Can any electronic device guarantee your safety in the wilderness? Absolutely not!!! But this SPOT Gen3 might be a big help, and it could be a lifesaver.
by Leon Pantenburg
Disclaimer: SPOT provided survivalcommonsense.com with a loaner SPOT Gen 3 device and a three- month plan to test the device. It will be returned to SPOT after the trial plan expires. I was not paid to do this review. At the time of publication, SPOT has no sponsorship relationship with survivalcommonsense.com.
I live in Central Oregon because of the wilderness and outdoor adventure opportunities. I’ll go hiking, fishing or hunting at the drop of a hat, and go alone if there’s nobody to go along.
But since I had open heart surgery in December of 2012, my wife gets edgy when I head out on a solo trip.
She has good reason – in the 17 years we’ve lived here, several people have died in the Central Oregon backcountry. One is still missing after being lost almost 10 years ago. Deschutes County has one of the most active Search and Rescue teams in the country.
Still, even though I follow the safe wilderness travel protocol, it’s natural to be concerned if a loved one is out of cell phone range in an isolated area.
So I was open to the idea of checking out a wilderness locator beacon. Even 15 miles from my home, there are dead areas where cell phones don’t have coverage.
What is a SPOT?
The SPOT Gen3 is a locator beacon. The basic idea is pretty straight forward: to help someone stay out of trouble in the backcountry by providing a method for them get help.
The concept is simple – push a button and emergency responders will come to your rescue, even if you don’t have cell phone service, almost anywhere in the world.
(Navigation expert Blake Miller did one of the first field tests on the SPOT. Check out his review.)
If you’re new to the SPOT, it’s a consumer-oriented, personal locator beacon. The SPOT operates on a private satellite network, called GEOS, instead of the public, international one used by other similar devices.
The benefit of running the SPOT service over a private satellite network instead of a public one, according to the SPOT people, is that you can customize messages that are sent, and that includes the ability to send non-emergency or tracking messages to friends or family.
The receiver is relatively cheap – right now, you can get one for under $100. But SPOT makes its money on memberships. You can only get one for a year commitment, and that starts at $99. You must renew your membership annually, even if you’ll only use the SPOT on summer vacation.
When you do the math, you may decided a SPOT is too expensive for the little time it will realistically be used.
Here’s what is new in the Gen3.
- The new Gen 3 buttons are made out of hard plastic and provide the appropriate tactile feedback that you’d expect from triggering a mechanical device. There’s a separate on-off switch now.
- The new device also provides visual feedback (flashing lights) when it’s turned on and off, when you enable and disable tracking or when you send one of your two pre-canned message. The old SPOT II did this poorly so you never really knew if it was doing what you wanted.
- In addition, the SPOT Gen 3 is also waterproof and has a USB port which you can use to add capabilities to it, upgrade the device’s firmware to fix bugs and future proof your investment, and which brings it into the world of “smarter” devices.
- Unfortunately SPOT hasn’t upgraded the usability of their FINDMESPOT.com web site which you still need to use to activate service plans, customize your pre-programmed messages, and create shared route pages. The web site works OK, but I didn’t find it very intuiative. But once everything is set up, you can avoid returning to it almost indefinitely.
Should you buy a SPOT Gen3?
- If you’re going to rely on a SPOT as your 911 in the wilderness – no. The unfounded sense of security could lead to trouble. You may wander off into areas you shouldn’t go, with the false confidence that you could be easily rescued.
- Any electronic device is as reliable as the batteries in it. If the batteries go dead, the SPOT won’t work.
- A SPOT is not a substitute for navigation gear in the wilderness. You still need as a minimum a map and compass, and the knowledge to use it.
- If you are only going to be on established, popular trails, you might not need a SPOT. If you hurt yourself, chances are someone will be coming along who can help you.
So what good is a SPOT?
When I’m off the beaten trail hunting or fishing, the area can be quite isolated, and there may not be any people through there for quite a while. The fall hunting seasons don’t have the large numbers of people that are out in the summer, and your chances of a rescuer stumbling across you could be pretty slim. In this case, you need a SPOT.
You can use the SPOT in a city. Give the SPOT to someone if you decide to go your separate ways and re-connect later in the day.
The area of emergency preparedness may be where the SPOT is most valuable. In the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado, cell towers may be gone, meaning no phone coverage. With your pre-programmed SPOT you can still message loved ones.
A SPOT is like a life insurance policy, spare tire, life jacket, extra compass or first aid kit. Most of the time you don’t need one. But when you do, you need it very badly.
So here is what sells the SPOT: Peace-of-mind. And that is priceless.