SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test

Results of 80 days (750 hours) of field testing of the new SPOT2 in Alaska, the Andes, the Pyrenees, and the Lower 48, including the Sierras and a southwest canyon system.

Hightly Recommended

Overall Rating: Highly Recommended

A satellite tracking device is not essential to the comfort and safety of lightweight backpacking. It falls into that category of "things that give me more enjoyment in backcountry travel" - much like a GPS unit, a digital camera, trekking poles, or pocketknives. Consequently, these sorts of things are subject to more critical review by our editors, peer reviewers, and editorial board. As a further result, to award a device like this Backpacking Light's Highly Recommended Rating is a pretty special thing. The SPOT2 is significantly lighter and smaller than its predecessor. It is also easier to operate and delivers greater message reliability. During 80 days of testing on three continents and in a variety of geographic environments, it delivered 100% of its OK messages. Particularly impressive is its Tracking Mode performance in deep canyons, where it delivered around 90% of Tracking Points each day. This is significant, as the original SPOT1 delivered Tracking Point messages with poor reliability, even with a view of clear sky. In “typical” mountain conditions under open skies, the SPOT2 had a daily Tracking Point message reliability approaching 100%. In summary, the SPOT2 addresses most of the limitations of the original SPOT1 and reflects a mature technology. For features, weight, and price there is currently no device on the market that's comparable - and certainly not as reliable.

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by Alan Dixon and Amy Lauterbach |

Version Two of SPOT Delivers the Potential of their Technology

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 1
The new SPOT2 (right) is almost half the size and weight of its predecessor. It is easier to operate and delivers far greater message reliability, especially in Tracking Mode.

As we reported at the Press Release of SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger (SPOT2) at the 2009 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the folks at SPOT addressed many of our suggested improvements to the original SPOT1 in the Generation Two: SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger.

Now, after 80 days (750 hours) of field-testing of the new SPOT2 on three continents, we report improvement in three significant areas:

  • Lighter and Smaller: 43% lighter (4.16 oz vs. 7.33 oz) and 45% smaller.
  • Improved Reliability: 100% delivery of all OK messages for 80 days. Near 100% delivery of Tracking Point messages in “typical” mountain conditions, e.g. the Sierras and Andes. And daily delivery of ~90% (or better) of Tracking Point messages in deep canyons or when bushwhacking (vegetation cover).
  • Improved Operation: Dedicated button and status light for each function and safety covers for Help and SOS buttons make for intuitive operation and easily understood operational status.

In the field, the SPOT2 is easier to use and delivers a much higher proportion of Tracking Point messages than its predecessor. In addition, the Web-based software that supports SPOT is also better and now has a separate social networking site, SPOT Adventures, to share your adventures/data with others. In summary, the combination of the physical SPOT2 unit and supporting software is beginning to look more like a mature technology.

What impressed us most about the SPOT2 was its performance in a difficult transmission situation, a “typical” southern Utah canyon system. On a five-day slickrock canyon backpacking trip, the SPOT2 successfully delivered a daily average of ~90% of Tracking Point messages. Every OK message made it out. We saw similar message delivery performance on bushwhacking days in Alaska.

Basic Specifications - SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger (SPOT2)

Weight 4.17 oz, 118 g with batteries - BPL measured (4.8 oz, 137 g with carry case and biner clip)
Size 3.7 x 2.6 x 1.0 inches - 93 x 65 x 25 mm - BPL measured
Batteries 3 AAA - lithium only
MSRP $170 ($150 retail)
Basic Service $100 for one year (does not include Tracking Mode)
Tracking Service $50 in addition to yearly service
Includes Armband, case, and carabiner clip

SPOT2 Improvements Summary

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 2
SPOT2 weight.

