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Long-term Review: SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger

The SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger. The $150 device weighs 4 oz (with batteries) and can send 1-way emergency and non-emergency messages.

The SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger. The $150 device weighs 4 oz (with batteries) and can send 1-way emergency and non-emergency messages.

My mother has requested only once that I buy an outdoor product. It wasn’t an uber warm sleeping bag, a highly engineered stove, or a rain jacket that was guaranteed to keep me dry. No, it was a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger.

She was not shy about her motivations. While a messenger would allow me to call for help if I ever needed it, more importantly she thought she would worry less if I sent her regular “I’m okay” messages.

That was 2008, shortly after SPOT released its first-generation messenger, which was a revolutionary product. At that time, the only other types of satellite communicators available were personal locator beacons (PLB’s), which are for emergencies only; and satellite phones, which are more expensive to own and operate. Read my in-depth comparison of satellite communicators.

About three years ago SPOT released is third-generation unit, the SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger, which was sent to me by SPOT and which I used extensively throughout the 2014 and 2015 backpacking seasons. My exact use is unknown, but I estimate it to be dozens of trips and about 100 days total. I feel very confident in offering a long-term review.


Support my efforts to offer you informative and insightful content. Buy the SPOT Gen3 and other products from REI or Cabelas.


The SPOT Gen3 is the lightest and smallest satellite communicator available. The ACR ResQLink PLB (far left) is not far behind, while the DeLorme inReach units (orange and yellow) and SPOT Global Phone (far right) are considerably larger and heavier.

The SPOT Gen3 is the lightest and smallest satellite communicator available. The ACR ResQLink PLB (far left) is not far behind, while the DeLorme inReach units (orange and yellow) and SPOT Global Phone (far right) are considerably larger and heavier.

Key specs

Buying recommendations

There are other types of satellite communicators besides the SPOT Gen3: personal locator beacons (PLB’s), satellite phones, and 2-way messengers. Read more. Due to their unique functions and specs, I do not feel that there is a single “best” device. Instead, each device is best for a particular type of user.

In the specific case of the SPOT Gen3, I recommend it for someone who:

  • Values highly the weight and size of every item in their pack
  • Desires more functionality than a PLB, notably non-emergency check-ins and route tracking
  • Undertakes trips that are low- or moderate-risk and that have simple logistics
  • Will be content with 1-way communication

I want to dig deeper on this last point. One-way communication may be fine if, for example, you:

  • Are not an avid texter or talker in ordinarily life
  • Think that four basic messages — OK, Help, SOS, and a custom message — are adequate
  • Family and/or friends do not insist that they have the ability to reach you
  • Messages from family and friends can wait until you exit, you feel
  • You have another method of regularly receiving messages, e.g. spotty cell coverage

Specifically, then, for what applications is a SPOT Gen3 most appropriate? I say:

  • Front country activities, e.g. day-hiking, trail running, skiing, snowshoeing, fishing, hunting
  • Shorter backcountry trips, or longer trips with occasional cell phone access
  • Moderate- and high-use backcountry areas
  • Group trips, so long as someone else has a satellite phone or 2-way messenger

When I am on a remote or high-risk solo trip, or when I am responsible for the well being of a group, I upgrade my communication device to a two-way messenger or — even better — a satellite phone.

Versus the competition

With the Gen3, SPOT owns the 1-way satellite messenger market. There is no comparable unit from another manufacturer.

Personal locator beacons (PLB’s)

A PLB like the ACR ResQLink is a simpler device than the Gen3. PLB’s are for emergency use only; they are incapable of sending non-emergency “Okay” messages. They are comparable in weight and size, and less expensive in the long run because there are no annual or monthly service fees. I have read that the 406 MHz signal is more reliable than that used by satellite messengers.

DeLorme inReach messengers

The DeLorme inReach SE and DeLorme inReach Explorer are a step up from the SPOT Gen3, but a step below a satellite phone like the SPOT Global Phone. While they have more features than the Gen3 — notably, 2-way text communication — they are heavier and larger, more expensive to own and generally to operate, and more disruptive to the backcountry experience. Read more about the DeLorme inReach.

