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Spot locator beacons - are they reliable? #2347
Back To Discussion List Written: 2009.05.04 by: Robert Wilson

Has anyone used these trackers and have they found them reliable?


#1785 - 2014.08.29 Robin Tivy - Spot device also used in 2012 August 8 on South Powell Divide
There was also a party on the Powell Divide who used the Spot device after slipping on the steep snow slopes. Below is the text from an article in the Report in Powell River newspaper.

A team effort aided by technology resulted in the precarious rescue of an injured hiker from an ice face near Centre Lakes last week. One of the rescuers was Powell River Search and Rescue (SAR) society president Laurence Edwards.

At approximately 5:45 pm on Sunday, July 29, members of Powell River RCMP were contacted by a Texas-based company called SPOT, who reported that one of its customers' emergency distress beacons had been activated earlier in the hour.

By 6 pm, Edwards had received a phone call from police and was on his way to Powell River airport to board the RCMP's Comox-based Air 8 helicopter. From there, he and a member of the local detachment flew toward the South Powell Divide to locate the person in distress.

Just after 7:20 pm, Edwards was dropped off 5,300 feet above sea level on top of an icy slope. There he made contact with two hikers, one of whom was injured; a 47-year-old woman from North Vancouver had fallen several feet into a moat, suffering a head injury that required medical treatment.

Edwards remained with the hikers, a husband and wife who were both experienced mountaineers, while the chopper circled back to pick up additional support and formulate an extraction plan with SAR manager Don McLeod.

At approximately 8:15 pm, the chopper returned with some additional equipment and personnel, including Andy Perkonig, a medically-trained member of the SAR team. As the aircraft hovered over the rocks, the woman was loaded on board by the RCMP officer and SAR technicians and flew fully-loaded back to Powell River at around 8:45 pm. BC Ambulance Paramedics then transported her from the airport to Powell River General Hospital.

By this time, darkness had begun to set in and risk was deemed too high to return for the retrieval of her husband, Edwards and Perkonig. In no immediate danger themselves and with overnight bags delivered, the three remained on the mountainside until roughly 7:30 am the following morning. They were then extracted by Campbell River Search and Rescue.

Edwards said he couldn't stress enough how valuable the SPOT locator was in providing SAR personnel with a ballpark location.

"These were very well equipped people," he said. "The [husband had] 30 years' experience. He's a member of the BC Mountaineers Association, so very experienced, but an accident can happen to anybody. They had the SPOT which was so instrumental in getting them out. As it happened, she didn't have serious head trauma, but if she had done, and it took us a long time to find could have had serious implications."

While not considered life-threatening, the woman's injuries were still extensive enough to prevent her from leaving the wilderness on her own accord. Edwards said he believed she caught one of her boot crampons on the leg of her over pants and then simply lost her footing and slid down an icy embankment.

"She just kicked one foot away from the other and on the snow field she went," he said. "She tried to self-rescue with her ice axe and that failed. I think she must have hit something and then ended up 12 feet down in the moat."

Several city media outlets erroneously reported a falling distance of over 100 feet.

During the fall, the woman suffered a laceration to the back of her head. "She needed, I think, eight stitches," said Edwards, "but she was coherent; her vision wasn't blurred or anything like that.

"She's actually a nurse, a very experienced nurse, which obviously helps in that situation," he continued. "Her husband had bandaged her up, I merely checked that and made sure she was warm because there was probably a bit of shock there. I would imagine with a cut like that and the way she had hit, that she'd have a very mild concussion."

Late last week, the woman was released from hospital and will continue her recovery at home. At the end of the day, this close call had a happy ending. She and her husband will live to hike again, undoubtedly with a whole new appreciation for devices like the SPOT locator.

"The only drawback is they're not a suit of armour," said Edwards. "You still need to be very sensible in where you go and what you do, and tell people where you expect to be or where you expect to end up.

"The guy said to me 'I've been in the mountains for 30 years and I've never had an even remote close call.' Then, all of a sudden he had this, but he was equipped to deal with it which is the point.

"It's a $100 device, roughly. It could be so instrumental in saving your life."

#1332 - 2009.09.21 Frank W. Baumann - Improved SPOT messenger now available!
A much improved new SPOT messenger is now available. It features a much improved higher sensitivity GPS antenna and a strap that fits over the Help and 911 buttons, making it much less likely to trigger false alarms. It also has lights that provide information on performance- whether the GPS has a position and when a message is being sent. Go to for more info.

