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Choosing A Personal Locator Device – SPOT Gen 3 Satellite Messenger Review

SPOT Gen 3 Messenger attached to day pack

SPOT Gen 3 Messenger attached to day pack

On long remote hikes or deep winter endeavors injuries that would otherwise make for a bad day, can be deadly. Cell phone service here in the north east can unreliable, or non-existent on my T-Mobile phone. It’s important to be able to signal for help when you’re in trouble in the back country. This is where PLB’s and Satellite Communicators come in.

Before I continue, I’d like to state that I’m going to cover these devices quickly from a layman’s perspective without delving too far into how they work, what frequencies they work on, the different GPS location technologies, etc…

I’d also like to state that I bought the SPOT Gen 3 device with my own money and this is purely my opinion on the device. 


First Let’s look at the different types of personal locator devices:

Standard PLB

A PLB or Personal Locating Beacon is an electronic device that will enable you to call for help in the event of a life threatening emergency. These handheld devices are simple, there’s a power on button and an SOS button. A PLB should only be used in a life threatening emergency as it will transmit your GPS coordinates to Search and Rescue immediately… No middle man. These devices do not carry a monthly fee, but are moderately expensive up front. PLB’s utilize a battery that lasts several years in “standby” mode. They also utilize a much more powerful dedicated communication technology (SARSAT) in the event of an emergency. PLB’s typically feature an extremely powerful emitter that can penetrate heavy tree cover or bad weather. PLB devices also emit a homing frequency to pinpoint your location for the people looking for you. A PLB is recognized as the “Gold Standard” for SOS communications. However, they do lack the “non-emergency” communication functions. A popular PLB is the ACR ResQLink.

Avalanche Transceiver

Avalanche Transceivers are an entirely different device. These handheld devices are short range locators made to search out avalanche victims.  Avalanche beacons do not send an SOS message to search and rescue officials. They are designed to aid your climbing/hiking peers to find you in the event that you’re buried in snow by an avalanche. These devices switch from “Find Me” to “Search” modes so they can be used for both finding a victim, and signalling for help. Avalanche Transceivers are popular among back country skiers and mountaineers. A popular Avalanche Beacon is the Back Country Access Tracker.

Satellite Messenger

A Satellite Communicator or Messenger is similar to a PLB in that it can perform the SOS function to call for help. Satellite Communicators can transmit your GPS position to SAR similar to how a PLB would. However, Satellite communicators work on satellites similar to that of a Satellite telephone (GEOS). When “SOS” is pushed it’s transmitted to a message center who then contacts the proper authorities.  Where PLB’s and Satellite Communicators also differ is that Sat Com’s also provide a means for “non emergency” communication. Satellite Communicators allow you to “check in” or send custom emails/texts to loved ones. Some even allow you basic internet access. Two popular brands of satellite communicators are Delorme InReach and SPOT. Delorme products function similar to a cell phone, even providing Tethering, SMS texting, facebook updates, and GPS navigation. SPOT products are primitive and provide pre-written text or email messages by a push button. Both SPOT and Delorme products require a monthly or yearly subscription to function.


What I wanted:

  • Signal for help and transmit my location to Search And Rescue
  • Tell my wife I was OK
  • Tell my wife I was running late.
  • Long Battery Life
  • Inexpensive
  • Reliability
  • Small form factor
  • Light weight
  • Simple operation

I Chose the SPOT Gen 3 Messenger

Spot Gen 3 Messenger fresh out of the box 

After many hours of research, store visits, and head scratching… I chose the SPOT Gen 3 Satellite Messenger. As an added bonus, SPOT had a 50% off promotion on the device itself which brought it down to about $75 (after mail in rebate). This price is about a quarter of the price of a Delorme InReach product! The Delorme options do seem like great devices, but they were complex and offered more than I was looking for. Delorme monthly plans were also more expensive.


SPOT Gen 3 Messenger Features

  • SOS Button with protective flap to prevent accidental push
  • Three pre-written messages for “I’m OK”, “I need help” (non-emergency), and “custom message” accessible by individual buttons
  • Live GPS Tracking to www.findmespot.com that family/friends can follow while you’re on the move
  • Ability to post position to Facebook and Twitter using the “I’m OK” button
  • Long battery life (5 days of tracking, or months of standby use)
  • Rugged water and dust proof body
  • Custom profiles for different activities
  • Included strap and carabiner

Setup

findmespot.com set up screen

findmespot.com set up screen

Part of the deal with “pre-written” messages is to set them up before you hit the trail. Findmespot.com allows you to activate your device, purchase a plan, and write your messages.  The set up process was fairly painless. Just enter the ID located inside the battery compartment and your payment information… you’re good to go.


GPS Tracking

The SPOT device allows you to live track your adventures to findmespot.com. The tracking works just like any other GPS device by logging your route point by point. The “basic” plan includes the ability to track your points in 10 minute increments. More expensive options include the ability to choose between 2 1/2 and 60 minute increments. Your routes are saved online for viewing or download (in GPX format) after you’re done. You can also share the link publicly so friends and family can follow your adventures.


Sending a Message

Example of a

Example of a “non emergency” help message

The SPOT Gen 3 Messenger offers three different messages that can be sent by pushing individual buttons.  To send a message you simply power up the device, and then hold one of the pre-written message buttons until a green light illuminates and flashes. This indicates that the process of sending a message has started, the green light will flash for 1 hour. There is no visual confirmation of the message being sent or delivered. Your message options are “I’m OK”, “I need non-emergency help”, or “custom message”. These can all be customized however you like, but the subject line of the email will still contain the message type. This means you should not customize your “I need non-emergency help” button to say “I’m OK” since the email subject line your family member will receive will say “I Need Help!”. Messages can be sent to email addresses and SMS text messages. The message also includes a link to findmespot.com or google maps to see the location where the message was sent from.

