On my last winter backpacking trip in the Presidential Range a few weeks ago, I hooked up my SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger to send out twice daily status updates to my wife and the spouses of the other hikers who accompanied me. This is something that my wife and I have been doing for the past 3 years whenever I go on solo overnight trips or trips into more remote territory and it’s something that she finds comforting when I’m cut off from all other forms of communication. The SPOT II also works just about anywhere inthe world because the signal bounces off of Satellites and doesn’t require cell phone service or the Internet to function.
While it took a little bit of education on my part to bring my friends and their wives up to speed on the SPOT II, it can be a useful tool for group expedition hikes where one person has a SPOT subscription (which costs me $160/year) and the others don’t AND you want to the ability to let significant others know that you are ok.
What follows is a detailed explanation of how to share one SPOT across multiple people on a group trip.
Non-Emergency Status Messages
While the SPOT II can be used to send out an emergency signal to Search and Rescue services, it is also capable of sending 3 different pre-canned status messages including the lat/lon coordinates of your current position. These are customarily set as follows, but you are free to tailor the messages for your own purposes.
- All is Well
- I am fine, but delayed.
- This is not a life and death emergency, but I do need help at my current location.
Unfortunately, the SPOT isn’t foolproof when sending out status messages, which are relayed via a network of email servers to recipients after bouncing off a satellite. About 1 in 20 messages fail to get delivered, so my wife and I developed a system where I send her an OK message at breakfast and dinner each day, which usually ensures that one message gets through every 24 hours. My wife also knows not to panic when one or two consequtive messages are dropped.
While it is possible to set the SPOT to continuously broadcast a lat/lon position every 15 minutes, I avoid this because it burns through a set of batteries every 2-3 days and I feel it provdes less useful information than a manually initiated message, even if it is pre-canned.
SPOT Device Profiles
Every SPOT II has a device profile that you can set up and change on the FindMeSPOT web site.
Warning – the FindMeSPOT web site is very poorly designed and a bit quirky to use, so be patient and verify that everything you think you set up is working before you leave for a trip.
In addition to defining your three pre-programmed messages, you can also specify a different set of email addresses that receive each message. For our Presidential Range trip, I set up all the messages to be cc-ed to my companions’ spouses. Later this spring, I’ll add the email address of Challenge Control to the messages (in addition to my wife) so they can track my progress when I hike coast-to-coast across Scotland in the TGO Challenge.
Emergency Instructions for SPOT Message Recipients
None of my conpanions or their spouses had any experience using a SPOT before, so I sent them detailed instructions about how to interpret the messages they would be receiving and what to do in an actual emergency.
Here’s the email I sent to prepare them:
*****Please read this entire information sheet very carefully.******
Your husbands have given me your email addresses to add to the SPOT Satellite-Based Personal Locator Beacon that I will be carrying this weekend on our Presidential Traverse Hike Attempt.
I will be transmitting messages twice a day each morning at breakfast and at night when we set up camp.
The SPOT can transmit 4 different messages: 3 non-emergency status messages, and 1 search -and rescue distress call. You can only receive the non-emergency status messages, but that is still a comfort in knowing that we are ok and not in a life-threatening situation.
The three pre-programmed messages you may receive over the weekend are:
1) Hi – All is well. – Philip
2) I am fine, but delayed.
3) This is not a life and death emergency, but I do need help at my current location.
All of the messages will include a lat/lon location.
You should consider messages 1 & 2 to be status messages only.
If you receive message #3, please call the New Hampshire State Police at 1-603-223-4381 (Calling their 800 number will connect you to the MA state police which you don’t want). They are responsible for liaising with NH Fish and Game who will coordinate any backcountry assistance required. If the State Police dispatcher tries to conflate the call-out as an emergency make it clear to them that it is not a life and death situation. We do not want to take precious rescue resources away from someone who may need more urgent help. If the dispatcher does not understand that NH Fish and Game must be contacted to coordinate the rescue, explain it to them. Some of us have had to educate the state police dispatcher in the past, so be polite but forceful if required.
In the event of a real emergency, a satellite message is forwarded directly to Search and Rescue authorities with our lat/lon coordinates. My wife is the only person who will be contacted by the authorities since I am the SPOT owner. She has your phone numbers and email addresses and will contact you when she has information to pass along.
IMPORTANT: The SPOT Personal Locator Beacon is not a fool proof device and fails to send the pre-programmed status emails about 5-10% of the time. So, if you don’t get a status message every morning and night, don’t panic, and don’t call out a rescue if you don’t hear from us. Also be advised that cell phone coverage where will be hiking on Friday and Saturday is extremely poor. It is possible to receive voicemail messages at Mt Washington in my experience, so please leave a message with Alex if you need to reach us at 617-XXX-XXXX since he has indicated that he will be bringing a phone with him.
I have also shared a document with you on Google docs that has all of our contact information on it including your email addresses, phone numbers, and the hiker’s cell numbers. Please make sure you have access to it.
I will be adding additional information to that document before we leave including our planned route, car spot locations, and license plate numbers which is all information that search and rescue would want to have in case of an emergency.
I will be sending out a test ok message (#1) shortly after sending you this email. Could you please confirm receipt of it by this evening so I know that our notifications are properly set up.
In the Event of an Actual Emergency
When you subscribe to the annual SPOT subscription service you can qualify for up to $50,000 of rescue insurance (per incident, up to $100,000 per year). See http://www.geosalliance.com/sar/SAR-tsandcs.html for details and exceptions.
However, if you have an emergency, there are a few things that you should know about when it comes to sharing a SPOT amongst the members of a group and who is liable for the cost of the rescue. Many thanks to my friend Alex or researching this information. For details, please contact SPOT directly.
- The device owner is not liable for rescuer charges in the event they ‘press the button’ for somebody else. They do, however, need to remain with them until help arrives, because otherwise the rescuers will think the victim is moving to somewhere else (GPS & all).
- The accident victim WILL be liable for any rescue charges that result from the SPOT call.
- The device owner can add family members to their SPOT for $18.95/yr each.
- The device owners can add *anyone* to their spot for $24.95/yr each. And for these folks, you can change who they are depending on who’s coming with you on a given trip (you need to keep the website up-to-date for each trip). So you can think of these purchases as ‘trip spots’ rather than specific people.
This is useful information if you want to share ALL the benfits or a SPOT amongst a group of individuals, including status update messages and rescue insurance.
Everything went as planned on my Presidential Range group trip and I sent out SPOT OK messages every day at breakfast and dinner. My friends’ wives received the OK messages and lat/lon coordinates in their emails, which I’m told were a BIG hit, and I suspect I helped sell a few more SPOT II devices that weekend.
If you thought that the the main purpose of a carrying a SPOT II is to call in a Search and Rescue Team in an emergency, think again. While it can do that, I view its primary function as a non-invasive way for me to let my wife know I’m ok when I travel in the backcountry. Weighing just 4.1 ounces, it’s a small load to carry to make sure that your family knows you are safe. Still, in the event of an actual emergency requiring Search and Rescue Services, a single SPOT can be used to offset emergency rescue costs or call in emergencies for the members of a group provided they have purchased additional rescue insurance. Though not perfect, the SPOT II can be a very useful addition to personal or group expedition hikes in the backcountry. I don’t know of any comparable device other than a satellite phone that provides the same level of convenience, but at a fraction of the cost.