There were three reasons why I recently decided to start carrying a SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger; to be able to check in remotely to let my family know that I am safe, to have a way to signal for help in the event of an emergency, and to track the progress of my hikes on a map. I'm disappointed to say that of the two features I've been able to use on a regular basis it has fallen far short of my expectations and I'm seriously lacking confidence in the third and probably most important feature. Let me take a look at them one at a time and explain why I'm less than impressed by this product.
Remote 'Check-in/OK' Messages
After having some issues last year with acute mountain sickness (AMS) during my hike of Mt. Whitney, my wife insisted that I take something with me that would allow me to check in remotely throughout the hike to let her and my kids know that I was okay. Personal location beacons, while a more professional solution, do not typically provide that type of messaging capability. The SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger was the most obvious and probably best know choice. I particularly liked that I could custom configure two different messages using the Check-in/OK and Custom Message buttons. One for an ad-hoc messaging (check-in/ok) along the trail and one for when I settled down for the night and set up camp (custom message).
So, that's exactly how I configured the two buttons and throughout my hike I made sure to use the buttons at regular intervals to let my wife know that things we going okay and that I was fine. I also made sure that the indicator lights showed that the messages had been successfully sent.
I later discovered that the messages I had sent did not go out in real time or even close to real time despite the indicators lights on the device showing that they had been successfully sent. It turned out that two days worth of messages (at least six check-ins) didn't arrive until the third of my hike and then all at the same time or within minutes of each other. If the SPOT service is batch processing the messages, which is how it would appear to be working based on my Mt. Whitney hike and several others, why on earth am I paying for this service? This is not how I want or how I expected the product to function based on the sales description and instructions.
Another feature of SPOT that I liked was the ability to turn on automatic tracking (Track Progress) via GPS at regularly spaced intervals for up to 24 hours. On some of my more adventurous hikes I've always wanted to have an accurate account of exactly where I went, how long it took me, and what my pace was. As many of your may already know I do this via old school pencil, map, and paper right now so it's not as if I can't go back and chart my progress accurately, but I thought this might be a good opportunity to let advancements in technology help me to do that more easily - after all I'm a technology guy by day.
The SPOT tracking progress feature, once activated (it's a separate paid service), will send information about your position (way point) every 10 minutes along the trail until it is turned off or once 24 hours has passed, thereby creating an accurate trace of your hiking progress throughout the entire day. At key points along my route I send “check-in/ok” messages as mentioned above which temporarily suspends the tracking service until the messages has been sent. The interruption in tracking has never been an issue for me as my check-ins are typically at rest stops and the tracking is only suspended for one 10-minute cycle typically.
The problem I have with SPOT's track progress function, and others had warned me about this, is that it is temperamental. Specifically, there are times when for no apparent reason there will be enormous gaps in the tracking data for hours on end, which completely defeats the purpose of having a tracking function. The first time I experienced this, and you have no way of knowing until you're home and have finished your hike, was along a section of the Appalachia Trail. I had the SPOT device attached to my backpack's shoulder straps and in hindsight think that the physical positioning of the device may have been too low on the straps causing interference with the satellite signal. There was also heavy tree coverage along the trail, so I attributed the “spotty service” (pun intended) to user error.
A subsequent section hike of the AT with fellow blogger Stick and his friend Joe resulted in equally poor tracking data despite adjusting the positioning of the SPOT device on my shoulder strap so that it was much higher up and (I hoped) able to send a good satellite signal. There were still a lot trees, so I assumed, although I was frustrated by this time, that the trees were the problem. Again, the disappointment wasn't fully realized until I had gotten home and looked online.
During my most recent hike on Mt. Whitney I used my SPOT II again, but had gone one step further and modified my Gorilla backpack to accommodate the device on the top cover of my pack so that it had a clear view of the sky other than if there was tree cover, which on the Whitney portal trail is only at the beginning. However, the tracking data is filled with gaps and as I mentioned above the check-in/ok and custom messages weren't delivered until days later. Could the problem be that SPOT uses a combination of their own satellite network and the GEOS International Emergency Response Center to route their traffic, whereas other more expensive devices use the more reliable Iridium satellite network?
And I've not even mentioned how basic and unintuitive the SPOT website is for viewing the map data. Selecting tracking points to display is clunky with poor/inconsistent check-box options and why is there no elevation data captured as part of the tracking function? My Garmin watch does a better job than the SPOT does, unfortunately the battery on my Garmin only lasts for 8 hours otherwise it would replace the tracking feature of SPOT in a heartbeat.
SOS | Signaling for Emergency Help
The last reason I wanted to start carrying a SPOT II GPS Messenger was so that in the event of a life threatening or other critical emergency I would have a way to notify emergency services of my exact location and signal that I needed assistance. Luckily I have never had to test this function (and yes I paid for the insurance), but based on my experience with the other SPOT services and their reliability I'm extremely concerned that this may not be the device that could save my life in an emergency situation. That's a big problem.
I've wanted to try a SPOT II device for quite some time, hoping all along that the reports I had read of poor coverage or gaps in service were isolated incidents or user error that wouldn't happen in my case. Wrong! I'm disappointed in the reliability of the SPOT services for sending check-in/ok messages to loved ones and reliably capturing tracking data. I'm frustrated that the SPOT website feels like using mapping technology from the late 90s. I don't want to have to fight with a user interface that feels like MapQuest when I'm used to the ease of use of sites provided by Garmin and RunKeeper. Most importantly I've lost confidence in SPOTs ability to send that one critical message to summon emergency services when my life of that of someone else's relies upon it.
I want to leave you with a link to a gear review posted recently on ITS Tactical for the CerberLink GPS tracker from BriarTek. From all accounts the CerberLink is what I had expected the SPOT II Messenger to be. Unfortunately it doesn't come close.
Do you own a SPOT II GPS Messenger and, if so, what do you think of it? Have you had the same experience with it as I have, or does it work fine for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts about SPOT or recommendations on alternative devices for tracking my hikes and checking in along the trail - if there are any alternatives?
Disclosure: The author (Brian Green) was given the SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger as a Father's Day gift by his wife and children.