Device gives options for those venturing off the beaten path

Posted: Friday, August 22, 2008

Whether you're a hunter stalking game in a remote location, a musher crossing a featureless icy landscape, or a snowmachiner riding in a whiteout above treeline, there is always the lurking sense of danger. But, for these folks and any other outdoor enthusiasts that enjoy getting far off the beaten path, there is a new piece of technology -- the Spot Satellite Messenger -- that could help save a life if a situation turned seriously sour.

"If you can't find a buddy to go with you, it's a great product people should consider using to still be safe outdoors," said Britt Cook, an avid outdoorsman from Kenai.

The Spot is a 7-ounce personal tracker that utilizes Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to determine a user's whereabouts. According to the manufacturer, the waterproof device will work under various environmental extremes, including elevations of up to 21,000 feet, distances of thousands of miles offshore and at temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It also can operate in virtually all of North America, as well as Europe, Australia, portions of South America, northern Africa and northeastern Asia.

Cook said he has often hunted alone over the years, but now at 57 years old, his family began worrying more than ever about his safety. But, they are resting a little easier while he is away since he has started using the Spot.

"I go way out in Prince William Sound, where there is no cell reception, where there may not be radio reception in many locations, and you only see one or two boats a day, but the Spot allows me to give someone a hunt or float plan, go by myself, and still feel like I could get emergency help if I needed it," he said.

Unlike a cell phone or radio, the Spot is a one-way device that only has four buttons: On/Off, OK, Help and 911. Depending on the button pressed, the device will transmit a user's longitude, latitude and a preprogrammed (up to 115 characters) text or e-mail message to emergency 911 authorities and/or up to 10 loved ones or friends.

"It's $100 for the device, give or take $10, then $100 a year for a satellite subscription," Cook said.

The basic $100 annual plan gives users the ability to summon 911 to dispatch emergency responders to their location, and lets users send a brief "I'm OK" e-mail and/or text message to predesignated friends or an "I need help" message to their contacts.

"You do the configuration yourself, from a computer. You configure who it notifies and what it says," Cook said.

For an additional $50 a year, these preselected contacts can track a user's progress through Google Maps. The device will update the user's location every 10 minutes.

This may sound like a lot of money, but compared to similar products, such as personal locator beacons which can cost $400 or more, Cook said users can save a few bucks without cutting down on the quality of a potentially life-saving device.

"It's money well spent," he said.

Cook said he can speak from experience, since the few times he has used the Spot already, he hasn't been disappointed with the device's performance.

"I left out of Whittier, went down to Knight Island, up Mummy Bay, over to Green Island, just all over Prince William Sound. It was rainy, foggy and fairly nasty the whole time, and I still sent messages and everybody on my list got them every time," he said.

While this was a fair test of the OK feature, Cook said one of his coworkers had to use the 911 feature and it proved invaluable.

"He rolled his snowmachine and had broken ribs and was in serious condition. He used the Spot and a helicopter came in and saved his life," he said.

Incidents such as this make it appear that the Spot's advertising slogans such as "Opening this box is the first step to making sure you don't come home in one," may not to be too far off the mark, but Cook said it doesn't have to be a life or death situation for the device to be practical.

"This would be useful going into the wilderness, but also anywhere you're not sure of cell coverage. I'd even want it while driving from Anchorage to Fairbanks in case I broke down. You could configure it to tell people to call a tow truck and they could use the tracking feature to find where you are," he said.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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