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SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test on 11/30/2010 13:52:55 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test

Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
Sky view on 11/30/2010 14:50:11 MST Print View

Great review of the new Spot 2. I own and never use the Spot 1 which will live in infamy. I wish I could sell the darn thing but who would want to buy it? Your review would seem to indicate that this new model has addressed the many concerns expressed in the various BPL Forum threads that trashed the original Spot.
Maybe I should reconsider this device.
Two questions: On the Utah canyon trip, what was the typical arc of sky that you had available for transmission? For the trips with heavy vegetation overhead, how much sky was really visible?
Thanks for the comprehensive and thoughtful review. I especially liked your inclusion of the protocols you use.

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: Sky View on 11/30/2010 15:16:53 MST Print View

> Two questions: On the Utah canyon trip, what was the typical arc of sky that you had available for transmission? For the trips with heavy vegetation overhead, how much sky was really visible?

Good questions.

Percentage of sky view are hard numbers to come up with after the trip. This was field testing and we weren’t directly “measuring” things like sky arc or percentage of tree cover.

For the canyons, one might be able to use TOPO maps to make an approximation of % of sky view using canyon depth and width. But this would vary along the length of each canyon. It would also depend on which side of the canyon you were on and whether you were under and overhang, slope of the canyon wall, etc. In the field, an eyeball estimation would be highly subjective, variable and likely not reproducible from person to person. I’ve done a bunch of canyoneering in S Utah. The canyon system we tested in was neither the worst or the best for percentage of sky view for canyons I’ve visited. Thus the “typical” designation. And yes, there were a couple of narrow areas that challenged the SPOT2 to transmit Tracking Points. They also challenged my GPS that gave some errant positions as well.

The % of sky view from foliage coverage would also be difficult to estimate in situ, let alone after the trip. Height of the trees/shrubs, amount of leaves, density of leaves, density of branches, etc. all play a role. Again, at best this would be highly subjective, variable and likely not reproducible from person to person.

As noted in the review the most challenging area for Tracking Points seems to be in a deep canyon WITH significant foliage. That is an area you would want to be aware of.

But SPOT2’s long term record of a high percentage of Tracking Points from a variety of canyons and foliage situations in many locations over many days leads us to believe that the SPOT2 does a good job of Transmitting Tracking points.


Edited by alandixon on 11/30/2010 15:18:44 MST.

Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
Sky View again on 11/30/2010 15:33:01 MST Print View

Thanks for the honest answer. I realize that after the fact it is difficult to remember the amount of sky visible to you. I suppose I was more interested in a general answer along the lines of "most of the time we could see 30% of the sky in the canyons" or "the sky was pretty patchy under vegetation" -- that sort of thing. As I am sure you do know, the original rarely worked even if you had an almost 180degree sky to work with. I guess that your varied experience with the Spot 2 over a lot of terain seems to indicate a pretty impressive performance profile, but I am a once burned buyer, so...

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Sky View again on 11/30/2010 15:39:33 MST Print View

I don't think BPL reviewers are rubber-stamping products. So when they say, within the first four lines of the article "Overall Rating: Highly Recommended" I believe they confirmed the product works as advertised.

(SPOT1 did Not get a very good review.)

Edited by greg23 on 11/30/2010 15:40:43 MST.

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Sky View on 11/30/2010 15:46:17 MST Print View

> Two questions: On the Utah canyon trip, what was the typical arc of sky that you had available for transmission? For the trips with heavy vegetation overhead, how much sky was really visible?

The data gaps due to the combination of trees and steep canyon were mine, so I'll add to Alan's response. We had two gaps of about an hour each along the Terrace Creek and Pine Ridge Trails in the Ventana Wilderness. During the gaps on our Ventana hike, the tree coverage was 80-100% -- tall conifers (Redwoods and Doug firs) with understory of maples. Tanoak and Coast Live Oak, both very dense-canopied species, fill the gaps caused by fallen conifers. Very dense shade on the floor of mature redwood forests, as anybody who has been in one knows.

