Best practices: Definitions & protocols for SPOT messages

The SPOT Gen3 is a one-way messenger that can send four types of messages, none of which can be modified in the field. Due to its limited capabilities, I instruct my contacts how each message should be interpreted before I leave.

The SPOT Gen3 is a one-way messenger that can send four types of messages, none of which can be modified in the field. Due to its limited capabilities, before I leave I instruct my contacts how each message should be interpreted.

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:

  1. Define wisely the Custom message. And,
  2. 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.

In my online SPOT account, I specify the contacts that should receive each kind of message, and add some nuance to its interpretation.

In my online SPOT account, I specify the contacts that should receive each kind of message, and add some nuance to its interpretation.


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.

Your turn. How do you define SPOT messages and instruct your contacts to interpret them?

Posted in on December 31, 2015


  1. BJ Clark on December 31, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Two years of use had led me to the same basic usage for the OK and custom messages. Used to use the custom button for “in for the night” and later for a significant location. I decided that those were redundant as long as my wife checked the location and time connected to the OK message. Now it means a change in plans but not an emergency. So far I have always been able to follow up with the OK message as I am on my way again.

  2. Will T. on December 31, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    Lots of great advice. I’ve been using the Spot since your Iceland trip, but still learned some new ideas to spread those 4 messages a bit further. Since the S.O.S button leads to the user’s Spot page, it is not restricted to the 140 character limit like the other buttons. I like to add some detailed trip itinerary and health history to give S&R some possible reasons that I may have hit the SOS button.

    • Andrew Skurka on January 1, 2016 at 9:14 am

      That’s a great suggestion. To clarify for others readers, on the SOS tab in your online profile, there is a box to include more information. I normally leave a detailed itinerary with my contacts so I’ve always felt that this was redundant, but in this situation maybe redundancy is a good thing.

  3. Tim Laurence on December 31, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    My system is very similar.

    Help=Similar, mine says “I am not going to die but I am not getting out soon.”. My wife knows that means send help but they don’t need to rush or put themselves at risk.
    Custom=Usually a nice message for my partner or sometimes it says I am done, come pick me up.

    The final rule is if there is no message don’t assume anything bad, the batteries or button my have failed.

  4. Paul Beiser on December 31, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks, Andrew, this is very useful and valuable!

  5. Łukasz on December 31, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    While walking across Iranian Zagros range, I set up “custom” message in similar way – “taking rest, everything OK”. But, knowing the reality of country, the “help” message was “accident, but not life-threatening, probably being arrested. Call embassy”.

    I have been arrested twice, but luckily, didn’t need to call for help 🙂

  6. Chrisjgilmore on January 1, 2016 at 1:07 am

    Well I just went with a delorme so I don’t have these limitations and with the ability to pair it with my iPhone I have even more capability.

    • Andrew Skurka on January 1, 2016 at 9:13 am

      Indeed, the 2-way messaging of the inReach can be immensely helpful. And a satellite phone is even better.

      Satellite communication is a case of good-better-best, and I would argue that there are plenty of frontcountry and backcountry users who will be well served by a SPOT Messenger despite its relatively limited capabilities. It’s impractical for trail runners, for example, to carry an 8-oz device. And backpackers who stay on high-use trails or in high-use areas really don’t *need* 2-way communication, unless they have good reason to think that those back home will need to reach them. For a fuller explanation of optimal use, read my long-term review of the Gen3.

  7. greyim on January 1, 2016 at 8:46 pm

    OK&Help another; Help&OK another; Morse or Binary code of OK & Help are also options depending on your whim

  8. Mika MF on April 30, 2019 at 10:08 am

    Thank you for sharing this!

    I’ve been using SPOT for a little over a couple of years, and my OK/Help/S.O.S. are about the same:

    OK: “All is well good night/Resuming my journey” — usually sent when i stop for the day, start in the morning, or cross a national border — it carries about the same spirit as what you described.

    Help: “I’m OK, but something happened and i cannot get out of here by myself. Please send some help” — same thing.

    I also understand the S.O.S. button in much the same way you do, although i’ve never had to use that or the Help button so far, thankfully.

    What was really helpful for me in this article was the way you use your custom message. So far, i’ve never been more than a couple of days from civilization, or even a whole day without seeing other people, so i was using the custom message as a cute note to my wife to trigger when i thought about her.

    I’m now preparing for a thru-hike of the Ukrainian arc of the Carpathians, and although i still expect to be close to help most of the time, this approach to the custom message could come in handy as my route may vary from what i told my wife to expect, or whatever.

    Thank you so much once again for sharing, and also to everybody who commented — i like the “Morse code” idea from greyim, and i’ve thought about something like that before, just never quite bothered coming up with a translation table.

  9. Nathalie on January 30, 2020 at 8:40 pm

    We have have our Help button currently linked to the S.O.V function so that we have access to off-road towing if needed. This is great, but now we’re missing the that ability to send a non-emergency help message if needed. Would you recommend using the custom message for this purpose?

  10. Dave on March 6, 2021 at 10:53 am

    We got a SPOT GEN4 for our son when he went on the Appalachian Trail. The tracker worked great for 2 days and then on the 3rd it quit tracking. Strangely, he can perform a message check in which shows his location, but the tracker function is not working on the internet portal interface. We spoke with him and the green lights are all on and look normal, i.e. location button, power, message indicator, all blinking green. Strange. I’ve spent all morning viewing YouTubes and on the SPOT website but I come up empty handed. They are closed weekends so can’t troubleshoot with company person. Any thoughts from a user would be much appreciated! Thank you

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