Home / Product Reviews / SPOT-ty Coverage

SPOT-ty Coverage

Spot II Satellite GPS Messenger
Spot II Satellite GPS Messenger

Piece of Mind

I carry a Spot II Satellite GPS Messenger these days to give my wife peace of mind when I’m solo backpacking or winter hiking and mountaineering. It’s not a perfect solution, but it works well enough for me to still use it. Read on.

While the Satellite Messenger can be used in an emergency to summon emergency responders, it can serve a number of other functions, including:

  1. Check-in/Out: Let contacts know where you are and that you’re ok with a pre-programmed message.
  2. Custom Message:  Let contacts know where you are and send a pre-programmed message (or a different message than in number 1).
  3. Track Progress: Send and save your location(s) and allow contacts to track your progress using Google Maps.

I mainly use the Check-In function of the SPOT to send my wife an all’s well email message, every morning and night.

Technically speaking, I’m not sending her an email each time I hit the OK button. Instead, I set up a standard message on the SPOT web portal and specify a set of email addresses that it gets sent to when the SPOT satellite receives an OK message from me. The message includes a hyperlink to my lat/lon on a google map, along with my canned message.

You Don’t Have Mail

There’s just one catch. Sometimes the email message is not sent – maybe 10% of the time. I’ve had this happen despite being in locations where I can get a clear GPS signal (not in a canyon or in a forest), and despite the feedback provided by the device that a message has been successfully sent.

Apparently, this is a known defect with the SPOT, and the main reason I’m writing this post is to let you know about it. Others, including the US Forest Service have also experienced the same issue during more systematic testing of the previous SPOT Personal Tracker which ran over the same network.

Where’s the Bug?

It’s not entirely clear where the bug in the SPOT system is, since messages sent from it hop across several networks to get to their final destination. The process looks like this.

  1. GPS Satellites provide the SPOT with location signals.
  2. The SPOT GPS chip determines your location and sends it to communication satellites.
  3. Communication satellites relay your message to specific satellite antennas around the world.
  4. Satellite antennas and a global network route your location and your pre-programmed message to the appropriate email, sms, or emergency network.
  5. Your location and messages are delivered via email, text message, or emergency notification to the GEOS Rescue Coordination Center.

Knowing networks and messaging systems like I do, the delivery breakdown could happen at multiple locations in the delivery process (email is not really as reliable as you think), and may even manifest itself differently by message type or priority.  (SOS vs Check-in).

Despite The Delivery Failures

Despite the periodic delivery failures, now that my wife and I know that SPOT check-ins are not always reliably sent,  she gets less freaked out when I drop off the air for a day or two. Like I said, this device isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that we keep using it instead of a more traditional Personal Locator Beacon which only sends distress messages and doesn’t also provide check-in capabilities. This capability is unique to the SPOT because it runs on a private satellite network.

Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.

The following online retailers sell this product:

20 comments

  1. I've been considering buying one, but the $100+ subscription cost a year has me reconsidering

    Can you pick up the service for a month or two, drop it, and reactivate the service again when you need it?

  2. I'm pretty sure it's an annual fee. That also turned me off initially, but when you run the numbers, it is cheaper than buying a distress-signal only PLB (usually 400+ initial cost, but free network) and is probably cheaper and lighter than bringing a satellite phone.

    Also wanted to add, that I'll be going back and writing a couple more posts about the SPOT including info about the plans, their horrible web portal, and other aspects of the device. All in all, it's not perfect, but it's almost perfect for the check-in and SOS feature.

  3. Last year I paid $349 at REI for a Fastfind 210 PLB, the battery is good for five years, which makes it a $70/year proposition. The Fastfind is down to $249 this year or $50/year for five years…

    http://www.rei.com/product/791972

    Spot is $149 plus $99/year subscription…

    http://www.rei.com/product/784892

    Guess I don't see how Spot is a better (cheaper) deal, unless you really must have the check-in feature…

  4. Yep, the check-in feature is the main reason I carry a spot. In addition, certain countries like the UK and Japan fine people for using PLB's on land. If you're hiking internationally, like I did in Scotland this spring, this is a pretty big negative for the PLB solution.

  5. Last week my brother was using a Spot on the Colorado Trail and experienced the same issue. He would send me an okay signal each evening and one out of eight nights, I did not receive a message though he sent it and it showed as sent.

