SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test

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    Greg Mihalik


    Locale: Colorado

    "During a 2 week trip last July on the Sheenjek R. N of Double Mountain…"

    What state or country or locale or lattitude?

    Jason Brinkman
    BPL Member


    Locale: Idaho

    I would echo the posts of Steve O and Bob R – I have seen a lot of online reviews (that appear to be firsthand accounts) warning of message failure, unit failure, and poor or rude customer service from the SPOT folks. The REI reviews are a great example of this.

    Counter to that is the experience of a frequent hiking companion of mine who owns a SPOT 2. His is one of the recall replacement (refurbished) units. On the trips we have done together, it has performed flawlessly. He reports it always works that well.

    Now adding to the positives is BPL's glowing praise for a pair of Post-Recall SPOT 2's, even giving them a Highly Recommended rating. Plus BPL now reports a better web interface, despite others here who still malign the SPOT website useability. I didn't see any commentary on customer service.

    So I am left more conflicted then before. I would like a messenger like SPOT 2 for reasons Amy noted, and for the comfort it would bring my family and friends when I am in the middle of the wilderness for a week or two. But I am really not anxious to invest in or depend on a device for this manner of communications when it has so many critical reviews floating around.

    For now I guess I will keep doing it the old way – leaving a detailed trip plan and renting a sat phone when I am on prolonged solo trips.

    Alan Dixon


    Locale: Mid-Atlantic

    >I didn't see any commentary on customer service.

    We had no cause to use customer service. The units operated as described and we had no problems.

    Nor did we have difficulty using and web interface. We used the full gamut of message types, email address, SMS messages, shared web pages, exported trips to GPX, CSV, and KML fies, exporting them to SPOT Adventures, making adjustments on the fly to each others accounts mid-trip, etc., etc.

    Amy has a very cool 3D Google Earth version of her Pyrenees trip that she created from the SPOT2 output.

    Russell Adams


    Not sure why people say the website is unusable. I get on from time to time and have had no difficulty doing what I need to do.

    Also I do believe people have problems with their Spots. As mentioned it is an electrical device and can fail. In addition, after you factor in all the different locations and environments it is used in, it is understandable why people have different experiences.

    I bought mine with an expectation of performance and was prepared to return it if not satisfied.

    Danny Milks
    BPL Member


    Locale: SF Bay Area

    I wanted to see if there were any discounts on SPOT2 and found it for $104.96 on Amazon with free shipping. That's a pretty good deal.

    Still, it doesn't help the $100/year contract.

    Keith Selbo


    Locale: Northern Virginia

    "LCD displays can freeze, but LED do not. SPOT III?"
    I had the opportunity to test a low temperature LCD display for a product I designed. It didn't freeze per se, it just changed more slowly as it got colder. At minus 40, it was unusable for my application because the seconds display took more than a second to update which made for a jumble. A GPS readout that updated at a slow rate, say less than a minute would be legible at -40. I think that would cover most applications.

    Bob Gross
    BPL Member


    Locale: Silicon Valley

    Yes, most LCD displays get increasingly sluggish as the temperature dips to the point where digit changes kind of blur together. That can be mitigated by placing a heater behind the display, but that requires battery power. If you leave the whole unit inside your coat for a while, it can operate, but it won't do a good job of transmitting or receiving signals inside your coat.


    Frank Deland


    Locale: On the AT in VA

    I have used the SPOT in Yosemite and on the AT in the VA woods when cell phone reception was no available.

    Here is what my wife saw at home in MA when I stopped by this area of Yosemite. Zoom in and the name of the lake appears. As I was hiking along the PCT just before I sent the message, I passed two Park Rangers hiking along with a hiker who had become ill on the trail. Even thought the Rangers carried a satellite phone, they had found it unreliable. Their connection had been dropped.,-119.41841&ll=37.99367,-119.41841&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

    It had been raining when I sent the following SPOT Ok message from this campsite in the woods along Virginia Canyon in Yosemite:Virginia Canyon forest,-119.33882&ll=38.03432,-119.33882&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

    I sent a test message from my backyard. Zooming in, one can see the arrow on the exact spot where I was standing. My house driveway and garden are clearly visible, as is the spot on my lawn where I stood. I think the SPOT is a great device.
    I a lost hiker had both a cell phone and a SPOT, the contact person could zoom in on the location of the lost hiker and tell him which way to travel to safety. A lost hiker in the woods could be very close to a trail, or a lake or road, etc. he cannot see.