The gaps occurred when we were 1000-1500 feet below the adjacent ridges on a north-facing slope of 30-45%. On the rest of our Ventana hike the transmission was fine. On the south and east and west facing slopes, the drier growing conditions means the redwoods don't dominate, and it looks like as long as we weren't in the deep redwood forest we were OK.

Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
Sky View on 11/30/2010 16:02:52 MST Print View

Thanks Amy. That's the answer I was looking for.

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
why I carry the SPOT Tracker on 11/30/2010 16:33:52 MST Print View

I didn’t include this in the review because it’s really a personal story and not a product review, but I’ll share my rationale for starting to carry the SPOT device.

In 2009 I spent five days at a B&B in Wales nursing a torn knee ligament, while Jim continued our hike on the Cambrian Way without me. The proprietor of my B&B was retired from the North Wales Search and Rescue team, and had once served as the head of that organization. We had many hours to talk about SAR, Snowdonia, the fierce storm conditions Jim was hiking through, and so on. Jim and I were not carrying, and had not ever carried any electronic devices while backpacking (no GPS, phone, PLB, SPOT).

I explained to the proprietor why Jim and I do not carry a GPS or cell phone: old-school, started hiking in the 1960s, proud to be self-reliant, will persevere to rescue myself, prefer the way it was back in the good old days, too much weight, blah, blah, blah.

Finally, the proprietor politely told me “given today’s technology it is a selfish act to be out in these mountains without a means of communicating, because the SAR team members risk their lives conducting searches. Jim may not want to be rescued, but if he doesn’t show up eventually there will be a SAR, and people will risk their lives searching for him.” Oh, you mean it’s not all about me! That’s a different story, and to me it was a compelling story.

Subsequent to that hike in Wales and England, we have carried the SPOT tracker when we go backpacking. I think of it primarily as a way to avoid extensive SAR. The odds that I will have a life-threatening injury that requires a 911 call is small. It is more likely that at some point I will have a delayed exit; I’ve come precariously close to a delayed exit twice in perhaps a hundred backpacking trips, not a large number, but a sober reminder of how suddenly something can go very wrong. With the SPOT device, I can prevent a SAR by communicating that I am OK even though I’m late due to weather or injury. And, if I have situation that prevents self-extraction, I can request non-urgent assistance, which is better for all parties than waiting until a day after my planned exit and then starting a full-blown search effort.

A GPS device combined with a functioning cell or satellite phone provides the best means for seeking assistance in case help is needed. Those devices allow two-way communication so that the party seeking help can get instructions and advice, and the agency providing help can get more information about the nature of the request. In most of the areas we hike, cell phone reception is not viable. And I’m not prepared to spend the money to carry a satellite phone. In the absence of a phone, the SPOT provides a combination of useful functions.

The 911 function of the SPOT is matched by a PLB device. The disadvantage of a PLB is that the only thing you can do is request urgent assistance. There are numerous scenarios where an extensive search and/or an urgent rescue effort can be avoided by using the other functions of the SPOT device.

In addition to requesting urgent help when there is a threat to life or limb, to requesting non-urgent assistance, to indicating that a delayed exit is not cause for concern, to providing comfort to families who might otherwise worry, we have found that the SPOT Tracker provides an enormous amount of vicarious pleasure to friends and family. Alan and Amy (and others) have watched each other’s trips with great joy. We consider it a gift to each other and to our friends and family to carry the extra few ounces of gear in order to allow our friends and families the pleasure of vicarious hiking trips.

Amy L, Palo Alto

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test on 11/30/2010 16:35:22 MST Print View

Quite a change between Spot 2 and the old Spot! From "Unrated" (i.e. "We cannot rate this product") to Highly Recommended is a big jump!
And wasn't the first review originally "unsatisfactory" or some such thing and then changed? It's great to see a company who pays attention to reviews and has been able to overcome the problems in such a short time!

If the improvements are due to your first review, then all power to BPL!

For now I'm sticking with my McMurdo FastFind, as I'm only interested in help in case of dire emergency, not in letting everyone know where I am at all times (I'd really rather not!). I can see that a lot of people do want this info sent to their families, though. It's great to know that nearly all the SPOT transmissions will get through!

