SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger for Backcountry Skiing – Review


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

There are a few items I carry on every outdoor trip I do, mostly survival gear. One of those is my SPOT emergency beacon, officially called a “SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger.” Me, I’ll just keep calling it a “beacon.”

Keeping out the weather and sending an OK signal. Heliotrope Ridge, Washington.

Spot beacons differ from most emergency beacons because they aren’t just an emergency beacon. They also have functions for less urgent situations. My original, first generation spot beacon had three buttons: one for 911, one for “help”, and one “OK” button. The 911 button goes to a call center, which will attempt to contact the correct authorities depending on your location. The “help” and “ok” buttons are user programmable, for non-emergency situations. The newer, smaller beacon has these, as well as a fourth button that can be custom programmed to send a message such as “need helicopter food drop.”

Spot beacon

I thankfully haven’t had to use my spot beacon in a real emergency involving the authorities. However, I’ve had it help me a few times, mostly when I’ve been back later than planned and I didn’t want to cause panic. Last year, on an early season ski descent of Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades, SPOT proved its usefulness. After a long day, we reached my car in the late evening. We packed it up, piled in, and I turned the key. Nothing. It tried to turn over a bit and died. I’d had a few issues starting my car in the cold recently, but had avoided spending any money to fix it. My laziness had come back to bite. We were now stuck 20 miles up a remote road, with no food and no way out. We tried push starting, and a few other things, but finally had to give up. I pressed the help button on my SPOT, and then we dozed for a few hours, not looking forward to the 20 mile walk the next morning. If we didn’t get my car out before the next storm, it would be stuck up there all winter — there was already a foot of snow on the ground.

I was a little skeptical the SPOT would work given we were in a deep valley, and even if it did, I wasn’t sure anyone would come, or even know what was up. Nonetheless I was hopeful.

We woke to headlights and someone knocking on the window. It was my friends, Henry, Jason and Coop! They had left at 7:00 PM, crashed their car on the icy road, and still made it to where we were by midnight. After an epic, car-mangling (it’s amazing how easy you can jerk a bumper off a truck), hilarious drive out, we made it back in time for Coop’s graduation party.

It wasn’t a life-threatening situation. I would have felt a little silly using the 911 feature on the SPOT, because we could have gotten out on our own (even if it would have been brutal and perhaps even dangerous depending on the weather). However, if my buddies had not shown up my car might have stayed up there all winter. It was the perfect time to be able to contact someone for help, just not the authorities.

SPOT comes with a few sets of instructions that stick onto the back. I put the Spanish version on for South America.

Of course, it’s great to have the safety net of the 911 function as well. Since I’ve never used it, I can’t comment much on how it works. From hearing about others using it, and being involved with mountain rescue, it’s my opinion that it’s much better than nothing, but not something that can be 100% relied upon. I’ll clarify. When you press the 911 button, the SPOT sends a message to a call center which attempts to notify the correct authorities. In the U.S. that’s usually the local sheriff, who in turn will notify mountain rescue if appropriate. That takes time. More, if you’re in a third or second world country it’s hard to know who the call center would notify of your plight, or how long you’d end up waiting for a rescue. Also, unfortunately the call center won’t have any info besides your location. With more information the rescue would tend to happen quicker with better chance of success. Thus, if I ever have to send a SPOT message, it will be hard to decide whether to hike out for help as well, or put all my trust in the beacon. (This is when a two-way communication solution such as the SPOT Connect product, satphone or a another brand satellite texting device may be worth their weight, complexity and cost.)

The Spot uses three AAA batteries. The old one used AA, which was different than most of the other devices I carry so I'm glad to be back to the ubiquitous AAA.

For me the combination of a 911 device combined with the ability to send a variety of messages is where the Spot beacon really shines. It’s also terrific to send an “OK” message to show people where you are having fun (and don’t forget the tracking feature, which shows your route on Google Maps). To have all that in such a small, durable package is impressive. I mean, this little thing only weighs 120 grams. Leave your car keys and phone behind and it’s a wash in terms of added weight.

