Among our fears of entering the wilderness — bears, snakes, witches — getting stranded is perhaps the most rational. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can be disastrous. Thankfully, there are a host of companies making GPS-enabled devices to prevent precisely that scenario, and serve as SOS beacons should things go awry.
Spot might be the most popular of the bunch. For years its simple beacons have provided backcountry-goers with the ability to call for help with the push of a button and to send pre-programmed messages to loved ones back home. This year it complicated things (in a good way) with the Spot X, a keyboard-equipped device that lets users send and receive texts and emails via satellite as well as create breadcrumb trails and waypoints for navigation.
The Good: The Spot X stands apart as the only GPS device currently available that can send and receive text messages and emails via satellite without the presence of a phone connected via Bluetooth. That means you only have to worry about keeping one device charged, which is a boon given the rate that a cell phone’s battery drops when service is unavailable. Additionally, the Spot X comes with an assigned US cell phone number, which means that anybody with it can send text messages to it.
Who It’s For: Frequent backcountry travelers. If your outdoor pursuits don’t take you beyond the local trails that you know quite well, you might not need a Spot device (especially if those areas are in cell service). But, if you’re the type to frequent genuinely off-grid locations, either by yourself or with a group, Spot X can prove to be a critical layer of safety for you and assurance for others.
Watch Out For: The Spot X has a host of fun features (the ability to share your adventures on social media, for instance) but it’s still primarily a tool for safety in the backcountry, not a gadget like your smartphone. Navigating its user interface with its arrow buttons is a bit clunky, and punching in messages with the tiny and stiff letter buttons will immediately flush up memories of texting on a flip phone. A more serious flaw is that messages sent to the device are deleted after 72 hours of it being off, so users should know this and plan to sync messages frequently if using Spot X as a primary means of communication. Also, be aware that Spot devices (and most other GPS units) require a monthly subscription fee that offers different tiers of service, just like cell phone plans.
Alternatives: Garmin’s inReach Mini ($350), which also came out this year, is the closest competitor. It’s pricier, but it’s also smaller and maintains the ability to send and receive text messages, albeit with a cell phone on-hand. Garmin’s larger inReach Explorer+ ($450) also has this capability.
Review: An emergency beacon is one of those things that can seem like excess for all but those who are participating in National Geographic-style expeditions; they’re not. Our team learned this during a recent trip to New York’s Adirondacks, a hiking destination consisting of over six million acres. The mountains are small in comparison to the famous peaks of the west, but they’re remote — even some of the nearby towns and villages still don’t have cell coverage — and characterized by fast-changing weather that can put even the most experienced hikers in perilous situations.
The peak that we decided to tackle was Mt. Marcy, the tallest in the state. Mt. Marcy is a highly-trafficked peak, and we planned carefully (and even postponed our trip due to unforeseen weather conditions) before attempting it. We didn’t expect to need the Spot X’s emergency functions and stuck to the trail map instead of its somewhat rudimentary wayfinding capabilities, although we did use it to confirm our location using coordinates. The 14-mile trail offered close to zero cell phone reception though, which made it an ideal place to test the Spot X’s other functions, which are newer and less-proven by the company’s older devices.
Two-way texting is the newest feature to debut on a Spot (also commonly referred to as Find Me Spots or EPIRBs). The machine, which is about the size of a Blackberry but with a big antenna, can accomplish this because it not only has access to the Globalstar satellite network but also has an assigned US cell phone number, functions like an older phone in many ways. When you want to send a message, you navigate to a list of contacts, select one, and begin the timely task of typing it in using its tiny and stiff keyboard.
Contacts have to be added prior using Spot’s online interface — you can’t just punch them straight into the device like you would your cell phone. It’s not a step you can miss because the Spot X does require setup, and its manual is very straightforward on guiding you through this process (I did it in about 15 minutes the night before our hike). That’s okay, too, because you don’t buy a Spot X for carefree texting on the trail, you buy it for safety concerns.
I programmed three contacts into our Spot X: my cell phone, my email and my girlfriend’s cell phone. I subscribed all of these to “Check In,” a pre-programmed message (I chose “Everything all good! This is where I am”) that can be sent with the push of a button along with GPS coordinates that show the user’s location on Google Maps. An hour into our hike, I sent one of these digital pigeons on its way and was later notified of a response: “Glad everything is okay, but I think you have the wrong number,” it read. I had not, it turned out, forewarned my girlfriend that she might receive our coordinates from time to time (she’s so nice).
Her response validated the Spot X’s primary calling card: the ability to receive messages. She sent it from her iPhone, from an office building in Manhattan and it reached me on top of a saddle between two peaks during our approach. I checked my phone to confirm that cell service was nonexistent — I received these “Check In” messages later when we went back to town. Then I slowly punched a reply into the Spot X’s keyboard, wishing for half a second that it came with T9.
Verdict: Plain and simple, Spot X works. An SOS button is something you never want to use, but the ability to send and receive text messages from the bottom of a ravine or a remote summit, where cell phone service is nonexistent, is something of a marvel. The device itself is somewhat clunky, but that’s okay — it’s a safety tool, not an iPhone.
What Others Are Saying:
• “Finally, a device that will send texts independently, without a linked smartphone. In that niche, the X indeed delivers. It is the only device to do so. However, the improvements offered by the X are eclipsed by the nearly simultaneous release of the tiny Garmin InReach Mini. The Mini is much smaller than the SPOT. It requires your smartphone for efficient texting, but the signal coverage is better.” — Jediah Porter, Outdoor Gear Lab
• “This product would be so much better it was just a streamlined satellite-based two-way SMS (only) messaging device with an SOS capability, pre-defined messages, ad hoc text messaging, and tracking, that didn’t require a computer to activate and use. I think SPOT underestimated how difficult it is to implement a new graphical user interface from scratch on proprietary hardware. They’ve also missed the boat in not integrating the device with Smartphones, which have become the defacto single device that most backcountry users and travelers want to use instead of a proprietary unit.” — Philip Werner, Section Hiker
• “As a standalone device, it should provide easy two-way communication and tracking from nearly anywhere on the globe at a price many can afford. And ultimately, that should help provide more peace of mind when far off the grid.” — Sean McCoy, Gear Junkie
Weight: 6.8 ounces
Battery Life: Up to 240 hours, depending on mode
Subscription Required: Yes, starting at $12/month
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