The Mountain's Silhouette

Hiking and backpacking in the mountains of Scotland

Spot Messenger 2 Review

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It doesn’t seem all that many years ago that only those people travelling to the far reaches of the world, places like the remote Himalaya or the Poles, had access to satellite communications technology. These satellite phones were heavy and prohibitively expensive. Now a wide range of handheld devices are available which tap into global satellite communications at a fraction of the price that a satellite phone would have cost you just a few years ago. Whilst these devices may not allow full conversations to happen when off grid, they do provide a convenient way of communicating your status (whether good or bad) back to friends and family, and, through social media, the wider world. They also offer the ability to contact emergency rescue services in locations that getting a phone signal might be impossible and for this reason are increasingly being carried by people going off into mountainous or remote areas both on land and sea.

Spot in the wild

After seeing David Hine (@gridnorth) and Colin Ibbotson (@tramplite) use their Spots with great success for various trips in Scotland (see David’s fabulous West Coast Stravaig and Colin’s map for the Moray Coastal Path), along with positive reports from Phil Turner, Martin Free, Bryan Waddington and Andy Bryant (all of whom are Social Hikers), I decided that the Spot Satellite GPS Messenger was something that would be useful to me, both now and for future trips, and so placed an order.

Why Buy A Satellite Communicator

Whilst I head into remote mountain areas to get away from the constant stream of 1s and 0s that seem to surround our every move these days, there are a few reasons why I decided to purchase a device capable of communicating without the need for a mobile signal (data or otherwise). These are:

  1. The ability to let my family know where I am (and in particular where and when I have camped for the night) from any location. Having a satellite communicator means I can send an “I’m ok” message not just from a Munro summit, but also if I camp down in a glen or other mobile reception blackspot. The ability to give my family reassurance of my wellbeing and that I am safely camped for the night was the primary motivator for purchasing the Spot device.

  2. The ability to track a route over multiple days on one set of batteries. My Garmin GPS which I use to track my hikes typically gets through a pair of AA batteries every 2-3 days if route recording is running. The Spot’s advertised battery life in tracking mode is around 10 days on 3xAAA batteries which should cover me for most trips and reduces carried weight if I do longer trips in the future. I plan to carry my GPS or Smartphone for navigation/grid ref checking but not to have it turned on for any great length of time.

  3. The ability to directly contact Mountain Rescue services with a precise location in the event that I am unable to make contact using my mobile phone. I do most of my hiking solo and oftentimes I am away from well trodden routes. Having the ability to signal Mountain Rescue and have my GPS location transmitted to them directly could be invaluable in the event I get into real difficulties when out in the Highlands. Equally, I hope to be able to do future trips in more remote locales than Scotland (I’m thinking maybe Scandanavia, the USA and Greenland) and this service will be even more invaluable for those trips.

  4. The ability to share location and routes with other people either directly or via Social Hiking. Social Hiking is a media rich mapping application that was originally designed for use with the Viewranger Buddy Beacon system as a source of live location data. Unfortunately Buddy Beacon relies on you having a 3G signal to transmit your location and this can be very limited in the Highlands. With Spot tracking, your Social Hiking map is updated every 10 minute irrespective of phone signal and I can choose whether to share publicly or privately using Social Hiking or Spot’s own live tracking website.

The Spot Satellite GPS Messenger

I have the second version of the Spot device. The original Spot was launched a few years ago with the second iteration available from 2009. The Spot Satellite GPS Messenger is a compact, standalone unit which is well suited to backpacking trips. Spot also have another device called the Spot Connect which pairs with your Smartphone and gives you more flexibility over message content. However, I try to use my phone as little as possible when out so decided the standalone unit better suited my needs.

A comparison shot of a Spot messenger, Garmin GPS unit and a HTC smartphone

The unit is reasonably compact, measuring 94x66x25 mm and weighs in at 120g with the three Lithium AAA batteries installed. It compares well to my Garmin GPS device and my Smartphone as shown above. Spot recommend mounting the unit facing directly up to the sky and I have found that I can slip it into the hydration tube strap on either my camping or day sack to achieve this (see below). The unit is supplied with a small case and strap designed to be worn as an armband but I prefer having it attached to my pack.

Spot mounted on my rucksack

The unit itself has a basic interface which I will describe more thoroughly below, but you configure and manage the device through the web interface provided at www.findmespot.com. This is where you activate the device, add services, define your messages and add contacts. Using the web interface you can also view a history of your tracking and messages and download these in various formats, including KML and GPX. The web interface also allows you to set up a map to share with friends and family (and it is this map that provides information to Social Hiking).

The Spot Website

Subscriptions and Services

Besides the cost of the device itself, access to the Spot services requires payment of an annual subscription. This is currently 99 EURO for the basic service and you pay an additional 39 EURO to get access to the tracking services. With the weakened EURO this worked out at only a little over £110 for me for both the basic service and the tracking add-on. Of course the price you pay will be subject to the exchange rate at the time your card is processed.