See our other comprehensive SPOT posts.

SPOT is definitely something for your Christmas shopping list! Check here.

Comments

27 Responses to “SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger for Backcountry Skiing – Review”

  1. Glenn Sliva November 5th, 2012 10:42 am

    http://Www.n2yo.com and print out when the Global Star birds ore over the mountain horizons, their azimuth and elevation. You might be sending a signal to an empty sky and more importantly running your Spot batteries down. Check on which birds are Spot but I think they are Global Star.

  2. Jim November 5th, 2012 12:32 pm

    If you had your choice and budget was not the main issue, would you choose a satphone instead, ( as Lou does I think), for its flexibility, reliability and communication ability? I think I will.

  3. Lou Dawson November 5th, 2012 12:57 pm

    Jim, here is Lisa and my approach. Yes, we currently have a satphone I nearly always have with me. I kept it after Denali not only for backcountry recreation, but because I knew we’d be doing a lot of work on our backcountry land and we don’t have cell service or a phone up there. Since I’m on 24/7 with the website to deal with things like comment spam, folks who are helping me out can watch the website and send me a text to the satphone if they see anything awry. I can then hop in the truck and skedaddle back to the office. The satphone has its quirks. Very spotty connections in deep valleys, best to just do texting in those situations and even then it gets confusing what with the super crumby Iridium firmware in the 9555 phone I have. For example, if you have a total of more than 30 messages in your in and out boxes, the phone will not send or receive any more texts, only it doesn’t warn you this is the case! I could go on… for the money spent it’s tragic how bad it is. But the coverage over the world is so good I’ve been reluctant to try something else.

    And, we currently have a SPOT, which is much smaller and lighter than the phone and can be handed a friend as a loaner. The SPOT is perfect for going super light and much more durable and reliable than the Iridium 555. For example, if I was by myself and really hurt, getting some texting done on the satphone could be problematic. With the SPOT, you just get the thing out and push a button, then go back to trying to survive… Lou

  4. Lou Dawson November 5th, 2012 12:59 pm

    I’d add that if you tend to always carry your smartphone and have battery issues figured out, one of the paired texting devices can be a good option. inReach or SPOT But you have to carry your smartphone, and have the moisture and battery life issues taken care of or you might end up with a malfed system when you really need it.

  5. Louie Dawson November 5th, 2012 3:26 pm

    For me the small size and low weight is really were the Spot shines. If I found a Satphone that was a similar size I would be pretty interested, especially if budget wasn’t a concern. However if it wasn’t just as tiny and light, I probably wouldn’t carry it all the time. It’s probably the item in my pack that I use the least, so I want it to be as small and as light as possible.

  6. aaron trowbridge November 5th, 2012 3:58 pm

    I’ve had that SPOT for the last couple of years for skiing and ocean paddling trips and I’m happy with it. However, I use it in conjunction with a trip plan that includes VERY detailed instructions on my expectations for response to any particular message.

    For instance,

    -OK usually means a for your peace of mind check-in OR a pre-arranged trip plan overdue date has been exceeded and if you get an OK we are ok.

    -in the SOS message I include a note about what sort of skills/response is needed (avalanche, technical water rescue etc.) and a link to the trip plan (I post it on a Google Site with public permissions) which includes details about our skills, trip, equipment etc. so that the SAR folks have a good idea of what to expect and to send properly trained/equipped personnel. For bigger trips I insert a Google KMZ file in my trip plan that includes access and likely ski routes/camps. Should be enough to help with a speedy recovery. I also state something to the effect of that if we have pressed SOS it really means it, and we have sufficient skills to self rescue so the SOS really means send a helicopter with first aid support as this about medical evacuation, not avalanche rescue.

    -HELP means we are fine but need help with stuck/broken vehicle/sled etc. come as you have time…

    I’ve had one instance already with someone on my OK list who did not read the detailed instructions and thought an absence of OK/check-in meant to initiate a rescue. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed. Prep your help ahead of time!

