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Product Review: SPOT Satellite Messenger

My mother is not a backpacker or a hiker, and “outdoorsy” is definitely not among the Top 10 adjectives I would use to describe her. But, as a mom, she gets gravely worried and concerned when her hyper-outdoorsy son goes into the backcountry, usually alone, regardless of the season, and almost always with the intention of pushing his limits.

So it was slightly surprising, but not really, that I first heard about the SPOT Messenger from her. She had seen an ad in a magazine and, for the first time in my backpacking career, she made a gear recommendation to me. If I carried one, she thought, she might actually be able to sleep okay at night when I’m out on a trip.

But when she proposed it as a Christmas gift, I said without hesitation, “No, I don’t want one.” What was I thinking? I had four concerns about SPOT:

First, I go outdoors to get away from it all—traffic, development, people, electronic devices, etc.—and I had no interest in a product that would allow me to communicate regularly with the outside world from my backcountry haven. I thought SPOT would interfere with the connection between me and my natural surroundings.

Second, I was wary of its chief purpose—to save my butt if I got into trouble. In almost all cases of people getting into trouble in the outdoors it’s bad judgment, inadequate backcountry skills, and improper gear/equipment that is to blame, and I personally did not want even the opportunity to think, “Well, I know I’m doing something stupid here, but if it doesn’t work out then I’ve got my SPOT and someone will come and rescue me.” Outdoor enthusiasts need to respect and understand the conditions that they are venturing into, and to believe that it’s not someone else’s responsibility to bail them out.

Third, I did not like the way in which SPOT was being marketed—it targeted the public’s undeserved fear of the outdoors…that nature is something to be afraid of, not something to enjoy. I think many people—and the world, for that matter—would be better off if they went into the outdoors more often, and I don’t personally want to support any company that discourages this.

Fourth, I already had a personal locator beacon (PLB), the McMurdo Fastfind, and did not think that SPOT offered enough advantages to justify its unit and service costs.

After Using in Iceland

Two weeks after my mom first mentioned SPOT, one of SPOT’s marketing people contacted me and offered a free unit for me to test and review, and if I liked it maybe we could talk about a ambassadorship role. I gave him my shipping address, but not before telling him that I was a big skeptic of what he was selling. My SPOT unit sat in its box all Spring (I was traveling a lot but not going backpacking) and finally saw its first use during a 650-mile 20-day hike in Iceland.

I came back to the US raving about SPOT. Some of my initial concerns were proven wrong. For example, I did not feel that the “Okay” messages undermined my ability to get away from it all—the messages are simply too impersonal and limited, and there is no confirmation that my family and friends read them anyway. Also, I did not feel that having SPOT buried deep in my pack adversely affected my decision-making—sure, I knew it was in there, but that did not make me less fearful of fording a silty glacier-fed river with icebergs in it.

But the reason that I was so excited about SPOT is not because of what it did not do, but what it did do, namely alleviating the worries of family and friends while I am out hiking. I concluded that I do not carry SPOT for me, but for them. In Iceland my first resupply point (and opportunity to call out) was 12 days into the trip, which would have put my mom and girlfriend into a worried frenzy were it not for the nightly “I’m okay” messages. And the geographical data that accompanies these messages gave them an unprecedented opportunity to be involved in the hike: my girlfriend created a .kml file so that everyone could check out where I’d been each day using Google Earth. They thoroughly enjoyed this functionality.

My testing of SPOT has been limited, so I can’t speak very credibly to its performance. If you are interested in its reliability, among other aspects, I’d encourage you to read Backpacking Light Magazine’s review (subscription required), which is the most comprehensive one out there. From what I could tell, SPOT seems to work as designed: all of the messages I sent in Iceland were received.

When to carry SPOT

As I am preparing my gear before a trip, I ask of every item, “Do I really need it?” If a product does not pass this test, it gets left behind. If several items with identical functions pass this test, I take the lightest, simplest one. (Admittedly, I sometimes take things I don’t truly need, particularly when I’m not going on a hard-core all-out trip.)

I ask this same question of SPOT before I put it into my pack. Sometimes, the answer is, “No, I can leave it behind.” Other times, “Yes, it’s necessary.”

