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SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker - Full Review
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Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
SPOT on 05/28/2008 22:58:04 MDT Print View

As the first of six first prize winners in the Les Stroud contest that SPOT is running from their website I received a free unit and a year of the available services subscriptions. The way I had to go to find out what I had actually won and the length of time to get things straightened out shook my confidence somewhat, and I hadn't fired the unit up yet! If it performs as poorly as some state, then I got what I paid for! Time will tell. The wife loves the concept and offered on her own," with that I'd let you go by yourself" That would be priceless. Fix it SPOT!

Edited by kthompson on 05/29/2008 07:54:58 MDT.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: SPOT on 05/29/2008 01:02:23 MDT Print View

> To the reviewers, after all is said and done, if you're going out into the boonies, would you take it (SPOT).

It may be relevant to note that after the Review process was finished, we had two SPOT units available for any of the reviewers who wanted them (including me). My understanding is that none of the reviewers really wanted one, even for free. I didn't.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: SPOT and 2009 Yukon 1000 on 05/29/2008 01:10:14 MDT Print View

Hi Kristen

> Carrying a SPOT is mandatory and the only way race organizers believe they'll be able to monitor progress and rule adherence - eg. you're only allowed to paddle for 18 hours a day - so you have to send off an OK message at the end of the day, and another the next morning to prove that you've stopped for the mandatory six night hours.

Hum ... And what are they going to do when they don't get OK messages from some contestants? Disqualify them? Panic? This should be kinda amusing...

Perhaps you should recommend to the organisers that they read our review?


paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
a "SPOT off" comment??? on 05/29/2008 03:17:00 MDT Print View

deleted - now understood the point

Edited by pj on 05/29/2008 03:21:11 MDT.

Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
PJ is back! on 05/29/2008 10:53:55 MDT Print View

PJ -- my man!!
Welcome back to the fold. You have been gone too long. Hope the medical issues are allowing you at least some time in the wild. If not at least your voice is worth having once again in our discussions of lightweight backpacking. And what's with the avatar? I miss the hairsute wilderness man!

Jason Brinkman
(jbrinkmanboi) - MLife

Locale: Idaho
Re: SPOT on 05/29/2008 11:15:22 MDT Print View

I got an email from SPOT today for a Father's Day promotion offering 6 months of free tracking with the purchase of a SPOT. I look forward to this technology being implemented in a reliable way for the peace of mind that it will give my wife, but after showing her this article she's convinced that it's not there yet.

I look forward to a true 'convergence' device someday. One with high end recreational GPS capabilities, a reliable satelite messaging service, maybe a GMRS/FMRS radio, altimeter/barometer, etc.

As a baseline, I am very happy with:

* the GPS capabilities of my Garmin Vista HCx
* the altimeter/barometer functionality of my Suunto Core
* the range of the latest consumer radios I have used
* the Iridium sat phone that I rented last fall

I think you absolutely need to switch the SPOT service to a duplex satellite channel and provide "message received" acknowledgment, but you need not waste your time until the Globalstar satellite constellation is replaced - it has become highly unreliable for satellite phone service.

Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
Re: Re: SPOT on 05/29/2008 11:27:12 MDT Print View

Please elaborate on your experience with renting the Iridium phone: Cost, effectiveness, and overall performance. I have been thinking that I would do so for my next Sierra trip and then make a decision on whether to purchase.

David T
(DaveT) - F
. on 05/29/2008 12:04:12 MDT Print View


Edited by DaveT on 11/20/2014 20:21:00 MST.

Jason Brinkman
(jbrinkmanboi) - MLife

Locale: Idaho
Satellite phone rental on 05/29/2008 12:59:53 MDT Print View

I rented the Iridium phone through Mobal. I found them through an internet search and took a chance on them. I was very pleased. They shipped the phone and all necessary accessories in a hard case via Fed Ex. It came exactly when they said it would. All necessary instructions were included on a laminated crib sheet, and operation was straightforward. Returning the until was just as easy, with instructions provided. Cost was $9 per day plus $1.99 a minute for airtime. I believe they have prepurchase minutes for less if you plan to use it more than a few brief times.

I made a few quick calls to check in. The service was flawless despite the fact that I was in a rugged mountainous area. It took less than a minute from turning the unit on until it acquired the network, and then calls went right through. The phone has a service indicator with signal strength bars like a cell phone. I simply pointed it around the sky until I optimized the signal (didn't take much looking). I left the phone on for a couple hours on two different occasions to see if coverage was consistent, and it was - I never lost coverage.

Now if only the SPOT was that reliable!

By contrast, we had a Globalstar phone along on a 7-day 220-mile rafting trip last week through the central Idaho wilderness. We knew it would be unreliable from prior experience (a fellow boater owns it), but it turned out to be even worse than we expected. Despite several attempts on multiple days, we were only ever able to get service for one brief 20 minute window on one day. Not much comfort to our wives!

Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
Re: Satellite phone rental on 05/29/2008 14:07:17 MDT Print View

Much appreciated comments and a referral to the rental site. I may go ahead and rent the irridium for my trips into the Sierra. I certainly will not bring the SPOT and I am going to show this whole thread to my wife and then ebay the SPOT. Anyone interested in a slightly used SPOT?

Guthrie Abbott
(GuffAbbott) - F

Locale: Southeast U.S.
SPOT Tracker - Performs with Limitations on 05/31/2008 19:20:59 MDT Print View

I must disagree with the many reviewers who have basically trashed the utility of this device. For my style of group hiking and canoeing, it suits my needs better than any other device on the market.

I have owned a SPOT Tracker since just before Christmas, and I have used it in the field several times. My only complaint about the device is that a lower percentage of messages get through than I would like. As covered in detail in the review, when SPOT says you need an unimpeded view of the sky -- THEY MEAN IT. During a three-day trek in the Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness (De Rossett, TN), only a small fraction of the "OK" tracking messages got through (I would estimate approximately the same 16% or so that the reviewers experienced). The terrain varied from mountainous, to tree cover, to canyon – with very little clear sky. The SPOT obviously had some trouble with this type of terrain – the very type of terrain I seek when I go hiking. I carried the SPOT on a lanyard around my neck; perhaps affixing it to my shoulder strap (as recommended by SPOT) would have improved the percentage a bit. I will say that EVERY TIME I have sent an OK message with the SPOT face up from a very open place (no trees, cliff walls, etc.) -- the message has gone through.

Whether a backpacker (or other adventurer) finds this device useful or not depends on his style. I, myself, do not embark upon any solo adventures; I always have two to four friends or family members with me. If I did trek solo through the bush, I would carry a satellite phone or a PLB.

The SPOT works for my group trips because I believe it extremely unlikely that all of us would be incapacitated simultaneously. Therefore, should someone in the party become too injured for us to remove, an uninjured hiker can simply take the SPOT to a very open clearing, place the SPOT face-up, activate it, and let it do its thing. I always use the "Tracking" feature while I am moving (hiking, canoeing). Again, while imperfect, it DOES get through enough to give a SAR team a good idea of where you have been.

For my style of group hiking and canoeing, I would much rather have the SPOT than a PLB. The additional one-way communication features (Tracking, OK message, Send Help message, as well as 911 message) work as advertised and, to me, are well worth the yearly fee. My wife LOVES being able to track my progress on the internet (I even leave the tracking feature on when I'm driving to and from the trail). Her peace of mind alone is worth the price of the SPOT and the yearly fee. The different "levels" of help one can request are another welcome addition.

As for the reviewers who have complained about the GLOBALSTAR telephone communications -- this is a known issue -- and affects DUPLEX (two-way) communication only, not the SPOT, which uses SIMPLEX (one-way) communication. I suspect the unreliability of the duplex communications is the reason the SPOT has chosen simplex communication – and does not have some of the handy features we SPOT owners would like (confirmation of transmission, text messaging, etc.). Perhaps when the new GLOBALSTAR constellation is up, a new version of the SPOT will have some of these nifty features.

Until that time, I must say that the SPOT – even with its limitations – suits my style of adventuring far more than a PLB or any other device currently on the market. Although I would love to have one of the highly reliable satellite phones, I simply could not justify the cost, given the limited number of days per year that I can go hiking. The SPOT fits the bill for me.

Barry Foster
(bazzer) - F

Locale: Redding
Is this review really valid? on 06/02/2008 14:00:27 MDT Print View

You have gone to a lot of time and trouble to test the Spot, but your tests were not done in a lab and are largely based upon observations. The problem with this is that the globalstar satellite system is better at certain times than others. Somewhere on the Spot website there is a current chart showing the best and worst times to use it. So if your testing was not done with a know signal source how and you say the Polar Diagram for the receiver is better with the unit tilted at 90 degrees or worst? As I have posted before mine works once in a while and other times not at all even with a totally clear view of the sky.
I take mine with me because it's better than nothing at all. But a cell phone is still a better bet in most places.

Wade Nelson
(wnelson) - F
SPOT review on 06/02/2008 14:00:36 MDT Print View

I have sent nearly 150 SPOT messages with 100% success. Most of those were sent from the field, the forests, mountains and canyons Arizona. While I have been critical of the Progress Tracking feature aka SPOT Casting, because I thought it was just too much to ask of a small, handheld unit, it worked flawlessly on a recent trip from Phoenix to Los Angeles and back. The unit was mounted to my dashboard with velcro and was 100% successful.

There are some things that I think could be improved but for the most part the unit works very well for me. And I do not think that it is too much to ask to plan your non-emergency messages at open areas or high points with clear views of the sky. If you give the unit a stationary resting place, a reasonably clear view of the sky and a little time, the message will go through successfully. Remember that this little unit has to communicate with not one but two satellite systems to work.

