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expatriate's picture
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Location: Arizona
Joined: 10/26/2002
Posts: 3207
SPOT Satellite Tracker

With a little planning, there is little excuse nowadays not to have the means of getting yourself out of trouble. Assuming, of course, there's a cel phone tower in range.

Alaska is different. Last fall I went on a fly-in brown bear hunt an took along an AM/FM radio to have a link to the outside world and possibly hear weather alerts. When I turned it on, all I heard from one end of the dial to the other was "Hsssssssss..." Even on the AM dial. Forget cel phones...when was the last time you couldn't get an AM radio station? Thankfully we rented a satellite phone...but that gets expensive real quick.

As every hunter knows, it doesn't take much to kill you if you aren't careful. In Alaska, it doesn't just kill you; it goes Jeffry Dahmer on you. That's why I take great care to use good gear and have the means to spend the night and get home no matter what the circumstance -- which is why I bought a SPOT personal locator beacon (PLB).

SPOT is the size of a typical GPS, and uses combination of GPS and Globalstar sat phone radio to reach to the outside world. Satellite beacons are nothing new; for example, the ACR Terrafix has been on the market for some time. What makes a difference is how it works. A typical PLB represents the nuclear option when it comes to being in trouble. Pushing the button is like dialing 911. At that point, the whole world is going to be looking for you and you're going to get rescue helicopters. That's great if you're laying there with your legs pinned under a tree -- but not so great if you just locked your keys in the truck.

SPOT gives you options. You can push the "911" button and go nuclear if you want. But it also gives you the option of pressing the "help" button, which will send an email or text message (that you wrote ahead of time for such a contingency) to friends, family, etc. That message also includes your GPS coordinates and a link to a Google Maps website that shows your position on either a road map, terrain map, satellite photo, or hybrid. This gives you the option to have friends come bail you out instead of Search & Rescue -- which for most people will mean that you'll ask for help far sooner, rather than waiting until you're at death's door.

You can also customize an "I'm OK" message to send to people, which keeps you from sending out search and rescue if you're running late. And finally, there's a tracking function you can buy which will send out a position hit every 10 minutes to the people you designate, who can then go to the map site and track your progress.

I've had mine for a month and have put it to the test. I'm sold; it's a good product. It'd be nice if it let you build text messages in the field, but that would undoubtedly be outrageously expensive. Instead, you use their website to configure what the messages will say before you leave. It's all pretty straightforward.

In terms of performance, I've really put it to the test. The big thing to know up front is that it's a GPS -- you need to have a view of the sky. So forget about putting it in the trunk of your car as a poor-man's LoJack, etc. If you look at the SPOT website, they have a map that shows their coverage areas. It pretty much covers all the land area in the northern hemisphere, except for extremes like parts of Alaska, etc. That's where I come in -- I live at the edge of their coverage in the interior.

When I bought the unit in Oklahoma City, it worked flawlessly. Every hit came through right on the money as I drove around with the thing on the dash. Up here by Fairbanks, it's a different story. I bought the tracker function (an extra $49.95 a year), and that has been spotty. In tracker mode, every ten minutes it gets a position fix from GPS, and transmits it to the satellite. So two things need to happen -- get the fix from GPS satellites, and transmit to Globalstar satellites. If it doesn't get the fix or get to Globalstar, nothing happens until it tries again in ten minutes. I don't know whether it's from movement or interference from the truck, but this has been spotty for me. I've noticed it works better if I'm headed south, because it can see the satellites easier through the windshield that way. But I've also put it on the tank bag of my ATV and only got three hits over more than an hour of riding. But bear in mind that if you look on the map, I'm on the edge of their coverage.

Other messages work much better. I've driven up the Dalton Highway to within 20 miles of the Yukon River with it, and every so often I'd stop, hit the "OK" button, and set it on the roof of my truck for a few minutes. Every one of those went through flawlessly, even though the tracking function was spotty. So even up here at the edge of coverage, it works great for what I need it to do. One thing to point out here is that the longer you let the thing keep trying, the more likely you are to get a message through.

My experience with SPOT has been very positive, and bear in mind where I am -- in the middle of the state at the ragged edge of the coverage area, which is defined as getting a message out in 20 minutes 90 percent of the time. In Southern and SE Alaska the coverage is as good as anywhere in the Lower 48. I'm headed up to Barrow (on the Arctic Ocean and well outside the 90 percent coverage area) in a couple weeks and will put it to the test to see if it'll work if I let it sit for awhile.

As far as cost goes, an ACR Terrafix may set you back five or six hundred bucks. A SPOT goes for about $150, but you have to drop another hundred for a year's worth of unlimited use. As I mentioned, the Tracker function cost another $49.95. If that weren't enough, for another $7.50 a year you can get $100K in search & rescue insurance to cover the cost of rescue if you need it.

I initially balked at the price, but then I pictured myself out in the bush, cold, stranded, and possibly injured, or with a buddy that's badly injured and in shock -- how much would I pay for the privilege of calling for help? If you hunt where you can't get cel phone service and don't want to pay a gozillion dollars for a sat phone, I highly recommend SPOT.

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Location: Eatonville, Wa
Joined: 08/26/2007
Posts: 610
SPOT Satellite Tracker

thanks Ive been thinking about buying one but wasnt sure exactly how well it would work. After hearing your testimonial I am sold. thanks.

expatriate's picture
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Location: Arizona
Joined: 10/26/2002
Posts: 3207
SPOT Satellite Tracker

Here's a copy of the link that accompanied an "OK" message I sent out last Saturday. The message emailed and text messaged to my wife was of my own creation and was basically, "I'm Ok and just checking in." All I had to do in the field was push the "OK" button on the spot and set it on top of my ATV while I strapped it down to the trailer and loaded up after getting off the trail. This link was at the end of the message and showed where I was on the map. Check it out; you can select road map, physical map, or a satellite photo -- plus zoom in and out. if you click on the location arrow, you can even input your street address and get directions to get there. This particular area wasn't one of the higher resolution satellite photos, but you get the idea.

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=65.5184,-148.8083&ie=UT...

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Joined: 01/27/2002
Posts: 7916
SPOT Satellite Tracker

Great info, thanks for taking the time to do a write up.

Sounds like the perfect device for anyone that likes to head into the wilderness by themselves.

expatriate's picture
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Location: Arizona
Joined: 10/26/2002
Posts: 3207
SPOT Satellite Tracker

By the way, the trip to Barrow went great. 71.35 degrees north latitude, and I even got to try whale jerky (take that Greenpeace!). Check it out:

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=71.3567,-156.5355&ie=UT...

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Location: Eatonville, Wa
Joined: 08/26/2007
Posts: 610
SPOT Satellite Tracker

mines on the way, thanks for the impressive review.

saskie's picture
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Location: West Carleton, Ottawa, Canada
Joined: 12/23/2002
Posts: 1264
SPOT Satellite Tracker

I bought one for my moose camp, it's a fly-in only place so if anything happens you're on your own.

Tried it this summer while up there doing some work and fishing and it worked flawlessly to let the missus know we'd made it back OK every night.

Highly reccomend this for anyone venturing "way out there, somewhere"

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