MSRP: $249.99 (does not include subscription plan)
Satellite trackers are handy tools that can offer a chance of salvation if things go wrong in the wilderness, there’s no doubt about that. As with micronuts in soft sandstone, however, I’m leery of depending on them too much.
I’ve been using the SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Messenger for the last several weeks, testing out its navigational tools and messaging capabilities. I was instructed not to test the SOS function; I was assured absolutely that it works, so I have to assume it would function much better than the casual messaging did. Overall, the device works but isn’t perfect. I’ll get into those details shortly, but first let me tell you about my very first experience with a GPS device, back in 1998 when I was 16….
I was with my dad, stepmom and our friend Dale on a weeklong, off-trail backpack trip on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Our route was a loop that descended a side canyon, traversed down the main corridor of the Colorado River and then went back to the rim by another side canyon. It was mid-June–a terrible time to be there because of the extreme heat, but I was a student and the adults were teachers, so summer break was our opportunity to travel. During all those miles of hiking, Dale had his nose glued to his latest toy, a global positioning system (GPS). It was technology that was just beginning to become available to civilians. Similar to early cell phones, Dale’s GPS was obscenely large compared to modern devices–about the size of a small brick. Dale was constantly comparing the computer’s accuracy to our location on the topo map. All week long, the GPS proved to be quite reliable. Then, on the last day of our trip, the hardest day, when it was time to hike out of a deep slot canyon, we got lost. Or thought we were lost.
To get back to the car, we needed to bushwhack up one of several gullies that were all capped by cliffs. There was a specific, fourth-class chimney that would lead us back to the rim and civilization. We had a guidebook description and a topo map to find it but the terrain was difficult to read from below. We began looking to the GPS for extra help with navigating. We were sore, scraped, blistered and sunburned after days on the go. Now that we were finally out of the shady confines of the slot canyon below, the desert sun beat down on us. Cicadas buzzed. We thrashed through tall, dry grass, thorny mesquite trees and cactus. After two hours of bushwhacking, Dale delivered some bad news: “Um… the GPS indicates we should be in the next gully over.”
I leaned on my hiking pole in defeat. Sweat dripped from my nose. The high North Rim seemed to drift farther and farther away, like a ship pulling away from the dock. There was nothing to do except correct our mistake and backtrack until we reached the mouth of the next wash. But when we got there, we had more bad news: “Now the GPS is indicating that the first gully was the correct one,” Dale said.
Now we really did have to backtrack, having wasted precious hours and energy.
We learned later that, in the 1990s, the government employed an “intentional degradation of accuracy” on civilian GPS signals, referred to as Selective Availability; the practice ended in May 2000, according to GPS.gov. Selective Availability meant that every so often a GPS user would randomly receive coordinates that were wrong, in the name of national security.
Whatever caused the inaccurate reading on Dale’s GPS, we hadn’t relied on it to find our way on that Grand Canyon trip until the moment when we second-guessed ourselves. And it hosed us. Ever since, I’ve been wary of investing too much faith in a gadget.
So, about my experience with the SPOT X: It was particularly nice to have on a snowy excursion in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness and on a solo climb in the desert. I could send and receive unlimited messages from my wife in places where I couldn’t get cell service–most of the time, that is–and the SPOT could help me navigate to various waypoints that I had entered as I hiked along or that I had previously marked on a map using my computer at home. The battery life was generally excellent; I even left it out completely in the open during a 20-degree bivy and the battery didn’t lose a single bar. The SPOT X is light (7 oz./198g) and I hardly noticed it when it was clipped to the back of my harness (it comes with a reliable Velcro strap that has a small metal clip).
But I’ve had some frustrations with the device.
Connectivity is the most important aspect of any satellite messenger. Currently there are two competing satellite networks: Globalstar and Iridium. SPOT utilizes the Globalstar network, which does not have complete global coverage: it lacks such areas as the South Pole and Pacific Ocean. Iridium has complete global coverage. Theoretically that difference shouldn’t affect someone using a SPOT X in North America, which is well within Globalstar’s coverage. But I was surprised how tedious it often was to establish a satellite connection.
