankle or your snowmobile died? Just press the “Help” button, which sends a custom (written by you, on the Spot website) cell/text or email message to a destination you preconfigured. This is where the unit shines, as not only does the Help message include your GPS cords, but it also has a link to a Google map with your location marked.
– And third, a deal maker feature in my opinion: The “Okay” button sends another preconfigured email or phone/text message with GPS cords and Google map link. Main difference between this and the “Help” button is that once you press the “Help” button, it sends the help message every 5 minutes for an hour (easily canceled by a few button presses), while the “Okay” button sends just one message. Since use of all Spot features in unlimited, the “Okay” button can thus be used to record waypoints (they use Datum WGS84 in our area) so you’ll have an email record of your route as a series of emails, or to simply report the progress of a trip to an email or phone recipient. Following is what an email message looks like:
This is Louie Dawson, I am okay, just checking in.
Unit Number: 0-7351518
Nearest Town from unit Location: Unknown
Distance to the nearest town: Unknown
Time in GMT the message was sent: 12/08/2007 23:40:25
(A fourth, optional feature tracks your route whenever the unit is on and has satellite contact. This could be useful and is $50/year extra.)
|How the system works.|
What’s the catch? Not much. Spot could be considered pricey, but if you use all the features regularly I’d consider the cost to be reasonable. You’ll pay an initial $169.00 — and a $100/year subscription feet to be able to use it. Perhaps more importantly, if the satellites don’t line up it can take up to 20 minutes to get a message out, including use of the “Ok” button to log a GPS coordinate. In our experience times were more along the line of several minutes, except for one message that took quite a while (under dense clouds in a narrow valley). A sat phone suffers exactly the same issues, so I’d say that if you keep your expectations in line the delay factor is workable. Perhaps our biggest gripe is that the tech convergence doesn’t go far enough, i.e., this device could easily be made in a version with an LCD and full GPS, thus getting past the “another thing to lug around” syndrome. I guess our lighter weight skis and boots will have to make up for that not happening. So, considering all, we feel Spot is an excellent solution to an age-old dilemma — it tests well and is highly recommended.
(2011 Update) Check out SPOT Messenger’s website for the latest version and some really cool new developments, can you say apps…
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.