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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SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test
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Robert Richey
(BobR) - M

Locale: San Luis Obispo
Re: user error on 12/05/2010 15:17:09 MST Print View

Nice point. I would be very tempted to purchase this unit if your theory about user error (+ recall issue) accounts for the vast majority of consumer complaints.

James Moughan
(jamougha)
user error and reviews on 12/05/2010 21:14:25 MST Print View

At least some of the REI reviews are not for the SPOT II:

"I've travelled with a spot on several trips, one of which was a hiking trip to Patagonia through the glaciers. I had spotty unreliable service while trying to "breadcrumb" my hikes and send messages to those on my contact list. With a 50% connection success rate I returned the device to REI after my 1yr contract with Spot was up. I considered buying the Spot II as it was smaller with promises of better service; however, after contemplating the purchase in the store I decided against it."

Many of them refer to the SPOT rather than SPOT II. Could the reviews for the old model have been folded into the new one? Amazon is terrible for this.

There are also many ways for the user to screw up, like using alkaline batteries, or not keeping the device outside their pack and facing the sky. I'm inclined to believe the positive reports of a few technically adept users.

Nevertheless, the manufacturers appear to have mediocre quality control and really lousy customer service.

Edited by jamougha on 12/05/2010 21:15:14 MST.

John Montgomery
(DrWho)
SPOT1 and SPOT2 comments on 12/07/2010 14:56:51 MST Print View

From your field tests of the SPOT2 it sure looks like the operational envelope may have been expanded quite significantly. However you should have also performed a side by side field comparison with a SPOT1 to prove that it really is all the SPOT2 internal improvements rather than some unknown changes made in the rest of the communication system or a combination of both that give you such good results.

I have had very good luck with my SPOT1 probably because I am very familiar with the technology involved as well as being a professional electrical engineer with many years experience in digital design, satellite communications systems, GPS, real time embedded software, etc. and I operate my SPOT1 within its limitations which were pointed out in the SPOT1 review and confirmed by my own field tests. I do not see any reason for me to upgrade to a SPOT2.

The problem with these systems is that the general user is just a “button pushing appliance operator” who does not really understand the underling technology hence he/she can easily make a very simple operational mistake rendering the device essentially useless. It behooves the user to read and follow the vendor’s instructions. My personal opinion is that the SPOT1 directions and theory of operation was lacking quite a few important details which led to quite a lot of obvious user confusion and poor user results; hence a lot of very shrill negative postings where made about the SPOT1.

I am curious to know in which Utah canyon complex you tested the SPOT2. I would guess the Grand Gulch/Bullet Canyon area. As you point out, I am quite sure someone is going to try and use a SPOT in a Buckskin like canyon and complain that it does not work. I would be surprise if any portable communication system would work reliably from the depths of Buckskin near the “Cesspool”.

William Mitchell
(FlyBy) - F
PLB for me on 12/08/2010 08:43:05 MST Print View

I chose a PLB because I wanted a rescue initiation device. While my PLB (SARLink) will do OK messages with the 406Link service, I am unmarried and don't really need to be in constant contact with anyone for peace of mind. I do understand that a lot of folks have good reasons for letting loved ones know where they are regularly, which the SPOT generally does well.

While fishing a narrow canyon, I slipped at the top of a large log jam and bounced my way down until I was flat on my back on a gravel bar. I was uninjured, but a look at my path down the trees showed that I was extremely lucky to have not been stabbed by one of the many branch stubs sticking from the logs. During that same trip, I had attempted to use my GPS, a Garmin 60CSx that is generally regarded as having excellent satellite reception, and had no luck. So, I used that as my benchmark when deciding between the SPOT and a PLB.

The PLB uses the GEOSAR sat system as well as the LEOSAR for doppler positioning, and has a homing signal. Most importantly, the PLB signal is 5 watts as opposed to the SPOT's 5 milliwatts, so it will cut through heavy tree cover. An OK message sent in the above mentioned canyon was successfully transmitted.

I let people know where I'm going and when I'll be back. In my case, they don't need to know where I am each day, but if I need to send an OK message I can. I pay $60 a year for that service, but if I choose not to pay for the service, I can still contact SAR, since that service isn't part of the subscription, unlike SPOT.

I wonder if it's fair to compare the 2 devices. A SPOT is more of a communications device that can be used to contact SAR, while a PLB is a rescue initiation and homing device that can also do some comunication. Each one has strengths that offset the other's weakness.

Eric Klocko
(eklocko) - F

Locale: SD
Positive vs Negative Reviews on 12/08/2010 10:12:55 MST Print View

I have no experience with the device in question. Concerning the reviews. I know that personally I live off online reviews. Yet, horribly, contribute very few. I think that often many people, myself included, don't write reviews when things operate as expected. My guess is that unless the spot burned down their house, and kicked their dog, most people just keep on using it without updating the world.

