Here’s how I became the proud owner of a SPOT Gen3 personal tracker beacon.
Earlier this summer, my friend and I got lost en route to a trailhead and ended up driving on the world’s scariest shelf road. We’re talking a cliff face on one side and a thousand-foot drop on the other. Seriously, this thing belonged in freakin’ Bolivia.
The good news was that it led to another trailhead. So rather than driving back over the shelf road in the gathering dark, we could just camp and hike there. But there was a problem.
No one knew where we were.
We talked it over and decided that the possibility of starving to death beside a crippled car was way more appealing than driving back over the (now dark) shelf road. And we ended up being fine.
But when I got home, I decided the time had come. So I went out and bought a SPOT Gen3 GPS tracking device.
I took SPOT out of its box, and to be honest, my head just about exploded. It’s not the most user friendly thing to set up.
But never fear, I’m here to spare you all of that agony.
In this post, I’ll demystify the setup and testing process, plus share some lessons learned from my first trip with SPOT.
Activating SPOT Gen3
So what was it about the setup process that melted down my brain? In a word, the website.
The dashboard section of findmespot.com looks like something that was coded in the nerd frat basement in 1992. Seriously, it’s the web equivalent of those Kindle self-published books with misspelled titles and passages lifted whole-cloth from 50 Shades.
Yo, SPOT, we’re trusting you with our lives. Please provide the slightest reassurance that you know jack about modern technology.
Anyhoo, being 40, I know a thing or two about antiquated websites. So I set up an account and activated the following services from the menu of options:
- SPOT basic service (required for the device to function)
- Member rescue benefit (because two ER visits in 10 months could be a shoulder tap from the universe)
- Product replacement program (because as you can see in the picture, I am famous for destroying devices at inopportune times)
Although I didn’t, you can also add roadside assistance and enhanced tracking. (More on tracking in a minute.)
TL;DR: During the activation phase, don’t be too put off by SPOT’s crappy website. It’s basically functional. If you’re struggling, get a Gen Xer to help you.
Adding Emergency Contacts
During the setup process, you can input the phone numbers and email addresses of your emergency contacts.
Protip: before you go hog wild like I did inputting everyone you know, understand that there is no central address book or contact selection feature for the service. (Which, hey SPOT, would wildly improve the user experience, hint nudge.)
In other words, if you input your entire bowling team and then send an Help/Assist message, they’re all going to get it. Which might lead to you being beaten with large wooden pins when you return. Or worse yet, it could get your messages ignored when you really need help.
One thing you can do (that won’t be immediately obvious from the website or user manual) is to create and assign different contact profiles. From the findmespot.com dashboard, click My Devices, then select the “Active Message Profile” tab on the next screen.
I set mine up thusly:
My mom. (Yeah, I know. It’s kinda immature for a 40-year-old. But living in Colorado, my friends all tend to disappear into the cellular dead zone — a.k.a. the mountains — every weekend. But my retired mom in Cleveland almost always has cell phone service.)
My mom and my downstairs neighbor (who has access to my condo). I’ll probably use this one for extended trips when having multiple contacts will be helpful.
Downstairs neighbor only. Useful for trips my mom would be happier not seeing. (Trekking in the Wakhan Corridor, etc.)
Another tip: add your own email and phone number to all of your profiles so you can check that your messages are actually getting through.
TL;DR: Be strategic about assigning contacts. Limit your choices to a few reliable people who will be in cell phone range. Use profiles to set up different contact scenarios. Add yourself to every profile.
Testing SPOT Gen3
You should absolutely test your SPOT Gen 3 before you disappear into the wilderness with it. But try not to scare the crap out of people in the process.
While having my car serviced at the Grease Monkey at Corona and Colfax, I sent my mom a “Check-in/OK” message. She immediately called and asked, “Have you been kidnapped?” Which was a fair question, considering the location.
Part of the problem is the ominous default messages SPOT sends out, which say something like, “This is the DEFAULT message.” (Again, user experience, SPOT people. Why not put something charming and reassuring in the default check-in message?)
The good news: you can totally customize your messages. More on that in the next section.
TL;DR: Definitely test SPOT Gen3 and confirm that your contacts receive the appropriate texts and emails. But unless you want to induce widespread panic, warn them first.
Default Message Cheat Sheet
So yeah, SPOT, as I was saying, your default messages kind of suck. Fortunately, we can change them. To do this, navigate to the dashboard and click My Devices.
Now setting up these messages requires some strategy. Why? First, SPOT Gen3 is totally preprogrammed. There’s no way to change the message once you loose Internet service. So you’ll need to program a clear message that works for most circumstances.
Second challenge: the people you’re messaging will have your location. Other than that, they can’t write back to request more details. So again, clarity is key.
And finally, you have a limited number of characters to work with. Yes, SPOT Gen3 is a bit like Twitter that way.
