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Old 12-29-2010   #1
Denver, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2004
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 3,097
SPOT vs. Sat phone

Looking for some opinions of a spot vs. a sat phone. Both seem to be able to connect backcountry users with rescue folks when the shit hits the fan. SPOT seems simple and cheaper, but you can only really send SOS / OK with gps coordinates (new model has a minimal text feature). Sat phone costs more but can deliver detailed info. I've been internally debating the need for details when the usual response will be helicopter or SAR team regardless.

Also, seems like neither the sat phones or the spot can give you gps coordinates. It woudl be cool to have a combo gps / messenger. Maybe they already make a single device that does it all?

The main use I am thinking of is wilderness kayaking or multidays.

Anyone have any experience using either of these two?

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Old 12-30-2010   #2
wasatchbill's Avatar
Riverdale, Utah
Paddling Since: 1977
Join Date: Apr 2007
Posts: 228
Endless bad reviews about SPOT on
SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger - Special Edition Holiday Kit at
"The SPOT II has failed and the SPOT folks are difficult to work with. Bad attitudes to be polite. Don't buy SPOT, they just aren't worth it."
Also a $100 annual fee, they break, don't work, etc.

This Coast Guard guy says to get a 406MHz PLB:
SPOT Personal Tracker at

Here is a good article for paddlers. Seems a bit dated; the REI prices are lower now.
Review Personal Locator Beacons paddlers wilderness survival rescue PLB | Canoe & Kayak Magazine
Here is what sells right now for 406MHz PLBs. They are $250 to $500.
Personal Locator Beacons at

Here is a very interesting article on called: The Problem With PLBs, ACR, Spot Messenger, Etc. Its about false alarms.
The Problem With PLBs, ACR, Spot Messenger, Etc. - The Backcountry Skiing Blog

Sat phones look like they are a couple thousand$$$, plus expensive service plans.

Some of the PLBs have a GPS chip, but it sounds like they can't be used as a GPS; its only for their homing signal. I am not sure what other GPS unit functionality may be out there along these lines.

I would prefer a device that was basically more like cell phone coverage (or text). Too bad SPOT does not sound like a reliable or reputable company, from the reviews.
The $250 McMurdo unit REI stocks has some good reviews.

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Old 12-30-2010   #3
rockinRio's Avatar
Thornton, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1999
Join Date: Jul 2006
Posts: 231
My wife's work uses the SPOT for their 40-day courses in the Wyo Wind Rivers Range. They also carry Sat phones. Here is my upshot.

They have had trouble getting a signal with the Sat phones at times. But once they find a good spot communication is fair. Usually use Sat phones for situation evaluation, or coordinating a non-life-threating evac.

The SPOT sends signals everyday without much of a problem, and I haven't heard any complaints from instructors or course coordinators.

While not every course carries a Sat phone, each one does carry a SPOT.

They've never had to use the SPOT for emergency evac. so I can't say how that fairs.
You ARE a soul, you HAVE a body.

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Old 12-30-2010   #4
Jenks, Oklahoma
Join Date: Oct 2004
Posts: 1,408
No experience with SPOT, but experience with Sat Phones.

Sat phones are great for letting folks know that you may not get out the day you planned or need some help getting off earlier. Have been on trips where the Sat phone made bad situations manageable without calling out the authorities.

We have rented Sat phones for trips and will continue to do that until prices drop which they should do fairly soon.

I have a friend with a SPOT and she and her folks enjoy it as it plots where she is on the Internet. Not aware of any emergency use of her SPOT. My take is the SPOT system is a great idea, needs more time in the field to get all the bugs out, but the idea is great.

Bottom line, given a choice I would take a Sat phone, because you can use it in so many ways even to get scores of the big game back home. SPOT would help in situations where you need the rescue chopper for sure, but reading various message boards, SPOT users have called out the rescue teams by mistake many times. Kind of like all the home alarms going off and at least in my town, police do not race to the home alarm and some are charging if no true breakin etc.
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Old 12-30-2010   #5
Beaverton, Oregon
Paddling Since: 2005
Join Date: Jun 2010
Posts: 569
I have one of the first gen SPOTs, and I like it. It has accurately reported the coords everytime I've hit the button. The trick is that it needs a clear view and about five minutes to get the info off.

I can't speak to the 911 button's effectiveness personally, but I know someone who had to use it, and I'm happy they did.

Coast Guard rescues rafters in Aniakchak National Monument | Coast Guard News
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Old 12-30-2010   #6
Randaddy's Avatar
Eastern Slope, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1980
Join Date: Jun 2007
Posts: 2,404
I have used the SPOT all over the west, from Ladore to Grand Canyon and many other places deep in the earth. Of the HUNDREDS of check-in/OK signals I've sent, I'm fairly certain that all of them were received. I even imported them into Google Earth after a long trip and took a virtual tour. It's pretty cool.

Rangers and SAR people would prefer you have a satellite phone so they can get more information from you. I'm kind of frustrated with the Grand Canyon rangers right now, because I was told in 2009 that "SPOTs work great! Every time one has been used the evacuation has been successful and the GEOS insurance has been reliable for reimbursing evacuation and SAR fees." This year the rangers told our trip leader that SPOT devices are inadequate and that they highly recommend Sat phones to give detailed information.