When I do not take it, it’s because I’ve deemed the risks and the consequences to be acceptably low, and/or because I’m confident that even if something were to happen to me, my survival will unlikely be in jeopardy. So, for example, I would never carry SPOT on the Appalachian Trail during peak thru-hiking season. It’s unlikely that something will happen to me, and, if something did, I would probably be found by another hiker (or ten) within an hour. There is probably a road and town nearby and evacuation would be fairly easy. A riskier example in which I would still not take SPOT is if I were doing a remote loop hike in the North Cascades in August. Again, the likelihood of something happening is low. But if something were to happen to me (e.g. break my ankle, get sick, etc.), I’m confident that I could stabilize myself until my mother, to whom I would have sent a copy of my itinerary before I left, realized something was wrong (because I would not have called her when I said I would have) and contacted the local authorities.

When I do take SPOT, it’s because I’ve deemed the risks and consequences to be unacceptably high, and/or because I’m not confident that I can stabilize myself long enough for a conventional rescue. So, for example, if I were traveling off-trail through the rattlesnake-infested Colorado Desert in California, I would carry SPOT because if I got bit I would need immediate help, yet help normally would be far away: hikers are far and few between, roads and towns are non-existent, and my mother might not be expecting my call for another 3 or 4 days. Another example is if I were snowshoeing across the lakes of the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota in January. If I were to fall through thin ice, I would again need immediate help because the brutal temperatures would turn me into an icicle very quickly, but normally help would be days away.

When to carry SPOT is a judgment call that needs to be made by each user. We assess SPOT’s advantages and disadvantages differently—for some, the 7-oz of insurance will always be worth carrying; for others, it may never be. Some users may never be given the choice: I can imagine that some mothers/wives/girlfriends will permit their son/husband/boyfriend to leave the house only on the condition that they will send an “Okay” message every night.

SPOT versus other communication devices

SPOT v cell phones. Cell phones do not get coverage in many backcountry areas because of the lack of cell towers. In contrast, SPOT uses low-orbit satellites, so coverage is more extensive. Check SPOT’s coverage area map for more information.

SPOT v satellite phones. Satellite phones are more expensive to buy and to operate, and they are heavier and more battery-intensive. But satellite phones do allow clearer communication: You can tell someone exactly what the problem is; your message is more than just “Send help,” or “Call 911.”

SPOT v GPS. These are very different devices, but I’ll include the comparison because I think many people are confused about what a GPS does. A GPS receives information that it can display to the user (e.g. current coordinates) and record (e.g. breadcrumb track). A conventional GPS does not send information. So if you needed to call for help, a GPS cannot help you. If you had another way of calling for help (e.g. a satellite phone or a cell phone), then you could explain your exact location by reading the GPS.

25 Responses to Product Review: SPOT Satellite Messenger

  1. Emily March 4, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    Thanks for your thoughts on SPOT; I appreciate your opinions and your expertise. However, as FEMALE hiker with significant experience, this sentence rankled: “I can imagine that some mothers/wives/girlfriends will permit their son/husband/boyfriend to leave the house only on the condition that they will send an “Okay” message every night.” As an outdoorsy female, I am here to read about solutions that will make my boyfriend/mother/father feel more comfortable with my outdoor pursuits.

    • Andrew Skurka March 4, 2012 at 11:50 pm #

      Emily – Hopefully no offense was taken here. This review, and most of the articles on the site, are written from my perspective, and as such it is my mother and girlfriend (no wife yet) who I think about most when evaluating this type of product.

    • Beth April 26, 2012 at 6:56 am #

      Thanks for saying something about this, Emily. I like Andrew’s book and website a lot but it does come across as a book/website written by a guy for guys. Andrew sort of salvaged himself by talking about women’s underwear in the book – ha, ha!

      I will likely use a piece of equipment like this while I solo backpacking to keep my HUSBAND “from going crazy” – his words. (I’d be glad to not solo hike/backpack but haven’t met any guys – or gals, for that matter, who can keep up with me : )

      • Andrew Skurka April 26, 2012 at 11:57 am #

        Admittedly, my website and my book are definitely more guy-oriented. But, please don’t interpret this as anything but me writing from my own perspective and based on my own experiences. I’m simply not qualified to speak about many women-specific issues.

