Prof Hike: The End of Off-the-Grid

Spot's new gadget adds satellite reception to smartphones anywhere.
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Spot's new gadget adds satellite reception to smartphones anywhere.


One more wilderness wall is about to fall. And this one is big. That’s why I’m bumping my dispatch on winter camping for this special report.

Earlier this month, Spot LLC, makers of the bright-orange Spot Personal Tracker and Messenger, announced a new gadget called the Connect that gives smartphones the ability to send custom text messages via satellite uplinks.

Since 2007, many hikers, including Backpacker’s Rocky Mountain editor, have carried Spot products as an extra safety measure. These devices use satellite antennas to send pre-recorded updates, map a person’s progress online, and alert search-and-rescue teams when things get hairy.


The new Connect, when paired via Bluetooth to a smartphone running a Spot app, does all that. Plus it lets you update your Facebook status and Twitter feed, or send short text messages (up to 41 characters) from anywhere under the open sky. With the Connect, interacting with your social network isn’t limited by cellular reception or Wi-Fi hotspots. Instead of watching your iPhone’s signal bars disappear as you drop below the Grand Canyon’s rim (heck, that happens in downtown Brooklyn), you can text and tweet all the way to the Colorado River.

OK, time out. If this tech lingo has you confused (Blueteeth, what?), don’t worry. Your trusty map and compass still work fine, at least until the Earth’s magnetic field flips. And when that happens, just pretend the red needle points south. However, if you own a smartphone, GPS, or satellite beacon—and even if you don’t—the Connect’s ambition of satellite reception for the cellular masses could have you mumbling, “Out, damned spot” in the near future.

First, if you want to buy a Spot Connect now, the device and its smartphone apps won’t be available for several more weeks. If you can’t wait, GPS-maker DeLorme teamed up with Spot to offer the tweet-ready

Earthmate PN-60W GPS that’s available now for $550 plus the Spot subscription service (starting at $100/year). 

Second, this post isn’t a review of the Spot Connect or the DeLorme Earthmate PN-60W. To discover the down and dirty details on these two products, check out Backpacker’s online and print editions over the next weeks and months. Editors are testing them now.

Third, if you want to know why Prof. Hike thinks the combination of smartphones and satellite reception will make it easier for unprepared hikers to endanger themselves on the trail, read on.

The way Prof. Hike sees it, your brain—and not a battery-powered plastic gadget—is the most important electronic tool in your arsenal. According to National Park Service statistics, two-thirds of backcountry rescues are caused by insufficient planning or equipment, falls, fatigue, and darkness. None of those factors are solved by more touchscreens or antennas. True, using a GPS could keep you from making a wrong turn. However, most hikers get lost because they lack a paper map, not a mapping GPS.

Plus, carrying a GPS and knowing how to use it are two different skills. Too many unprepared hikers treat cell phones and GPS devices as “Get out of trouble free” gadgets, instead of as backups to common sense planning and smart decisions. I’m guilty, too. I once took a shortcut in Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest while bolstered by the knowledge that I carried my trusty GPS. Even with my Garmin, we got hopelessly lost and slogged through a steep burn zone with a dwindling water supply for three hours before we regained the trail. I learned three lessons that day: No shortcuts; burn zones suck; and a GPS is as fallible as the human trying to read its screen. 

While I always encourage people to bring a cell phone on every hike, carrying one doesn’t automatically make someone a safer hiker. In fact, I think cell phones and personal locator beacons encourage more risk-taking when basic skills, like the 10 essentials, routefinding, and group leadership, are not also known or practiced.

Troubling incidents have already occurred—like the inexperienced backpacking group in the Grand Canyon who pushed S.O.S. on their Spot Messenger three times in 36 hours for ridiculous reasons before being forcibly evacuated from the canyon via helicopter.

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Before you attack me for jumping to unproven conclusions, I admit that the link between trail technology and hiker error is not established. Not only are statistics about the impact of cell phones and satellite beacons on backcountry mishaps unavailable, but spectacular anecdotes often overshadow the limited figures we do have. One thing we do know, however, is that the number of NPS search-and-rescue missions initiated by cell phone, satellite phone, or personal locator beacon increased by almost 5 percent between 2004 and 2007. And most of those events occurred before the first Spot product became widely available.

On one hand, this 5 percent increase is a positive, life-saving trend. Search-and-rescue missions initiated by radio or satellite alerts can often locate a missing person faster than missions that require someone to hike out to seek help. 

On the other hand, can the presence of cell phones and satellite receivers on the trail also encourage less preparation and riskier decisions? Mobile technology already discourages planning ahead. Don’t believe me? Consider how cell phones changed the way we organize our social lives. With the ability to call or text on the run, most of us no longer arrange specific times and places to meet someone at a party or event. Unfortunately, that sort of casual planning doesn’t translate well to remote trails and signal-blocking peaks. 

Today, most backcountry 911 calls are made from cell phones connected—often gingerly—to the cellular grid. Presumably, the limits of that grid discourage cautious hikers from venturing deeper into forests, canyons, and other imposing terrain. Even though cellular reception isn’t a lifeline to civilization, many people treat it like one, and might retreat when service isn’t available: No phone reception? Then maybe we shouldn’t descend that cliff...

How will those decisions change, however, when a Spot Connect extends a smartphone-carrying hiker’s safety coverage to almost everywhere? Will better reception encourage riskier decisions and more calls for help? True, other Spot products and satellite phones have enabled communication from remote areas for years. But their high cost, limited messages, and small audiences kept them from changing search and rescue norms.

Smartphones, however, are different. Tens of millions of Americans already carry something labeled Blackberry, Android, or iPhone in their pocket, purse, or backpack. Plus, the Connect is likely the first of many new satellite-linked products and services designed to extend voice and data reception deeper into the backcountry. What impact could they have? 

This summer, will a hiker updating his Facebook status 10 times a day using a Spot Connect feel more inclined—perhaps even more entitled—to call 911 for a minor ankle sprain? Next year will we read about more incidents like the S.O.S-button-pushing Grand Canyon hikers? And over time, will states respond to rising numbers of inappropriate rescue calls by instituting substantial fees like New Hampshire does? Will the deathblow to “off-the-grid” adventure finally occur when a teenager updates his Facebook status with "Marmots are so kewt! ROTFLMAO!!!” from deep inside Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness?

I’m the first to admit I don’t know what will happen next. Spot could sell 100,000 Connects this year, or only 10,000. Hikers who purchase Spot Connects could update their Twitter feeds with reckless abandon, yet only call for help when they really need it. And perhaps another company will create the must-have product that gives everyone’s smartphones satellite reception. 

What is certain, however, is that we need to create new guidelines and training for how satellite-enhanced communication devices should be used on the trail. For instance, no gadget should be considered a substitute for a detailed trail map and compass. And since Bluetooth connections suck battery life like a newborn vampire, any hiker who wants his Connect-linked smartphone to last should keep it turned off, or pack a solar-recharger. And here’s my contribution to the list: Treat cell phones and satellite beacons just like the emergency kit in the trunk of your car: You know the kit is there, but you should do everything possible not to use it.

Are you boiling over about satellites and search and rescue? Blow off some steam by posting a comment below, or send an email to profhike@backpacker.com.

—Jason Stevenson


Jason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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