So what if you are hurt or need to send a message when you don't have a decent view of the sky, well then you might be SOL but you would have the same problem with a PLB.

Come on folks, there is no magic bullet. There is no perfect communications device for the wilderness traveler. Even the military has trouble getting their signals out sometimes. It is the nature of the beast. But the SPOT, based on my own experience, is pretty darn good. It has increased my margin of safety greatly.

By the way, the Globalstar sat phone problems are unrelated to the SPOT system. They run off of separate antennas.

You can read about a number of my SPOT accounts on my site.

Wade Nelson

Barry Foster
(bazzer) - F

Locale: Redding
Re: Globalstar on 06/02/2008 14:03:26 MDT Print View

You are totally right about the Globalstar Network being the problem, if you check on the spot website you will find a chart showing when the system is good and when it's not. If that's not a admission of a problem then I don't know what is. This was the same situation with GPS in the eighties. Of course it will be eventually fixed, but don't expect spot to be reliable until it is.


Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Is this review really valid? on 06/02/2008 16:44:01 MDT Print View

Hi Barry

> but your tests were not done in a lab and are largely based upon observations.
Have you actually read the review?
Much of the testing described in the Appendix was done using my laboratory facilities. As a Government research scientist of 27 years and then a consultant research scientist of 12 years, I am sufficiently confident of my facilities.

> Somewhere on the Spot website there is a current chart showing the best and worst times to use it.
Which is of course a huge lot of use when you are out for a week or more without the Internet... Or are we only allowed to call for help at certain hours?

> mine works once in a while and other times not at all even with a totally clear view of the sky
Well, we are agreed on this anyhow.

As for the comment that the tests are 'largely based on observation' - that process is called 'evidence-based science'.


Ron Bell
(mountainlaureldesigns) - F - M

Locale: USA
Re: SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker - Full Review on 06/02/2008 17:44:55 MDT Print View

Can o' Worms Alert...

I commend BPL on this type of in depth review.

I think this it the single most important gear review on BPL to date- just ahead of the MSR Reactor review.

By design the review did not debate the question of Why or Why Not carry any commo device. That would be a whole other article.

Interestingly, I have not seen many posts so far on BPL - on any threads over the years- that take the position that carrying any type of commo device can lessen the experience.

Having worked in SAR- including carrying out the bodies- I understand and support the position that everyone should make personal choices on whether to carry commo or not.

I can't say now exactly when I would or would not- but before I was a dad it would have been no way every time.

Anyone feel commo diminishes the experience? When Yes, When No, Why?

Michael Martin
(MikeMartin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: North Idaho
Re: Commo Experience on 06/02/2008 19:01:53 MDT Print View

Hi Ron-

IMO, the promise of non-intrusive 1 way communication is one of SPOT's best features. Calling home on a cell or sat phone undoubtedly diminishes the wilderness experience for me.

Pushing the "Ok" button on SPOT has little impact on my experience, while providing some measure of comfort to the rest of my family back home.



Barry Foster
(bazzer) - F

Locale: Redding
Re: Re: Is this review really valid? on 06/02/2008 19:13:28 MDT Print View

"evidence based science" Geez mate, your being a bit pc aren't you?
So in order to check the receiver sensitivity am I right that you dismantled a unit to get before any AGC? You have made no comment on the availability of the Globalstar Network and why it affects the unit.
Roger, I have no doubt of your technical abilities, your reports are thorough, but not everyone has to agree with them. Besides which NASA, which if I am correct is a government based agency screwed up twice with mixing up metric and imperial systems, once on the Mars Lander and the other on the Hubble.
I take mine with me at least three days a week since I purchased in November of last year. Today over a four hour period not one, again, not one tracking message got through to my Spot message page. But I still carry it just in case. I will not subscribe next year to Spot unless it shows a lot of improvement.
Oh yes, of course I read your review, but I don't see any mention of the lab set up.

Lets make this a issue, you work is well appreciated.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Re: Is this review really valid? on 06/03/2008 01:00:39 MDT Print View

Me, PC????
Horrors! (Outrage!)

Was it NASA which actually screwed up the imperial/metric units? As far as I can remember, I think it was a private contractor. Big difference - I don't think!

To address another part of your comment: there is only so much room in a Product Review. As it was, we had to put the tech stuff in an Appendix - the first time we have done this.

Anyhow, thanks for the compliments. Appreciated.


Dale Gear
(Desertwalker) - F

Locale: Texas
Globalstar Satellite System on 06/03/2008 15:45:36 MDT Print View

Based on my experience with Globalstar satellite phone service for one frustrating year, I would not recommend any device dependent on that unreliable system.

I have been in the middle of the desert with "a perfect view of the entire sky" - NO SIGNAL. I have been on top of mountains with "a perfect view of the entire sky" - NO SIGNAL. I have been in the middle of large pastures with "a perfect view of the entire sky" - no signal.

I was intrigued by the SPOT until I saw the word Globalstar. NO THANKS!