The SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger can send three preset messages (OK, Help, and SOS) and one Custom message that can only be modified through SPOT’s website. Communication is one-way: it cannot receive messages from family and friends, emergency response teams, or SPOT.
In this regard, the Gen3 is most similar to a personal locator beacon (PLB) like the ACR Electronics ResQLink, which can send only an outgoing SOS message. For more robust communication options, consider a 2-way messenger like the DeLorme inReach, or a satellite phone like the SPOT Global Phone. For more in-depth information, read my satellite communication buyers guide.
Due to the limited number of messages that a SPOT can send, and the inability to modify or nuance messages from the field, before I leave for a backpacking trip I think it’s important to:
- Define wisely the Custom message. And,
- Explain to my contacts how SPOT messages should be interpreted and what actions should be taken (if any) when messages are received.
In this post I’d like to share my definitions and protocols. On the SPOT website you should also read the Gen3 product page, which has some additional information about each message.
Use for || Non-emergencies
Included message || Checking in. I might be great, okay, or miserable. There is no emergency and no action is needed.
I send this message most often, but it does not always capture my true state of being. I could also be high on life, or scared and homesick.
Whatever the case, the interpretation by message recipients is the same: I don’t need help, and no action is necessary.
Use for || Life-threatening emergencies
Included message || N/A
Risk to life or limb, or another critical function like eyesight, is the only situation in which the SOS message should be sent. The message is clear: immediate help is needed, most likely for a medical emergency, and self-evacuation is unfeasible. If the situation is not life-threatening, do not send a SOS message.
It would be appropriate to send a SOS message if, for example, I got a compound fracture in my lower leg after tumbling down steep talus and slabs; or if a member of my group stops breathing and/or does not have a pulse after being struck by lightning.
The SOS message is sent directly to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, which notifies relevant emergency responders, e.g. Rocky Mountain Rescue, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. The emergency contacts specified in my online account will not receive the message; instead, they will be contacted by by SPOT’s emergency response center. My contacts have no critical role in the emergency response, though emergency teams may solicit their help, e.g. learning about my trip itinerary, medical history, backcountry experience, etc.
Once a SOS message is sent, I would not expect to hear a helicopter within a few minutes. One may not be available, or it may be the policy of the response team to first dispatch a ground team to assess the emergency and determine the best course of action.
Use for || Non-life threatening emergencies
Included message || Something is wrong but there is no threat to life/limb. Will try to self-rescue if possible. Send help.
Something has happened and external assistance is needed, but there is no threat to life or limb. If the situation escalates, I will send a SOS message.
The situation could be medical. For example, I hyperextend my knee and become immobilized, or I badly injure my ankle (a hairline fracture, perhaps?) after a fall.
But it may not be medical-related. For example, I flip and lose my packraft while going through some rapids on Alaska’s Copper River. I get washed up onto a gravel bar, but I will probably die if I attempt to swim across the wide, deep, swift, and freezing cold channel that separates me from the mainland.
In the event that I were to send a Help message, my team back home becomes becomes an unofficial emergency response center. They would have to speculate about my situation and to contact individuals or groups that they think can best help me. The Help message is not sent to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center.
One clue is whether my Help message is stationary or moving. If it’s stationary, that means I’m stuck — like in the case of the hyperextended knee or my packrafting accident. Whereas if my Help message is moving — like the sprained ankle that I can probably hobble on — it indicates that I’m attempting to self-rescue, which would be faster and less painful with some assistance.
If my team is nearby, they might drive out to the closest trailhead and help me directly. But if I’m distant, or if my team wants more capabilities, they might call one of my nearby friends, solicit help through a social network like Facebook, or notify local SAR teams or authorities like a county sheriff or the backcountry office at a National Park.
Use for || Whatever you would like
Included message || Something has happened. Not an emergency. May be delayed or change my itinerary.
In my online account on SPOT’s website, I can modify the Custom message. It cannot be changed in the field, at least not without an internet connection, in which case I would probably place a phone call or send a text message before using my SPOT.
I have used the Custom message to indicate that I have arrived in camp, that I have shot an elk, and that I was thinking about my dear wife.
But the best use of the Custom message is to convey that something has happened and that my plans have changed — notably, my route, exit point, or exit date — but that there is no need for external help. If the situation were to escalate, a Help or SOS message could be sent.
When defined in such terms, the Custom message could be sent if I:
- Experience a major gear malfunction that cuts my walking speed in half, e.g. my shoe’s outsole separates from the upper;
- Have a minor injury (e.g. dislocated shoulder with potential ligament damage) that makes it imprudent to continue with my original route; or,
- Encounter a trip-halting natural hazard (e.g. severe weather, high avalanche danger, or an unexpectedly dangerous river crossing) that forces me to change course.
Admittedly, it would be difficult for my contacts to know that “something” has happened but that I’m not requesting help. I ask them to simply be more alert, and to refrain from any action until I exit or send a Help message.