        • Lisa June 12, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

          Oh, shut up and stop apologizing Andrew, don’t placate this kind of crap.

          Beth and Emily, who gives a shit whether you think the post is “guy” or “girl” oriented; its his blog, not a motor vehicle manual. Congratulations, you’re a FEMALE (all caps) hiker. Good for you, welcome to the 21rst century; no one cares that you hike AND have a vagina.

          • Woody June 11, 2013 at 12:06 am #

            I admittedly came late to the Andrew party (a full year after this post), having found the site via a search of Alaska backpacking; however, Lisa, that was an great response. I would buy you a steak dinner if I could.

            Andrew, this is an exceptional site. I have just ordered your book from Amazon. I have been sitting here for the past 3 hours reading your How-To’s.

          • Richard July 28, 2013 at 11:53 am #

            +1 for Lisa!

        • Ping March 10, 2017 at 3:20 pm #

          I’m a female hiker/backbacker, love solo hiking sometimes. I’m not offended by Andrew’s wordage here or in his book (my son bought his book for me for Christmas). I found information presented by him usefully. Andrew is not running for office. he doesn’t have to be politically correct. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it.

  2. Tim Jones March 23, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    We took SPOT on many hikes through the Sierra back country (Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia). It was a fabulous tool to involve our friends on our adventure and was certainly appreciated by those that were concerned of our safety. They marveled at how our progress could be monitored online, in real time, from the luxury of their living room. However, significant lapses in maintaining service were observed during these hikes. We noticed that this product has profound service dropouts in areas that are canyon like, or heavily forested. This is a product that works spectacularly in flat, wide open terrain that has an unobstructed view of the sky. However, If you were hiking along a river at the bottom of a ravine or through a heavily forested area the unit was unable to maintain satellite contact. Despite its terrestrial shortcomings I think its advantages far outweigh its technical shortcomings. Worst case scenario – all I have to do is to crawl or climb to open sky- not the trail head. IMHO I think its a definite back country must for those of us who are not on par with Bear Grylls.

    Tim~

    • Andrew Skurka March 25, 2012 at 4:33 am #

      Should add that the “significant lapses” you experienced were presumably while it was sending breadcrumb signals every 10 minutes. In my experience its reliability in getting out an OK message, which it does by sending three msgs over 20 min, is very good. And naturally the technology gets a little bit better with every generation of the product.

  3. Josh B May 3, 2012 at 1:17 am #

    Being a big game and waterfowl hunter we are constantly being monitored by fish and game wardens, so I don’t see the SPOT necessary until I go on a multiple day elk or moose hunt but even then I will most likely be with a guide, a few years ago I was caught in a flash flood in arkansas on the St Francis river where the water came out of the banks and started to flood my truck but I was met by a game warden who assisted me in the strong currents, I couldn’t have called anyone soon enough to rescue me, thanks the GreenPants I lived to hunt another day !

  4. Don A May 31, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Thank you Andrew for a well reasoned write up. I have been a SPOT user from the beginning and have scratched my head in utter amazement at how people fail to see the purpose of the device. (I have a write up that might help someone decide whether or not it is right for them – https://sites.google.com/site/hobbyhintstricksideas/Home/spot-messenger-information).

    SPOT is a product that has been marketed badly. It should be easily obvious the purpose of SPOT without having to “discover” it as you did – but sadly it isn’t. On almost every forum where SPOT is discussed there will be folks dissing it that have no clue to the unique utility SPOT offers. Honestly, for some reason the SPOT usage model eludes 50% of potential users – the product almost seems like an IQ test. That’s just not the way to sell something IMHO.

  5. earl September 25, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Sounds like your a mama’s boy Andrew… just kidding. My dad and I are starting a through hike of the Hayduke trail next spring (using your excellent resources) and I’ve been thinking about whether something like a SPOT would be worth taking. When thinking about it I tend to fall into the ethical debate of how technology has allowed modern man to worry less when he ventures into risky situations and provides him with the ability to bail out when things get too much for him. Should part of the “natural” outdoor experience be the possibility of not coming back (which in reality is slight in almost all cases)? Of being fully self reliant and responsible for one’s own actions? As a person who spends a lot of time climbing in the alpine (and also one that survived a near fatal fall, with a rescue), my risks tend to be high, but I cherish this as part of the experience. If that risk did not exist I would likely not care to go out at all.

