We introduce for your reading pleasure, a guest reviewer’s take on the SPOT Tracker system.  A dedicated and enthusiastic XC endurance racer and rider,  ‘The Pragmatic Cyclist’ says that “If he comes in first, it means none of the fast folks showed up”.  GG

Out Of The Box…SPOT GEN3 Tracker:  By The Pragmatic Cyclist.
spot cut 2I do most of my mountain biking alone. I carry a cellphone, but coverage is spotty at best in many of the places that I ride. I often wonder how long it would take for someone to find me if I experienced an unrepairable mechanical failure or were incapacitated due to a mishap. For years I had this concern but chose to ignore it because it dampened the satisfaction I got from riding alone. However, given the increasing popularity of bikepacking and my interest in doing more of it, I have decided to attempt to address the backcountry emergency issue in the form of a SPOT GEN3 tracking device.
In a mountain biking market inundated by new and alluring products that promise riders greater efficiency, better functionality, increased comfort, lighter weight and more fun, it can be difficult to muster excitement about spending money on a device and service you hope to never need.  However, my experience with emergency devices and services, such as spare tubes and health insurance, is that they seem of negligible value until you require them.  Then they become invaluable. Based on my understanding of SPOT services and devices, I’d put the GEN3 tracker mostly in this category.
I first learned of SPOT a few years ago, when I began reading about the Tour Divide, a bike race that follows the Continental Divide Trail 2,745 miles from Banff, Alberta to the Mexican border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico.  Tour Divide organizers require that each racer use a SPOT tracker for the duration of the race.  I have since come across a few other events, typically smaller rides or races in remote locations, that require the use of SPOT trackers.  Without doing much research, I gleaned that SPOT devices were small electronic transponders that triangulate with GPS satellites which track the device’s location.  My understanding was that each SPOT device had a unique identity and was registered to a particular user.  Requiring entrants to use SPOT trackers allowed race organizers to locate an individual racer’s device and to track where it had been throughout an event.
My initial impression was mostly correct.  However, I have since become more familiar with SPOT tracking.
Unlike a Garmin with tracking ability, a SPOT tracker is neither a bike computer nor designed specifically for cyclists.  While many Garmins track a rider’s power output, speed, cadence, heart rate and other data, SPOT trackers primarily operate in the service of safety by providing to emergency services and other parties with internet or SMS text access the location of an individual regardless of whether he or she is otherwise unable to communicate with civilization. In the most passive case, emergency personnel or loved ones could log onto SPOT’s website and locate a person using the device after he or she failed to show up or check-in within a reasonable amount of time after beginning an activity.  The only drawback to this particular scenario is that it requires an interested party with internet or SMS text access to be aware of the user’s activities and monitoring his or her whereabouts. And assuming that the user is out of cellular range, people on the receiving end of tracking information would have no way of determining if lack of movement or slow progress was due to a mishap or to some other innocuous reason.
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To this end, the SPOT GEN3 tracking device also provides rudimentary communications functions, including two communications messages and a help button that can be used either to reassure interested parties or to summon non-emergency assistance from preselected people of the user’s choosing. In more urgent situations, the GEN3’s S.O.S. function can be used to engage the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center. All of these functions provide loved ones and/or first responders with the user’s exact GPS coordinates.
Beyond basic communications, some race organizers use SPOT tracking devices to ensure that racers remain on course.  During an unsupported race such as Tour Divide, racers end up separated from each other by weeks of riding and hundreds of miles. In this regard, SPOT tracking allows organizers both to monitor the progress and whereabouts of racers and to know when they’ve gotten lost or are deviating from the official route.
I haven’t participated in an event that required use of a SPOT tracker.  Yet.  I have also never experienced a mountain biking crash that prevented me from riding home. Knowing myself, I’d resist summoning assistance in any situation but the most dire scenario.  That said, my wife is a chronic worrier, and having the ability to reassure her or to summon emergency assistance while biking would provide both myself and her with peace of mind.  In this sense, the SPOT GEN3 is similar to OnStar or Life Alert, more popular devices respectively designed to allow motorists and older people to summon assistance in the event of an emergency.  The difference is that SPOT designs its goods and services for active people and adventurers.  As someone with a love of exploring remote locations who does most of my mountain biking–and crashing–alone, this appeals to me.
Over the holidays, I noticed that SPOT was offering a 50 percent rebate up to $75 with the purchase and registration of a GEN3 device.  I decided to give it a go, I paid $149 through REI.  The rebate brought the price down to about $75.
In addition to the palm sized tracking unit, a USB cable and the required batteries, the GEN3 came with a carabiner and a short lanyard for securing it during use.