    I’ve thought about the 2-way texting versions (delorame or SPOT) as I have a smartphone but the added complexity (batteries, Bluetooth) and cost are not worth it for me at this point.

  7. Dave Reed November 5th, 2012 4:02 pm

    Don’t forget that the SPOT only takes lithium type batteries, which I’ve found can actually be somewhat tough to track down in AAA form and are quite pricey!

  8. jed November 5th, 2012 4:09 pm

    I’m a SPOT fan too. I have used both this stand-alone version and the Connect. I find that with trip-specific plans (ie: “the ok msg means the skiing sucks” or “Ok means I got a deer and am hiking it out, custom msg means i wouldn’t complain of some help” etc) the regular one can be almost as clear as the smartphone-linked Connect. Incidentally, to clarify the above, the SPOT Connect can indeed send real-time customized messages (up to 41 characters, and it takes some time.) but not receive anything.

    Also, I can’t imagine that a SPOT-sized device, bluetoothed to a smartphone with full internet connectivity can be too far out. Basically a satellite antenna and modem that uses the phone’s interface. Seems the market could be far larger than outdoor rec, but perfectly applicable to us.

  9. aaron trowbridge November 5th, 2012 4:17 pm

    jed, Delorme inreach is in fact there http://www.inreachdelorme.com/. You can two way text message using your smartphone and satellite connection through the device. The inreach also functions very similar to the SPOT independent of the smartphone so you really have the best of both worlds, although you need to be able to justify the higher initial cost and usage plans.

  10. Lou Dawson November 5th, 2012 4:24 pm

    Folks, don’t overlook Joe’s excellent inReach review right here at little ol’ WildSnow.com http://www.wildsnow.com/7796/inreach-delorme-review-reach/

  11. Lisa November 5th, 2012 5:52 pm

    Speaking as a parent, I really appreciate Louie carrying the Spot, especially since I know how little things add quickly to pack weight. It gives us huge peace of mind to receive those “Okay” messages.

  12. AVIATOR November 5th, 2012 6:20 pm

    We can have it ALL with the latest rugged sat phones.

    Iridium Extreme is the SPOT but with Lou’s iridium sat phone built in, (hopefully with the bugs fixed)

    -Has the SOS one button SPOTfunctionality built in when you are so hurt you can’ t text

    -As rugged as the SPOT, MIL-STD-810F, IP65 water/moisture/low temp/shock/dust protected

    -247g
    New SPOT 147g, older SPOT 209g
    But with this you can ALWAYS leave your normal phone in the car which means you are SAVING weight compared to carrying smartphone and spot.

  13. AVIATOR November 5th, 2012 6:27 pm

    Lou, at some point could you explain when and why posts get stuck in moderation?
    When they are not too long, and have no links? Why?

  14. wyomingowen November 5th, 2012 6:46 pm

    how bout getting after a review of the new Pieps products please?

  15. DaveC November 5th, 2012 7:44 pm

    The Spot2 works fine with conventional batteries, runtime is just shorter.

  16. Lou Dawson November 5th, 2012 10:26 pm

    Av, a lot of reasons. We have a long list of stop words, both profanity and words common to spam. More, certain IP ranges are black listed and if a legit comment comes from those IPs it’ll trigger a false positive. Also some other technical stuff in WordPress about the commenter having a previous comment that’s been approved or not.

    There is no practical length limit, though I’d imagine there is something in there that would block a comment that had a ridiculous number of characters. As for links, I can set it to any limit, right now I think it’s two.

    Probably the most frustrating is the stop words, which include some fairly common ones. I tune that pretty frequently but it’s never perfect.

    Unfortunately, one of the ways we get punished for having a popular blog is that we get spam attacked. So some form of automated defense is essential, otherwise we’d have to sit in front of the computer screen every second of every 24 hours defending.

    As for how long comments get held, that has to do with how often we can sit at the computer and check for false-positive moderated comments. We try to catch them quick, but ones that get held at night or during weekends may not get released for a while.

