Sunday, June 07, 2009

SPOT is "spot on"...and a cool piece of kit!

Something a little different for the blog - a "gear review"! Several folks have expressed an interest in the SPOT Satellite Messenger and how it might be useful on sea kayak trips, particularly multi-day - so here's one more perspective. Before going any further, there are lots of reviews out there written by folks with much more technical knowledge than this writer! It's a user friendly device, however, so not hard to write about and it floats! (Yup, I've watched perfectly serviceable stuff head for the bottomless depths!)

In a word though - I think it's "spot on"! SPOT is a portable, personal electronics device (no larger than a small digital camera). You could think of it as a combination GPS and one-way satellite phone. It has the ability to alert authorities in a worst-case scenario in the wilderness or on the water. Most of us are pretty attuned to issues related to safety but, having said that, we also know that stuff can happen. Beyond its obvious use for safety-related purposes, the SPOT unit is really nifty device that can keep the folks back home "up to speed" on exactly where you are, in real time. So unless you're so peeved that you couldn't go on the trip, chances are you'll enjoy seeing where your children / spouse / friend / or local club is enjoying a paddle or wilderness hike - so long as they want you to know, of course.

The SPOT unit has a built-in GPS chip and an antenna which enables it to transmit your location and a brief pre-determined (and changeable) message to the Globalstar satellite network system. The transmission is "line of sight" which simply means the unit needs a reasonable patch of clear sky - it is important, however, to have a good "patch". The receiving satellite then transmits your location to a ground station which forwards the message (with your location's exact coordinates by latitude and longitude) to those you select via cell phone text message, email - or both. Transmission is "one way" only, so there is no ability to receive a message confirming that yours has been sent and received. Having said that, all of ours got through just fine.

The SPOT unit enables you to send three types of messages, again, all with your exact location: you're OK and just checking in; you need help (not life-threatening); and "911" which means you are in a life-threatening situation. The latter message will receive a response from Search and Rescue agencies. Ongoing tracking, with a position fix every ten minutes, is an optional service but one which, in my opinion, is well worth the cost. Details on use and costs etc are available at the SPOT website ( and through numerous reviews. I found it easy to use, provides a huge measure of safety, and is definitely fun for family and friends.

We recently took the SPOT unit on our sea kayak circumnavigation of Salt Spring Island. Even with a couple of VHF marine radios and cell phones, SPOT added one more layer of security. It seemed ideal - we'd be away for three and a half days, lots of clear sky from the water, and folks back home who wanted to know where we were. Our position and track was displayed on Google Maps and it was cool reviewing the trip later by these way points. Given that cell phone service was patchy, it was also way of "checking in" at the beginning and end of each paddle day. I know one paddler, who wished she was there, enjoyed the paddle vicariously by keeping track of our "tracks". (As on the image at the top of the blog entry.)

Again, there's lots of info out there. I think SPOT's worth the cost, especially for those who get beyond cell phone range. It would be useful to individuals and clubs who enjoy multi-day trips - or even a day paddle. It is certainly just the device for those who like to log a record of their route on the water, or of course, on land.



  1. Receiving those "OK" texts and checking the tracking really does makes one feel part of the adventure. Next time I am looking forward to sending instead of receiving!

  2. The SPOT does rather take the adventure out of taking short cuts though! Just think of all those adventures that would have been missed out on if you'd had one of these tools years ago.

  3. Yeah, well I remember one (at least one!) adventure in the Kananaskis back-country when I'd have been pretty tempted to at least push the "help" button - if for no reason than to let folks know that I probably wouldn't be home in time for my usual Sunday morning responsibilities! Pretty sure it was going to be a snow cave! I know, I know, you found the trail!