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Reviews > Communication Gear > SPOT Satellite Messenger > Test Report by Jason Boyle

Spot Satellite Messenger

Test Series

Initial Report - November 22, 2007
Field Report - January 26, 2008
Long Term Report - April 4, 2008

Tester Information:
Name: Jason Boyle
Age: 30
Gender: Male
Height: 5' 6"/ 1.68 m
Weight: 180 lb/ 82 kg
Email address: c4jc "at" hotmail "dot" com
City, State, Country: Snoqualmie, Washington, U. S.

Backpacking Background:
I have been camping and backpacking for about 19 years. My introduction to the outdoors started with the Boy Scouts of America and has continued as an adult. I have hiked mostly in the Southeastern and Northeastern United States. I am generally a lightweight hiker, but will carry extras to keep me comfortable. I currently reside in the Pacific Northwest and spend most of my time hiking and backpacking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, but I can be found exploring the other wild areas of Washington!

Product Information:
Color: Orange and Black
Year of Manufacture: 2007
Listed weight: 7.37 oz (209 g)
Measured weight: 7.35 oz (208 g) with lithium batteries
Listed Dimensions: 4.38 X 2.75 X 1.5” (11 x 7 x 4 cm) confirmed accurate
MSRP: $169.99 for the unit and $99.99 for the one year satellite service subscription

Spot at Melakwa Lake

Product Description:
The Spot Satellite Messenger (from now on just Spot or unit) is about the size of a PDA or Blackberry style cell phone but twice as thick. The case is made of an orange molded plastic on the front and back and the sides are a rubberized material that has 5 little nubs on each side for better grip. There is also an orange belt clip on the back. The back of the unit has three flat head screws with wire bails that can be used to turn them. The top screw holds the belt clip in place and the bottom two screws hold the back of the battery closure on. The battery closure has a rubber gasket to help keep the enclosure waterproof. The front of the unit has 4 rubberized buttons and a corresponding small green led above each rubber button. The two outside buttons are small round circles; the middle two buttons are half ellipses and are larger than the buttons on the outside. The outside buttons are the emergency buttons, help on the left and 911 on the right. The inner left button is the “on/off button” and the inner right button is the “ok” button.

The Spot offers three functions with their basic service program and a fourth function for an additional fee. The three main functions are Check In, Ask for Help and 911. The Check In function allows the user to send a customized message to one or more email addresses or text a cell phone. The message provides the user's coordinates, latitude and longitude, and also displays the coordinates on a Google Earth map. The “Ask for Help” function allows the user to send a customized message to one or more email addresses or text a cell phone of a person or persons who can help the user. This function like all of the other functions provides the user’s coordinates and a picture representation via Google Earth. The third function is a “911” function. It sends a distress message to GEOS International Emergency Response Center who then contacts emergency responders in the user’s local area. The fourth function, which can be purchased for a $49.99 fee, is a “track progress” function. The unit will send a GPS signal every 10 minutes for 24 hours or until the unit is turned off. This signal is tracked on Google maps and shows the user’s track. The above comments are only a brief summary; the Spot website does a great job explaining each function in depth.

Initial Report – November 21, 2007


Initial Impressions:
I am intrigued by the Spot and even though the marketing of the Spot being used in survival scenes is a bit over the top, I think it has to possibility of providing a good service for backpackers like me who often hike solo. The unit is fairly dense, but doesn’t seem overly bulky and I should be able to attach it to my pack’s shoulder straps or hip belt using the included belt clip. It fits nicely in the palm of my hand and I like that they used two different types of buttons for the functions. This should allow the user to identify the “Help” and “911” buttons in an emergency or in a situation with little to no light. I am interested to see how well the GPS antenna works in the unit. Based on my previous experiences, GPS’ don’t always work well on the western side of the Cascades due to the heavy tree cover.

Spot recommends using only Lithium batteries in the unit and there are several stickers/warnings on the unit to remind the user. They also claim that the unit is waterproof down to one meter (3 feet) and that the unit will float. I hope the weather in the Northwest cooperates and provides me the opportunity to test the unit in the rain and snow, but I won’t purposefully try to see if the unit will float. The proposed battery life seems reasonable: 14 days using the “track progress” function, 7 consecutive days using the “911” function, and 1900 messages using the “Check In” function

The Spot comes with a 1 year limited warranty which covers defects in materials or workmanship of the unit only. The unit can be sent back and repaired at a cost to the user if there is a problem caused by wear and tear. There is no warranty that the GPS will work or have coverage. They do offer a $100,000 search and rescue benefit through Lloyds of London for $7.95 a year if purchased when the unit is initially activated or $150 dollars a year if purchased after initial activation. I look forward to getting the Spot into the Backcountry and seeing how well it works.

