Traveler's Gear Box: SPOT, The Next Generation

The new SPOT, coming in silver this fall.

If you want to hedge your bets against getting hurt or stranded in the backcountry of a national park, or simply want to keep family and friends apprised of your movements during a remote trip, the next generation of SPOT might be just right for you.

Officially dubbed a "Satellite GPS Messenger," this unit can be used to summon the authorities ASAP, track and store your movements, allow friends to follow you via Google Maps, and let those back home know that you could use a little assistance but that there's no emergency.

Regular Traveler readers will recall that we demoed the previous iteration of SPOT back in late April and early May during a river trip through Dinosaur National Monument. And we found the unit pretty much to our liking. However, there was one drawback then, and it continues now: You can't alter or compose a message to friends and family while in the backcountry. As the system is currently set up, you store email messages in your profile at SPOT's website before you head out into the wilds. Once you're in the field, you trigger the message to be sent to preloaded email addresses by pushing a button on the device. For instance, on my river trip my daily "all's well" message said something like, "Another great day on the river. We're in camp."

Not being able to alter your message from the field presents a dilemma if, for instance, you decide to extend your trip for no other reason than you're having a great time, or if you've encountered a problem and could use a little help from your friends but there's no need to call in the military.

I'm told that SPOT's developers are indeed aware of this limitation and fully intend to address it down the road, but for now they say the keyboard technology just does not yet exist to allow them to install one on SPOT and maintain the durability and water-proof nature of the unit.

Beyond that drawback, though, the latest generation of SPOT brings some welcome changes. For instance:

* It's now 30 percent smaller and can be worn on your arm.

* There are protective covers over the "S.O.S." button (it has been labeled "911") and "Help" buttons to prevent inadvertent transmissions.

* Improvements in the on-board GPS chipset mean quicker acquisition of satellites and better reliability in transmissions. The antennae also has been tweaked to produce better performance in settings with overhead canopies.

* The "satellite acquisition" and "message sent" signals have been improved. Previously, you had to pay strict attention to two flashing green LED lights to determine 1) when satellite acquisition had been made and 2) when, or even whether, your message had been sent. Glance away for a second and you just might miss the notification blinks. The new version will display both the acquisition acquired and message sent signals for longer periods of time.

* New colors! You can stay with the original orange/black mix, or go with silver/black.

Since SPOT debuted on the market a few years ago, it has been used to launch more than 250 rescues, including some in national parks (Sequoia and Grand Canyon, just to name two), and transmitted millions of what the manufacturer calls "peace of mind" messages.

The new version will begin shipping this fall.

The fine print: The price for the new version has not yet been chiseled in stone, but look for it to be around $169-$190, and there's an annual $100 subscription fee. For those who already own SPOT, there's also a customer loyalty program that will allow you to upgrade to the latest version. However, details of that program still are being worked out.