 

Profile selection screen.

The Findmespot website allows you to create different profiles for different sets of messages. This means you can set up an “I’m OK” message specific to a day hike, but also have an alternative message saved to a profile for a multi-day trip.


Emergency Use

The whole point of carrying this thing is to be able to signal for help if you need it. The SPOT Gen 3 Messenger has an SOS button that will instantly transmit your GPS location to the authorities so that Search And Rescue can be dispatched. Two emergency contacts are saved on findmespot.com for authorities to contact if needed. The SOS button is protected by a rubber flap to prevent an accidental push. I can’t comment on how well the SOS button works since I’ve never had to push it! I’m just going to assume it does what it’s supposed to do.

Alternatively, there’s a “help” button with a pre-written message that can be accessed by another flap-covered button. This message is supposed to be fore “non life threatening emergencies”. I’ve customized mine to let family know that I’d be unexpectedly camping.


Where does it work?

Image taken from SPOT website

Image taken from SPOT website

The SPOT Gen 3 Messenger is a global device that should work almost anywhere in the world. SPOT provides a coverage map for those who are worried. Most areas with no coverage are in the middle of the ocean or Antarctica. So unless you’re using the SPOT Messenger on a boat, or in the deep arctic you should be OK.


Pricing

The SPOT Messenger Gen 3 retails for $149 at most outdoor outfitters. Luckily, I got mine for $75 after a mail-in rebate promotion. As with any satellite communication device, the SPOT Gen 3 requires a subscription plan to operate. The basic plan is $149 yearly, or $14.99 per month (1 year agreement). Other services like upgraded tracking will bump the price up another $49 yearly or $5 a month.


Form Factor

Inside the battery compartment

Inside the battery compartment

The SPOT Gen 3 is a small device at about 3.5″ square and 1″ thick. The device weighs only 4 ounces with the included batteries. While 4 ounces can be considered heavy by some ultra light backpacker standards, I haven’t had a problem bringing it along even on short day trips.


What I like

  • The added freedom I get while carrying the device. My family worries less knowing I can communicate or call for help. This leads to less stressful moments when I’m behind my expected pace.
  • Small and light design
  • Takes standard AAA batteries
  • Can run off USB line power in a pinch
  • Primitive functions that don’t distract from an outdoor experience
  • Cheaper initial investment than the alternatives

What I don’t like

  • No message delivery confirmation – There’s no way to tell whether or not your message was sent successfully. The light just blinks for an hour then stops… kind of unfulfilling.
  • Upgraded tracking options are expensive and should be included in basic plan.
  • Cannot customize message email subject line
  • Expense of the subscription can seem high when the device is seldom used
  • Wish there was a less expensive basic plan that only included messages without tracking options!

Who’s it for?

Hikers, Hunters, Mountaineers, Fishermen, International travelers, and just about anyone else that could require emergency assistance at the push of a button.

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6 Comments

  • Jeffrey

    December 27, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    An ACR ResQlink PLB is worth a look too. It has a 5 year battery and no fee for SOS. There’s an option to purchase a messaging program than sends custom email/text with your location.
    It’s a stronger signal (121mhz) that works globally and it dense tree cover. Everyone has preferences but I’ve been involved in search and rescue so the added upfront expenses are worth the peace of mind of not having to pay a subscription for SOS or worry about dead batteries. That’s what I carry.

    Reply
  • Jeff Cann

    June 8, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    Hi Dave, I consulted with you before I bought a SPOT Gen 3 for trail running. I’m extremely happy with it. The only time it didn’t work was when I stuck it inside the pouch of my hand-held water bottle. Not sure if the problem was being fully enclosed or in close proximity to my GPS watch. Regardless, I now only wear it clipped on my running vest and it works great. I, too, wrote about my SPOT. https://jefftcann.com/2015/12/05/spot-on-babwtr-2/

    Happy hiking.

    Reply
    • Dave Dillon

      June 9, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      Glad it worked out! Yes… the SPOT doesn’t work well if its hidden inside your pack or anything else. I keep mine clipped to my shoulder straps for both best reception and quick access to the SOS button if I fell and hurt myself. I also put a small piece of duct tape over the "SOS flap" just to keep it from accidentally getting bumped! Happy trails!

      Reply
  • Don NotComfortable

    March 1, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    Great review! I’m a long-time SPOT user, (since 2008), and I currently carry the Gen 3, (for 2 years). But as much as I like SPOT, (and it has always worked for me), I’ve been pondering Delorme’s products as an "upgrade". But the neater-skeeter Delorme products are a lot more money. Right now my wife is plenty happy with SPOT keeping her in the loop on my adventures – which means I’m happy.

    Reply
    • Dave Dillon

      March 3, 2016 at 4:13 pm

      Thanks for visiting! I’m a "gadget guy" myself and the allure of the Delorme is tempting. However, I bet if I had the ability to 2-way text my wife she’d expect a lot more communication from me… this might get in the way of the "outdoor experience" ya know?

      The spot is a nice middle ground giving you just enough communication to give your loved ones some peace of mind while also not becoming a burden! Happy wife = happy life right?

      Reply

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