Reliability

The core question with satellite communicators is: If I have an emergency, will my message be received? Thankfully, I cannot personally vouch for the Gen3 in this regard, but with its record of 3,500+ rescues, there is reason be confident.

The receipt rate of my “Okay” messages has been very high — I don’t recall many messages, if any, that were missed. A clear view of the sky is ideal, but I’ve also sent many messages though heavy Appalachian tree cover and from the bottom of deep Utah canyons. On my earliest trips with the device, I wanted receipt of my outgoing messages, but I learned to eventually trust it.

The device’s reliability and accuracy is understandably less in tracking mode: it’s more difficult to obtain a GPS fix while moving; it’s less likely to be pointed directly at the sky, or have a constant clear view of the sky; and it only sends one message at each interval, not multiple messages over a longer period as it does with Okay, Help and SOS messages.

I have read that the Globalstar satellite network is less reliable than others (e.g. Iridium) and that the SPOT Gen3 is under-powered versus other satellite communicators (.4 watts, versus 1.6 for the inReach units and 5 watts for the ACR PLB). Nonetheless, my anecdotal experience is that it’s a reliable and trustworthy device. Maybe an engineer who better understands wattage and satellite networks can provide us an update in the Comments section.

Very light and packable

At just 4 oz and the size of a bifold wallet, the SPOT Gen3 is comparable to the ACR ResQLink PLB, which has less functionality, and about half the weight and size of the DeLorme inReach 2-way messengers.

For this reason, I have no hesitation about carrying it on a long trail run, a simple day hike or ski, or an ambitious backpacking trip when every ounce matters.

KISS

The Gen3 does exactly what it needs to do, without any additional functionality that increases build, cost, power demands, and risk of failure. It can send four messages, each with a dedicated button: “Check-in/Okay,” “Help,” “SOS,” and a custom message that must be pre-programmed via SPOT’s website.

It does not offer 2-way communication. Messages cannot be customized in the field. And there is no screen, option for smartphone pairing, or GPS functionality.

The Gen3 can send just four messages: Okay, Help, SOS, and a customizable message (screenshot). These messages are received via email or text by individuals that I specify in my online profile.

The Gen3 can send just four messages: Okay, Help, SOS, and a customizable message (screenshot). These messages are received via email or text by individuals that I specify in my online profile.

Social engagement

The location from which the SPOT Gen3 sent a message is shared with message recipients (see email screenshot, above) and can be broadcast via social platforms like Facebook. This is a non-critical but value-added feature of the Gen3, as it allows family and friends to engage my trips on a deeper level. I recall a trip I did in southern Utah, for example, where my mom would pull up the location of my messages on Google Maps, and then look at photographs that were geo-tagged nearby so that she could better understand the landscape.

Messages sent by the SPOT Gen3 are geo-tagged, so that family and friends can engage real-time with my whereabouts. (When I sent this message, I was in my front yard). When I return from a trip, I can also use the message locations to recreate my route and camps.

Messages sent by the SPOT Gen3 are geo-tagged, so that family and friends can engage real-time with my whereabouts. (When I sent this message, I was in my front yard). When I return from a trip, I can also use the message locations to recreate my route and camps.

1-way communication: good and bad

I go backpacking partly to “get away from it all.” But my family and friends want to know that I’m safe, too. Since the SPOT Gen3 is limited to 1-way outgoing messages only, I can satisfy both of these objectives. In contrast, I cannot regularly “check in” with a PLB, and inevitably with a 2-way messenger or satellite phone I hear about non-emergency events and issues at home and work .

In the event of an emergency in the field or at home, however, 1-way communication is a liability and 2-way communication is much preferred. I was extraordinarily thankful to have the SPOT Global Phone, for example, when Amanda was protecting our home in the 2013 Boulder floods and when a guided client became immobilized by a partially torn lateral collateral ligament (LCL).

Two-way communication can also be extremely convenient. Receive updated weather forecasts, reschedule a shuttle or bush plane pick-up, resolve urgent problems at work, etc. Plus, it’s nice to stay in touch with your spouse.