    Jason Brinkman
    BPL Member


    Locale: Idaho

    I appreciate the reply Alan.

    If I were to get the SPOT 2, I would hope not to need their customer service either, but their reputation is so bad that it's actually weighing into my decision on whether or not to get their device.

    I am glad to hear of your positive experience with the web interface – that helps.

    Ultimately my decision on when to buy one of these devices is affected by how fast the technology is moving. I suspect we are within just a year or two of a moderate-cost device that will allow custom text messages. The Delorme PN-60W with separate wireless SPOT pod is already there of course, but by my count that's actually two devices. I am looking for one.

    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    Wow. I have been using the SPOT2 since it came out (I never had a SPOT1, I waited for the improved unit) and have been impressed as hell with it. Having read this thread, I started looking up these scathing reviews.

    I'm sure there are people who have had a bad time with their SPOT2- as was mentioned they are electronic devices and electronic devices sometimes fail- but at least a few of the more scathing reviews of the SPOT2 were written by people who really don't know how to use the device. I found a couple that seemed to indicate that the user was expecting instantaneous transmission, and they were saving battery life buy leaving the unit off, turning it on to send an OK, and then turning it off again long before the 20 minute transmit window. No wonder they didn't like the transmission reliability!

    Heck, I can only recall half a dozen or so dropped messages from my unit in the past year- and they were all points on the Tracking feature, not "real" messages sent by pressing one of the buttons. (FYI- I've been hiking in Colorado, not "Kansas.") As I said, I was actually expecting it to work much less reliably than it actually does, having read a lot about SPOT 1.

    Anyway, I suspect that a decent percentage of those bad reviews represent user error, not a failure of the device. You can fix a device, but you can't fix stupid. (Just kidding- I actually made the same mistake. I would send a final OK message when i got back to my car, but then turn the unit off soon afterward to pack it in the vehicle, and noticed that those final OKs never went through, so I read the manual more closely.)

    Doubtless, some failures are real, too. As I said, electronic devices fail. But I've generally been very impressed.

    What I cannot speak intelligently about is SPOT customer service. My only experience in that area was returning my original device for the recall. I returned it immediately when the recall was announced (actually, before I'd ever used it in the field) and as near as I can tell I did get a new unit in exchange. And it arrived much more promptly than others described- about six weeks- but perhaps that was because I was one of the first people to send it in for exchange.

    All of the stories about rude customer service reps and problems canceling the service do sound distressing, though. Especially since I need to cancel my service, as I'm leaving the country for the next year and won't be able to use it.

    Robert Richey
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Luis Obispo

    Nice point. I would be very tempted to purchase this unit if your theory about user error (+ recall issue) accounts for the vast majority of consumer complaints.

    James Moughan


    At least some of the REI reviews are not for the SPOT II:

    "I've travelled with a spot on several trips, one of which was a hiking trip to Patagonia through the glaciers. I had spotty unreliable service while trying to "breadcrumb" my hikes and send messages to those on my contact list. With a 50% connection success rate I returned the device to REI after my 1yr contract with Spot was up. I considered buying the Spot II as it was smaller with promises of better service; however, after contemplating the purchase in the store I decided against it."

    Many of them refer to the SPOT rather than SPOT II. Could the reviews for the old model have been folded into the new one? Amazon is terrible for this.

    There are also many ways for the user to screw up, like using alkaline batteries, or not keeping the device outside their pack and facing the sky. I'm inclined to believe the positive reports of a few technically adept users.

    Nevertheless, the manufacturers appear to have mediocre quality control and really lousy customer service.