Maybe SPOT 3 will have text messaging (it would be great to be able to tell SAR the exact nature of the problem so they can be prepared) and soothing music to play to you while waiting for rescue. Seriously, though, I suspect that if SPOT adds a few more bells and whistles to what they have now, I will be sorely tempted!

What Amy says in her post above is most telling; I urge everyone to read it!

Edited by hikinggranny on 11/30/2010 16:38:17 MST.

Mitchell Keil
(mitchellkeil) - F

Locale: Deep in the OC
Amy's Share on 11/30/2010 16:55:34 MST Print View

Thanks Amy for sharing your story.
I agree with the proprietor/SAR veteran. That is why I have carried a SAT phone on most of my trips. I rent it, but that has become more and more expensive since the first time I did at about $60 for a full week including several minutes a day talking with my wife to let her know I'm "OK". So, now I am looking again for the magic bullet and had not looked at SPOT because of my first experience with them. I just called a friend of mine who recently purchased a SPOT and was extremely satisfied with its performance on a trip along the John Muir Trail for a week through snow sleet and rain. He indicated that the SPOT did what it was supposed to do and he directed me to the map of his track on the internet. He bought the SPOT 2.
So, I guess I should rethink my aversion to the device and look into it again.
THanks again for the review. BPL keeps me from getting too hide bound in my thinking.

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test on 11/30/2010 17:05:32 MST Print View

>"Finally, the proprietor politely told me “given today’s technology it is a selfish act to be out in these mountains without a means of communicating, because the SAR team members risk their lives conducting searches."

I had never really thought about it in those terms before.

Russell Adams
( - F
my comparison on 11/30/2010 17:14:25 MST Print View

I've been using a Spot II since April of this year. It has been used in Utah and Colorado, from the tops of mountains to the bottoms of canyons.


My reception/transmission rates are almost identical. I also inform those receiving the messages that this device does not have 100% reliability and to not worry if messages are not received on a regular basis.

I chose this locator over a PLB for one reason - the tracking feature. Some time ago I had a brother die on a mountain in New Mexico. As hard as his death was, the week it took to find him was almost unbearable. Like my brother, I enjoy solo trips. Having the tracking mode on my SPOT II gives my family and I a little more peace of mind, especially when I get off the beaten path, so to speak. Some times I think people automatically assume in an emergency they are going to be conscious or alive to active their PLB, and that is not always the case.

Edited by on 11/30/2010 17:15:38 MST.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Sky View again on 11/30/2010 17:14:50 MST Print View

Let me state that I am coming from the GPS industry.

It is extremely difficult to place numbers on the view of the sky. It varies with your position on Earth, the surrounding terrain, and the type and quantities of satellites overhead. It is also extremely difficult to place numbers on overhead vegetation and how much sky it blocks. Phrases like "30% of the sky" are completely undefined, even if it might be possible to measure it with instruments.

It is possible to make statements about sky view when you are in a completely open field situation, like horizon to horizon. But there, you won't have much question about sky view since it won't be a problem.


William Cefalu

Locale: Louisiana
Great review, but something I found out the hard way...... on 11/30/2010 17:30:50 MST Print View

during my trip to the Sierras last year. I sent three messages per night...once I received the "message sent" confirmation, I started the process of sending another. I had planned to send three "OKs" per night to make sure they went through..When I returned home, I found out that for 4 days, no messages were received by my wife NOR to my email address (I wanted to track the trip). I called the customer service line and they told me I should not have turned it off after the confirmation and to allow it to send for 5 minutes....

So, I am just glad I learned that lesson now....anybody else have such an experience?

So, the bottom line is once you send a message, to ensure it goes through they are telling me to let it transmit for 5 minutes.

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Great review, but something I found out the hard way...... on 11/30/2010 17:40:17 MST Print View

Actually, for an OK or Custom message you should leave the unit on for 20 minutes (the unit's OK/Check-in light will go off when it is done). The SPOT sends three messages in a 20 minute period. This is why it is so successful at transmission of the OK message. Only the fist successful transmission of the three is kept and the others are discarded.

Help and SOS messages are transmitted continuously every 5 minutes. Again, the greater the number of attempts the higher the probability of getting the message through, even in limited sky view.

