SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker Review

Paul was the Ennis Del Mar to my Jack Twist as we rode our trusty steeds up to Brokeback (Sawmill) Mountain. His BMW, my KTM and our unbridled bromance on the trail. We stopped occasionally to send “all OK” messages via satellite, to take happy snaps and to take in the grand ridgeline views under a cloudless, cornflower blue sky. At a clearing that overlooks the Antelope Valley we relaxed and gnawed on sinewy strips of manly beef jerky.

“Ennis,” I said, “I’m gonna take off my pants and have you take some pictures of me. Reckon thass alright?”

“Sure, podna. Just don’t tell nobody.”

“I swear I won’t.”

And thus began our own private fashion shoot on the mountain, with me shedding my FirstGear jacket and Icon pants and puckering up in front of the lens. (Sorry, Paul.)

Actually, it was strictly a G-rated affair. Purely professional. Paul and I both have girlfriends. No really, we do (so did Ennis and Jack). We were on the mountain to test ADV gear, not herd sheep. And the backdrop provided authenticity for the pictures.

What makes ADV riding so much fun—the unpredictable conditions—is also what makes it risky. Sooner or later, you will fall down in the dirt. As with street riding, the prudent (not prudish) approach is ATTGAT. Dress for the crash, not the ride. Except for complete masochists, nobody plans to go down. Expect it when you least expect it—and be prepared accordingly—and you’re more likely to survive to ride another day. Which brings me to the first item we evaluated….

SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker

A rather bold claim is made right on the box: “Live to Tell About It.” Perhaps I’d agree if, with the press of a button, the SPOT deployed a Maxwell Smart-style Cone of Protection that would swaddle me in safety like an airplane’s flight data recorder. No, the SPOT won’t prevent you from maiming or terminating yourself, but it can signal for help, assuming you still have the wherewithal to press a button.

SPOT is an elegantly simple device that works when you need it most: outside of cell phone range. As long as you have a decent view of the sky (sorry, spelunkers), SPOT can send signals to a network of satellites. Powered by lithium batteries that provide enough juice to run the for 14 days straight, the SPOT is encased in rugged plastic and is somewhat fatter than my iPhone. It has a belt clip on the back and four simple buttons on the front: HELP, On/Off, Check/OK and 911. When the SPOT is powered on, the Check/OK button can be used to send a generic “everything’s groovy” message via text and/or email to a predetermined list of people (your SPOTteam). The list is set up online, which is also how the SPOT is activated and its features are managed. We signed up for the basic service ($99.99/year), which includes Check/OK, Help and 911, plus an optional tracking service ($49.99/year), which records the route for each trip. Various other services are available; see for details.

According to the brochure, SPOT is “designed for maximum reliability” and it performs a “self-diagnostic test each time it is powered on.” Before Paul and I left for our day-long ride, I turned the SPOT on and sent a test Check/OK message. Since I was on the contact list, I received both text and email messages that provided our GPS coordinates and a generic message that I had programmed via my online account (“Greg’s SPOT Check Ok”). The email message also included a link to Google Maps that pinpointed our exact location. At various times during our ride, I hit the Check/OK button to broadcast the same message but from different locations.

Note SPOT attached to Camelbak strap on my chest.
Note SPOT attached to Camelbak strap on my chest.

Confusingly, the Check/OK button is also used to activate the tracking function, which sends updates to my SPOT account every 10 minutes so friends and families can follow our progress (texts and emails are NOT sent to the SPOT team while tracking, just to the online account, access to which can be shared). “Check in” (SPOTchecking) and “track progress” (SPOTcasting) functions cannot be used at the same time. By using the SPOTchecking function, I inadvertently turned off the SPOTcasting function; telling one from the other based on the flashing green buttons isn’t straightforward. Better would be to have the tracking function operating in the background at all times when the unit is on, and the Check/OK function to be a separate broadcast.

When everything ain’t hunky-dory, you’ve got two options. Press the HELP button to notify your SPOTteam of a non-life-threatening situation that requires assistance, or press the 911 button to call the cavalry. Both of these functions can be used simultaneously, and both can be canceled in the event of an oops. The value of the 911 button is unequivocal: it sends SOS signals to Emergency Response Centers (as well as the primary and secondary contact numbers on your SPOT account) every 5 minutes until canceled, and with a full battery it can continue doing so for an entire week. Be sure to only use 911 in a REAL emergency, as many sheriff’s and fire departments now send invoices for frivolous rescues.

But the HELP button is a head-scratcher. By using it you’re telling your SPOTteam that you need assistance, but you can’t specify what type of assistance is required. Need gas? A flatbed truck? Clean skivvies? What makes the SPOT so practical—it’s simple design, near-universal coverage and long battery life—is also its Achilles’ heel when it comes to mundane mistakes. You can’t bang out a text message that says “Out of gas” or “Flat tire.” Because let’s face it, those are much more likely than getting your foot caught in a bear trap.

Rather than make the SPOT less useful, the limited in-the-field capabilities necessitate an active pre/post dialogue with one’s SPOTteam. That’s a good habit to get into whether or not you have a SPOT. Before your ride, tell your significant other or best friend or Mom where you’re headed, about how long you’ll be gone and—in the event of a non-life-threatening situation—what you are likely to need (provide them with a full gas can, spare flux capacitor or keys to your truck). Then, when they get your HELP message, they’ll know what to do.

All in all, I feel better having the SPOT with me. I do wish it had a carabiner clip or something else more rugged and secure than just a belt clip to attach it to my backpack or tail bag. Personal Satellite Trackers can be purchased online for $99.95 from SPOT’s website or through dealers. That plus a C-note per year for basic service is money well-spent. If friends can easily find you in East Bumblefudge the next time you run out of gas, then it will more than pay for itself on one occasion. Do factor in the additional cost of pizza and beer to reward those who rescue you from the bush.

NOTE: SPOT now offers a next-generation unit called the GPS Satellite Messenger that is smaller, lighter and more feature-rich. For more information, visit


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