Trying out the Check In function at home

Field Report – January 26, 2008

The jury is certainly still out on this piece of gear. I think the concept is great, and that feature set is spot on for what I want as an outdoor enthusiast, but the actual functionality of the Spot has been limited thus far. I have not received a message from the Spot that was transmitted during any hike on the western side of the Cascades. The success has been either at my truck before a hike, and during a car camping trip in the less densely forested eastern side of the Cascades.

Field Conditions:
I used the Spot on five trips over the past couple of months. I will go into detail about each of the locations in the paragraphs below. I think it is important to understand the terrain and forest type that the Spot was used in to understand the current capabilities of the item.

Typical view of Western Cascades forests (with a ski resort in the background)

Trip 1 – Melakwa Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Western Cascades: Temperatures ranged from 40 F to 25 F (4 C to -4 C), there was light rain for the first two hours of the hike. The elevation at our destination was 4500’ (1370 m). The trail to the lake starts off in dense boreal forest dominated by large Douglas Fir trees, then reaches the open slopes of a “v” shaped valley. The trail reaches and climbs the valley headwall then drops down into the lake basin that is surrounded by large peaks in the 6000’ (1800 m) range. I used the track progress function the entire hike to and from the lake, and additionally laid the Spot flat on the rock that is pictured in the beginning of the report and used the Check In function. I followed all directions for using the two functions and at no time during this trip did the Spot ever connect with the satellites and send a message back to my account.

Trip 2 – Lake Easton State Park, just east of Snoqualmie Pass, on the eastern crest of the Cascades: This was a car camping trip in a local state park not far off of the highway. The tree cover was still dominated by Douglas Fir trees, although it was not as dense as other places and we were camped on the edge of a large lake. Temperatures ranged from 29 F to 18 F (-2 C to -8 C) under a clear sky with only a slight breeze. Elevation was about 3000’ (900 m). I laid the Spot on a picnic table, under the trees and used the Check In and Track Progress functions. Both functions worked well and sent multiple messages to my account based on the function I was testing.

Trips 3 and 4 – Snoqualmie Ridge nature trails in the foothills of the western Cascades: These are local hiking trails in my neighborhood and each trip was about 5 miles (8 km) long and included some walking on residential streets. The trail featured hiking through young Douglas Fir dominated forest, clear cut areas, and residential streets. Temperatures were around freezing with misting rain. Elevation ranged from 600’ to 1000’ (180 m to 300 m). I used the Track Progress function while hiking and the unit never connected or sent a message even while on the residential streets. I had tested the Check In function in my alley by laying it flat on my driveway before I left and the unit connected and sent a message to my account so the unit already knew where it was at before I started the hike.

Trip 5 – Gold Creek Sno Park, Snoqualmie Pass, Mt Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest: This is a groomed sno park that is maintained by the National Forest. The trails are on snow covered forest roads with the surrounding forest a mix of older Douglas Fir trees, clear cut areas and various in between states of tree cover. Temperature was around freezing with light snow. Elevation was around 3000’ (900 m). I set the Spot on the hood of the truck and sent a Check In message to my account while I was getting my gear ready. The truck was parked on a Forest Service road next to the main interstate through Snoqualmie Pass. The Check In message went through to my account. However during this snowshoe the Spot came off of my shoulder strap where I had stored it for each of my previous hikes and became buried in the snow somewhere along the trail. Neither of my hiking partners saw it fall off and I was either breaking trail in fresh powder or following in the second spot. Once we realized it had fell off my shoulder strap we searched for it and thought the bright orange case would be easy to see but we never found it and the next day when I was going to go look again it snowed 12” to 18” (30 cm to 45 cm) removing any chance I had of finding the Spot until spring.

I am torn by the results of this product. I think the concept is great and I want it to work, but so far the results are not favorable for the Cascades where I normally hike. Two weeks after my hike to Melakwa Lake, there were four people stranded at the lake when they hiked in on a Friday night and then were walloped with a storm that dumped around 2-3 feet (60 cm to 90 cm) of fresh snow. It then turned to rain making the conditions extremely hazardous as there are major avalanche slopes that have to be crossed on the way to the lake. They were eventually rescued by a Search and Rescue team on Tuesday, but their status was unknown until the SAR team reached them. If I were to find myself in that situation I would like to let my wife know I was ok until the weather cleared rather than having her worry that I was hurt or dead.

The unit is simple to use. The buttons are easy to push and the flashing led’s are not overly complicated. Hitting the “Check In” button causes the unit to send the “Check In” message, holding the same button down for five second causes the “Track Progress” function to operate. Nothing overly complicated here, although a small LCD screen would make it more clear what mode the unit actually was in.

