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SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger Review

New SPOT Gen 3 (Left) and the SPOT II (Right)
New SPOT Gen 3 (Left) and the SPOT II (Right)

The SPOT Gen 3 is the newest device is the SPOT family of satellite-based personal locator beacons and communication devices designed for outdoor adventurers and represents a significant improvement over the earlier SPOT II in terms of usability and functionality. But the SPOT Gen 3 doesn’t replace the SPOT II, at least not yet, and the company continues to support all of the previous  support plans that it offered for the SPOT II device.

My History Using a SPOT II

I’ve carried a SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger on every backpacking and day hiking trip I’ve taken since 2010 because it gives my wife peace-of-mind. That’s a small price for the freedom she gives me to trot off and hike so much.

But it’s not the ability to call SAR that she like so much. It’s the fact that I can send her a daily OK message via a Satellite when I’m deep in the backcountry and out of cell phone range. She just wants to know that I’m ok and I can understand that.

But the SPOT II has some real usability issues, most notably the buttons which you use to turn it on and off, or use to send OK or Custom Messages. They don’t work over 50% of the time, and you may need to push them a dozen times before they activate. This is very frustrating!

A True Confession

I once got so frustrated with the SPOT II buttons that I stabbed them with a swiss army knife to see if that would work better than pushing them with my fingers. They didn’t, but REI gave me a full refund, anyway, no questions asked. 

Much Better Usability

Rejoice. The usability of the buttons on the new SPOT Gen 3 Satellite GPS messenger is vastly better than the SPOT II. Vastly. But the upgrade from a SPOT II is very expensive, particularly the annual subscription fee and the optional new services that the new device enables.

Spot Gen 3 Buttons Up Close
Spot Gen 3 Buttons Up Close

The new Gen 3 buttons are made of hard plastic and provide the appropriate tactile feedback that you’d expect from triggering a mechanical device. There’s even a separate on-off switch now.

The new device also provides visual feedback (flashing lights) when it’s turned on and off, when you enable and disable tracking or when you send one of your two pre-canned message. The old SPOT II did this poorly so you never really knew if it was doing what you wanted.

In addition, the SPOT Gen 3 is also waterproof and has a USB port which you can use to add capabilities to it, upgrade the device’s firmware to fix bugs and future proof your investment, and which brings it into the world of “smarter” devices.

Unfortunately SPOT hasn’t upgraded the usability of their FINDMESPOT.com web site which you still need to use to activate service plans, customize your preprogrammed messages, and create shared route pages. That’s still one of the worst web sites I have to deal with, but once you set things up you can avoid returning to it almost indefinitely.

An Introduction to the SPOT

If you’re new to the SPOT and have never seen or heard about it, it’s a very popular, consumer-oriented,  personal locator beacon that operates on a private satellite network called GEOS instead of the public, international one used by other similar devices.

The basic idea is simple – push a button and emergency responders will come to your rescue, even if you don’t have cell phone service, almost anywhere in the world. The benefit of running the SPOT service over a private satellite network instead of a public one, is that you can customize the messages that are sent, including the ability to send non-emergency or tracking messages to friends or family.

Spot Satellite Messager 2 - Sample Ok Message
Spot II Satellite GPS Messager – Sample Ok Message

In order to trigger a message, you press one of the buttons on the front of the SPOT devices, which provide the common set of basic functions:

  • Check-In: Let contacts know where you are (GPS location) and that you’re okay (see above).
  • Custom Message: Let contacts know where you are by sending a second (possibly different) pre-programmed message with your GPS location.
  • Track: Automatically  saves your location data and allow contacts to track your progress using Google maps via a web page.
  • Help/SPOT Assist: Request non-emergency help from friends or family at your GPS location.
  • SOS: In an emergency, send an SOS with your GPS location to GEOS, who will contact the appropriate agency to come and rescue you.

Unlimited and Enhanced Tracking Services

Besides device usability, the main difference between the SPOT Gen 3 and the SPOT II is motion activated tracking and the ability to limit how often tracking updates are logged, be it on 2.5, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minute intervals. Both of these function preserve battery life, but who really needs them?

