My SPOT Satellite Messenger is a second hand Gen 2, purchased from someone who has upgraded to the Gen 3.
The SPOT is a GPS tracking device that uses the Globalstar satellite network to provide text messaging and GPS tracking. I was about to put it through it’s paces in the Clwydian hills.
But first, lets rewind a little…..
The SPOT is a small (9.4 x 6.6 x 2.5 cm), light (150g ), rugged, bright orange device.
On the front is the on/off button and three function buttons. Two other buttons are behind protective flaps. It is intuitive to use but can be awkward when wearing gloves.
The three AAA lithium batteries are housed in a compartment which is secured with two screws although they can be opened and closed without needing a screwdriver.
Before using it, I had to register my SPOT on their website, www.findmespot.com and pay the annual subscription fee. I also added on the tracking service (included in the Gen 3 basic subscription).
Including VAT, this set me back €164.04 (£138)
So, what was all this money getting me?
I see it a like an insurance. You pay insurance on your home, car or travel hoping you never need to use it, it’s the same with the SPOT.
If I’m ever in trouble I can get a friend or family member to come to my aid or (if in dire need) the emergency services. Conversely, there is an ‘OK’ button so if I’m in an area where a disaster has taken place, I can let people know I’m safe at a time when I might not be able to reach them via a mobile phone.
With these scenarios in my mind, I used the SPOT website to set up two different profiles, each with their own set of messages. You can only set up these messages on the website, not while you’re out in the field so it’s worth taking your time writing them. All messages contain your text and your exact co-ordinates which link to both the SPOT website and Google maps
The first profile I called ‘Walking’, this would contain the details for messages sent while I was out hiking.
First, I set up the Help/Assist. This would send texts and emails to family members if I got in to trouble. I set the following text; “Some minor problem at this location I aim to contact you within the next hour” My contacts would receive this message and if they didn’t receive a call or OK message they would know where to find me.
For Check In/Ok I used the following text; “All OK here If you’ve received any ‘help’ messages, they can be ignored” This would be sent to the same people as the Help/Assist.
Next was a custom message, for this I entered something simple, “This is where I am today“. The message along with the co-ordinates, would be sent to a larger circle of family and friends.
My next profile was called ‘Holiday’. The wording used in my holiday profile is slightly different, knowing family won’t be able to come to my aid if I’m thousands of miles away.
I then had to make sure the correct profile was selected As no holidays were planned, it went to Walking mode.
There is one generic setting for SOS. If you press the SOS button, the emergency services of the country you are in are alerted via GEOS, International Emergency Response. A message is also sent to the telephone number of your primary and secondary contacts.
An SOS message is transmitted every 5 minutes until the battery dies or it is cancelled. Unlike the other messages the SOS message will be sent also even if the device can’t locate GPS
Now to set up the tracking by clicking on the ‘Share’ and ‘Create a Share’ links.
As I wasn’t planning any multi day hikes, I set the ‘Share GPS locations to 24 hours then shared the URL with friends and family.
You can set up several pages here and choose what to share with particular people.
So now to try it out in the wild.
I parked up in the Coed Moel Famau car park, turned the SPOT on and strapped it to my arm
The power and GPS lights were flashing.
I pressed the tracking button for three seconds and it’s green light also began to flash.
I get little or no phone signal in this area so it would be a good test for the SPOT.
It was also raining. The heavy drizzle was forecast to remain through out the day, an opportunity to see how water proof it really is!
The device should work in temps between -30C and +60C and up to altitude of 6500 meters. (A SPOT has been used on top of Mt Everest) so it should easily withstand anything I could throw at it.
I headed North East from the car park and continued towards Brithdir Bach. Here, there was a clear view of the sky so I tested sending a custom message. I pressed and held the button until it flashed. I then paused to take a photo then pressed the tracking button again before heading to Bryn Alyn for some eggs!
I didn’t pay much attention to the SPOT much after that just taking the occasional glance to make sure the GPS, power and tracking lights were flashing.
It felt reasonably comfortable on my arm over my mid layer and waterproof jacket.
It was a pleasant route covering paths I’ve not walked previously, it was just a shame it was so wet, muddy and unseasonably chilly (for July) . The 10 mile/16km route is available as a GPX file.
When I got home I eagerly fired up the SPOT website to see how well it had recorded my route…..
It had recorded 6 points along the way covering just two miles of the ten mile route.
I checked my email for the custom message I had sent in the field. That hadn’t arrived either.I was disappointed when I compared the SPOT track with the track recorded on my phone using View Ranger
Reading around it seems it doesn’t work too well under tree cover, saying that, as the maps above show, I was hardly spending the entire day under dense forest.
I also read other users carrying out a pre -walk routine of turning Spot on at the start point, place it down with a clear view of the sky, start tracking, and then send an ok/check-in message.
Remembering the text I had used on my OK message, I didn’t want to start firing those off to various members of family, so my plan was to set up a Test profile with messages sent to only my email account.
With this new approach, I did a very quick test to track my drive to Fencing training and back. Success!
Since then, results have been mixed using it in various locations around Europe.
The real reason for purchasing the SPOT was for emergency situations and, hopefully, I’ll never have the opportunity to test that functionality but, in these days of improved phone signal I really am wondering if the subscription is worth the price when I come to renew.
In conclusion, a clever device and potentially life saving but an expensive and unreliable way of sharing locations with others.
Update: annoyingly, once Spot have your credit card details, they automatically renew once your subscription expires. To cancel, you have to contact them two or three months in advance. I did this via the “Contact Us” form on their website.
Numerous emails were sent back and forth until they offered me a very good deal on the subscription. I’ve renewed for another year.
Sadly I suspect it will be more haggling again this time next year.
Update 2: After a further price increase, I cancelled my subscription and gave the SPOT device away. Personally, I feel it was a waste of money. I think these sort of devices are great for anyone who gets really off the beaten track but for most of us, they are an expensive gimmick. It seems I’m not alone in my thoughts.