Software and system updates

In my account on the SPOT website, I can specify who receives my Okay, Help, and customizable message — and how. All SOS messages are directed to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, which delegates the response to local search and rescue teams. The user interface is clunky but functional.

To update the device software and/or my tracking interval setting, I must use the SPOT Device Updater software and plug the device into my computer via USB. The process seems Stone Age-like, but it’s the only option without a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi chip.

A screenshot from my online account on SPOT's website. Here, I can specify message recipients, change the tracking interval setting, and connect my messages to my social networks like Facebook. This is also where I activate and a device and pay for my service plan.

A screenshot from my online account on SPOT’s website. Here, I can specify message recipients, change the tracking interval setting, and connect my messages to my social networks like Facebook. This is also where I activate and a device and pay for my service plan.

Interpretation of SPOT messages

Without the ability to customize messages in the field, it is worthwhile to have a pre-trip conversation with message recipients about their interpretation. “Okay” is self-explanatory, but under what conditions might you activate the “Help” or “SOS” signals? In a future post, I’ll make some recommendations.


Disclosure: Primarily for use on my guided trips, I was provided by SPOT a Gen3 unit and service. They had no influence over this review.


Join the conversation!

If you own a SPOT Gen3, what has been your experience with it? If you own another device, what factors drove that decision?

39 Responses to Long-term Review: SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger

  1. Don Milligan October 6, 2015 at 7:11 am #

    Really looking my SPOT Gen3, I’ve had it since they came out, the biggest reason I purchased it was the weight, 4oz is really appealing and I didn’t think 2 way messaging was worth it for the weight and price penalty and I could use my cell when I had coverage.
    So far very pleased and I mostly forget that I have it.

  2. Carl October 6, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    I have a SPOT Gen2 that I’m mostly very happy with. I’ve used it on several backpacking trips where I knew I was not going to get any cell signal. I used the SPOT repeatedly in several locations in China and had no message delivery problems.

    My biggest complaint about the SPOT is that it only keeps 30 days of activity “live” on the site.

    My “Communications Plan” is this:

    Every day, I send an “OK” message on leaving camp, at lunch time, and on arriving at camp. My family expects to see these, with the understanding that one may not make it through.

    I send a custom message with the text “Trip Milestone Reached” from certain points along the trip: summits, passes, major trail junctions, etc.

    My “Help” button is set to the following message: “Illness, injury, or other non life threatening situation exists. Please stand by for other alerts.” In the event that I need to use this, I will continue to send frequent “Help” messages to indicate that the situation has not worsened and to let family know whether I am stationary or moving. Sending an “OK” message after this indicates that the situation has been resolved.

    My “SOS” button is only for life threatening emergencies.

    Fortunately, I have never had to use either of the last two messages, and I hope I don’t have to!

  3. Cameron N. October 6, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    It seems that the S.O.S. message is used solely to notify the emergency response center of your location, as opposed to something your family would receive like the HELP message. As I was reading through I was kind of wondering the difference between these two types of calls for assistance.

    I’ve never used any comm device for backpacking, but I am also usually out for just weekends. If that changes then it sounds like the SPOT will be the way to go for my tastes. Thanks.

  4. Vadim Fedorovsky October 6, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    I have been using the same Spot device (generation 1, I believe) since March of 2010.

    I have never had to change the battery, fix anything, or maintain it in any way.

    My family loves it.

    I have only good things to say about it and I thankfully as well have never had to REALLY use it.

    Thank you, Andrew.

    -Vadim

  5. Chris Hawley October 8, 2015 at 5:27 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    I commented on your other blog, in a manner that would perhaps have suited this one better.

    and to Cameron, I was able to see many SOS entries on my tracker page. I had failed to update my wife’s number for her new mobile, but my friend / secondary was still getting them and in fact the GEOS people contacted him to get my wife’s new number.

    Please check your Spot profiles people — numbers change!

    Anyhow, they ARE sent to the findmespot.com interface, though I can’t say if they were spamming my friend’s phone/email.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Preston M October 9, 2015 at 4:33 am #

    What is the battery life that you yourself have seen on one of these?

    Also curious to know when your next SD video is coming out and if the Long sleeve pack polo has a re-release date yet.

