SPOT GPS Satellite Tracking

by Mike Bielert

Note:  Before we get to Mike’s write-up, I just want to pass on my thanks to Mike for putting this information together and allowing me to share it with everyone here on the site.  If you are prone to heading out into an area without having a few Jeep friends along, getting one of these should be a no-brainer kind of decision.  I’m not advocating to go Jeeping by yourself….but we all know that some folks do and this would be a good companion to have.

Technology is a wonderful thing. When it works. How many of us go wheeling and leave family behind to wonder where we are. Or what if something happens and we need help of some kind or even serious medical help, but the cell phone can’t get a signal and the CB isn’t helping either.

Some time ago, I found out about SPOT, which is essentially a satellite tracking device. There’s no screen on it, just a series of 4 LEDs, and 4 buttons which when you know what they do and how to read the LEDs will tell you everything you need to know about what the unit is doing.

SPOT is primarily designed to give adventurers a way to send for help (be it an emergency situation or not), but also has a couple of other interesting features built in. I’ll try to explain them, but check out some of the links for more info.

There are 4 basic modes/functions that SPOT will do. They are “Help”, “OK”, “911” and my favorite “Tracking”.

Help mode is actuated by pressing the Help button once. The LED will start flashing and will continue to flash till the Help message has been sent or until the unit automatically goes out of Help mode (after about 20 minutes). Help is supposed to be used when you need help but it’s not an emergency situation. The really cool thing about this feature is that the message that is sent, is one that you put in ahead of time thru the SPOT website. Of course the message should be generic enough that it doesn’t describe any specific issue other than the fact you need some help. My message essentially says that I need some help but it’s not a life threatening emergency. The message will be sent as an email and as a text message to 5 different e-mail addresses and 5 different cell phones as a text message. So you could contact up to 10 different friends to get help. When SPOT sends the message, it automatically sends the current GPS coordinates as part of the message.

The OK mode is essentially the same as the Helpmode, except that it’s supposed to be used to let your SPOT team know that you’re ok and just checking in. Again, my message is generic in that it says that I’ve either stopped for gas, food, or for the day and that everything is alright. As with Help, the message is sent to up to 10 different individuals via e-mail or text message. And just like in Help, the current GPS coordinates are automatically included in the messages.

The most serious mode is 911 and I seriously hope that I never have to use this feature. When the 911 button is pressed, it sends a signal (with your predetermined message and current GPS coordinates) to a Response Center with your exact location and that you need assistance. The GEOS International Emergency Response Center alerts the appropriate agencies worldwide, for example contacting 9-1-1 responders in North America and 1-1-2 responders in Europe. This feature also lets you put in a message that the GEOS folks will see. I put in a description of the vehicle, plate number and description of who is in the vehicle and if there’s any known medical issues that they should be aware of.

SPOT GPS Satellite Tracking

The coolest feature ( and the reason I actually bought it ) was for the “Tracking” mode. The SPOT website, lets you set up specific web pages that your friends/family can access to actually see where you are and can get the GPS coordinates. The website uses Google Earth to track where you are so the amount of detail is quite amazing.

Tracking is activated by just pressing and holding the OK button for around 3 seconds. SPOT will send signals every ten minutes until the feature is turned off. The signal is bounced back to SPOTs website and a data point/flag is placed on the map. You can get the GPS coordinates as well as other information from each of the data points/flags.

The tracking mode provides piece of mind for friends & family by letting them know and track where you are, but it can also be used in case you get lost. I was on a cross country trip when I lost my bearings and no idea which way was north. The paper maps didn’t help either.  I pulled out my cell phone and called home to ask my wife to look up where I was by looking at the webpage I had set-up. Couple minutes later I was on my way in the right direction again. The detailed Google Earth images are detailed enough that she could tell me that around the next turn was the landmark I was looking for.

SPOT is a great tool at a reasonable cost. It’s easy to operate and is very durable and well built. There are some considerations to using the unit that you should be aware of.

  • The unit should always be placed so the logo on the unit has a clear view of the sky. But, I’ve put it in the glove compartment of our car, in the TourPak of my bike and also clipped to the visor of our jeep and it’s always worked practically flawlessly. It will miss signals if it happens to try and transmit when the sky is too obstructed (buildings, trees, tunnels etc) or if it’s facing the wrong way. I’m told that the traditional GPS units have the same issues though.
  • The unit will float, but is not self-righting.
  • There is an annual basic subscription cost for the unit and an additional fee for the tracking feature (see the website). There are periodic deals for this though.
  • It’s designed to use Lithium batteries, which are pretty expensive right now. It will work on regular alkaline batteries, but there’s some debate over whether or not they hinder performance, and they certainly don’t last as long. I’ve been using the included batteries since June, and they’re still working fine.
  • There are a pile of accessories from other vendors showing up. Different mounts, skins, cases etc.

There are lots sources for information on the web for SPOT. Here a few to check out:

Want some fun? Put in the wife’s car or kids car and don’t tell them. Then ask them how the mall was or question why they took the route they did. The looks are priceless!!!!!