Dan Feldman
(podin04) - F
Fantastic device, track progress shortcut on 12/12/2010 09:59:26 MST Print View

I've found the SPOT 2 to be exceptionally reliable and accurate. I used it this summer while hiking the Montana section of the CDT. The device reliably broadcasted my location each time in temps down to the mid 20s F. Locations were dead-on accurate.

One feature I'd like to mention is the Track Progress function that was extensively reviewed in this article. It's important to note that the Track Progress function adds an extra $50 to the $99 subscription for the ability to broadcast your location every ten minutes.

If you don't need to record your location every ten minutes, but would still like to keep track of where you've been, you can track your progress for free by using the "check in/OK" message feature. This feature sends a pre-arranged email message to as many as ten addresses with your exact latitude and longitude coordinates. Someone at home can easily plug this info into a custom google map. If you only are interested in recording your position once or twice a day, I'd recommend this method. However, if you really need to know your position more frequently, I'd recommend buying the Track Progress feature as the check-in/OK feature takes roughly 20 minutes to deliver an accurate message.

On my CDT trip, I used the check-in/OK feature to make the following map: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=106761653233945770416.000488ad860855530b5b4&z=7

Bob Chilson
(bob.chilson) - MLife

Locale: eastern high sierra
Looks like it turned out ok on 12/22/2010 23:13:04 MST Print View

I ordered a Spot 3 months before they came out. Still have it and it works fine for what I wanted and for what it was advertised to do, with its known limitaions. At the time I wrote a short bit about it here in BPL forum as to what a great potentially life saving device it was despite its few faults.
After it came out and was reviewed on BPL, it seemed like it was doomed to failure. It had good points and bad points, nothing that couldn't be fixed.
Glad to see it survived and improved.

Ryley Breiddal
(ryleyb) - F - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Battery? on 12/22/2010 23:36:06 MST Print View

If I just want to use this for the SOS function, I assume I can leave it off indefinitely and then turn it on only if needed?

i.e. I'm doing a thruhike and I don't want/need the Track functionality, and I don't want to replace the batteries every 3-6 days. Workable?

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: Battery? on 12/23/2010 06:26:51 MST Print View

You are exactly right. You can leave it off and just turn it on to send an SOS when needed. It should not use the batteries.

But most electronics equipment have a slight drain on batteries when not turned on. Given the nature of the SPOT, I would imagine that this drain would be designed to be quite low to nonexistent, but it is not something we tested. To be safe I would install fresh batteries at the beginning of my thru hike.

A few minor caveats:

1) The GPS in the SPOT will acquire a fix faster if it has been used recently.
2) There is a "safety" value in laying down some sort of breadcumb--even just an OK message once a day. In case you are injured and unable to activate the SPOT somebody would know where to start looking for you (i.e. after your last OK message).

In the one OK a day use scenario the batteries would last a very long time. Over 300 days.

Edited by alandixon on 12/23/2010 06:32:57 MST.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Battery? on 12/23/2010 10:16:57 MST Print View

"1) The GPS in the SPOT will acquire a fix faster if it has been used recently."

This is true for every GPS receiver.

--B.G.--

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: Battery? on 12/23/2010 11:22:47 MST Print View

Also at around 120-140 hours of battery life with a decent sky view, you'll get a lot more than 3-6 days use out of a set of batteries. Operated at 10 hours a day you'll get more like 12-14 hiking days.

Gerry Brucia
(taedawood) - MLife

Locale: Louisiana, USA
Spot Message Issues on 11/22/2011 16:02:00 MST Print View

Twice in the last year I used my SPOT locator and had serious issues with it. Just this past weekend I used it during a hike on the Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, near the Albert Pike Recreation Area that experienced the deadly flood two years ago. And yes, there was another flash flood this weekend when the Little Missouri River rose over 8' in less than four hours. I got out safely and fortunately my wife was unaware of the severity of the situation.

But out of ten okay messages that I sent to my wife over a three day period, all with a green signal indicating success, only three were ever received by my wife. The other seven never got through. Every time I made sure to be in an area clear of trees with as good an open area as possible. I will note that I did not leave it on for twenty minutes each time to give it the opportunity to retry sending the okay message two more times. To do that, you have to remain stationary and during the day, I tend not to stay stationary that long. I falsely assumed that if the green light indicates that it was successfully sent, it is sent. But apparently the more I read the more I realize that a problem with the Globalstar satellite results in a message being sent but not necessarily transmitted from the satellite to the designated recipient(s).

With a 30% success rate, it is not reliable. Had my wife realized the severity of the flood, she probably would have contacted emergency assistance since my messages were not coming through. IMO, it is a piece of junk unless this problem is resolved. Are other people experiencing this same problem?

Ryley Breiddal
(ryleyb) - F - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Send problems on 11/22/2011 16:35:45 MST Print View

I've used mine ~100 times and had it fail to send maybe a half dozen, invariably when I was deep in a canyon or under dense forest. It does not give any indication of failure (in fact the opposite, it says it has sent successfully). My understanding is that the SOS feature sends a ton more messages than the Check-in/OK feature.