    John Montgomery


    From your field tests of the SPOT2 it sure looks like the operational envelope may have been expanded quite significantly. However you should have also performed a side by side field comparison with a SPOT1 to prove that it really is all the SPOT2 internal improvements rather than some unknown changes made in the rest of the communication system or a combination of both that give you such good results.

    I have had very good luck with my SPOT1 probably because I am very familiar with the technology involved as well as being a professional electrical engineer with many years experience in digital design, satellite communications systems, GPS, real time embedded software, etc. and I operate my SPOT1 within its limitations which were pointed out in the SPOT1 review and confirmed by my own field tests. I do not see any reason for me to upgrade to a SPOT2.

    The problem with these systems is that the general user is just a “button pushing appliance operator” who does not really understand the underling technology hence he/she can easily make a very simple operational mistake rendering the device essentially useless. It behooves the user to read and follow the vendor’s instructions. My personal opinion is that the SPOT1 directions and theory of operation was lacking quite a few important details which led to quite a lot of obvious user confusion and poor user results; hence a lot of very shrill negative postings where made about the SPOT1.

    I am curious to know in which Utah canyon complex you tested the SPOT2. I would guess the Grand Gulch/Bullet Canyon area. As you point out, I am quite sure someone is going to try and use a SPOT in a Buckskin like canyon and complain that it does not work. I would be surprise if any portable communication system would work reliably from the depths of Buckskin near the “Cesspool”.

    William Mitchell


    I chose a PLB because I wanted a rescue initiation device. While my PLB (SARLink) will do OK messages with the 406Link service, I am unmarried and don't really need to be in constant contact with anyone for peace of mind. I do understand that a lot of folks have good reasons for letting loved ones know where they are regularly, which the SPOT generally does well.

    While fishing a narrow canyon, I slipped at the top of a large log jam and bounced my way down until I was flat on my back on a gravel bar. I was uninjured, but a look at my path down the trees showed that I was extremely lucky to have not been stabbed by one of the many branch stubs sticking from the logs. During that same trip, I had attempted to use my GPS, a Garmin 60CSx that is generally regarded as having excellent satellite reception, and had no luck. So, I used that as my benchmark when deciding between the SPOT and a PLB.

    The PLB uses the GEOSAR sat system as well as the LEOSAR for doppler positioning, and has a homing signal. Most importantly, the PLB signal is 5 watts as opposed to the SPOT's 5 milliwatts, so it will cut through heavy tree cover. An OK message sent in the above mentioned canyon was successfully transmitted.

    I let people know where I'm going and when I'll be back. In my case, they don't need to know where I am each day, but if I need to send an OK message I can. I pay $60 a year for that service, but if I choose not to pay for the service, I can still contact SAR, since that service isn't part of the subscription, unlike SPOT.

    I wonder if it's fair to compare the 2 devices. A SPOT is more of a communications device that can be used to contact SAR, while a PLB is a rescue initiation and homing device that can also do some comunication. Each one has strengths that offset the other's weakness.

    Eric Klocko


    Locale: SD

    I have no experience with the device in question. Concerning the reviews. I know that personally I live off online reviews. Yet, horribly, contribute very few. I think that often many people, myself included, don't write reviews when things operate as expected. My guess is that unless the spot burned down their house, and kicked their dog, most people just keep on using it without updating the world.

    Dan Feldman


    I've found the SPOT 2 to be exceptionally reliable and accurate. I used it this summer while hiking the Montana section of the CDT. The device reliably broadcasted my location each time in temps down to the mid 20s F. Locations were dead-on accurate.

    One feature I'd like to mention is the Track Progress function that was extensively reviewed in this article. It's important to note that the Track Progress function adds an extra $50 to the $99 subscription for the ability to broadcast your location every ten minutes.