Unlimited Tracking with SPOT Gen 3 at 10 Minute Intervals
Unlimited Tracking with SPOT Gen 3 at 10 Minute Intervals

I reckon backcountry skiers, helicopter pilots, adventure athletes and possibly guidebook authors are the people who would most likely benefit from the advanced tracking capabilities. But let’s face it, sending 10 minute location updates is only useful for entertainment, documentation, or body recovery purposes. It serves little purpose from a  backcountry safety or rescue perspective because there’s no such thing as instant rescue assistance in the backcountry – unlike urban EMS.

Note: No one should expect a backcountry rescue to be called in if they’ve stopped moving for 10 minutes unless they specifically send an SOS message.  Even then the rule of thumb is that it takes rescuers 1 hour to reach you for every 1/4 mile you are from a trail head. There is no substitute for self-sufficiency. 

I question whether people really need unlimited or extreme tracking.

Actual Roue with Track Line
Actual Route with Track Line

Improved Battery Life

In addition to the new tracking capabilities, the battery life on the SPOT Gen 3 is over twice that of the SPOT II giving it the ability to transmit over 1,000 check-in or custom messages on a single set of batteries. But the SPOT Gen 3 requires 4 x AAA Lithium or NiMH rechargeable batteries or a 5v USB line connection, while the SPOT II requires 3 x AAA batteries and cannot be powered externally.

Message Reliability

One of the problems with the SPOT II was message reliability, particularly for tracking and check-in messages, where users reported delayed or lost messages which never arrived. It used to happen to me very frequently when the SPOT II first came onto the market, but much less so in recent years, which I think is probably due to improved satellite coverage or network reliability.

Various reasons were given by SPOT for dropped messages including low battery power or that narrow canyons and tree cover blocks satellite message delivery. I was never really satisfied with those explanations because the device always reported successful transmission based on its flashing light feedback.

In you’re in North America or Europe, SPOT claims that there is a “99% or better probability of successfully sending a single message in 20 minutes,” but when you start to pull that statement apart, it’s really not clear what it means or if it means anything except in the most ideal testing scenarios.

While I haven’t had any issues with dropped check-in messages or tracking since I started testing the SPOT Gen 3, I can’t definitively say that message reliability has improved. That’s why I plan to continue testing this device on backcountry trips for the next few months.


I am excited to see the new usability improvements in the SPOT Gen 3. The device is much more idiot-proof and message reliability has improved noticeably. While I question the utility of the enhanced tracking capabilities available in this new version of the product, I’m a dedicated user of the OK check-in messages that you can send using the Spot Gen 3. I rely on this device to let my wife know that I’m ok in the backcountry and will continue to use it in the future.

Disclaimer: SPOT provided Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) with a loaner SPOT Gen 3 device and a 6 month unlimited tracking plan to test the device and write this review. 

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  1. Hey Philip – I bought a spot 3 but haven’t bought a plan yet. without tracking, would I be able to see where my husband is when he sends an I’m ok message? For example, if I didn’t get that message for a day or two because something happened to him, would I be able to know his last I’m okay location? Thx for your answer.

    • Beware to use the services and unit. Call and deactivate the unit when you are not using it. I got a call from the resp, the contract renewed automatically and no money will be refunded to you after they renew it. They charge you the whole year services fee.
      Put in mind that they are not going to refund you ANY money even you call them to stop the unit after one day they renew the contract. That is according to the terms of contract & it’s your reasonability to remember the end date of the contract – the resp said.
      Fair enough!?

      • Welcome to the real world. Subscription services, even your cell phone renew annually. Ever try to get out if a cell phone contract? Be an adult and manage your finances accordingly.

  2. Hello Phil! Thank you for your complete article, I’m thinking I buy one for my husband but I read a review in REI web page about the spot didn’t work even around his neighborhood, and I’m just concerned about if he is at the half of the trail and the device stop working, for sure I’m going to go crazy in home lol (Sorry my grammar, English is not my first language)

    • No idea why it wouldn’t work, but then again, satellite coverage isn’t guaranteed, just the norm. Doesn’t matter what device you buy.
      If “the” trail is the Appalachian Trail, have him bring a cell phone and use the Verizon network. Network access is extremely good.