  • 43% lighter - 4.17 oz vs. 7.33 oz, BPL measured with batteries.
  • 45% smaller 93 x 65 x 25 mm (3.7 x 2.6 x 1.0 inches) vs. 110 x 70 x 36 mm (4.3 x 2.8 x 1.4 in) 3 AAA batteries decrease size & weight, but operating time is less. BPL field measured Tracking mode 5.0 to 5.8 days (120 to 140 hours). Manufacturer reported Tracking mode, 3.5 to 7 days depending on percentage of sky view.
  • Improved GPS performance.
    • GPS upgrade to uBlox AMY-5M chipset. Similar to SiRF and other high performance GPS chips.
    • Advanced GPS capabilities - Time-to-First-Fix (TTFF) usually seconds instead of minutes.
    • New antenna improves performance in foliage and canopied environments. (BPL note: also deep canyons)
    • New Rogers material antenna (Gen 1 was ceramic material).
    • Gen 2 increases performance at the horizon. Power same as Gen 1 (.16 Watt) using a proprietary Global Star tuning pattern and spread spectrum.
  • Improved user interface.
    • Message-sending LED indicator.
    • GPS acquisition LED indicator.
    • New separate Tracking button.
    • New extra "Custom Message" button that works the same as OK but with different message content and its own email notification list. The addition of the new message improves your ability to communicate your status and intentions to people monitoring your trip.
    • New backlit message function buttons blink when the specific function is engaged.
    • Safety covers over the SOS and Help buttons.
    • Universal communications symbols on buttons.
    • Short SOS instruction placard on the back of the SPOT.
    • Comes with more detailed instructions (Quick Reference Guide) printed on a 2 x 3.5 inch fanfold plasticized card stock.

SPOT Concept of Operation - General Overview

For those unfamiliar with how SPOT operates, please see our review of the original SPOT1, SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker - Full Review.

Field Test of SPOT2

Message Delivery Reliability

As we reported at the press release on SPOT 2:

Of all Gen 2's improvements... the GPS chipset and improved antenna/transmission matter the most. Only these have the potential to improve the reliability of SPOT's message delivery, especially in areas with tree cover or in deep canyons... It will take some time and field-testing to determine if Gen 2 has significantly improved message delivery reliability over Gen 1.

We are happy to report that the SPOT2 has made significant improvements.

In our field testing, the SPOT2 has improved the reliability of Tracking Point message delivery - probably our single greatest gripe with the original SPOT1. While not tested as extensively, the increased reliability in Tracking Points we measured should also translate into a higher reliability in transmitting the OK, Custom, Help, and SOS messages. We had 100% success of transmitting OK messages in our 80 days of testing.

The increased message reliably for SPOT2 is probably due to (listed in order of greatest contribution):

  1. A better antenna and antenna tuning pattern,
  2. Queuing of the last three Tracking Point locations (even if two Tracking Points are unsent, if the SPOT2 successfully transmits a third Tracking Point, the previous two will also be sent), and
  3. An improved GPS chip set.

In “typical” mountain conditions (the Sierras, Andes, and Pyrenees, and the Talkeetnas in Alaska), the SPOT2 had a Tracking Point message reliability approaching 100%.

But what really impressed us about the SPOT2 was its performance in a difficult transmission situation, a “typical” southern Utah canyon system. On a five-day backpacking trip, even in a deep canyon with significant vegetation at times, the SPOT2 successfully delivered 88% of expected Tracking Points (best day was 98%). Every OK message made it out. Even on its worst day, it delivered 83% of Tracking Points. This is more than adequate for your emergency contacts to accurately track your trip.

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 3
A plot of our Tracking Points in a southern Utah canyon system. The SPOT2 is surprisingly reliable at transmitting Tracking Points in a deep canyon as indicated by the tightly grouped points with no obvious gaps.

Prior to using the SPOT2 in the Utah, I had warned my emergency contacts to not expect much in the way of Tracking Points due to the depth of the canyons we’d be traveling in. To all our surprise, it was easy to track our progress via the SPOT2 Tracking Points, even in the deep and narrow sections. After this experience, I have confidence that with a little intelligence on selecting a location, that the SPOT2 would successfully get HELP and SOS messages out of many popular southwest canyon backpacking destinations (but probably not very deep slots like Buckskin Gulch).

In Alaska, we averaged more than 90% of the Tracking Points on our bushwhacking days - also not the easiest transmission conditions due to frequently dense vegetation cover.

This canyon and bushwhacking data is a bit more impressive because in our field testing we didn’t bother to be particularly careful about SPOT2 use:

  • We used a lazy person’s mounting method: just hanging the SPOT2 vertically off the back of a backpack. (With a fully upward facing mounting method, the SPOT might have delivered a greater percentage of Tracking Points.)
  • We weren’t particularly fastidious about using the SPOT2, e.g. at rest stops we sometimes put our packs down in a way that partially blocked the SPOT2’s sky view for transmission.
  • Sometimes we turned the SPOT2 off for a few minutes at a rest stop but didn’t record doing this. Thus, at the end of the day, there are a few “missed” Tracking Points that aren’t really missed.