    • Andrew Skurka October 9, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

      I battle with the moral hazard issue too: Will I make less cautious decisions when I carry my SPOT. Personally, I don’t think I do — I’m aware that there’s no such thing as a fast S&R, and a SPOT doesn’t make me immune from tremendous pain and/or misery in the meantime. Plus, bad things happen outdoors that are not a function of bad decision-making, and in those instances the SPOT is incredibly useful.

  6. Bob W November 27, 2012 at 11:07 pm #

    Thanks Andrew. Useful data. I would especially be interested in a comparison of the SPOT device with other PLBs. A few reviewers have noted that 1) the SPOT device requires that the satellite have a clear view of both the SPOT device and the ground station in order to relay a message – this can cause delays or no transmission; 2) the SPOT device can have trouble with dense overhead canopy – again, might cause no signal or delays in some mountain conditions. The technical abilities of the SPOT device are great – tracking, tethering your iPhone, etc. But what I’m looking for is hard, real-world data on how it would compare with 406 GPS PLBs in different emergency situations. Ideally, someone would do a situation/location based review, e.g.: If you’re in this location/situation your PLB should get you help fast, but a SPOT device might cause delays or fail; if you’re in this location/situation your PLB will work great but so will a SPOT device and the SPOT has other advantages, etc..

  7. Agnius December 15, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    Cool. But ultimately not as useful as a half a pound of common sense.

  8. Jon B July 15, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    I am very tempted by this review of spot since it sounds like it would provide exactly what I need however I have heard a couple of complaints on the internets that it is very difficult to cancel your contract (and costly) with Spot and that they do not provide good customer service — Andrew (amazing website btw) have you heard anything about that or have any personal experience? Thanks — much appreciated

    • Andrew Skurka July 15, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

      I have no experience with cancelling a contract with SPOT. I would imagine it can’t be any worse than cancelling a contract with a cell phone or cable company.

      • Jon B July 16, 2013 at 11:54 am #

        Also just picked up your e-book – excited for the read. Thanks!

  9. Jon B July 16, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Thanks for the fast follow up — that’s what I figure it is – I can’t imagine it being trickier.

  10. Lee August 6, 2013 at 7:24 pm #

    The comment about wives/girlfriends/sisters stuck out like a sore thumb in an otherwise good review. The seemingly benign slips that we are rudely instructed by Lisa to disregard ARE offensive. Would a racist comment be overlooked? Would people of color be told to just suck it up if someone made a similar racist slur? Language DOES matter. It reflects our thinking and influences the perceptions of others.

    Regarding SPOT: I’ve had concerns about my SPOT not transmitting in slightly wooded areas. I wonder what I do perform if I tumble down a wooded slope… It works great in the open, but I don’t feel confident it will do its job when I really need it, rather than when I can select the location from which to transmit my “okay” messages.

  11. Kristin June 27, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    Hi Andrew, are you still using a SPOT device? Or have you tried anything similar like a DeLorme InReach? I didn’t feel the need for something like this on my AT thru hike last year but I have some other hikes coming up that will have both less people and less cell signal on them, so I am considering my options to make those at home feel more comfortable.

    • Andrew Skurka June 27, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

      I now use the SPOT G3 unit and still prefer it over the alternatives: it’s a simpler system (once electronic device, one battery, no dependence on Bluetooth connectivity or smartphone apps), lighter, and doesn’t defeat a primary purpose of me going outdoors — to get away from things.

      • Kristin June 28, 2014 at 9:38 am #

        Thanks! I was leaning towards the Spot for its simplicity as well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Satellite Communication: SPOT 2 – review and warning | Korpijaakko - September 6, 2013

    […] The folks at Outdoorgearlab were not too impressed by SPOT 2. But on the other hand, for example Andrew Skurka uses SPOT 2 and finds it good for his needs. Andy’s post is worth reading also regarding general mindset […]

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