I found the subscription service easy enough to step through, although the Spot website is a little fiddly to navigate at times.

I am going to review the subscription in a years time but as I am currently going on more and more outings I believe the price is justified as it stands. Based on the trips I have already made in 2012, and looking forward to future plans, I anticipate spending 20-25 nights a year backpacking along with maybe 10-15 day trips around the country in a year. Based on this kind of usage the daily cost to me comes down to around £2.50. Everyone’s usage will be different and I certainly intend to review the value of the subscription when I come to renew next year.

For my usage I feel that Tracking is a justifiable add-on, although some people manage perfectly well without it. Paul M completed the TGO Challenge this year and kept his map updated by sending a check-in message at regular intervals, eliminating the need for the tracking add-on. Someone doing a very long hike may plan to only transmit their location once each day which will be adequate for tracking progress over the longer timescale and will save them on battery costs and weight. For me the tracking add-on is a convenience. I intend to use it as my primary method of tracking on longer outings and as the feature is unlimited I can use it to send off my location to Social Hiking on shorter trips.

Using the Spot Satellite GPS Messenger

The Spot 2 device is intended to be rugged and straight forward to use. It presents a basic interface comprising small, oval, recessed buttons and LEDs that flash either green or red.

As an aside, I think I’m so conditioned to a world of touch screens and detailed feedback now that the very basic Spot interface actually took me a few moments to get to grips with!

The Spot

The user inputs to Spot through the four buttons on the front of the unit. These lack positive feedback, especially when wearing thicker gloves or mitts, so I have gotten into the habit of holding them down for a count of 5 to make sure my press registers. I imagine that they are designed like this to reduce the likelihood of accidental activation but it would be good if they were just a little bit larger in future.

The Spot device communicates its current mode and status to the user through flashing lights, one under each button, and a couple of additional lights for specific operations. These LEDs are not easily visible in direct sunlight but shading the unit with a hand is sufficient to see them. In overcast or dark conditions the LEDs are perfectly visible.

Spot works on the basis of providing reassurance to the user. For as long as a function is active, the LED will flash away so it’s not a case of possibly missing a single or limited LED flash. Turn the unit on and the power LED flashes every second until you turn it off. Activate the tracking function and both the power LED and the tracking LED flash every second. The story is similar for the OK/Check-In and Custom functions.

The other two LEDs on the unit are used to indicate communications with the satellite, either that the unit is fetching the current location, or that a message is being transmitted. These LEDs flash red if there is a problem with either of the satellite operations so that you know something has failed and your message, location or both has not been successfully transmitted. These are important lights as there is no other form of feedback to tell you that your message has been sent or not.

When I first turned on the unit from cold with new batteries it seemed to take quite some time for it to successfully locate me and start transmitting messages. However, since that first time it has worked successfully and when I have had phone signal I have been able to check that the message was transmitted almost instantly after pressing the function button. I am now confident in Spot, though I highly recommend taking it on a test outing the first time.

It remains to be seen whether this is an issue that will repeat once I change the batteries out. As I am out most weekends I have been leaving the batteries in the unit but this may not be optimal for the device.

It is also good to build Spot into your usual pre-walk routine, i.e. switch Spot on as soon as you get to your start point, set it down with a clear view of the sky, start tracking, and then send an ok/check-in message. Spot will then go through the process of getting its location, transmitting the check-in message and will then fall back into tracking mode. This can all be going on whilst you sort out your rucksack or have a bite to eat and then you can be on your way.

When out I have typically been sending an ok/check-in message when setting out, and then when I stop for a break on a summit or for lunch. At the end of the day I stop tracking and then send a custom message to indicate that I am setting up camp. At this point I let the unit go through the full send message cycle whilst I am putting up the tent and sorting dinner and then I switch the unit off for the night.

Field Testing

I’ve now used Spot for three different trips so this is by no means a comprehensive report, and certainly does not address reliability of the unit or battery life at present.

On a short day trip I found Spot of limited use, especially as my route involved a lot of forest walking. In this environment some of the track points failed to register and coupled with my fast pace the resulting track was inaccurate and incomplete. However, it did rain for the whole 3.5 hours and with the Spot exposed it seemed that the watertightness of the unit was good.

The summit of Sgòr Gaibhre

On a three day trip through the Ben Alder mountains I found the Spot excellent. I used it to update my friends and family on progress through the day and sent a final ok/check-in when I got to camp. I used the custom message to let them know I was back at the car. Spot also bounced these to Twitter where the Spot map was appended to the message. The family members who received the messages where happy to know of my progress and wellbeing. For future backpacking trips I’m going to use the custom message to check-in from camp at the end of the day, rather than sending another ok/check-in message as this is less ambiguous.