The case was durable. It hung on my pack sternum or shoulder strap the entire time and looked brand new. I left the unit exposed in light rain and snow and the unit still functioned properly despite the elements. The rubberized side grip was easy to grasp with or without gloves on and never felt overly heavy when I held it in the palm of my hand. The belt clip which is held in place by one of the flathead screws had begun to loosen itself over time allowing the belt clip to be sloppy and not stay securely in place. I think this might have attributed to the Spot coming off of my shoulder strap at Gold Creek. I stumbled several times while breaking trail and I think it came off during that time. I have received a replacement unit, but it took a month to get the unit due to the Spot’s popularity

The lack of reception is a bugger. The Cascades are known for dense forests and deep glacier carved valleys and as a solo hiker it is just as important to me to be able to check in with my wife when I am hiking down a rainforest river as it is when I am on the slopes of a Cascade Volcano. Historically, early GPS antennas had a hard time getting reception in the Cascades and I think that the Spot will continue to have trouble with the older patch antenna that is used until they upgrade to a better antenna.

However, I have two months of testing left and lots of trips to take with my Spot. I am heading to the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota in the beginning of February and have other trips planned for the Cascades as well.

Long Term Report – April 4, 2008

After four months of use in both the Cascades of Washington and in Northern Minnesota, I have determined the Spot doesn’t work for me. The “Track Progress” function has not worked on any trip. The only time I received any messages was using the “Check In” function while at the trailhead or while sitting on a frozen lake. I think the Spot is a great concept, but for me it doesn’t work where I hike and is destined to be left behind the next time I go out.

Field Conditions:
I have used the Spot on four more trips over the last two months. Like I did in my Field Report, I will outline the trips, conditions, and locations below:

Trip 1 – Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota: Temperatures ranged from 8 F to 32 F (-13 C to 0 C) with light fluffy snow and cloudy conditions over this four day backpacking trip. Elevation change was pretty non existent mostly going up and down over some portage trails. The trail conditions consisted of mostly dense boreal forest and open frozen lakes. The Spot “Check In” function worked sitting on a frozen Rose Lake, but the “Track Progress” function did not work at any point over the trip. Several of the lakes we crossed where over a mile long (1.6 km) and I placed the unit facing up in the top of my pack where I hoped to receive the best reception for the patch antenna. I am not sure why it didn’t work, but I felt that this would have been the best opportunity for it to work.

Trip 2 – Tiger Mountain State Forest, Cascade Foothills, Western Washington: Temperatures ranged from 38 F to 42 F (3 C to 5 C), with a light rain falling during this day hike. Elevation peaked out at 2500 feet (762 m) on the summit. The forest was mostly young growth Douglas Fir that had been logged in the last century. I used the “Track Progress” function while hiking for over 2 hours and didn’t once receive a signal or have any messages waiting on me when I returned home.

Trip 3 – Crystal Mountain Ski Resort, Western Cascades Washington: Temperatures ranged from 32 F to 45 F (0 C to 7 C) with mostly sunny conditions during this day long ski trip. Elevation was 4000 feet (1219 m) at the base. I set the Spot on the hood of my truck and pressed the “Check In” button and then promptly forgot to take it with me up the mountain. Fortunately, when I returned to my truck after a day of skiing the Spot was still there and it had sent a “Check In” message.

Trip 4 – Hannegan Pass, North Cascades, Washington: Temperatures ranged from 20 F to 32 F (-7 C to 0 C) elevation ranged from 1800’ to 4000’ (549 m to 1219 m) with sporadic snow showers resulting in about 2-3” (5 to 8 cm) of fresh snow each night of this three day snowshoeing trip. The forest was a combination of second growth Douglas Fir and Cedar. The trail was a forest service road to the summer trailhead and off trail snowshoeing through a hanging glacial valley where we stepped carefully around avalanche debris. Our campsite was in a large clearing that serves as the summer parking lot at the trailhead. I was able to send “Check In” messages from the clearing, but no “Track Progress” messages where sent while snowshoeing.

My opinion hasn’t changed since my Field Report. I have not been able to get the Spot to work while in a valley or while hiking through dense forest. If I was in a clearing, I was able to get the “Check In” function to work and based on that I would expect the “Help” and “911” functions to work. However since I don’t just hike in clearings, I don’t think the Spot is that useful. Like I have mentioned previously, I think this is a great concept, but technology used in the Spot just doesn’t work for my hiking and backpacking areas. My recommendation for the Spot Company would be to update their GPS antenna to the most powerful one available and work on adding some user tools that allow the user to know if a message has been sent. I think they are close to having a great product but are not there yet.

This concludes my Long Term Report. Thanks to and Spot for allowing me to participate in this test.

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Reviews > Communication Gear > SPOT Satellite Messenger > Test Report by Jason Boyle

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