  6. I bought a spot two years ago mainly to carry sea kayaking in UK waters. If you get into difficulties and you don't have VHF or cellphone reception, you could be dead in a few hours, so it seemed like a very good idea to me.

    In fact I have mainly used the check-in function while backpacking alone. I used it on the JMT last year and I think all but one signals came through. I now try to stay well clear of trees and give the device plenty of time to locate and send. I arrived on Mt Whitney a day early, sent a message from the summit and my partner who was checking progress was able to figure my likely time of arrival at the portal and meet me there. My cellphone was not working, so I was thankful for the spot, and it proved its utility.

    It worries me somewhat that it fails on occasion. I thought that in 911 SOS mode it kept sending a periodic location signal. Any views on how to deal with a possible default. Try twice??

  7. I've never tried the 911 SOS signal. However, I have experienced a lot of signal failures with the regular tracking function. I don't use it at all. Just the check-in.

  8. You can get a Personal Locator Beacon, the McMurdo Fastfind 210, for $300. That's half the price, half the weight, half the bulk of the ACR MicroFix PLB I bought 2 1/2 years ago, so I bit the bullet and donated the ACR unit to a grateful Boy Scout troop. The McMurdo is warranted for 5 years and there is no other cost (mandatory registration with NOAA is free).

    I suspect that in less than 5 years these gizmos will be smaller, lighter, cheaper, let you communicate directly with SAR (it would be nice to let them know what they're going to be faced with) and probably sing and dance to entertain you while you're waiting to be rescued!

  9. My wife wants me to get one but I have read ugly reviews on-line. Did you have to agree to "automatic" renewal, 45 day notice of cancellation with no refund of unused portion? I often feel the hikers have overly high expectations of warranty and return policies but if that type of pricing policy is true then SPOT is rip for competition. When will a company like GARMIN add the check in feature?

  10. I can't remember what terms and conditions I signed up to. I can say the annual renewal has now occurred twice and each time there's been an increase in charge, well above inflation. If you do nothing to cancel it goes straight out of your account. so you need to plan ahead and shop around well before the renewal date; not something that I've managed to do so far. However, I am satisfied with the performance, save for the doubt that was put in my mind by the first post.

  11. I have used the older version for nearly two years and just upgraded to the new one this year. Use has been mainly for checking in with the wife. She watches for the emails and plots on the map. This has been a great peace of mind for her and a great liberty for me in case I deviate from my planned route. My experience here in north central PA has been very good. The only time I have had delivery failures is when I am short on time and shut it off before it goes through all its attempts.

    On the new Spot most of the reports on my position are quite accurate. However, there are a few cases when my position is off by some 300 feet.

  12. I bought the V2 this year and I'm quite happy with it. I use the check-in and the tracking for family and friends to have peace of mind while I'm on the trail.

    Yes, it misses the odd check-in message, but I find that people are more interested in the track of progress anyway, so they are aware of where I am and how far I've gotten before checking the emails. I usually press the OK button as I break camp, then when I'm packed and about to head off, I press the tracking button. It's possible I sometimes cancel the OK message before it has been successfully sent by doing this.

    On the challenge, with full tracking on each day and a morning and night 'ok' message, the batteries lasted until I was on the way up Lochnagar on day 10 – not bad life for AAA's I thought.

    I think the SOS call has a lot more redundancy built into it than the OK call if I recall the details in the manual correctly.

    Michael

  13. After 20 years in the IT industry I'll wager the internet email systems are the problem. Internet email is NOT 100% reliable for messaging. The SPOT satellite communication is designed far better than an email system that is based on "pass the message on please" design. Some mail servers bounce email if their anti-spam measures are set too stringently, drop traffic if under too much load, errant spam filters. Some very popular email servers are just plain flaky. The list goes on. I personally wouldn't blame the SPOT itself. I don't have any kind of affiliation with the company or make any money selling them.

  14. I got a SPOT last November, and started using it in May of this year – it took them six months to replace my faulty unit. That’s a pretty big black mark to be starting with.

    Since then, I’ve used it on several occasions. At best, I’d call it idiosyncratic. I’ve noticed that check-ins don’t get sent while I’m on the move – for a successful send, I have to stop and wait (sometimes up to 10 minutes) for the “message sent” light to show. This is a little annoying, but I can live with it. I’ve also noticed that following a check-in, reactivating the tracking function also needs to be done while stationary (and can take some time), or it frequently fails to restart. This is somewhat more aggravating..

