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.