Finally, I had my Spot turned on for a recent trip through Fisherfield. This was primarily to update my Social Hiking map, and to test that the recently implemented tie-in to the auto-tweeting feature of Social Hiking was working, and this proved successful. I can now use the ok/check-in message and Social Hiking will Tweet on my behalf and append a link to my Social Hiking map. As Social Hiking uses Ordnance Survey mapping it is better than the Spot map which uses topographic data similar to that found in Google or Bing maps. The only slight concern on this trip was that I set Spot down at the end of the walk to send a custom message indicating we had finished. This message never transmitted although I didn’t notice any red LEDs flashing on the unit.

Updated Spot Field Testing

OK/Check-In Messages and Custom Messages

Unfortunately I haven’t been keeping a full track of my messages to determine exactly what has been sent or not but I do know of two specific instances of my Custom Message not being received. One of these was at Kinlochewe where where I left the Spot on the ground next to our coach in a shady car park. The second was when camping in a gorge besides the River Carnach. I suspect in both cases the unit struggled to send the message, despite my putting the Spot in as exposed a position as possible. My thoughts are that when restricted the unit can struggle to locate a satellite in the area of sky available and so the message is not transmitted successfully. I have now adopted a system of sending two Custom messages at the end of day hoping to increase the probability of a message getting through. On my most recent overnighter this resulted in both Custom messages getting through to recipients.

Tracking

Initially I was securing the Spot to my shoulder straps using the hydration tubing tethers, however, after a suggestion from Andy Bryant I have now started putting the device into my rucksack’s top pocket. In both examples (my small Haglofs daypack and my larger Osprey camping pack) this hasn’t had an adverse effect on tracking.

I used the Spot exclusively to track my progress over 4 days in the Northwest Highlands and on review found that the only major gap in coverage was in two cases where I was walking in dense woodland. I am now more than happy to keep the Spot in the top pocket. It should be noted that for sending ok and custom messages I am taking the Spot out of the top pocket and putting it flat on the ground with a clear view of the sky.

Brian Green has posted about a recent negative experience with Spot and this has resulted in numerous other commentators airing grievances about poor message delivery success. I would say that in my experience the Spot has been largely (>90%) successful and I certainly haven’t had a problem where messages were delayed. They have either been delivered almost instantly in most cases, or not at all in a small minority of instances. I will continue to monitor Spot and have now adjusted my messages slightly to suit conversations with those who are receiving them. This should ensure that a missed message doesn’t immediately start rescue actions!

Limitations

The limitations of the Spots tracking are largely only apparent on shorter trips. The ten minute gap, particularly if a couple of the transmissions are interrupted for some reason (e.g. being in a dense forest) can mean a significant portion of your track is missing. Spot does retain the last two positions and transmits these but if the problem was obtaining GPS lock in the first place then this doesn’t help. The ten minute interval also means that your track can be dramatically smoother than the going actually was on the ground.

Spot tracking (on the left) produces a less accurate track than my GPS device (on the right)

Additionally Spot does not know or record elevation data and so you have to go through and add this in later if you wish to produce an elevation profile or calculate total ascent based on only the Spot tracking data.

These limitations are understandable in the context of Spot and the way it works and I am happy as I can still use my GPS to record a detailed track on shorter trips whilst using the Spot for longer adventures.

The other, and perhaps more important limitation of Spot, is the lack of direct communication back to you. The Spot is an all or nothing device. You either initiate a rescue, or you don’t. Happily in my time walking in the hills I have never had to contact Mountain Rescue and certainly wouldn’t contact them for something trivial, but the knowledge that pressing SOS on the Spot starts a potentially unstoppable chain of events will certainly make me cautious about using it.

The same also applies to the Help button which sends a pre-defined help message to your contacts. Again, this must be used with caution as the message is fixed and one way. I currently have this set-up to indicate that my progress has been hampered or my route has been changed significantly and that I will try and contact home via mobile within the next 2 hours. Hopefully this makes it a useful feature and again, doesn’t unnecessarily initiate a chain of unstoppable events.

Otherwise the Spot deliberately has a good deal of redundancy built into its processes and I am happy with anecdotal reports I have read of other users. Obviously there is no option to “test” the SOS function but Spot have reported a number of successful rescues being routed through their systems.

Social Hiking and Live Mapping

Integration with the media-rich live mapping website Social Hiking is very good. Instructions on how to use Spot are available through Social Hiking’s documentation. It’s worth noting that it took a short while for Social Hiking to recognise my Spot map. I assume this was to do with the Spot end refreshing its database or generating the public feed but am not entirely sure. Suffice it to say after a few minutes the error message that appeared in the Social Hiking interface disappeared and I had confirmation that my Spot map was correctly configured.

https://twitter.com/nickbramhll/status/216501185602011136

I used Spot tracking throughout my Ben Alder trip and on returning home found that I had an excellent recorded track. I also was able to see that Social Hiking had tweeted the start of my map each day. A new feature that has recently been rolled out means that whenever I send an ok/check-in message my Social Hiking map will get amended to give context to the check-in. The above Tweet was sent towards the end of my walk through Fisherfield.

Other Resources

I will update this section with any useful links/reviews/discussions I find regarding Spot.

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