The combination of a very deep canyon WITH heavy tree cover was the only time we had significant gaps in Tracking Point transmission. On a three-day trip in coastal California, the SPOT2 had two Tracking Point gaps of approximately an hour. Both were from the bottom of a ~2000 feet deep, narrow canyon with trees. Even so, we had similar daily tracking percentages as on the southern Utah canyon trip, around 90%. Daily tracking percentages on the worst day (the day with the two gaps) was 82% and still more than sufficient to track the trip. Other days it was 90% or better.

Operation

SPOT2 is a significant improvement in the ease of operation over its predecessor and addresses the majority of our operational gripes with the original SPOT1. Most operations are fairly intuitive and the operational status of the unit easily understood. Each function has its own button, as well as its own status LED. There are also status LEDs for “GPS Fix” and “Message Sending.” There is a short SOS/basic instruction placard on the back of the SPOT2, and it ships with more detailed instructions (Quick Reference Guide) printed on a 2 x 3.5 inch fanfold plasticized card stock that is easily carried on the trail. With a new and much faster GPS chipset (acquisition in seconds rather than minutes), the SPOT2 gains a fix much faster and therefore operates much faster than its predecessor. In summary, both Amy and I are satisfied with the basic operation of the SPOT2.

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 6
Rear view of the SPOT2 showing SOS/basic instruction placard and the Quick Reference Guide printed on a 2x3.5-inch fanfold plasticized card stock that is easily carried on the trail.

A few functional observations:

  • A nice feature of SPOT2 is that if you initiate an OK message when in Tracking Mode, the unit automatically reverts back to Tracking Mode once the OK message is done. (Tip: When you start hiking, first initiate Tracking Mode. Right after that, put the unit in OK mode. When the SPOT2 is done with the OK (20 minutes), it will automatically go into Tracking Mode for the rest of the day.)
  • The SPOT2 function buttons need to be depressed fully and for a long time. I usually dug a thumb tip deep into the button cavity and counted to five. This helps prevent accidentally engaging a button (a good thing), at the expense of being incompatible with thick gloves (not good for certain conditions); in cold weather in the Andes, we took our gloves off to press SPOT2 buttons.
  • The SPOT2 status LEDs are not easy to read in bright daylight. Sometimes you need to cup your hand over the button lights to create enough shade to see what mode the SPOT2 is in.

Battery Life

Battery Life Lithium Claimed by SPOT

Utilizing fully charged Energizer Ultimate 8x AAA Lithium batteries under the specified usage environments, the following guidelines apply to the anticipated battery life of the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger:
Mode 100% clear view of sky 50% clear view of sky
SOS (or Help if reactivated) ~ 6 days ~3 days
Track Progress ~ 7 days ~ 3.5 days
Check-in (OK) or Custom Msg ~ 700 messages ~ 350 messages

Testing of SPOT under common usage environments has shown that battery performance can be degraded in operating environments where SPOT's GPS must take a longer time to acquire your GPS location, such as trying to send a message indoors or under extreme canopies. For optimal performance, please try and utilize SPOT in locations with a clear view of the sky with the logo side up. SPOT also recommends that you carry extra Energizer Ultimate 8x AAA Lithium batteries.

Battery Life - BPL Field Testing

Mode Mixed field conditions/Mixed sky view
Track Progress (lithium batteries) 5.0 to 5.8 days (120 to 140 hours)
Track Progress (alkaline batteries)* ~1.7 days (40 hours) near 100% success
+ ~1.7 days (40 hours) degrading success
Total of 3.4 days (80 hours)
*Not a manufacturer approved use. Batteries of unknown expiry date. 

Battery Life Lithium - BPL Field Testing

In warm to hot weather in the Pyrenees, one new set of lithium batteries lasted twelve days for a total of 120 hours in Tracking mode, plus twelve OK messages, in total approximately five days of operation. This is right between the minimum and maximum operation time claimed by SPOT. Almost perfect delivery of six data points per hour was consistent until the unit shut down completely. The red low-battery warning came on after about nine days (90 hours), however, the unit continued to transmit data successfully until the batteries were completely dead.

