Product Review: Technology To The Rescue

Published in the October 2008 Issue October 2008 New Products, Product Tests Steve Janes Viewed 718 time(s)

SpotAfter anxiously inching your way down a tight canyon lined with pine trees, not knowing what lies beyond each change in slope, you find yourself at a very precarious location-not knowing whether you should continue down or try to climb back out.

This is the time you can't help but wonder whether you have the ability, or if your snowmobile has the power, to rise up to the task.

You're not quite sure where you're at; you have no idea where you're going. All you know is the snow is deep, the terrain steep and the challenge is real. This has the makings of being either one of your best rides or the beginning of a long day and possibly cold night out on the snow.

It's time to make a decision: Do you continue down and hope you can find your way out of the bottom of the canyon or do you turn back and hope you can climb back out to the ridge? And one question pops into your mind that tends to anchor all the logic back to your decision: Will anyone know where you're at if you can't get out the bottom?

Several times this past winter we found ourselves such predicaments-knowing that if we dropped down any farther into the canyon we would be committing ourselves to finding another way out. But the one question that never factored into our decision was: Would anyone know where we're at? That's because we had Spot with us.

Spot, a satellite messenger transmitter, allows you to send a pre-recorded message from anywhere on earth to friends back home. It's what we consider our "insurance policy" for stupid decisions. This seven-ounce, hand-held device that costs about $150 can send two pre-recorded e-mail and/or text messages to anyone you choose. With just a push of a button, you can tell friends back home that you're having a great day and all is well . or you can say, "I'm in trouble and need help now." And along with this message is a Google Earth link and GPS location coordinates that show where you are.

So your friends will be able to click on Google Maps to see exactly where you're at and how gnarly a mess you're in. (Sometimes not the best thing if your friends really aren't that committed to you when the going gets tough.)

Simple Security

Spot was introduced late last fall. It sounded like a simple little system that would be easy to use, even for the editors of SnoWest. It's about the size of a point-and-shoot digital camera and only has four buttons-On/Off, OK, Help and 911.

If you're just using Spot for emergencies, you would only turn the unit on prior to sending out a message. To turn it on, you press the On/Off button for two seconds (this way you won't inadvertently bump the button and drain your batteries). To turn it off, you press the same button for three seconds.

Two of the other three buttons have only one purpose. When you press the Help button for two seconds, you send a pre-recorded message (text and/or e-mail) to those whom you have pre-determined to receive them. In a life-threatening situation, you can press the 911 button for two seconds and it will notify the closest emergency response center. Spot will continue to broadcast either of those two messages every five minutes until the message is received.

The fourth button, OK, has two possible functions. The first is to "check in" with those on your list to receive e-mails and/or text messages. You press the OK button for three seconds and it will send out your pre-recorded message, complete with GPS location coordinates. The second function when you press the OK button for five seconds is called a tracking function and will continue to send your GPS location coordinates every 10 minutes until you cancel the function.

Often last winter, we would mark certain locations by pressing the OK button. Once back in our office we would go to Google Earth to find the satellite image of the exact area we were at. The tracking function isn't quite as practical on a snowmobile because the 10-minute intervals really allow you to cover too much distance to get a good handle on your route (you can cover a lot of terrain in a 10-minute interval).

Spot isn't a satellite phone . although it functions much the same way. The difference is a phone allows you to call out, but if you're lost, it won't help locate you. Spot will send out your exact GPS location coordinates with your pre-determined message, but you won't be able to talk to someone.

Spot isn't a GPS . although in also functions in a similar way. The GPS can show you your coordinates, but doesn't send it with a Google Maps link to your potential rescuers.


What we liked most about Spot was its simplicity. Throw it in the backpack and forget about it. It doesn't take much space, it doesn't weigh much. It's just there when you need it. There's no 200-page manual explaining all the different uses. (Actually, there was just a 3-inch by 4.5-inch card that tells you how to use each of the four functions.)


Although the unit is relatively cheap, the yearly service subscription can add up. It's about $100 a year for the basic services, plus another $50 for the tracking option. And there are other premium services available.

For those who spend a lot of time in the backcountry, the price is very reasonable. For those who will leave Spot in the backpack, it may not seem worth it . until the time comes when you need it. Then it's worth every penny.

For more information, you can visit the company's website at

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