  3. These guys are a joke. They advertise 24/7 support but when you call they put you on PERMANENT hold. There is no customer service that I can discern. I tried every department over several days in an attempt to find someone to speak to thinking one of their departments was busy. They are all the same and put you on hold forever. If you buy this product do NOT expect any support except they will take your money. I could not even get billing ?!! or support on how to activate so they really don’t give a you know what.

    • John,

      I agree completely! I have two 2 Gen spots that are unreliable so I called customer service. Was on hold for 30 minutes. When the “technician’ answered the phone, I could hardly understand his broken English (they obviously farm their “customer service” out to the cheapest bidder overseas). After 15 minutes of trying to communicate with him, I was off the phone with no understanding of where I stood as a customer. So I still have 2 unreliable locators (yesterday it sent 3 trackings on a 7 hour hike- should have been around 42). Of course, they did offer to sell me a 3rd unit! Yeah, they are only interested in our money.

  4. oh yes one more thing…….I sent them an email and never received a reply. Good Luck!

  5. Thanks for this review. I have one of these and do not plan, at the moment, to pay extra for enhanced tracking. I can’t find out what the tracking interval is with basic tracking. Is there a set interval or do I have to press the track button each time I want to send a position to a satellite? Being a hiker, around every 60 minutes would be fine.

    • I’ve now found the answer in the FAQ in the findmespot.com website. Battery life is 45 days with 100% sky view and half that with 50% view. That’s with 10 minute intervals for eight hours a day. I suppose this would reduce somewhat with check in emails being sent each day but still pretty good. My upcoming trip is three weeks duration.

  6. Do not rely on SPOT for any emergency.! Service is lackluster at best. I’m selling my Gen 3 if you want a good deal, hardly use it’s like new. Just buy an ACR if you’re serious about emergency rescue. If you want to let everyone know where you are with tracking it may work or it may not. Reception will be the same with any emergency.

  7. I’m disappointed with my SPOT as well. Rode the Trans America Trial and coverage was intermittent at best, there is no way for two way communication, there are other units out there that will allow you to do that. On some transmissions of location, only about half the Email addresses got the information. While hiking in the Cascades weather and tree canopy often made a sat link impossible. If I really needed help in an emergency situation I’d not be overly confident in this unit. The year long contract is expensive, no month by month option available. Cancelling service was a bother, on the phone for a very long time as I was bounced from supervisor to sales to retention to sales…. In my opinion this unit was more aggrivation than it was worth.

  8. Unfortunately, the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) chose the same acronym that the GEOS weather satellites use, causing many people to confuse the two distinctly separate systems.

    IERCC uses Globalstar, which is a private satellite system, as are all satellite systems. I am not familiar with any “public satellite system” that you mention in your article. Globalstar is a low-earth-orbiting (LEO) satellite system, but does NOT cover the polar regions, due to its 52 degree inclination (angle with reference to the equator).

    For truly global phone/pager coverage, the Iridium system appears to be flawless. Flawless does not mean it will work in an Amazonian forest, however!

  9. I cannot get the Spot Gen 3 to send a text to my IPhone SE. I get an email and my husband’s phone will get a text but not mine

  10. I have just renewed my subscription and started using spot 3 again.

    Very disappointed with the number of signals not getting through. Just come back from a 5.5 hour bike ride in the desert surrounding Lima, Peru (no tree cover). With the tracking set for 30 mins I received onlyTWO positions in the whole route.
    I will perform more tests and report them here.

    • Just a suggestion. When you trigger an OK message, do you wait until the OK light stops flashing before turning the unit off. 100% of my OK messages go through and have for years, ever since I started doing this. I have a suspicion that a lot of so-called dropped messages are because people are too impatient.

  11. Absolutely horrible customer service! They auto-renewed without my permission. Not only that they increased the price from $149 to $214. I called them 9 days after it went through and they told me that I need to call within 7 days. RUN, don’t walk away from this horrible company!!

  12. Do you know if a Spot Gen 3 will send an emergency signal if you do not have a current subscription?

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