In a combination of field testing in Peru finished up with testing outside Alan’s home (fairly benign transmission conditions) the SPOT2 lasted approximately 140 hours in Tracking mode until exhausted (including two OK messages per hiking day). In combined use in Alaska and a southern Utah canyon system, with a new set of lithium batteries, the red low-battery warning came on after about 100 hours of operation.

Battery Life Alkaline - BPL Field Testing (not a Manufacturer approved use!)

SPOT clearly specifies to only use lithium batteries. However, on a long walk where battery resupply is from small shops (for example on the Haute Route Pyrenee), lithium batteries are not available. As such, Amy used four sets of alkaline batteries over 31 days.

On average, the alkaline batteries gave approximately 40 hours of reliable delivery (at or near six data points per hour) followed by approximately 40 hours of degraded delivery, degrading to as low as 50% success. The red low-battery warning light came on after about 40 hours of use, roughly concurrent with the start of the degraded delivery. When delivery rates were low, the delivery pattern was often to show a couple of hours of data points at ten minute intervals, followed by a couple of hours with no data points. We cannot substantiate this speculation, but the pattern in the data suggests that when the alkaline batteries were low, delivery would fail if any conditions were not optimal (for example if the device had slipped into a vertical orientation, had less than perfect sky view, or less than optimal satellite configuration), but if the conditions were optimal, then delivery would still be consistently successful. Note: The battery expiry date/freshness was unknown as they were bought from tiny shops in fairly remote locations.

Mounting SPOT2 on a Backpack

The manufacturer recommends a horizontal position for the most reliable message delivery. But the SPOT2 does not come with an effective “out of the box” method to mount the unit horizontally on a backpack. Most attempts to mount the SPOT2 with the manufacturer supplied mounting hardware (armband strap, or biner-clip), or just stuffing the SPOT2 in a pack pocket, result in the unit hanging vertically. While this is not the optimal transmission orientation, it turns out to be less of a problem for SPOT2 than the original SPOT1. Even with a “lazy person’s” vertical mounting, we had a high percentage of successful deliveries from SPOT2 even in difficult situations.

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 4
Lazy person’s vertical mounting of the SPOT2 used when field testing in a southern Utah canyon system (biner clipped to top pocket closure strap). While not horizontal, we still had a high percentage of successful deliveries from SPOT2, even in difficult conditions.

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 5
Horizontal mounting: Amy's SPOT2 in a roughly horizontal position inside the pack. It rests on top of all the gear but under pack’s roll top closure (pack is shown from above with closure open). This method works well with roll top closures, common on many lightweight backpacks. Notes: 1) The SPOT2 is tied to a loop inside her pack. It never gets untied, so the only way it could get lost is if the whole pack is lost. 2) She has taped over three of the buttons in order to make absolutely certain they don't get dispatched by mistake.

Amy’s under the roll top is only one solution for horizontal mounting on a backpack. We are certain that user ingenuity will devise many more methods for horizontal mounting.

Protocols for Our Use - Use and Meaning of SPOT2 Messages

Note: The following use of SPOT2 messages and their meaning is only used as an example. Readers are obviously free to use and interpret SPOT2 messages as they see fit. Alan carries a satellite phone and Amy does not. Therefore, there are some differences in our protocols.

Amy and I have been emergency contacts for each other’s trips since well before the advent of the original SPOT1. We both use the SPOT2 and have agreed upon the following interpretations for the four types of SPOT2 messages. Note that we use the Custom Message, Help Message, and SOS Message to indicate increasing severity of problems.

Meaning of SPOT2 messages

OK = We are OK and just checking in. Will generally do this starting hiking for the day at the end of the day when we make camp. We may occasionally send an OK at lunch, a summit, or significant point of interest. Also used to indicate that a significant deviation from route or schedules is “OK,” and to not worry.

Alan’s Custom Message = There is something up but it does not require rescue at this point. Start to closely monitor your phones (including mobile), email, trip blog, etc. Somebody is feeling ill, we have an orthopedic issue, terrible weather has set in, or we have significantly changed route or itinerary under duress, etc.

Amy’s Custom Message = There is something up, but it does not require rescue at this point. Monitor our SPOT locations and messages closely. Illness, injury, bad weather, unexpected ground conditions, etc.

Help = We have a problem we cannot solve and require rescue in 24-72 hours. Possible reasons include being lost or non-life-threatening illness/injury that is serious enough that the ailing person should not be left alone while the other goes for help. We are safe and this is not urgent, but we need assistance.

911 = We have a major problem that requires immediate rescue. Although you won’t receive this message, you are on the list to be contacted if it is sent out. (See below). We will not send this message unless we believe there is a serious threat to life or limb.

SPOT2 goes dead (no more messages)

Alan carries a sat phone, and his protocol is this: Start to closely monitor your phones (including mobile), email, trip blog, etc. for messages, calls, and voice mails from our sat phone. Absence of messages from both SPOT2 and sat phone for 24 hours indicates a significant problem, since it is unlikely that both the SPOT2 and the sat phone will fail and that we haven’t managed to move into a good transmission area to send out some sort of message.

Amy does not carry a satellite phone, and her protocol is this: If there are no tracks or SPOT2 messages, it does NOT mean that we have a problem. It could be one of many reasons, but you should NOT worry about it. (dead battery, device lost or damaged, etc). In this case revert to protocols used before we started carrying SPOT2: assume all is well until 24 hours after our expected trip completion time, at which point Responsible Party should notify the appropriate agency to initiate SAR.

If the track shows regular progress and/or there are daily OK messages, assume that all is well, even if hikers are off course or out past their planned trip completion time. This would be a normal scenario if a trip is delayed or rerouted due to weather, unexpected on-the-ground conditions, or minor injury/illness.

In the SPOT2 account, the text for the 911 (SOS) message includes the following information:

  • Names (and optional – Passport Numbers).
  • Ages, medical conditions, allergies, medications.
  • “Will initiate 911 (SOS) message only when there is a perceived threat to life or limb for ourselves or somebody we encounter on the trail. (Note: we will NOT initiate 911 for non-urgent request for help.)”
  • Planned itinerary and dates.
  • Local emergency phone numbers or the area were hiking: Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, local Search and Rescue Organization, local sheriff, etc.
  • Full contact information for the Responsible Parties/Emergency Contacts (names, addresses, cell/work/home phone numbers, email addresses).

The SPOT2 user leaves their login/password information with the Responsible Party/Emergency Contact, in case there are any problems with the account.

Pre-trip, the SPOT2 user sends tests for all four types of messages, OK, Tracking, Custom, and Help to all Responsible Parties/Emergency Contacts and makes sure they receive all email and text notifications, and that all messages show up on the Web tracking page.

Suggestions for Improvement

  • We’re still waiting for some sort of display on a SPOT2. We’d love to at least get our GPS coordinates from the unit. And while the new status LEDs are an improvement, even a one line alpha-numeric LCD display would give greater understating of the unit’s operational status.
  • Increase the queue of Tracking Points to six - a full hours worth. This would be useful for SPOT2 units operated in canyons and/or heavy tree cover.
  • Smart management of Tracking Points when going from OK back to Tracking mode: Usually the first OK message attempt is successful, but the SPOT2 continues in OK mode for another 20 minutes before returning to tracking mode. This usually leaves a 20 minute or so gap between OK and the next Tracking Point. The Web interface could convert subsequent OK points, sent in the 20 minutes after the first OK delivery, into Tracking Points.
  • Devise a simple and reliable way to mount the SPOT2 horizontally on a backpack.
  • To be a bit greener, we’d like to see the SPOT2 have the option to be compatible with NiMH rechargeable batteries, even if the operational life with NiMH batteries was a bit shorter than lithium batteries.
Disclosure: The manufacturer provided this product to the author and/or Backpacking Light at no charge, and the author/BPL has/will return this product to the manufacturer upon completion of the review period of one year. The author/Backpacking Light has no obligation to review this product to the manufacturer under the terms of this agreement.


Citation

"SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test," by Alan Dixon and Amy Lauterbach. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/spot2_personal_locator_review.html, 2010-11-30 00:10:00-07.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » 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.

-alan

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

Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
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
(rradams@q.com) - 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.

THIS REVIEW IS ALMOST "SPOT" ON TO MY EXPERIENCE.

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 rradams@q.com 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.

--B.G.--

William Cefalu
(wcefalu)

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: http://www.google.com/products/catalog?q=spot2&hl=en&cid=9524367885840671267&os=reviews&start=10

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
(wcefalu)

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 out...as I stated, I found out the hard way :)

Russell Adams
(rradams@q.com) - 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.