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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Satellite "messenger" can summon help even where there's no cell service

Like our fictional movie friend E.T. when you need to send a message and traditional (phone) methods won’t suffice, you need to step it up to the next level. For boondocking RVers the next level won’t involve building your own intergalactic transmitting device, but it will involve sending your message into space.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) and The Spot Satellite GPS Messengers hereafter referred to as “Spot”. Both can summon emergency help to your exact location when boondocking in areas where your cell phone won’t work. Both systems work via satellites orbiting the earth relaying your message to the appropriate people on the ground.
A Boondockers Best Friend!

The Spot however, offers several advantages to boondockers in addition to sending an emergency signal. The feature I find most beneficial is the “I’m okay” option. Depressing this button sends an electronic message to family and friends (up to 100) letting them know where you are located and that you are doing fine. When my wife and I travel, we pretty much know our route, but not how much time we plan on staying in any one particular area (another advantage of boondocking). By supplying the intended route to our adult children ahead of time they can keep track how far we have progressed each day (we send an “I‘m okay” message every evening). If we fail to check in one evening, they know our last location and the next intended location and can have search and rescue teams cover the points in between. That is assuming my wife or I were unable to activate the Spot 911 feature on our own.

Another feature of the Spot is the “Send Help” button. This button sends a pre-programmed message to people you have selected to receive it. In our case it tells our adult children to call our emergency roadside assistance provider and dispatch them to our location. In other words, we have broken down or become stuck in the boondocks (non life threatening) and are unable to call them ourselves due to lack of cell phone service.

There are many more advantages of a Spot, but I will let you discover those on your own using the links below. After all exploring and discovering new things is part of what boondocking is all about.

A short promotional video for the Spot can be viewed here.

Visit the Spot website here.

A good article comparing PLB units and Spot can be viewed here


  1. The Forest Service evaluated the system for use by its own employees. The research paper is below.

    Their summary shows although useful as an emergency tool, it has real limitations and often does not perform as advertised.

  2. David, This a pretty fair write up on the Spot, listing its functions and short comings. In fact in pretty much reinforces what the Spot instructions say,
    "To place the unit face up with an unobstructed view of the sky". The research papers shows the Spot nearly 100% reliable when used as instructed.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. I use the Spot II extensively, since I'm an older man (70) who frequently hikes and rides a quad far into the back country. The 1st Spot was very "iffy" and worked ~3 out of 5 tries.

    When I upgraded to a Spot II, I found it to be better, as well as smaller and more convenient. However, if you're in even a shallow canyon or in any vegetation at all - not just high trees - don't expect too much.

    "Apparently" the satellite(s) they use are low on the southern horizon.

    For an example, at Scott Peak near Silver City, NM a week ago I set it on a rock - face up and the top of it looking south, pushed the "Check/OK" button and went to have a snack and take pictures. 20 minutes later I came back and the "sent" light was blinking.

    When I got home - I have myself listed on the "send" list so I can check it easily - there was no location sent. I wasn't surprised - this happens probably 1 out of 5 tries, possibly 2 of 5 at times.

    It's a neat gadget, I like it and use it frequently, but don't put too much store in it as an emergency device.