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The SPOT unit has the potential to be a breakthrough in backcountry safety. It's lighter, more compact, and less expensive than Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), which can only transmit a distress signal to emergency services. It's lighter and less expensive than a satellite phone and has more coverage than a cell phone. The SPOT also has a Tracking (breadcrumb) mode, which automatically sends your location every ten minutes. Unlike PLBs (or even most cell or satellite phones), the SPOT unit can transmit your exact location plus one of several messages:

  • "I'm here and OK."
  • "I need help."
  • "Call 911 and rescue me."

Several of our testers believe that a device like the SPOT unit would alleviate their family's worrying back home, making it easier for them to get permission to go on backcountry trips. This is especially true for solo walkers or people who pursue dangerous endeavors like technical mountaineering in areas beyond cell phone coverage. However, Backpacking Light makes no formal recommendations about what safety equipment any outdoor enthusiast should carry.

On paper, the SPOT unit is an innovative concept for improving backcountry safety. In the field, it did not deliver "virtually every message" as the SPOT unit's literature claims, and the unit has usability problems. As such, we believe is has yet to deliver its promised functionality and message delivery reliably.


  • Overview
  • What's Good
  • What's Not So Good
  • Review Objective and Testing
  • Does the SPOT Unit Work?
  • Basic Operation of the SPOT Unit
  • Search and Rescue Perspective
  • Analysis of Test Results
    • Antenna Design
    • Obtaining a GPS Fix
    • Tracking Mode When Backpacking or Hiking
    • Message Reliability
    • No Message Delivery Confirmation
    • SPOT Website
    • SPOT User Interface
    • Enhanced SPOT Display
  • SPOT Versus Other Options
    • Personal Locator Beacons
    • Satellite Phones
    • Cell Phones
  • Conclusion
    • Reliability with a Perfect View of the Entire Sky*
    • Reliability with Less Than a Perfect View of the Entire Sky
    • Reliability in Tracking Mode when Hiking or Backpacking
    • SPOT's Caveat - "Based on Network Availability"
    • User Interface
    • In the End, It's a Personal Decision
  • Technical Appendix
    • Six Day Extended Field Test with a Perfect View of the Entire Sky
    • With a Perfect View of the Entire Sky
    • With Less than a Perfect View of the Entire Sky
    • Limited Sky View Test
    • Field Test - Tracking Mode While Walking
    • Field Test - OK and Help Messages
    • Tilt Test

# WORDS: 11480
# PHOTOS: 18

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