    • Andrew Skurka October 11, 2015 at 8:25 am #

      The battery life is excellent. I think I’ve only replaced the batteries once after two years of use. It was a total omission to not include it in the review.

  7. Craig Brubaker October 10, 2015 at 10:45 am #

    WORKS! Had a visit from SAR the other night.

    Unit does work, but as Andrew mentioned, have a talk with your contacts in advance so they understand what you are sending.

    Sent 3 check in messages to update where we were going to be picked up on the roadside the next day. ONE of which didnt go through. That, coupled with not going over all the messages in advance with our driver, accidentally launched a rescue response we didnt actually need.

    So, beware. It most definitely CAN send help right to you if needed, but it also CAN fail. Be sure to go over all your contingencies with your contact back at home first.

    • Andrew Skurka October 11, 2015 at 8:10 am #

      Whoa, can you explain this a little bit more? You told your emergency contact to expect three Okay messages, and since one of them did not arrive they called SAR? Indeed, talk to your emergency contacts beforehand!

      Also, re the message that failed to go through. Any theories for why it did not? Heavy tree cover, narrow canyon, did not let it send for 20 minutes?

  8. Ed October 12, 2015 at 8:38 pm #

    I read some reviews of SPOT’s satphone and they are pretty uniform in their negativity. And being an owner of GSAT stock and its’ atrocious performance, made me look to Delorme and Iridium or Inmarsat for comms.

  9. Rex November 4, 2015 at 11:00 pm #

    Satellite networks: Way more than you wanted to know in this (free) story I wrote a couple years ago for BackpackingLight:
    http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/satellite_communications_sotmr_part1.html

    In brief: Globalstar’s satellite network for Spot devices has not had serious problems with one-way text. OTOH, voice service was almost useless for several years, not so bad after they launched replacement satellites. The company’s financial troubles are another story.

    Device transmit power (0.4 watts versus …) is almost a non-issue. Signal reliability depends much more on other factors. For example, early (analog) cell phones transmitted up to 3 watts, modern cell phones about 0.6 watts.

    SAR callouts due to misunderstandings: Been there, done that. Mine came thanks to a half-dead pay phone on top of a mountain: I could hear my wife, she couldn’t hear me. After the third call, she called the rangers. Sigh. You can’t anticipate every situation.

    I’m glad we have choices: carry nothing, PLB, one-way text, two-way text, or sat phone. HYOH.

    — Rex

  10. Don March 1, 2016 at 11:49 am #

    You still have the most level-headed reviews of SPOT. I’ve used it since 2008, currently carry Gen 3 and agree with you completely (it just works for me). I have a background in communications, and I can tell you that transmission power is a marketing ploy. Basically SPOT has to hit a satellite 800 miles away whereas the ACR PLB has to hit a satellite 22,000 miles up. I still see user errors in other reviews – you just can’t build a tool that is screw-up proof. I turn it on, leave it on and it just works.

    Love the fact we have choices today. I’ve been pondering the Delorme – seems to be a better mousetrap. I may “upgrade” from my lowly SPOT one of these days.

    Thanks for an intelligent review – good job!

  11. Lorne March 19, 2016 at 2:54 pm #

    I’m going on a transatlantic sailing race (Clipper RTW) from NYC to London via N Ireland and Amsterdam. Our route will be North Atlantic. How well do you predict Spot gen 3 will perform?

    • Andrew Skurka March 20, 2016 at 10:22 am #

      SPOT shows good coverage along your route (http://www.findmespot.com/en/index.php?cid=108), and based on my experience I would expect very high signal reliability.

      However, I would NOT use a SPOT for emergency community in this instance. You want a satellite phone. You’re way out there, and if something were to go wrong a satellite phone would be invaluable. In fact, I’ll go further and say that you’d be irresponsible not to have a satellite phone.

  12. Joe May 11, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    I wish you had put the disclosure statement at the top of your review, instead of at the bottom. From your introduction, it sounded like you had the purchased the device, maybe for your mother’s peace of mind.

    • Andrew Skurka May 11, 2016 at 9:25 am #

      When I reread the post, I can see how that would be deceiving, sorry about that.

      In this particular case, SPOT fortuitously (for the sake of my finances) reached out to me a few months later.

  13. Coast mountain Joel June 9, 2016 at 3:36 am #

    Hello All – I’ve attempted to use spot gen3’s for 2 years. We have attempted to use them for work safety / check in for backcountry work. Honestly when they work – excellent. Problem is “when” the work.

    For example the last 3 days I’ve had 2 spots Gen 3 with brand new Li batteries miss 60% of check- in and miss hours of tracking. The areas the spots are servicing have been monitored before with spots successfully. I can get no reason from Spot. My crews are at the point of bringing the device, but doing secondary check-in with sat phones as all confidence has been lost in the device.

    Unfortunately for spot I’m being forced to examine other options. I know of inreach. Anyone have any other ideas? We are working in the coast mountains of BC.

    • Andrew Skurka June 10, 2016 at 6:56 am #

      Joel –

      For satellite check-in capabilities, your options are the SPOT or the InReach. That’s it. The ResQLink PLB says that it has a check-in service, but it’s false advertising.

      The sat phone option seems unnecessarily expensive, and frankly for check-in it’s not going to be any better than the SPOT or inReach. If you did go that route, definitely get phones that can send text messages, which don’t require as strong of a connection and which aren’t as costly.

      More reading for you:
      * DeLorme inReach SE v Explorer: Which one?
      * Pros, cons, and my picks: PLB’s, satellite phones & messengers

  14. Bert Verheul August 12, 2016 at 7:35 am #

    I had the spot Gen3 From Holland to South-Africa, it,s not that reliable at all, if you are under y trees or close to them then forget it.

    Bert Verheul.

    • Andrew Skurka August 12, 2016 at 7:47 am #

      Did you have reliability issues when you were in “tracking” mode or when you were trying to send Okay or Custom messages? If the former, I’m not surprised; if the latter, I am.

  15. Bert Veheul August 12, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    When i send okay messages, only if satellites are peer to peer i was able to send the massage, it,s not plug and play, you don,t wan,t to think about these things, and then everytime checking on facebook or my mail to see if the massage was send, it,s not like the tell it is, you now, i now that, everybody nows that, but it,s reasonable inexpensive, will leaving for Cape-town agian in December from Hollang 5 bikers now, thinking about getting something else, and then the thing after a while the delete your gps point, and massages( not good when you are on a trip of 4 months.

    Bert Verheul.

  16. Danny Copeland September 11, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

    Just got the Gen3, IF you have clear sky, and IF you are not near any microwave interference, and IF you see the email sign blink, you MIGHT get the ‘Ok’ Message to go through, however it is always delayed.

    I have not needed the emergency component of this unit. But should I, hoping I am lucid and able to push the button to initial help.

  17. Kate Lockwood October 8, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    I have just purchased a Spot Gen 3 and so far am loving it. I am a horse rider and live in very rural France often riding on my own so it is great for letting my husband know I am safe as we have very limited mobile signal.

    My question is do you know of a way that I can measure how far I have travelled? I am not very technical so I may have missed something but any help on that would be greatly appreciated 🙂

    Many thanks

    Kate

    • IcePonyGirl August 14, 2017 at 10:31 pm #

      Kate….have you used the Spot Tracker on your horse? I want something that I can use to track my horse in case I do an unscheduled dismount. T/U!

  18. Roy whiteside November 30, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

    SOS Works we had our boat capsize in Prince William sound in Alaska we were 55 miles out to sea 4 of us would not have lasted long but the Coast Guard got my SOS and flew out in about 3 hours and picked us up. I have a older SPOT not gen 3.

  19. Chris January 12, 2017 at 7:23 am #

    I’m going to use my Gen3 to lead backpacking trips. My concern is having my credit card responsible for the cost of any SOS I should seed on behalf of others who need emergency services.
    Could be ” good samaritan ” situation for total strangers in the wilderness.
    Could result in thousands of dollars in charges. How to address this scenario ?

    • Andrew Skurka January 12, 2017 at 8:16 am #

      Are you sure that the payment runs through the CC that is on file with SPOT? You might want to call about that.

