First, the problem: Wilderness adventurers have always faced a dilemma when choosing how to call in help. Cell phones are useless in remote locations without reception. Satellite phones are generally reliable, but heavy and expensive. Personal locator beacons (PLBs) are lightweight and reliable, but they can only send one message–an emergency rescue alert, even if you just have an ankle sprain.
Now, the solution: SPOT, an internet tracking beacon that weighs less than 8 ounces and uses GPS to determine your location, then transmits it along with your safety status (see below) to your pre-selected contacts via email or text message. The waterproof, floatable, soap bar-size SPOT has three key functions:
911: Push this button and GEOS Alliance, a global rescue coordination company, contacts local authorities (24 hours a day) and directs them to your location. The signal repeats itself every five minutes. You can also cancel any distress call. Optional rescue insurance is available (see below).
Help: If you're stranded but not in any immediate danger, push this button and up to four people you pre-selected will receive an email with a link to Google Maps showing your location. This is useful if, for example, you've just got a twisted ankle or are lost but not injured, in which which case friends or rangers can find and help you. If they choose to alert authorities, rescuers will know the situation is serious but not dire, and can respond appropriately.
OK: This feature gives your anxious spouse, mom, or envious friends the peace of mind that you're safe, prevents them from initiating premature search-and-rescue efforts should you merely be overdue, and also lets them follow your trip with a Google Map link showing your location. Your contacts can log in to your account and check your progress at any time; you don't need to do a thing.
During six weeks of sending test messages from canyons, timbered ravines, and alpine cirques, the SPOT reliably broadcast "OK" reports anywhere we had a decent view of the sky (such as a canyon with a 30-degree arc of view overhead). Check the SPOT website for coverage details. Like a GPS, it needs time to orient, and should be left on for at least 30 minutes–ideally, stationary and face up–when transmitting. In risky situations, simply leave it on. Two AA lithium batteries last long enough for 1,000 to 1,200 OK messages, or several weeks of continuous tracking. 7.3 oz; $159 plus the basic subscription of $99/year. Options: Tracking for $50/year; rescue insurance for $8/year (pays up to $100,000 in SAR fees). (866) 651-7768; findmespot.com.