Editorial: SBM gear reviewer Paul Osborn is currently on an Andean adventure in South America. He checked in with us and sent this video review and write up of the SPOT.

When I told my wife I wanted to hike the Inca Trail and summit some peaks over 6000 meters (around 20000 feet) in Bolivia she wasn’t sure. What if something went wrong? What if I needed help? Obviously, these things can be a bit dangerous and in developing countries, peace of mind is everything.

So I went and bought a SPOT Messenger new off Amazon ($100 with free shipping). I first encountered these when Les Stroud used them for one of his Survivorman series. I had read a lot about them and they had very positive feedback.

SPOT is a product put out by Globalstar satellite network. They have satellite coverage all over every continent and allow you (for an annual subscription  of $100) to use their network to send emergency and non emergency messages to family and friends (including Facebook and Twitter). They even have a feature which allows people to follow your progress as you hike.

The SPOT Messenger comes with 3 Energizer Lithium Batteries (they say to ONLY use this variety as they provide longer life) and a handy arm carrier unit. With the batteries in it comes in a 4.5 ounces and easily slides into your pocket. While putting the device in the arm holster,  I ended up breaking the elastic that holds the spot in (a bit discouraging, but I tied it on and it works fine).

Registration

To register, you go to findmespot.com and walk through the process (credit card in hand). This was simple, the only complication being which features I wanted to buy. The basic functionality is $99 a year for emergency SOS (Calling emergency units for a rescue), pre-programmed OK message (to let your family, friends, enemies and Facebook and Twitter communities know you’re ok and show them where you are on a Google map), and a custom message (in case you want people to know when you’re heading home or simply want pizza for dinner, again with GPS coordinates).

To get the tracking feature, that attempts to send your GPS location every 10 minutes for people to track on a web page, you dish out another $49. You can elect to pay $12.95 to become a GEOS member and potentially recoup costs if you do need a rescue.

I bought the basic with GEOS, to support them and later was given the tracking feature to try out for a year by SPOT (Thanks).

©Paul Osborne

Using the OK feature

It’s a fairly straight forward device. You hold down a button for 3 to 5 seconds to turn on a feature. For example, if you want to let someone know you’re ok, you hold down the OK button for 3 second until it starts flashing green. Then point the device at the sky (you can aim it towards where the satellites are or just straight up). When it makes contact with the GPS, the GPS light flashes green, and when the message is sending successfully the message light flashes green. They do recommend you leave it on as it will try to send the same message several times over the course of an hour (contacts only receive it once, it’s just for redundancy and to make sure the message is sent. If there are problems, the corresponding light will flash red.

I took it on a survival trip for three days, and when I was in dense woods, it took me a bit of time to find a spot where the GPS would flash green. In the end, I was able to find an area with a bit of light and sent my OK message in the evening and morning to let family know all was going well.

The OK message works the best when you’re not moving. It allows the GPS to zone in and get a clearly reading. Messages are sent and family is notified. This is the feature you’ll be using most (hopefully). When you get somewhere, you can give family the peace of mind of knowing that you arrived and that all is going according to plan!

The Custom message functions in the same way, a custom message with a custom set of recipients to let them know something else. Mine says, “The journey is over and I’m heading home from my latest adventure!”

Using Tracking

The tracking feature allows people to follow you in real time every 10 minutes along a trail. It turns on and stays on for 24 hours, or until you turn it off manually. I wanted to report my tracking for friends, family and the Facebook and Twitter community. It keeps your progress on record for 7 days. personally I’d like to have the option to keep it permanently and to be able to separate the trips.

Currently their software connects previous trip points to current ones (I guess it would be hard for it to know what is a multi day trip and what is separate). On a clear trip do Dusty lake (Eastern Washington) it recorded the progress every 10 minutes, with the exception of twice. I had the device mounted on my arm and with trekking poles, 85% of the time it was facing up. That was a decent result and fun for family to watch.

When I tried it biking down the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia it recorded none of the points on a 4+ hour bike ride. I thought that was reception and movement, but it was due to a low battery. I tried it again a few weeks later with fresh batteries and it hit most of the points. At times we were in steep valleys, but it did managed to get a clear enough signal to send a good 85% of the tracking updates.

When I took it up Condoriri in Bolivia (4200 meters to 4900 meters) the results were mixed. The red light had started flashing on the trip on the death road and the batteries died on the way back from the Condoriri hike. I only got a message off after replacing the battery. With the new batteries, my trek up Chacaltaya had more positive results.

©Paul Osborn

What do I think?

I bought this primarily for peace of mind rather than emergency services. Using it during breaks is a great way to let people know where you are and HOW you are. The Check In and OK buttons work great if you stay in one place while it sends off the messages. The $99 yearly subscription is worth it if you’re going out into the backwoods outside of cell phone reception. It’s much less expensive as a service than a smartphone with a couple months of data plan. The tracking feature is nice, but not completely reliable depending on battery levels. It is most successful when mounted on the top of a pack facing directly towards the sky and with a new set of batteries. If you are in deep valleys, reception can be negatively affected. The setup and online interface is pretty decent, although a bit confusing the first time and time consuming when setting up your messages and who to send them to.

I was disappointed with battery life. I was under the impression that it was long lasting (as much as a year). Speaking with others, they share the same opinion: the tracking feature eats the battery up. When I take it on the John Muir Trail next year I will definitely bring at least 2 sets of Lithium batteries just to be safe.

The device is very intuitive and easy to use. I have successfully used the buttons with gloves on, but it is much easier with them off.

Overall, I’m very happy with the basic functionality of the device and marginally happy with the tracking feature. Family and friends are happy to know how I’m doing and in a sense they participate in my journeys. I mean, come on it’s ‘nerdily’ cool!

As a parent and husband I feel a lot more comfortable heading off knowing that if something does go wrong I can get help and more importantly, I can let my loved ones and friends rest easy knowing I’m doing fine.

Oh, and if you have a smartphone, you might want to check out the SPOT CONNECT a more compact device that partners with your smartphone.

Technical Details:

Height: 3.7″ (9.4 cm)
Width: 2.6″ (6.6 cm)
Thickness: 1″ (2.5 cm)
Weight: 5.2 oz (147.4g)
Operating Temp: -30C to 60C
(-22F to 140F)
Operating Altitude: -100m to +6,500m
(-328ft to +21,320ft)

Battery Type: 3 AAA Energizer™ Lithium Ultimate 8X

Company Website: SPOT LLC

MSRP: $119.99

©Paul Osborn

 

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