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Reviews > Communication Gear > SPOT Satellite Messenger > Test Report by Jason Boyle
Spot Satellite Messenger
Initial Report - November 22, 2007
Field Report - January 26, 2008
Long Term Report - April 4, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This concludes my Long Term Report. Thanks to Backpackgeartest.org and Spot for allowing me to participate in this test.
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