SPOT devices are useless without a subscription to the tracking service.  So before delving into the GEN3 device, I visited findmespot.com to register my device and to subscribe to the service. I opted for the basic plan, which costs $149 a year.  It allows the user to author two brief personal messages to be sent along with the user’s coordinates via email or text message to up to 10 preselected computers and/or cellular phones whenever the user hits the ‘check in’ or the ‘custom message’ buttons on the SPOT GEN3.  Since I prefer brevity, I set my ‘check-in’ message to say, ‘All’s well.’ I programmed the service to send this message to the email addresses and smartphones of my mother and my wife.  Knowing that my wife is the person most likely to be aware of and worried about my mountain biking activities, I also programmed a custom message to be sent only to her email address and smartphone.  It reads, ‘Made it back safe. I love you.’  Because the device lacks a keyboard or screen, each message and its recipients must be entered into the user’s online profile via a computer prior to use.
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With basic tracking turned on, the device sends its coordinates to the SPOT service every 10 minutes for 24 hours or until tracking is turned off, whichever comes first.  For an additional $46.29 a year, GEN3 owners can opt for unlimited tracking, which allows the user to customize a tracking message rate of every 5, 10, 30 or 60 minutes before heading out for an adventure.  For an additional $138.88 a year over the basic rate, subscribers can opt for extreme tracking, which allows the user to have tracking messages sent as frequently as every 2 1/2 minutes.  If I were an offroad motorsports enthusiast or even a pro mountain biker who covers ground at a rapid rate, I might choose either the unlimited or extreme option, but given the humble speeds that I travel at on my mountain bike, I figured that basic tracking would be fine.
A Garmin can provide similar tracking information, probably in more detail.  However, I have used a Garmin and have found battery life to be an issue on longer rides.  SPOT devices don’t use energy to track fitness or specific ride data. In theory, this should leave more battery life for tracking and basic communications. The SPOT GEN3 runs either on AAA batteries or from an external power source connected by a USB cable, which means that it should prove more reliable than a Garmin.  And in a backcountry emergency, reliability is essential. One downside to the SPOT device is that unlike a Garmin or a cellphone, while the GEN3 is compatible with rechargeable batteries, there is no way to charge the batteries via the USB cable and the device itself.
With my device registered and my service set up, I put the batteries in my GEN3 and pushed the power button. Nothing. I pressed the power button a second time.  The device still would not power on. I opened the battery hatch to check that the batteries were installed properly. They were. They were also hot to the touch. I removed them and reinstalled them. I pressed the power button. Again, nothing. The entire device grew warm to the touch.  I removed the hot batteries a second time and tried a set of my own batteries with the same result.
I put the device back in its box and contacted customer service.  I was told to send the device back to SPOT or to return to REI in order to exchange it for a replacement.  I sent it back to SPOT. Since I bought the GEN3 for general use rather than for an impending event, the inconvenience was annoying rather than critical.
A week later, a second GEN3 arrived on my doorstep. I thought I might have to log back onto the website to register the serial number of my new device, but SPOT had already made sure that the new device was assigned to the account I had previously set up. I put the batteries in the new device and pushed the power button. Lights flashed and everything seemed to be working.
The device fits in the palm of my hand and has five function buttons.  One starts and stops tracking.  Another sends the preprogrammed ‘check in’ message.  A third sends the ‘custom message’.  These buttons are aligned along the lower face of the device and each has a light associated with it that blinks green when the function is working properly and red when the device is having difficulty communicating with the satellites. These lights provide assurance that your messages and location are being received or tell you to move to a less obscured position. Two more buttons adorn the face of the GEN3, one for summoning help from people on your recipient list in non-emergency situations and one labeled ‘S.O.S.’ for summoning emergency assistance from the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center.  Protective flaps prevent these buttons from being pressed inadvertently.  Each of these buttons also has a light associated with it that blinks either green or red to signal message transmission and receipt status.  
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I set the device outside so that it could communicate with the GPS satellites.  A couple of minutes later, I pushed the ‘check in’ button.  Within a few minutes, my wife’s cellphone received a text that provided my coordinates and my ‘All’s well’ message.  I had her check her email.  A message was waiting containing the same information with the addition of an invitation to click on a link to a map showing my location. I clicked and my SPOT page opened, displaying a map of of the Los Angeles area with a pin on western Santa Monica. I zoomed the map until I could see the pin pointing to the exact location of my apartment.
Satisfied that the device functions as it should, I’m looking forward to providing a review of the the SPOT GEN3’s tracking and messaging features from the field.  As with all forms of insurance, I hope not to need the help or S.O.S. features. Time to get on my bike and get off of the grid… with a little added peace of mind.
Stay tuned for the follow up posts as Joshua T. gets out where a SPOT Tracker belongs.
Note: This product was purchased for personal use by the reviewer and submitted for test/review at no charge to Twenty Nine Inches.com. We are not being paid nor bribed for this review and we will strive to give our honest thoughts and opinions throughout.