    The tracking itself is usually OK. The GPS plots are sometimes wildly off, but then I have seen this with regular GPS units (usually in areas with a lot of rock walls where the signals get bounced around). My only other gripe is that the buttons, which are mushy and require a 5 second push, are a pain to operate with cold fingers or gloves.

    Actually, add one more gripe. The “Share with Facebook” setting requires that you not only have a Facebook account, but also a FireEagle account. Of course, it doesn’t tell you about the FireEagle account, this nugget is buried in the FAQ. Earlylite, I’m looking forward to your post about SPOT’s car-crash of a web portal.

    All in all, I’d give the SPOT 5/10 for ease of use and 6/10 for reliability. I think the problem with the SPOT is that the failure rate for simple transmissions is so high that it rather makes you wonder how it would do in a real emergency. Of course, they say that SOS messages have priority – I’m hoping that I never have to find out.

    In final analysis, however, it is pretty amazing that for $100 I can buy a tiny unit that beams my location in realtime to satellites 100 miles above my head, can send almost instant messages to my loved ones to let them know I am OK, and (may) be able to summon the emergency services if I ever got into trouble.

  15. The buttons are difficult to activate even in bare hands. I've also had difficultly with the tracking function – I rarely can get a consistent track to show up on their web site. The web site, is also horrendous. Like you, it's good for the limited range of function that I require, which is an all-safe message. Hopefully the SOS will work if I need it.

    The underlying lesson here for me is that all electronics have their limits – even GPS and satellite phones/transmitters. Don't rely on them.

    Great to hear from you again. Your photos continue to leave me speechless. :-)

  16. This little gizmo saved my life in 2010 while hiking the AT. I was coming down the other side of Frosty Mountain on the approach trail when I started experiencing severe chest pains. I sat down, popped two aspirins and hit the panic button my SPOT. Within 20 minutes, three rescue technicians arrived and got me down to a Forest Service road where an ambulance was waiting. Within the hour I was at the Cardio center in Gainesville, GA where I received first rate care. Because I was located and evacuated so swiftly, I received life saving medication that averted a major heart attack that most likely would of killed me or left me unable to enjoy the AT anymore. One word of advice, read the contract very carefully. When you sign up initially, your credit card number is put on file so they can automatically renew your service the following year. If you don’t this to happen, simply cancel your current credit/debit card and a new one reissued by your bank. Also, you will be asked to provide names and phone numbers for emergency contacts if you push the 911 (panic button) feature. Make sure these people are willing to help and won’t leave you dangling if you do get into some kind of a predicament.

  17. Phil, First thanks for the great info on this site. I am trying to go lightweight this year. also first multi overnights. Did you use the solo on the Long Trail and if so how was the service? Planning on a 5 night section SOBO this September and am looking at including a SOLO to comfort the wife’s fears.

    • You mean a SPOT. Nope – I did my LT hike without the SPOT and only got it when I hiked across Scotland. Sadly, service and usability are still a bit spotty in New Hampshire, but ti’s really the only game in town short of a satellite phone. My advice is to send out a couple of signals a day or put the tracker mode on for a few hours with a clear view to the sky. That and train your wife not to be too concerned if you miss a check-in.

  18. Using the SPOT on our PCT thru hike. Just wanted to second the spot-ty coverage when it comes to having Check-in/OK messages successfully sent. Our usage seems to confirm the above comment that about one out of eight messages does not go through despite excellent line of sight to sky and the unit indicating success. We miss a check-in about once a week. The check-ins have been a wonderful peace of mind for parents and friends and lots of folks have had fun plotting our progress — they have been told that the device isn’t always going to work — which is key. The SPOT website is still horrible and I can’t understand why their webpages do not support a “mobile view” when I bet a majority of people using their devices modify settings on the fly using a smartphone. I know I do! SPOT also updated their site a couple months ago combining it with SPOT adventures and they said it would not affect check-ins, but it did and I had to recreate our shared page. Frustrating when we rely on it daily. They continue to display poor customer service, but maybe things will improve! Still would do it again for such an adventure, but always looking for someone to do it a bit better or for SPOT to make their model glitch free and user friendly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *