14 July 2010

bikefix Initial Review: Spot 2 Satellite GPS Messenger

Over 20+ years of mountain biking, I have been extremely fortunate. Not just for the experiences I've had, friendships I've made, and places I've seen, but also in that my riding has been largely uneventful. My encounters with wildlife and terra firma, while occasionally frightening, have generally been minor, close to home, and/or in the company of others. Still, as I and my riding companions get older and our schedules busier, I find myself on more and more solo rides, often on little-traveled trails and outside of cell phone range.

After an old friend took a very fast trip down a mountain (followed by a very slow trip to the hospital) after a simple stumble and after literally decades of rolling the dice, it seemed like it was time to look into a little insurance. Between cost and size, a satellite phone was out of the question. The satellite phone network's coverage, however, is worlds better than cell phones (which I do tend to carry). Enter the Spot 2 Satellite GPS Messenger. The Spot 2 is Spot's second-generation personal locator. For $170, the little device (a bit larger than a deck of cards) uses a GPS chip and the satellite phone network's messaging capability to send a variety of one-way messages to a central server. From there, and depending on urgency, those messages go to loved ones' cell phones, their e-mail accounts, or to emergency services.

Though they've been around for a couple of years, Spot's devices are the first that I've seen targeted at the consumer. The compact size and easy use mean that it's an unobtrusive little guy to carry around. While the Spot isn't on on every ride, it has wrung dozens of hours out of the three included AA batteries. Just like I started carrying a camera on my rides when they became small and cheap enough, Spot does the same for brings satellite messaging. After all, a fancy sat phone or shortwave radio is no good if it's too big to bring along. Since buying my Spot in April, it has been along on every ride and a couple of hikes and has been far from a burden.

Setting up the Spot 2 was relatively easy as well. I was able to enter two custom messages (an "OK" and an "I'm fine but running late" in my case) to be sent to a couple of e-mail and cell phone accounts. In addition to the basic $99/year service (which is what forwards these messages on), I went with a GEOS search and rescue insurance (up to $50,000 extraction-related expense coverage, up to twice per year) for $13 per year and progress tracking & mapping for a pricey $50 per year.

At a little under $1 per month, the additional GEOS coverage seems well worth it- those helicopter rides can get pricey. Fortunately, I can't report on how it works first-hand. The progress tracking & mapping, on the other hand, has been a bit of a disappointment. Unless your spouse/parole officer needs to be able to see your whereabouts at any time, the progress tracking just doesn't have the resolution needed to be very useful to cyclists. With one check-in every 20-35 minutes, it might make sense for boaters or hikers on a well-defined trail, but I wasn't able to reliably map any of my regular rides with the service.

Still, for under $10 per month, it seems as though the basic service and S&R coverage make a lot of sense. The messages sent to e-mail and cell phones (as text messages) include GPS locations and links to Google Maps, which have been very accurate in my experience. "OK" and custom messages get the lowest priority on the satellite network, but still land within 10-15 minutes. Loved ones will be far happier knowing you're safe (just don't send them a mountaintop "I'm OK!" message when playing hooky on a workday). More importantly, having the ability to summon emergency services within a reasonable period of time when things go pear shaped can make a huge difference in one's chances of survival. That's pretty cool and puts the Spot 2 well on it's way to being a bikefix Pick. I'll report back if anything exciting happens- but am hoping not to have to.



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