    Another confusing thing is that sometimes I turn off all moderation as an experiment to see what might be coming in, as we do have a black list that results in automatic deletion for comments with some of the more politically incorrect and heinous hate words and vulgarity. Fortunately, so far we get little to none of that sort of garbage coming in.

    Lastly, very seldom (once every few months) someone writes an attack comment that for some reason gets held, usually by the profanity filter. We deal with those in a variety of ways, but usually by holding in moderation as the first step.

    Let me apologize for all the false positives that get held up, and just say that there are other places on the web to discuss skiing with nearly zero moderation if our style doesn’t work for your needs. But don’t let anyone fool you, I don’t know of one forum or blog that would allow any and all sorts of speech.

  17. Lou Dawson November 6th, 2012 8:56 am

    Wyoming, I’ve been trying to get a Pieps Globalfinder for review. I’ll revisit that issue this morning. Thanks for the reminder. ‘best, Lou

  18. Timmyp November 6th, 2012 9:07 am

    I recently went through the whole exercise of picking an emergency satellite beacon and seriously considered the SPOT options. However, I choose the ACR Rescue Link Plus which is 406MHz “Personal Locator Beacon”. As such it is not monitored by a call center which will “attempt” to help you, but by COSPAS-SARSAT a global intergovernmental organization.

    Have you guys here at Wildsnow considered these type of beacons much or compared them to SPOT and Sat-phones?

    We picked the ACR unit for a variety of reasons including that it is especially useful for offshore sailing and alerting the Coast Guard. However, we actually purchased it right before a backcountry trip into Glacier NP, and plan to carry it on all future ski trips. Its ability to do the nice “I’m OK” communications with friends is certainly much more limited (but possible) but its ultimate reliability for an actual emergency and that it has no regular use fees and is unlikely to become outdated all helped us choose.

    Not trying to say it is better than SPOT but just curious if serious backcountry skiers are also carrying anything on the 406MHz band?

    Cheers,
    ~Tim
    PS – This is my first post here, yes I am a newbe!

  19. Lou Dawson November 6th, 2012 10:07 am

    Hi Tim, thanks for commenting and welcome to the land of Wild Snow!

    Most backcountry recreators I know really value the at least semi two-way communication options of units such as SPOT, and the newer units such as Globalfinder look to be the solution. The main problem with no real two-way comm (asside from helping figure out false signals), as Louie alludes to, is you have no idea of what actions are being taken on your behalf back in civilization, and for best decision making in the field you need to know those actions. I mean, how tragic if you left your hurt partner to go get help because you were not sure if your SPOT communication had any results, only to get hurt yourself or not be there to help your partner survive during the wait — only to find out the rescue was on its way…

    But back to false/accidental SOS calls. A device with two-way comm obviates that problem, which is getting huge. More, a two-way comm device allows authorities to say NO to calls from people in situations such as being stuck in their driveway and other non-emergency situations.

    Lou

  20. Terry November 6th, 2012 8:05 pm

    Lou, I’m wondering who your satphone service provider is? I haven’t used satphone and didn’t realize connections are sometimes spotty as you mention. I’ve been looking at Globalstar’s unlimited plan for $40/month. This price would have been unimaginable a few years ago. They advise using their online tool to calculate, depending on where one is, the best times to make calls – http://calltimes.globalstarusa.com/

  21. Roger Artigues November 6th, 2012 9:06 pm

    Just wanted to remind everyone not to rely 100% on any one piece of electrical gear. These things do break. This summer my wife was sending almost daily OK messages until one day I got a sat call instead. Her SPOT had stopped working and she didn’t want me to worry once I stopped getting OKs. They were able to continue their kayak trip because they also had an ACR PLB and irridium phone.

  22. AVIATOR November 7th, 2012 1:38 am

    @Terry

    For mountain use in america you have two options.
    Iridium or Globalstar.
    Lou’s phone is Iridium, SPOT is Globalstar.

