They say it’s harder than ever to get away from it all, but as any cellphone owner will tell you, there are still plenty of places in the world where it’s all but impossible to get a signal. While that may be an inconvenience for those who want to find out if they should pick up eggs on their way home, it literally can mean life or death for a hiker lost or injured in the backcountry.
But while cell towers may be scarce in the wilderness, you’re almost always under the watchful eye of an orbiting satellite. That’s where SPOT comes in. The company makes a line of satellite communication products including the SPOT Connect -- a compact, rugged device that links your smartphone to those satellites and by extension, to the rest of the world. On its own, the SPOT Connect can serve in an emergency even without a phone. Pressing the SOS button will send the device’s current location to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center so a rescue team can be dispatched. (A flip-off cover over the button prevents accidental calls for help.)
The SPOT Connect is small, rugged and —when paired with the free companion app—very powerful.
It’s when you “connect” (hence the name) your smartphone to the device, however, that the real magic happens. The SPOT Connect pairs with your smartphone over Bluetooth and uses a free app to provide the bulk of the device's functionality. In early testing, pairing over Bluetooth was often problematic; but the company released updates to both its app and the device’s firmware and since then, pairing has been flawless and rock solid.
A Call in the Wild
We tested the iOS app, but the company has a version for Android devices as well. In addition to the straightforward SOS function, the app allows other, less dire messages to be sent through the Connect. Being able to use the Connect in non-emergency situations greatly increases its appeal. Instead of a call for help, for instance, you can send an "all's well" message to people on a predefined list. You can even set up other short messages (up to 41 characters) in a library within the app to send later, along with your location: "Made it to the next checkpoint," for instance, or "delayed but all OK" to reassure folks back home. You can also post messages to your Facebook or Twitter accounts.
Is This Thing on?
We tried the SPOT Connect on a 50-mile canoeing trip through the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area between Minnesota and Canada. In this most remote of areas, where the stars were so bright they hurt your eyes and there was nothing more motorized than a hand-paddled canoe, the SPOT Connect/iPhone combination worked flawlessly, delivering much-appreciated updates to both our list of loved ones back home and Facebook followers alike. Alas, we had to wait until we got back to base before we could confirm our messages were received. Like other similar devices and "Personal Locator Beacons," communication with the SPOT Connect is one way only, it can transmit messages, but not receive them.
The Connect also has a Track Progress function that lets you send your location and track your progress on SPOT's Google Maps-enabled website, as well as a "type-and-send" feature that lets you send on-the-fly messages, although there's an additional charge for these features.
Putting a Price on Peace of Mind
Cost is the one issue with the SPOT Connect. For while the ability to send for help in a life-or-death situation may be priceless, SPOT's $100 a year basic service fee can be pretty steep if your sojourns rarely take you out of cell range. (The device itself costs another $170 and is useless without a service plan.) Also worth noting is the fact that SPOT uses the Globalstar Satellite Network, which means a few of the more remote areas of the world aren't covered. If your travel plans include the Arctic, Antarctic or the southern tip of Africa, for example, you may not be able to connect to a satellite willing to carry your message.
For trekkers who want extra peace of mind, however, SPOT does what it says and does it well. For those adventuresome travelers, the SPOT could well be seen as a bargain. We only wish there were more options for those with more limited needs -- the option to buy a week's worth of service, for instance, or to pre-purchase a specific number of trips.