When I was using mine on the CDT, the deal with people at home was that missed Check-Ins should not be interpreted as "OMG HE IS DEAD". The Check-In is just a nice way to say hi to people at home. If the SOS was similarly flawed, that would make the device useless, but having never used it, I can't say whether that's the case.

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: Spot Message Issues on 11/22/2011 17:07:47 MST Print View

Hi Gerry,

Yes, you are right, it pays to follow the instructions. If you want the OK to work reliably you do need to let the unit stay on for a while. If you do, you will find that the SPOT has near 100% reliability sending OK messages. If you don’t, you risk a low percentage of OK messages going out.

Note that the green light DOES NOT mean that it has successfully sent a message. Only that it is sending a message. You need to leave it on to be sure it actually hits a satellite when it is sending. Thus the 20 minute period and multiple attempts, to increase the probability that a satellite is in position when your SPOT unit sends. This is not a defect of the SPOT but the nature of satellite coverage. (At times, I’ve had a devil of a time getting Sat Phones to reliability connect in the backcountry.)

If you are constantly on the move then the best times to send an OK message are when first you get up in the morning and before leaving camp, during your lunch break, or just when you get in camp at night. There should be ample opportunity then to leave it on for 20 minutes or so. This is what I normally do, as I move a lot during the day.

Also, you do not need to stay in one place to use the SPOT OK. You can press the OK button and walk down the trail for 20 minutes. Assuming decent open sky, and that the SPOT is something approximating horizontal, it should work with reasonable reliability while you walk. (User trick. If you happen to be using track progress mode, you can activate that first, then press OK for a check-in. After the required 20 minutes, the SPOT will automatically go back to tracking progress mode. This is a great way to leave camp in the morning, or do a midday check-in.)

Finally the Globalstar satellite “problem” is a Sat Phone only problem due to amplifier failure on the band that supports Sat Phone signals. This does not affect the SPOT which uses a different band and electronics on the satellite. In fact, the SPOT was created to better utilize the satellites by using good working circuitry on them.

So the SPOT is not junk. But like most equipment, it requires some user knowledge, and it needs to be used properly and within its limitations.

Best of luck using the SPOT on your next trip!

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
SPOT messenger question on 11/22/2011 17:11:26 MST Print View

Responding to Gerry Brucia's question about reliability of sending SPOT OK messages.

First, as Ryley said, your agreed upon protocol with your home-base should be that an absence of messages can not be interpreted as a problem. "...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."

A PLB is undoubtedly a more reliable device, and if you require that level of service, you might consider carrying both. Unfortunately, a PLB doesn't allow you to proactively tell your wife that things are AOK, which is what you were trying to do. A Sat phone allows the person in the field to know that the recipient got the message, which SPOT does not. However a Sat phone is not necessarily more reliable than a SPOT - the difference is that you know if the recipient got your message.

Second, you don't need to stand in one place for 20 minutes after initiating the OK, you can just leave the device on and continue walking or cycling or whatever you're doing. The device doesn't need to be still to work. To increase the likelihood of a message going through, you really should plan to leave the device on so that it transmits multiple times.

Third, I have had >90% transmission success for both Tracking and OK messages when using Lithium batteries, even when they are mostly drained and the battery light is red. On the other hand, partially drained Alkaline batteries give me a success of something between 10% and 50%. In other words, do everything you can to use Lithium batteries.

Fourth, I have now had two SPOT-2 devices COMPLETELY FAIL while on hiking trips, one in May2011 and the other in Oct2011. The GPS chip stopped working, and the devices were dead-weight. In both cases SPOT replaced the unit. However, this level of reliability is a huge problem. This is one reason I think it's critical that the home-base knows that an absence of messages does not necessarily mean there is a problem. I'm still a fan of the SPOT concept and functional design. However, the reliability problems I've had make me eager to see some other company offer a competitive product.

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

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Spot Message Issues on 11/22/2011 17:12:43 MST Print View

"This is not a defect of the SPOT but the nature of satellite coverage."

Actually, it is the nature of Globalstar satellite coverage, not satellites in general.

--B.G.--

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
Re: SPOT messenger question on 11/23/2011 00:55:47 MST Print View

Fourth, I have now had two SPOT-2 devices COMPLETELY FAIL while on hiking trips, one in May2011 and the other in Oct2011. The GPS chip stopped working, and the devices were dead-weight. In both cases SPOT replaced the unit. However, this level of reliability is a huge problem. This is one reason I think it's critical that the home-base knows that an absence of messages does not necessarily mean there is a problem. I'm still a fan of the SPOT concept and functional design. However, the reliability problems I've had make me eager to see some other company offer a competitive product.

while im sure there are PLBs that are duds ... and that those dont get reported as much due to the "use only when shiet happens"

IMO this level of failure is not acceptable at all ... even if SPOT replaces the unit, if something happens on the trip, yr up the creek with no paddle ...