My opinion is that they obviously want you to be able to communicate better, but they aren't the ones paying for it. If your "911" and "help" features are prepared with adequate information (i.e. I know where the nearest downstream landing zone is, I know how to prepare a landing zone, we have X medical experience, this is why we will push this button, etc.) they can get adequate info with your inexpensive SPOT device.

It's probably frustrating when any SAR team gets a generic emergency message. Just be detailed in your information and have a competent emergency contact.
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Old 12-30-2010   #7
Los Alamos, New Mexico
Paddling Since: 1983
Join Date: Oct 2007
Posts: 168
I have been trying to figure out the same choice for myself. Both for rafting trips and for solo motorcycle trips. I have read many good and bad things on the SPOT. No conclusion yet on my part.

This thread from the ADVrider motorcycle websiite has some interesting info from someone who actually works at the company that makes the SPOT. He explains a number of technical issues pretty well. The info is buried in the 155 pages of posts, but is worth looking for.

The Great Big SPOT Thread - ADVrider

(Note that this is a huge multi year thread that started in 2007, but has had regular contributions and questions. If you think Buzz folks can go on and on about gear, you should see some of the 3000+ page threads on certain motorcycle models.)
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Old 12-30-2010   #8
Arvada (Denver), Colorado
Join Date: Jul 2005
Posts: 250
Google and check out Lightsquared at What We Do - LightSquared and maybe do a Google Alert to follow its progress.

It's a new company that will offer combined 4g LTE broadband wireless and satellite services via retail outlets such as, possibly, Walmart, Target, and any company that wants to retail it at competitive prices to, say, Verizon, etc. rather than Lightsquared retailing it. Lightsquared will only wholesale the service and not compete with the retailer, according to their model.

Denver is one of the first markets to get it, if it gets through all the hoops, by 2012 and maybe as early as 2011.

The satellite was launched November, 2010 and, after a glitch that prevented the antenna to totally open, is now ready to go and just needs to go through the process and get more funding. Still a tall order to make it but this looks like it could be the answer for remote communications.
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Old 12-30-2010   #9
~Bank's Avatar
Ashville North Carolina, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1983
Join Date: Jul 2010
Posts: 274
PLB = personal locater beacon

I have an ACR 406mhz PLB with a 121.5mhz honing signal waterproof beacon. You can customize your distress signal. If I activate mine it sends the msg "I am not lost, I am seriously injured". I haven't had to use it. I hope it will work if I need it. Anybody have any experience? Mine has no monthly fees and can not send updates that I am ok. It retails for $650 I found it new for $278 on amazon...
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Old 12-31-2010   #10
wasatchbill's Avatar
Riverdale, Utah
Paddling Since: 1977
Join Date: Apr 2007
Posts: 228
Hi Brian,
Thats exactly the kind of unit the Coast Guard guy recommended here:
SPOT Personal Tracker at
I see that I need to clarify my previous post: go to that link, then click on Reviews. The first one is by "SAR Responder"; read that. Here is an excerpt:

"Save your money for a real 406MHz beacon! You'll spend just as much once you add the cost of the annual subscriptions and extra services!

As someone with Coast Guard Search and Rescue experience who is very familiar with SPOT, (also an AT and PCT alum) I wanted to add my review from the perspective of someone who has responded to distress beacons. I am a fan of any device that enhances safety, and I first learned about SPOT with an open mind.

However, I have since found many reasons to dissuade mariners and others from using the device. I can't stress strongly enough the need to go with a 406 MHz beacon, such as an EPIRB / ELT / or PLB as the distress-alerting device of choice. As a reference, I'll point to SPOT's own web site.

Unfortunately, it is full of half-truths and other misleading information." Go to that link and read the rest.
Yes, SPOT can work, they have a fancy website that tracks where you are, and there are one or two glowing reviews from people whose lives were saved. But an 406MHz beacon would have saved those peoples lives just as well, with a more reliable satellite system (the SPOT system has gone down in the past), no annual fees, etc, etc.

At the SPOT II link in my first post, click on Reviews again.
SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger - Special Edition Holiday Kit at > Reviews
Here is an excerpt from one of the reviews:
"The device is small and seems well manufactured. The device is easy to use albeit its very limited in function.

The shocker comes when one is about to activate it.
This is a unique device and hence escapes the radar that regulates fair consumer polices regarding cell phones.
The hidden policies of Spot is a bit of a shocker considering they are illegal if it applied to cell phones.

For one thing, to activate the unit, one "MUST" agree to auto renewal, which gives Spot the right to charge the credit card about a month before it the subscription expires.

Second, Spot has the right to change prices at will and NOT inform the customer about the change in price.

Third, if the customer wants to cancel auto renewal, he must also cancel the rest of the year in which he had already paid. Spot claims that the customer can request a refund for the months he did not use. I have a feeling this process is filled with bureaucracy.

Fourth, the customer has to request that the auto renewal be canceled 45 days before the end of the subscription period."

This gives you an indication of what this company is like. Read the other reviews if you are still thinking about getting a SPOT.

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