#1323 - 2009.08.11 Frank W. Baumann - The Good News: the 911 function really does work!
So we're halfway around the Bowron Lake canoe circuit- playing at the Chutes at the bottom end of Isaac Lake. Suddenly, we notice a motor boat rapidly coming our way and a few minutes later, two very nice facility operators jump out, ask us if we're O.K., and then inform us that we have accidently triggered a 911 alert on our SPOT messenger and that the RCMP, B.C. Park's Rangers, and Search and Rescue personnel are all standing by with a helicopter, ready to respond. As near as I can tell, the SPOT messenger, which was in the zippered compartment of my cartridge-style inflatable life vest, was accidently triggered by the zipper button in the compartment that pushed down on the 911 button on the SPOT.

Anyway, despite the embarrassment, I was really happy that the device worked as well as it did, and that the B.C. Parks rangers and their facility operators responded so quickly. But this incident should serve as a warning: make very sure that if you have a SPOT messenger turned on, there is no way that the 911 function can be accidently triggered.

A week earlier, two of my daughters were using the device in Mongolia- where an accidental 911 signal may not have been so easy to resolve!!

#1295 - 2009.06.20 Peter Malacarne - Using a Spot for about a year
I have been using the Spot Tracker with the tracking function for about a year. It took me a while to become comfortable with the device, the interface is not totally user friendly. Now that I am comfortable with the interface, I depend on the unit. I can maintain a check in schedule, put up a track, highlight significant points on a trip etc. The biggest advantage for me is the ability to give peace of mind to my friends and family who are keeping an eye on me.

I still have the original batteries, they just keep going, and going, and going....

I have found that it will work when in, and on top of, the stuff of my top pouch, of my pack. It does not do well under a forested canopy, typical kind of performance with older GPS receivers. Standing, waiting and watching for the confirming flash, will drive you absolutely insane. I cannot really disagree with any of the previous posts, just put in the mileage with the unit and does the job just fine.

The fee for the tracking feature is a bit stiff, but sure comes in handy.

#1258 - 2009.05.18 Frank W. Baumann - Units are a bit finicky
You really need to meticulously follow the instructions if you want the SPOT to work reliably. In informal tests, I've found that people make the following mistakes:

1. they try and use it indoors, or under a dense tree canopy.

2. they don't wait long enough for the unit to pick-up a GPS fix.

3. they don't hold the "OK" button down long enough (>2 seconds).

4. they don't give the unit enough time to upload the location message (20 minutes while in the clear).

#1255 - 2009.05.11 Frank W. Baumann - SPOT reference article?
It would be nice if someone with a bit more time could take the info that has been posted here and compile it into a permanent reference article.

#1254 - 2009.05.11 Frank W. Baumann - Accuracy
I haven't done any high quality research on this- but have generally found the units to be pretty accurate; as accurate as any GPS.

I just tried mine- left it on for over an hour, then hit the O.K. button, and had a reply back within a few minutes. The indicated location was spot-on (so to speak); probably accurate to 10 metres or less. Again, though, this was one controlled trial- you'd have to try many tests before you could get a definitive answer on accuracy.

I know that if you use the unit while driving, it doesn't appear to necessarily pick-up the location that you were at when you first hit the button. So while moving, there may be more error- like, I don't know if the unit registers its location when you first hit the button or when it actually sends a message through to the Globalstar satellite.

#1253 - 2009.05.11 Mitch Sulkers - Accuracy?
I recently took part in a case study session where the SPOT coordinates for the missing party actually identified a valley about three kms away from the actual site.

This doesn't seem to me to be the sort of thing that would be caused by the situation Frank alluded to earlier [quote=1. Turn your unit on long before you plan to use it so that the GPS can obtain an accurate location. Depending on your location, you may need to wait 10 or more minutes to get a good fix (the units have an "ordinary" GPS antenna that does not work very well under the tree canopy or in narrow canyons; you need to be in as open an area as possible).]

Have others heard of this kind of inaccuracy?

#1252 - 2009.05.08 Frank W. Baumann - Tracking is an extra-cost item. Unit improvements.
Besides using more battery power, tracking is an extra-cost item- US$50 per year (they had a free one year special last year).

Several stores have specials and rebates right now- which is usually a sign that a new model is about to arrive. A Google search doesn't reveal anything, though.

The most important improvement would be a high sensitivity antenna- like most of the new GPS's have. Another improvement would be a better display- one that indicates when the unit has a location fix, or even provides the location. If a LCD digital watch can show numbers with minimal battery power, surely this unit could too.

#1251 - 2009.05.08 Steve Grant - SPOT / Globalstar
If you do an Internet search for "spot" and "globalstar", you'll find plenty of confirmation that SPOT uses the Globalstar satellites. Perhaps the confusion arises from two circumstances. One is that SPOT uses the gps satellite network for its gps function. The other is as Scott explained: Globalstar phones use duplex (2-way) communications with the Globalstar satellites, while SPOT uses simplex (1-way) communications with those same satellites. SPOT may be considered to have better "reception" because it retries failed connections, while retries have to be done manually with satellite phones. Thus, for any given attempt, SPOT is more likely to ultimately get a connection than a phone, even though they use the same satellites. I have no information on comparative transmitter strength.