The directions make it very clear that the device needs a “clear view of the sky with no obstructions” to perform optimally. Yet even on hilltops, with nothing taller than me for miles except a few 10-foot juniper trees, I sometimes had to hold the device over my head and wait a few minutes for a connection. I also was surprised that I had trouble getting a connection on top of a 400-foot desert spire. This patchy coverage is presumably why my wife only received, on average, about three out of four messages that I sent to her, while I received even fewer of her replies. For a climber, these summit locations are about as optimal as it gets for having a “clear view” of the sky, so that reinforces my wariness about depending on it too much.
The “tracking” and “waypoint” functions were my favorite to play with. In tracking mode, the SPOT will send out a signal at various intervals, which are adjustable. Greater frequency provides a more detailed “breadcrumb trail” of where you traveled on the map, and less frequency conserves the battery. The SPOT X has an average battery life of 10 days while set to a 10-minute tracking interval. Meanwhile, people back home can follow your progress on a map in almost real time if you set up a private or public “locate page” before you hit the trail.
The waypoint function allowed me to navigate to preset points or to mark them as I went along. This function could be very helpful for finding my way back if I was lost in the woods or if I wanted to mark the location of cached gear or supplies. The device does not have pinpoint precision, however, and is regularly off by at least several meters, which seems to be common for these devices in general, as the quality of a satellite signal can vary at any given time, sometimes bouncing off canyon walls and such. Obviously my position on the map wasn’t changing much when I climbed Grand View Spire in Colorado National Monument, but when I checked my route on the computer afterward, two out of the 20-something tracking intervals were off by about a quarter mile.
The SPOT X has a built-in keypad. Some other devices have to be synced to an iPhone if you want to type efficiently but the SPOT’s built-in keypad makes it not so bad to punch out a sentence or two and it doesn’t necessitate you to bring your phone along to do so. Still, I found the keys to be stiff and cumbersome, and typing accurately took some practice. I much preferred using predefined messages that I wrote on my computer and saved to my device beforehand, as it allowed me to send messages with the push of only a few toggle/select buttons.
Speaking of stiff buttons, after the latest firmware update, the tracking function was relegated to a button that is hard to push and hold down for the requisite “3 seconds.” Prior to the update, tracking was activated by either the button or by selecting it on the Main Menu screen, with the latter being much easier. The button is particularly annoying to use with cold fingers.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the SPOT X uses a dedicated phone number while some other devices will send messages from a number that will never be exactly the same, and the only way to send a message to the user is if the user initiates contact. With the SPOT X it is possible for someone to initiate contact with you even if you haven’t sent a message to them. The dedicated number also means that people will be able to quickly identify a message as coming from you.
SPOT is also working to enable the device to post directly to Facebook and Twitter.
While there is room for improvement, the SPOT X does work and it is one of the more affordable devices on the market. It’s certainly a worthwhile tool that can save your butt if things go bad in the middle of nowhere.
I must admit, however, that I generally prefer to enjoy the wilderness without too many electronic gadgets, and carrying a satellite messenger did seem to change my mindset a little bit. On the other hand, my wife certainly felt better knowing I had it with me.
Alpinist Digital Editor Derek Franz grew up in a strange time when electric typewriters were still common and Apple IIe computers were the standard in school tech labs. He didn’t get an email address or a cell phone until he went to college.
SOS function allows you to send a distress signal from almost anywhere, anytime (need an open view of the sky and some parts of the planet lack satellite coverage)
Two-way, unlimited text messaging
Uses a single dedicated phone number
Navigation tools are easy to use
Built-in keypad makes typing easier than other devices
Preset messages can be typed on a computer
Long-lasting battery life
Waterproof to 1 meter and impact-resistant
Less expensive than competing brands
Satellite network lacks complete global coverage, such as the South Pole and Pacific Ocean
Even with a wide, clear view of the sky it often requires several minutes to locate satellites, which can hold up tracking and waypoint functions
Two-way messaging is not instantaneous or perfectly reliable
Buttons are stiff and hard to push (particularly the “back” and “tracking” buttons), and using the text keys takes some practice; these are hard to use with cold fingers.