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: my comparison on 11/30/2010 17:42:16 MST Print View

>Some times I think people automatically assume in an emergency they are going to be conscious or alive to active their PLB, and that is not always the case.

Excellent point!

Steve O
(HechoEnDetroit) - F

Locale: South Kak
bad reviews on 11/30/2010 17:44:17 MST Print View

Spot2 has a fair amount of negative reviews here:

just one of them:
"By B.GP - Aug 28, 2010 - Full review provided by REI
Pros: Compact Design
Cons: Unreliable
I've been thru-hiking the PCT since April 2010. I have always made sure to find a clear opening to the sky's to send any messages and have followed all the directions that came with it. Unfortunately, SPOT messenger has failed me every other day. Every night I send an OK message to family and friends and they only receive it, at best, every other night; usually 1 out of 3 nights. I let the SPOT run through the entire cycle of sending and receiving, but it still makes no difference. I've never had to use the SOS button and I can tell you that I do not feel confidant that it would go through. There website has many, many flaws. The navigation of the website to entering emails and phone numbers of the people that should be receiving the messages have many errors and buttons that perform incorrectly. They did a recent upgrade to there site, and still, all the same flaws are there including a few more. [...]I would describe SPOT as an amateur company with a great idea. I think they will need a couple more years to fix their flaws [...] The technological aspect of SPOT is there, but it needs much improvement before it becomes a reliable service."

William Cefalu

Locale: Louisiana
Re: Great review, but something I found out the hard way...... on 11/30/2010 17:50:28 MST Print View

Yes, that is what I found I stated, I found out the hard way :)

Russell Adams
( - F
SteveO on 11/30/2010 17:51:28 MST Print View

Is this your experience with the Spot II, or just a copy and paste off the internet?

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
clarifying SPOT transmission processes on 11/30/2010 19:17:32 MST Print View

Some folks reading this thread don't have the device, so let me clarify to put some of the comments and questions in context.

The SPOT picks up a GPS signal to find your location. It knows if it received the signal, so the GPS-fix status light is a reliable indication of GPS reception. If the GPS-fix status light is red, then you know it's not getting your location fixed, if it's green, it has your location.

SPOT broadcasts your messages to a different satellite system. It does not receive confirmation from that transmission. The green Message-Sent LED indicates that the message was sent, but not that it was received. For this reason, it's important that the folks at home know that an absence of an OK message or tracking points is NOT an indication that there is a problem. And it’s important for hikers to know that they will be unaware of whether a transmission was successful; the SPOT marketing material does not highlight this aspect of the device. If a hiker were in trouble they would need to factor that into their planning process.

As Alan mentioned, OK and Custom type messages are duplicated for three transmissions over 20 minutes in order to increase the odds that a satellite will be in position to receive the message. The Help message is sent every five minutes for one hour. The 911 message is sent every five minutes until cancelled or until the batteries fail.

In order to increase the odds for a message to successfully go through, one could leave the device on for the completion of the cycle (20 minutes or an hour), and then initiate it again. In the protocol that Alan and I use, an absence of an OK message is no reason for concern, and we consider even spotty indication of forward progress to be confirmation that the hiking party is OK; one or two data points per day is all it takes to know that there is forward progress, and we have been consistently getting 5 or 6 data points per hour.

Both Alan and Amy leave the device on for 20 minutes after initiating OK. In our field tests, the only OK messages that did not go through were those sent when I had Alkaline batteries with the red low battery warning displayed (a use clearly out of bounds of the device’s specification). All other OK messages have been successful. Our testing did not include long periods in heavy forest cover, and it will be interesting to see transmission success data from people using SPOT in the rainforests of the tropics or the Pacific Northwest.

The lack of the ability for a hiker to confirm that the message was received means this is not a fail-safe method. Compared to my prior method (i.e. nothing) it is a big improvement. But people seeking greater security might want to carry a sat phone instead. Alan carries both a sat phone and a SPOT, and found that the SPOT transmitted messages in places where he could not get sat phone reception, so the sat phone is not unambiguously more reliable. It does, however, have the advantage that if you are talking to somebody you know they have received your message.