It would be nice if Globalstar added a tracking feature to their phones. This should not be costly to implement, and they could have a package priced for this sort of use. A problem may be that to get reception, the SPOT (or phone) can't be in a pack or pocket. For external carrying, this probably would mean waterproofing the phones.

#1250 - 2009.05.07 Scott Webster - Tracking seems useful to my mountaineer friends...
I'm not sure if I agree with the idea that mountaineers wouldn't want to use the tracking feature. Why not? A friend of mine uses it all the time. He gets up in the morning and turns it on then goes into the mountains. His wife (if she didn't go on the trip) can wake up later and check in on his progress and he doesn't have to keep pulling out the unit to push ok, he just leaves it in the lid of his pack. As long as the signal is moving you can be pretty sure that the person is actually ok, especially if they are following the proposed route from the trip plan. My friend almost never pushes the ok button because it is redundant with the tracking feature.

#1249 - 2009.05.07 Frank W. Baumann - Tracking correction
Scott is right; when tracking is on, it just updates a Google Earth map and does not send your location to pre-selected contact people, as does the O.K feature.

However, tracking does require much more battery power since the SPOT messenger still transmits a location signal to a satellite every 10 minutes for 24 hours, at which time it must be reset to continue tracking. Rarely would a mountaineer have much use for tracking- more useful is to just hit the O.K. button at appropriate spots and use that to track your progress.

And again- the SPOT messenger is not like a plane's ELT- it can't be programmed to automatically send off your location if you are hit by an avalanche, for example. In an emergency, you need to deliberately push the 911 button to alert rescue authorities.

#1248 - 2009.05.07 Scott Webster - Clarify tracking mode...
I'm not sure of exactly all the configuration possibilities of SPOT, but essentially no-one has their tracking more set up to notify anyone every 10 minutes. The way it works is that the SPOT sends the central server a location every 10 minutes and they update an online map (google map interface) webpage with your location. So your friends at home can look at the webpage and see little markers of your GPS track, updated every 10 mins. If you want to see it you just visit the webpage.

#1246 - 2009.05.07 Frank W. Baumann - More SPOT info
I just want to reinforce Scott's comment that the SPOT messenger operates on a different system than the Globalstar satellite phones, and is therefore much more reliable. Globalstar is also working hard to replace the defective satellites that degrade their satellite phone performance.

With regard to battery life, SPOT claims the following:

1. with the power ON, the unit will work for approx. 1 year; that is, its build-in GPS will work for a year on one set of lithium batteries (I have kept mine on for a month without triggering the low battery light; see below). This emphasizes my advice to treat the SPOT like an avalanche transceiver and turn it on and leave it on for your entire trip, so that it is ready to use at a moment's notice.

2. in tracking mode, it will send a message every 10 minutes for approx. 14 days. Note that you have to reset it into the tracking mode every 24 hours. Since most mountaineers would not have a need to send a signal every 10 minutes (and the time cannot be changed on the device), they likely would not make much use of the tracking function. A plane is different- there it might be very useful to have the device automatically send out a signal every 10 minutes so that rescuers can find you more easily in the event of a crash (of course, unlike an ELT, you still need to be able to activate the 911 button on the SPOT if you crash).

3. in the 911 mode, it will send a signal every 5 minutes for approx. 7 days.

4. in the OK mode, you can send up to 1900 messages.

5. the ON/OFF light will start to flash red when the lithium batteries have about 30% of their life left. This means you have a lot of warning before the batteries are no longer useable.

#1245 - 2009.05.06 Scott Webster - Do you want the extra features of the spot?
A couple comments. One regarding the globalstar satellites. The satellites currently have some specific communications problems that apply to their duplex communication. Spot doesn't use this and does not have any problems as a result. This does not have anything to do with being able to communicate through cloud cover etc., but people shouldn't confuse the issues.

Spot is essentially a PLB plus extra features. This makes it cost more than a PLB, through the annual fee. If you want the extra features, you should consider spot. If you want a PLB, then I think you should get a PLB because they are cheaper (over their lifetime) and might even have better transmission capabilities.

Spot seems ideal for the situation where someone is going on a trip and leaving someone else at home to worry about them. The internet "ok" signals and tracking (if you pay another $50 per year) help the person at home to not worry so much. Though, if you forget to hit ok, or run out of batteries, then certain worrisome people might become even more worried that usual!

Apparently the SPOT eats through batteries pretty fast on tracking mode. Since lithium batteries are fairly expensive one of my friends has taken to using his spot with rechargeable NiMH cells for the tracking mode. He carries a set of fresh Lithiums to install if he actually needs to use the 911 mode. I don't own a spot but all the people I know who have them seem to like them, primarily because their family at home seems to enjoy watching their progress online (they all bought the tracking feature).

