Someday, the world is going to bend you over. You think you'll be ready, but you won't. Your snowmobile breaks down miles from civilization, a shifting boulder traps your arm, or a mountain lion decides one of your hiking troop is a tasty snack. If you spend enough time exploring the edges of the map you're going to find yourself taking a backseat to destiny.
The SPOT Gen3 satellite messenger is 4 ounces of ass-saving technology that uses the Globalstar constellation of low-earth-orbiting satellites to transmit GPS location and canned messages to family, friends, social networks, and — in the gravest extreme — the GEOS international rescue service.
With SPOT, you're able to email or text three preset, 110-character long messages to a user-defined recipient list administered using SPOT's website. A fourth message is an SOS alert that sends identity and precise location information to the GEOS service, initiating an emergency response.
Running the device is straightforward. It's got one button for each job. There's no need for Konami-Code-level memorization. To send one of the four preset messages, press and hold the corresponding button until the LED above it tells you it's working. Same drill when it comes to activating or deactivating the device's tracking mode.
Pressing one uncovered button sends the “I'm OK” message, pushing another sends a custom message. The other two buttons send help messages and have a little flap to guard against accidental activation. One marked with cute little hands sends a message that tells recipients that you could use some help dealing with a nonlife-threatening situation. The other covered button, marked SOS, sends your identity and location to the GEOS command center telling them to activate the nearest search-and-rescue assets.
The ability to let family and friends know how things are going and SOS features are great features on their own, but the real beauty of the SPOT Gen3 is the tracking feature. Turn it on and the unit drops bread crumbs on a Google maps-enabled web page that's easily accessed via a link sent in every message. Depending on the level of service you've paid for, the web page is updated with your current position at 2.5-, 5-, 10-, 30-, or 60-minute intervals. The service allows per-page password protection and up to 10 pages per device. You can choose different levels of message detail to share and even share the location of several SPOT devices on a single map. This is handy if you've got a few people on an expedition. Set up a page showing everyone's progress, or make individual pages so each team member's parents or fans can track just them.
Activating the unit is pretty painless. Go to www.findmespot.com and punch in the numbers found inside the unit's battery compartment and choose a service plan.
The Basic service is $150 a year and offers 10-minute tracking intervals, messaging, and SOS response. The $200 Unlimited service unlocks 5-, 10-, 30-, or 60-minute tracking intervals and the $300 Extreme service adds the option of 2.5-, 5-, 10-, 30-, or 60-minute tracking intervals. You can pay monthly, but it'll cost a bit more; and there's no option for month-to-month service. A year is the minimum term for all services.
Once you're paid up, customize the messages then add a list of email addresses and text numbers the device's messages should go to. Lastly, give SPOT your contact info so GEOS can contact you in the event of an SOS button press to confirm the need for a full-blown rescue response. You can also adjust the tracking frequency and add Facebook and Twitter accounts to update when you hit the device's OK button.
Since the Globalstar satellites are low earth orbiting, the device only needs to transmit a low-power signal (less than 500 milliwatts) to the reach them. This low power requirement is great for power conservation.
But, the ability of this signal to reach one of orbiting satellites overhead is dependent on the same factors that limit GPS signal reception. Dense tree canopy and canyoning can block the signal and increase power consumption as the GPS chip searches for a signal. It's important to note SPOT communication is one-way, and despite the flashing green LEDs, there's no way to know if your message actually got to the satellite.
To save power, the device contains a movement sensor and only sends tracking updates when you're moving. The four lithium AAAs in our test unit ran for three all-day hikes, transmitting location data every 10 minutes with a few OK check-ins thrown in without putting a dent in the batteries. We tracked our path around town for four more days while running errands, tracked a horse's movement for a day around his pasture, and skied two more days with it and the batteries were still in the green. We never saw the battery LED flash red.
We figure, setting the device to the 30- or 60-minute tracking interval, the SPOT Gen3 could run for nearly a month on a single set of batteries. Turning off tracking and only using the device to send OK or HELP/SOS messages would net months of use. For even more extended use or more frequent updates, the device can be powered through its USB port.
Our hikes were tracked faithfully on SPOT's website. The tracking points indicated position without speed, but lines connected the dots and gave an indication of direction.
The antenna is in on the front face and SPOT says it should be pointed up with a clear view of the sky for best GPS reception and tracking/messaging transmission. Messages were all sent successfully and nearly all the generated emails and texts arrived within a minute of pushing a button. To see how it'd do in adverse conditions, we hit the HELP button with the device purposely positioned face down at the bottom of a pack while we ate lunch in a deep gully. As expected, the unit had trouble getting a signal out, but it didn't give up. The transmission made it after about 30 minutes with the unit still in the pack once we took it out of the gully. Other than our abuse, the unit had no trouble doing its appointed duty.
One thing we didn't like about the SPOT Gen3 is the need for the website to change message content, recipients, and the tracking frequency. In the age of the smartphone, it seems ridiculous that we couldn't adjust these settings using the SPOT smartphone app. The iPhone app only allowed us to track the unit on a map and receive messages.
Overall, the device was worth the space it took up in our pack. It worked as advertised and gave us and our relations a sense of security that's unobtainable outside the cellphone coverage area. The $150 price tag seems reasonable, though infrequent adventurers may find the subscription fee tough to swallow.
Make & Model
4 ounces with batteries
75-percent global coverage using the Globalstar satellite network
– GPS assisted emergency beacon
– One-way satellite messaging
– Near real-time position tracking via website and mobile app
Required, $150/year minimum