      If you are leading groups, you can have those in your group sign liability waivers that includes language about S&R expenses, and force them beforehand to either opt in or out of trip insurance.

      Personally, when I’m leading trips, I do not trust a SPOT. A satellite phone is considered standard equipment in the industry for trip leaders.

  20. Chris January 12, 2017 at 8:35 am #

    Spot is clear the device owner/user and CC on file is liable for expenses.
    I lead for organization that uses liability waiver. As leader I place myself in good simaritan role. Which is why the org uses waiver.
    Having group participants sign additional ” SAR cost ” agreement does not cover me for the occasion when I might encounter total stranger in life threatening situation. I’ll get the bill for SAR responding. The victim will be billed for everything else.
    Under these circumstances the ” findMEspot ” logo has relevance when it comes to who’s liable for SAR costs.

  21. Aimee Curby January 18, 2017 at 4:45 am #

    Hi, I am looking in to the SPOT Gen3 for our trip around Australia. I can’t find any information on if it would work or be useful to our needs (we just want something simple that our families can track us with so we don’t have to rely on phone service as we’re told it’s pretty hit and miss in some remote parts of the Country).
    Do you have any idea if it would work well over here? And would it work if we kept it in the car so that it was with us at all times, or would we have to take it out to send the ‘ok’ messages etc?
    Thank you, any advice would be appreciated

    • Andrew Skurka January 18, 2017 at 7:56 am #

      Per the coverage map for SPOT, you should have good reception in Australia. An open sky always helps, as does leaving it in the same place while it is sending its message. I would recommend sending it from outside the car to improve reception.

    • IcePonyGirl August 14, 2017 at 10:34 pm #

      What is meant bu SAR costs? Who is charging you to rescue/help you?

  22. David Brown March 7, 2017 at 2:57 pm #

    I found myself wishing I could send the tracking URL to my defined contact list. This is how CheckIns and OKs work, but not Tracking for some reason.
    Spot Tech Support says this is because Tracking acquires a new location too often.
    Right. But how do my contacts know to view my track?
    How about sending the URL of my tracking page for the first location ONLY.
    Seems like a software update for that wouldn’t be too difficult.

  23. DMcShane April 2, 2017 at 3:45 pm #

    I’ve been using a SPOT Gen 3 since April 2014 and have found it a great stress reducer for solo hikes. In Scotland I’ve found the coverage pretty good, with only the odd missed message and occasional blip on the tracking. I change out the lithium primary AAA once a year so there’s nothing to worry about on battery capacity -and I’m pleased the website indicates battery quality on each recorded track point.

    If I have one gripe, it is the quality of the SPOT website and the lack of control and display on it. My family find the site hard to use, and the displays do sometimes behaves erratically.

    Overall I’m a fan, but largely because there is no real competition. The hardware sems good, but the software and pricing are less impressive.

  24. Dave Boettcher April 13, 2017 at 7:32 am #

    Using the SPOT 3, if I am unconscious from a fall or some other reason is there a method my wife or kids will know something has happen?

    • Andrew Skurka April 13, 2017 at 8:33 am #

      If you cannot depress the buttons, it cannot help you.

  25. IcePonyGirl August 14, 2017 at 10:35 pm #

    I am a horse rider and need something that will allow me to get help…should I be hurt while out alone. Also, have you reviewed the Spot Tracker? Wondering if it could be used to track my horse…should I take a fall and my horse takes out….and gets lost. THANKS!

  26. Anna laura September 1, 2017 at 10:02 pm #

    Does anybody has experience with spot sailing and especially outside of US it Canadian waters?? Central/south America and crossing the Atlantic??? I know that’s supposed to be all covered according the map… but how does a it work in reality at sea????

    Thanks a lot for any reply!!

  27. Chartier Olivier October 17, 2017 at 6:07 pm #

    Hello, i live in new-caledonia (near australia). I use A spot gen3 since 3 weeks for stand up paddle . With the tracking mode there is some period without spot on the map: 20 min to 2hours! Someone already have this problem?
    Is there A solution
    Thanks
    Olivier

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