    If you don't need to record your location every ten minutes, but would still like to keep track of where you've been, you can track your progress for free by using the "check in/OK" message feature. This feature sends a pre-arranged email message to as many as ten addresses with your exact latitude and longitude coordinates. Someone at home can easily plug this info into a custom google map. If you only are interested in recording your position once or twice a day, I'd recommend this method. However, if you really need to know your position more frequently, I'd recommend buying the Track Progress feature as the check-in/OK feature takes roughly 20 minutes to deliver an accurate message.

    On my CDT trip, I used the check-in/OK feature to make the following map:

    Bob Chilson
    BPL Member


    Locale: eastern high sierra

    I ordered a Spot 3 months before they came out. Still have it and it works fine for what I wanted and for what it was advertised to do, with its known limitaions. At the time I wrote a short bit about it here in BPL forum as to what a great potentially life saving device it was despite its few faults.
    After it came out and was reviewed on BPL, it seemed like it was doomed to failure. It had good points and bad points, nothing that couldn't be fixed.
    Glad to see it survived and improved.

    Ryley Breiddal


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    If I just want to use this for the SOS function, I assume I can leave it off indefinitely and then turn it on only if needed?

    i.e. I'm doing a thruhike and I don't want/need the Track functionality, and I don't want to replace the batteries every 3-6 days. Workable?

    Alan Dixon


    Locale: Mid-Atlantic

    You are exactly right. You can leave it off and just turn it on to send an SOS when needed. It should not use the batteries.

    But most electronics equipment have a slight drain on batteries when not turned on. Given the nature of the SPOT, I would imagine that this drain would be designed to be quite low to nonexistent, but it is not something we tested. To be safe I would install fresh batteries at the beginning of my thru hike.

    A few minor caveats:

    1) The GPS in the SPOT will acquire a fix faster if it has been used recently.
    2) There is a "safety" value in laying down some sort of breadcumb–even just an OK message once a day. In case you are injured and unable to activate the SPOT somebody would know where to start looking for you (i.e. after your last OK message).

    In the one OK a day use scenario the batteries would last a very long time. Over 300 days.

    Bob Gross
    BPL Member


    Locale: Silicon Valley

    "1) The GPS in the SPOT will acquire a fix faster if it has been used recently."

    This is true for every GPS receiver.


    Alan Dixon


    Locale: Mid-Atlantic

    Also at around 120-140 hours of battery life with a decent sky view, you'll get a lot more than 3-6 days use out of a set of batteries. Operated at 10 hours a day you'll get more like 12-14 hiking days.

    Gerry B.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Louisiana, USA

    Twice in the last year I used my SPOT locator and had serious issues with it. Just this past weekend I used it during a hike on the Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, near the Albert Pike Recreation Area that experienced the deadly flood two years ago. And yes, there was another flash flood this weekend when the Little Missouri River rose over 8' in less than four hours. I got out safely and fortunately my wife was unaware of the severity of the situation.

    But out of ten okay messages that I sent to my wife over a three day period, all with a green signal indicating success, only three were ever received by my wife. The other seven never got through. Every time I made sure to be in an area clear of trees with as good an open area as possible. I will note that I did not leave it on for twenty minutes each time to give it the opportunity to retry sending the okay message two more times. To do that, you have to remain stationary and during the day, I tend not to stay stationary that long. I falsely assumed that if the green light indicates that it was successfully sent, it is sent. But apparently the more I read the more I realize that a problem with the Globalstar satellite results in a message being sent but not necessarily transmitted from the satellite to the designated recipient(s).

    With a 30% success rate, it is not reliable. Had my wife realized the severity of the flood, she probably would have contacted emergency assistance since my messages were not coming through. IMO, it is a piece of junk unless this problem is resolved. Are other people experiencing this same problem?

    Ryley Breiddal


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    I've used mine ~100 times and had it fail to send maybe a half dozen, invariably when I was deep in a canyon or under dense forest. It does not give any indication of failure (in fact the opposite, it says it has sent successfully). My understanding is that the SOS feature sends a ton more messages than the Check-in/OK feature.

    When I was using mine on the CDT, the deal with people at home was that missed Check-Ins should not be interpreted as "OMG HE IS DEAD". The Check-In is just a nice way to say hi to people at home. If the SOS was similarly flawed, that would make the device useless, but having never used it, I can't say whether that's the case.