#1242 - 2009.05.05 Steve Grant - SPOT vs PLB
There are many comparisons of SPOT vs PLB on the Internet. There seems to be no concensus as to which is better. Not surprising since they're very different products. PLB's have to have stronger transmitters to reach the government/military satellites in higher orbit than the privately owned Globalstar satellites used by SPOT. PLB's cost far more, but SPOT has an annual $100 subscription fee. SPOT probably is more vulnerable to being unable to get a signal out, but then it is more versatile. One thing I have not yet come across on the Internet is that heavy cloud cover will block the Globalstar connections. But certainly there are plenty of complaints about failed Globalstar connections. It looks like a very difficult choice.

#1241 - 2009.05.05 Jason Holliday - Not a very powerful transmitter?
Does anyone know how these compare to PLBs? I have a PLB (which my dad bought me...he both worries and likes technology), which is much heavier than the SPOT (the one I have is a few years old but even the new ones seem to be heavy). My understanding is that the PLBs have more powerful transmitters, and that the even heavy cloud cover may impede the signal of the SPOT (somewhat of a problem as epics often coincide with poor weather!).

#1240 - 2009.05.05 Steve Grant - More on the SPOT
I've looked into the SPOT system as an alternative to a satellite phone, and there's a few things I can add.

SPOT uses the Globalstar satellite phone satellites. The orbit of these satellites does not allow them to cover the far north. So if you're going to the poles, an Irridium phone is the ticket, or perhaps a PLB. Globalstar has less coverage in the mid-north (Yukon, NWT, Nunavut) than Irridium, and currently they are having satellite problems that significantly impact signal pickup times. They're even offering software that allows you to determine when you can connect as the satellites orbit. So who carries a laptop in the backcountry?

SPOT deals with this far better than satellite phones because SPOT automatically retries signals. SPOT has a separate system using the GPS satellites to locate itself. Therefore it is subject to the vagaries of two separate satellite systems. Like satellite phones, SPOT would work poorly or not at all indoors or in cars.

As an example, a few days ago in my first and only experiment, I turned on a Globalstar phone on the top of Mt. Strachan. I had a satellite connection immediately upon the phone booting up.

Another problem that has come up has to do with SPOT's "I'm ok" messages. Usually these are sent at a given time, so the at-home contacts know everything's ok. There has been a problem where, due to memory lapse or lack of satellite reception, the "I'm ok" message never gets out. The person with the SPOT can determine this by checking it, but some have failed to do so. This means the message recipient never gets an anticipated "I'm ok" message. The result has been the triggering of unneeded rescues. I understand that rescue agencies are now changing their policies so that a rescue is launched only if an "Emergency" message is received.

A tip from some kayakers is that the timing of a message can itself convey information. Like, if you send "I'm ok" at 8:00am, it means you're staying in camp for the day; if you send at 5:00pm, it means you've travelled and are at your new location. You could similarly arrange signal patterns to contain other information. The limitation is that you have only vague control over exactly when signals are sent.

I'm working on an article comparing the two main satellite phone systems, and SPOT.

#1237 - 2009.05.04 Frank W. Baumann - Excellent Product!!
I have used two SPOT messengers for over a year now and have found them to be an excellent safety device! It is also quite a lot of fun to track someone who is on a trip.

Mine are mainly used in work-related wilderness settings, mainly in British Columbia and South America.

Here are a few tricks to using them effectively:

1. Turn your unit on long before you plan to use it so that the GPS can obtain an accurate location. Depending on your location, you may need to wait 10 or more minutes to get a good fix (the units have an "ordinary" GPS antenna that does not work very well under the tree canopy or in narrow canyons; you need to be in as open an area as possible).

2. The lithium batteries that are supposed to be used have a very long life- which means you should be treating the SPOT messenger like an avalanche transceiver and not hesitate to leave it on all the time when on a trip- that way, it is ready to use immediately if an emergency occurs.

3. Note that when the "O.K.' button is pushed, a small green light starts to flash. If this is not in sync with the ON/OFF flashing green light, the unit does not have a good satellite fix. Once the "O.K." button is pushed, you may need to wait 20 minutes before the device is able to send a location signal to a satellite (it actually sends 3 signals in that time).

4. Make sure you have bought a subscription and filled out the user profile before you take the unit out. The user profile provides the text message and email addresses that you wish to send your pre-programmed message to. Also, check to make sure that there is coverage in the area where you wish to use the device.

5. Note that the "Help" button is meant to be used for non-emergency help, such as having a car break down on a remote road. We program ours to instruct a recipient to stand by when a first "help" message is received, and to arrange to get non-emergency help to the location given if three signals in a row are received from the same place.

6. Note that you can set-up more than one user profile- each one will then have its unique messages and email and text message lists.

Perhaps this information should be compiled into a "Reference" article.