Now. These messages doesn’t have to be the be-all-end-all of your SPOT communications, because you’re also going to educate your contacts ahead of time, and you’re going to leave them a trip plan full of useful details and reminders. (More on that in the next section.)
OK, so if you want a cheat sheet on how to set up your messages, here are mine, word for word. If you’re a lazy bastard like me, feel free to cut and paste.
“Just checking in to say I’m alive and doing fine! Hello to the folks at home.”
“It’s not an emergency, but I could use a hand at this location. Please alert local sheriff or highway patrol.”
On the basic SPOT plan, you get one Custom message, which you can set to whatever you want. I use mine for an itinerary change. So here’s what I would have sent during the Shelf Road incident above:
“Just a heads up that I am varying my itinerary a bit. Check the tracking page for current location info.”
Reminder: you can’t customize the SOS message. Which is probably all for the better.
TL;DR: Put a little thought into what you want SPOT to say to your contacts when you press each of the buttons. Assume you won’t be able to change this message in the wilderness/cellular dead zone.
Prepping Your Contacts
So here’s a really key step.
Put yourself in the shoes of your contacts who presumably care about you. In the middle of the night, your SPOT sends an Help/Assist message to their phones.
Now unless they know exactly what to do, this is going to be really upsetting. Imagine your loved ones desperately Googling, trying to figure out who to call, and eventually dialing 911, only to endure an extended wait for a local dispatcher.
You can’t take away all the anxiety they’d experience in this situation, but you can greatly reduce it with a little education and a good emergency plan.
So before you go, be sure to do the following:
Set up a shared tracking page
This allows your contacts (or anyone you give the link to) to follow your progress. To create one, navigate to the dashboard at findmespot.com and click the Share tab.
Provide a few tips
Remind your contacts that SPOT Gen3 won’t track unless it’s on and moving, so a few hours without an update isn’t cause for alarm. SPOT can also temporarily lose the satellite, run out of batteries, fall into a den of rattlesnakes, etc. So a loss of signal isn’t necessarily cause for panic.
Also emphasize that a Help signal doesn’t usually mean mortal danger. It’s more likely your car broke down. Explain how you’d contact the SOS service directly in a true emergency.
Need a shortcut? Here’s a handy tip sheet share with friends and family.
Leave a written plan
For each trip, I write out a full itinerary and a few reminders to leave with contacts. I try to anticipate the places I’m most likely to run into trouble (e.g., hiking Guadalupe Peak alone) and write down the best emergency number. You can also include a link to your shared tracking page and let them know how often you’ll be checking in.
TL;DR: You want SPOT to reassure your contacts, not give them ulcers. So spend a little time explaining how it works. Make it easy as possible for them to get help to you if needed.
Stalk Yourself (Tracking)
So the day is here, and you’re ready to go! But before you head out the door, let’s turn on SPOT Gen3 and activate the tracking feature. (It’s easy. Press the footprint button until it turns green.)
Basic no-frills tracking pings the satellite every 10 minutes while the device is on and moving. (You can upgrade for more control over this feature, including more frequent pings.) The pings appear on your shared page, which gives folks a rough idea where you’re at.
Basic tracking stops after 24 hours. I don’t find this to be a big deal. I usually shut the SPOT off at bedtime to save batteries. Just remember to turn it on again in the morning.
A few tracking tips: SPOT Gen3 needs to talk to the satellite to transmit, so hang it on your backpack (if hiking) or make sure its face up on top of your luggage (if driving).
TL;DR: Hit the tracking button to record your movements. It’s awesome.
My Test Drive Report
I took SPOT for its maiden voyage on a 1,600-mile solo road trip from Denver to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. My confidence was a bit shaken by the wonky website and user interface. But overall, the device worked really well.
That’s good, because if you’ve ever driven across New Mexico, you know it’s a big stretch of nothing. Like as in bones-bleaching-in-the-sun nothing. As in circling turkey vultures nothing.
There were actually a few moments when I was pretty sure I was going to be testing out the Help function. One was between Las Vegas (N.M.) and Vaughn when I was low on gas, had no cell service, and saw this in every direction.
But hallelujah, there was gas in Vaughn.
The second was at the International UFO Museum in Roswell. There was this terrifying moment when it looked like real aliens had invaded the place and taken over the exhibits. Turns out they were Japanese tourists in costumes having a little fun. Oh, travel, I love you.
Cell phone service was spotty at my $8 campsite at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, so I used SPOT to send my mom OK/Check-In messages each night. And here’s the only place I kind of screwed up.
Pro tip: it sometimes takes SPOT a few minutes to get a satellite after you send. So wait at least 10 minutes before shutting it off, or you will scare your contacts like I did.
So that’s about it for my SPOT Gen3 tips. Despite some setup hassles, it performed great on the road. I won’t be adding it to the long list of things I’ve returned to REI.
TL;DR: Seriously, you’ve just spent enough time reading. Grab your SPOT and go somewhere!
Got advice for new SPOT Gen3 users? Comment below to share.
Originally published Oct. 7, 2016.