    Alan Dixon


    Locale: Mid-Atlantic

    Hi Gerry,

    Yes, you are right, it pays to follow the instructions. If you want the OK to work reliably you do need to let the unit stay on for a while. If you do, you will find that the SPOT has near 100% reliability sending OK messages. If you don’t, you risk a low percentage of OK messages going out.

    Note that the green light DOES NOT mean that it has successfully sent a message. Only that it is sending a message. You need to leave it on to be sure it actually hits a satellite when it is sending. Thus the 20 minute period and multiple attempts, to increase the probability that a satellite is in position when your SPOT unit sends. This is not a defect of the SPOT but the nature of satellite coverage. (At times, I’ve had a devil of a time getting Sat Phones to reliability connect in the backcountry.)

    If you are constantly on the move then the best times to send an OK message are when first you get up in the morning and before leaving camp, during your lunch break, or just when you get in camp at night. There should be ample opportunity then to leave it on for 20 minutes or so. This is what I normally do, as I move a lot during the day.

    Also, you do not need to stay in one place to use the SPOT OK. You can press the OK button and walk down the trail for 20 minutes. Assuming decent open sky, and that the SPOT is something approximating horizontal, it should work with reasonable reliability while you walk. (User trick. If you happen to be using track progress mode, you can activate that first, then press OK for a check-in. After the required 20 minutes, the SPOT will automatically go back to tracking progress mode. This is a great way to leave camp in the morning, or do a midday check-in.)

    Finally the Globalstar satellite “problem” is a Sat Phone only problem due to amplifier failure on the band that supports Sat Phone signals. This does not affect the SPOT which uses a different band and electronics on the satellite. In fact, the SPOT was created to better utilize the satellites by using good working circuitry on them.

    So the SPOT is not junk. But like most equipment, it requires some user knowledge, and it needs to be used properly and within its limitations.

    Best of luck using the SPOT on your next trip!

    Amy Lauterbach
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Responding to Gerry Brucia's question about reliability of sending SPOT OK messages.

    First, as Ryley said, your agreed upon protocol with your home-base should be that an absence of messages can not be interpreted as a problem. "…protocol is this: If there are no tracks or SPOT2 messages, it does NOT mean that we have a problem. It could be one of many reasons, but you should NOT worry about it. (dead battery, device lost or damaged, etc). In this case revert to protocols used before we started carrying SPOT2: assume all is well until 24 hours after our expected trip completion time, at which point Responsible Party should notify the appropriate agency to initiate SAR."

    A PLB is undoubtedly a more reliable device, and if you require that level of service, you might consider carrying both. Unfortunately, a PLB doesn't allow you to proactively tell your wife that things are AOK, which is what you were trying to do. A Sat phone allows the person in the field to know that the recipient got the message, which SPOT does not. However a Sat phone is not necessarily more reliable than a SPOT – the difference is that you know if the recipient got your message.

    Second, you don't need to stand in one place for 20 minutes after initiating the OK, you can just leave the device on and continue walking or cycling or whatever you're doing. The device doesn't need to be still to work. To increase the likelihood of a message going through, you really should plan to leave the device on so that it transmits multiple times.

    Third, I have had >90% transmission success for both Tracking and OK messages when using Lithium batteries, even when they are mostly drained and the battery light is red. On the other hand, partially drained Alkaline batteries give me a success of something between 10% and 50%. In other words, do everything you can to use Lithium batteries.

    Fourth, I have now had two SPOT-2 devices COMPLETELY FAIL while on hiking trips, one in May2011 and the other in Oct2011. The GPS chip stopped working, and the devices were dead-weight. In both cases SPOT replaced the unit. However, this level of reliability is a huge problem. This is one reason I think it's critical that the home-base knows that an absence of messages does not necessarily mean there is a problem. I'm still a fan of the SPOT concept and functional design. However, the reliability problems I've had make me eager to see some other company offer a competitive product.

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