Backcountry Satellite Messenger: Our Spot Connect Review

The SPOT Connect sends SOS emergency messages or off-grid messages to family or friends and syncs with iPhones and Android phones.

I’ve been testing the SPOT Connect for several months, packing this little device on hikes, camping and backpacking trips across Georgia. I’m impressed by the Connect technology and ease of use – and love having an off-grid option for emergencies or checking in with family when I’m chasing adventure.

SPOT Connect Review: our trail test of this off-grid satellite SOS messenger

Spot Connect: Our Review

Mobile phone reception is spotty in remote locations, making smartphones unreliable. And on multi-day backpacking trips, my family and friends back home are left in the dark about my location and safety.

That’s where the SPOT Connect fills in: it pairs with my smartphone, allowing me to check in. Before I leave the grid, I set up pre-defined messages and contacts, so when I’m on the trail, I can send a “Hey everyone, I’m okay” message to someone – or a group – with a few taps of my phone. And those text or email messages are tagged with my GPS coordinates. So the recipients not only know that I’m okay, but also where I am.

The Spot Connect pairs with an iPhone or Android mobile phone to stay connected off grid

The SPOT’s other message type is SOS, generated from the smartphone app or a button on the side of the SPOT Connect. (The dedicated button is a great backup if you, say, drop and shatter your phone, drop it in a creek, or otherwise destroy or lose it on the trail. I’ve been there.) SOS sends a message and GPS coordinates to GEOS, which will then deploy search and rescue teams to your location. I (thankfully) haven’t had to use this feature. Knowing it’s there in the event I’m trapped/disabled/lost for days is pretty amazing, though.

The SPOT Connect can post messages to Facebook and Twitter, which I haven’t used. (And likely won’t: I hit the trail to escape my normally ultra-connected, always-on life… though I’m sure some users love this feature.) The Connect also includes GPS tracking, though I haven’t used it either, since I track my hikes with a Garmin Oregon 600 and love its BaseCamp software.

Spot Connect Review: The Spot Connect's low profile and light weight make it easy to carry on backcountry adventures
Of course, the SPOT Connect doesn’t replace my survival gear, first aid gear, adequate food and water, a compass and topo maps – or well-practiced trail safety. I think of it as an added layer of survival and security. According to the SPOT website, I’m covered across “all of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Australia” and a good portion of the rest of the world.

The SPOT Connect isn’t perfect (read on), but for the hardware price of $149 (or less) and basic service at $99/year, I think it’s well worth its features.

Spot Connect: Setup

Setup of the SPOT Connect was quick, clocking in at under 10 minutes. I activated my account and the device, downloaded the SPOT app to my Galaxy S4, and paired the app and the SPOT Connect. Fairly fast, given I’m now sending messages from my phone to the SPOT, up to orbiting satellites, and then back down to Earth. It’s pretty incredible.

Spot Connect: Check-in Messages

SPOT’s basic messaging plan lets me send unlimited pre-defined messages, and charges 50 cents per message for on-the-fly messages when I’m off-grid. With a little creativity, covering everyday chat with pre-defined messages is fairly easy. Here are a few from my pre-defined list:
– Parked here at the trailhead and starting my hike.
– Just checking in so you know where I’m at and I’m okay.
– Good morning! Had a great night and am hitting the trail.
– Going to be late but I’m fine. I’ll text or call as soon as I have service.
And, I’ve always got the Spot Connect’s immediate SOS feature if a situation is dire and I need serious help.

SPOT Connect Review: Pre-defined messages let me text family and friends from the trail when there's no mobile phone reception

The Spot Connect uses 2 field-replaceable AA batteries. Weighing 4.9 oz sizing under 3 square inches square, it clips on my backpack without adding significant bulk. And since the Spot Connect requires a paired phone app for all messages other than SOS, so a charged phone battery is a must. I pack the Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus battery pack to top my phone battery off at night.

Overall, the SPOT Connect does what I expected, does it consistently and hasn’t failed me in 2 months of fairly heavy use.

Spot Connect Review: Improvements

I can only add contacts and pre-defined messages when I’m on cell or wifi networks, since these need to sync with SPOT servers. But when I am wifi or cell-network connected, I can’t access the mobile app unless it’s bluetooth paired with my SPOT Connect – an inconvenience. (If my phone is online, I’d love to manage the app’s pre-defined messages and contacts without powering on and pairing the SPOT device. I can access the SPOT website’s account section on my phone’s web browser, but it’s not mobile optimized and hard to use on a small screen – at least as of November 2013.)

Keeping the SPOT Connect powered is obviously important, so I carry extra batteries. But the device has only two, vague battery statuses: OK and Low. A rough percentage (even in 10% increments) would help gauge battery usage and how much juice I’ve got left.

And a final inconvenience: on rare occasions, SPOT can’t find GPS satellites, so it flashes an icon on the device to indicate satellite issues. But there’s no indication of the satellite issue on the app’s messaging screen – it just indefinitely indicates it’s sending. Since I lash my SPOT Connect out-of-sight on my backpack’s top, the on-device lights aren’t in view. An in-app indication of satellite connectivity issues on the messaging screen would be a huge plus.

SPOT Connect Satellite Messenger review: while expensive, the Spot Connect adds peace-of-mind when hiking the backcountry trail

Our Spot Connect Review: Final Verdict

I love knowing I can connect to family & friends on the trail, regardless of cell network availability. I can let them know I’m safe, taking an alternate trail, or running late for a non-emergency – and every message includes a link to my GPS coordinates so they know where I’m at. And I can use the SOS feature to alert an international emergency response center if I’m critically injured or lost. I’ll be trekking with this gadget on many adventures to come.

So Where Can I Get One?

 

While we were provided with a sample Spot Connect to test, all opinions above are our own, and based on our own, trail-tested experience.

 
Eric Champlin is a writer and photographer who loves to hike, run, backpack, kayak and cycle the southeast. He’s the editor and founder of Atlanta Trails and Asheville Trails, online magazines that cover the South’s best outdoor adventures. His mission? To inspire others to get fit outdoors and explore the South’s incredible scenic beauty.