    Here’s my two cents:

    They are all cheaper then they used to be, main reason is the original companies that invested billions in the sats went bankrupt.
    Current sat phone providers bought the remains for pennies.

    Spotty connection in deep valleys is more or less the same for both, forget voice calls, you have to rely on text and even then you often have to wait for a sat to fly by.
    Voice call is for top of the mountain and more open terrain.

    Globalstar sats always rely on ground stations, when the sats are not in contact with one they are useless, hence they don’t cover Africa, Asia, the poles, the oceans.

    Iridium sats can communicate with each other without ground stations so they work all the time, hence they cover every single inch of the globe.

    Globalstar fly high (900 miles up) so they have more latency from that.
    Iridium fly low (450 miles up) but bit rate is lower so sound quality is worse.

    Globalstar have technical (and financial?) problems, texting and SPOT works fine, but voice and data not so much, at least not everywhere and not all the time, due to old dying sats.
    They have been working on fixing that for years.
    I think this is the reason they offer cheap deals.

    Both of them claim that they are rolling out the next generation of satellites.
    Realistically this is gonna take decades not years, no matter what they claim, also it was that kind of multi billion dollar investment that killed the original companies in the first place…

  23. AVIATOR November 7th, 2012 1:45 am

    @Terry

    About the Globalstar online tool, from what I understand it’s not about finding the time when the quality is best, it’s about finding a time when placing a call is possible at all…

  24. Terry November 8th, 2012 10:58 am

    Thank you, Aviator! Good info!!

  25. Ern November 19th, 2012 3:07 pm

    There are four satphone constellations serving the US and Australia. Inmarsat appears to be more reliable than Iridium. Globalstar should be up to scratch given the satellites added in the last couple of years.

    We’re now seeing the development of hybrid units: cell/sat., sat/PLB etc.

    My IsatPone Pro allows 2 way comms plus has a single button msg option that includes coords.

    Satphones are getting smaller and call costs are getting cheaper, so with the hybrid functions they look to be the future.

    I carry one on outback car trips while solo ski trips see the Spot in the pack.

    Aaron is quite right: to get the best out of the Spot you need supplementary info available to your home contacts.

  26. AVIATOR November 19th, 2012 4:41 pm

    @Ern

    As far as I know there are three in the US.
    Iridium, Globalstar, Imarsat.
    Which is the forth?

    For mountain use, the options are Iridium and Globalstar.
    The Inmarsat satellites are stationary over the equator, hence not suitable for mountain use.
    The further north you are, the lower the sats will sit on the southern horizon.
    On a steep northern slope or in a deep valley north of a mountain, Inmarsat will be useless.
    No matter how long you wait, you will never get your emergency text through.
    With Globalsat or Iridium you will in most cases, even if you have to wait for a sat to fly by.

    Globalstar are up to scratch when it comes to text/spot messages.
    For voice and data the services are still crippled.

  27. Lou Dawson November 19th, 2012 5:42 pm

    I picked Iridium because it’s the standard for Denali expeditions, and because it has global coverage and I suspect my work might take me to regions hither and yon… Nonetheless, Iridium’s coverage when you’re in a steep sided valley, anywhere, leaves a LOT to be desired. You have to wait till you have bars, then figure you may only have two or three minutes. Texting is the only way that’s sort of reliable, but even it is dicey because the latest Iriduium firmware _still_ does not automatically resend a failed message, and if you don’t have bars when you send your text, it will fail. AND, when you’re texting it doesn’t show the bars on the LCD !!! It’s a $1,000+ phone and it can’t even show the connection bars when you’re texting. Just amazingly bad. I mean, what kind of morons do they have designing these things? I am hoping, fervently hoping, that either inReach or the new Pieps sat solution may be my better choices. But the need to haul a smartphone around in the mountains, with limited battery life, is not attractive… I’ve got a SPOT as well and the tiny thing is sure attractive, but lack of two-way comm seems like such a nightmare if something bad really does happen…

    Lou

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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