I drove up to the Outdoor Retailer Show on Thursday, mostly to pick up just-sewn 2010 backpack models for upcoming Gear Guide testing. But while I was there I also got to briefly fondle a prototype of SPOT's new, improved beacon, which I'm pretty excited about.
Full diclosure here: SPOT is apparently a sponsor of Backpacker's Get Out More Tour. I just discovered that when I went to their website, which shows how clueless us Field Editors are about advertising contracts and the oft-claimed but lamentably nonexistent tester payola.
That said, most readers here know I'm a fan of emergency beacons for serious backcountry use. SPOTS, PLBs, sat phones or cell phones - hey, whatever - they're all light years better than nothing, which is what most hikers carry, and what puts the "search" in "search and rescue." I no longer go trail running, mountain biking or hiking without a beacon, and SPOTs are my personal choice due to their flexible communications and Google mapping capabilities.
But just like other beacon/phone styles, SPOTS do have their weaknesses, namely, poor tracking in deep timber, and emergency buttons that are easy to inadvertently trigger when you have the unit powered on in tracking mode. The new SPOT, shown above, seems to have addressed those concerns, in addition to adding more functions and reliability while 30% smaller and two ounces lighter than the current model.
Here's the list of improvements:
 Safety caps over the Help and 911 buttons to prevent accidental alerts...Like the one I triggered on Denali last year (sigh).
 A better GPS chipset for faster satellite lock and improved reception in tough terrain. There's also an LED light that shows when you've got a lock.
 More transmission power thanks to 3 x AAA lithium batteries, rather than the old 2 x AAs.
 A better antenna with improved reception and transmission, and a wider coverage angle so the unit can communicate better when not lying flat.
 Improved tracking reliability. Now every (10-minute-apart) trackpoint upload will transmit your last two trackpoints, in addition to your current one. Thi redundancy will patch up gaps in the tracklog.
 A separate confirmation light that shows when you've successfully transmitted any message to the satellite.
 In addition to the OK, Help and SOS buttons, there's now a fourth custom message button for situations like "I've reached the rendezvous point", or "I've got a flat tire, come get me". You set up the text on your web account.
 The smaller units now come with a soft case and elastic armband, similar to an iPod runner's armband. The case also has wide slots so it can be attached to belts and packs.
 The SPOT itself has a molded loop that will take cords or straps.
Fear not. We'll be field testing it as soon as possible. Unfortunately SPOT probably can't get us a working unit until I return from Alaska September 1st, but the new beacon should become available by mid-autumn, and the price (still tbd) shouldn't climb much, if at all.
Hike safe out there campers, beacon or no. I'll probably get one last post in before disappearing into The Great Land. -- Steve Howe