One of the more well-known brands of personal GPS satellite messengers, SPOT’s GEN4 is popular among outdoor enthusiasts, including trail runners, hikers and people who enjoy adventures such as backpacking and off-piste skiing in the backcountry where cell service is either non-existent or unreliable.
My in-depth SPOT GEN4 tracker review covers the key features, pros and cons of this competitively-priced portable satellite communicator, including what it’s like to use, the data plans currently offered, and my experience using it for hiking and trail running.
What is the SPOT GEN4 and when would you use one?
The SPOT GEN4 is a personal locator beacon, GPS tracker and satellite messenger in one.
The two main reasons to carry one of these on your trail runs, hikes or other adventures (or simply working) in places with limited mobile phone signal are:
- As a way of contacting emergency services if you need help or need to send an SOS signal with no phone signal
- As a way of sharing your location with emergency services or friends and family, using the SPOT GEN4’s GPS tracking function.
You can also use the SPOT tracker to send preset one-way messages using satellite data, which is a way to update your preset contacts with your current status.
This includes a regular daily check-in message – although in my experience this functionality is overly limited to be all that helpful – as explained later in this review.
All of these functions use satellite GPS data and connectivity, and therefore you do not need mobile phone signal to use it.
Like its competitor, the Garmin inReach Mini 2, the SPOT GEN4 is therefore also a great option for international adventure travel where you may not have a local sim card or consistent phone service while you’re traveling.
Unlike some other satellite messengers, the SPOT GEN4 also does not need to be connected to a mobile phone to be used.
Key features of the SPOT GEN4 Tracker
Here are the basic dimensions and specifications of the SPOT GEN4 satellite messenger device.
Measuring around 3.5″ x 2.7″ x 1″ the SPOT GEN4 is similar in size to the Garmin inReach Mini 2, and weighs a little more at 5oz (with lithium batteries installed) compared to the Garmin’s 3.5oz.
It’s rugged, dust and water-resistant IP68 – Up to a depth of 2 meters for up to 30 minutes, so it’s built to be used outdoors and can handle being dropped, including into shallow water and wet, dusty conditions.
Note, however, that it doesn’t float so if that’s a concern then consider buying a float or floating lanyard to clip onto it using the included carabiner.
Using the SPOT GEN4 satellite tracker and GPS messenger
Buttons, lights and display
The SPOT GEN4 features several buttons which you use to control it, and lights that provide feedback from the device on what actions it is performing, which is generally shown by green for a successful function (such as power on, or message sent), and red for unsuccessful (such as GPS signal not obtained, message not sent).
The three main buttons you’ll use most often are the ‘send custom message’, ‘start/stop track’ and ‘check in’ buttons on the bottom.
Additionally, there is a power on/off button on the side, and of course the all-important SOS and ‘Help’ buttons that are hidden under the orange covers to prevent you accidentally contacting emergency services.
A downside for some is going to be the lack of any display on the SPOT GEN4.
Having no screen helps keep the cost of the unit down, and presumably helps conserve battery life for use in message sending and tracking, but does mean you need to take the time to learn how to use the device properly, otherwise the button pressing and red / green lights can seem rather cryptic – not what you want to be working out in an emergency situation.
Instruction manual and user guide
The device comes with a quick-start guide, which will help you turn it on and test it works, but you’ll need to go onto SPOT’s website and download the PDF user manual that actually explains how to use all the features in enough depth.
The manual also provides tips for getting the strongest signal and greatest possibility of messages going through, such as where to position the device (with the SPOT logo facing the sky) and getting to a clearing away from tall trees, cliffs and buildings, etc, to improve your ability to pick up sufficient GPS satellite connections.
You’ll also need to log on to your SPOT account online to customize settings, enter preset messages and preset contact details for friends and family who you want to be able to message when you’re out running or hiking – you have to do this all in advance, before you head out on the trails.
It’s worth checking out SPOT’s coverage map before going ahead and ordering one. There are certain parts of the world where coverage is not going to be as reliable as most places, notably.
For example, Hawaii is right at the edge of the coverage map, and coverage is limited in India and Sri Lanka.
So if you plan to be traveling, working or volunteering somewhere then it’s best to check the SPOT GEN4’s coverage is going to be enough for you.
Changing the batteries and charging
This SPOT tracker comes with 4x AAA single-use batteries. You can use it with these and other disposable, replaceable batteries or switch these out for 4x AAA lithium rechargeable batteries, although you’ll need to remove those rechargeable batteries to charge them, the unit won’t do that for you.
While it’s good that some batteries are provided, they are disposable, not rechargeable.
While some may appreciate the option of using disposable batteries, with so many ways to charge devices off-grid using power banks and solar power, this is an area I would like to see upgraded in future so that rechargeable batteries are included and can actually be charged within the device without having to unscrew the back panel to remove them.
On that subject, if you are looking for some quality rechargeable batteries to use with this and other gadgets then check out my review of Pale Blue’s batteries – I’ve been super impressed with them.
SPOT states the battery life is enough to ‘send 1,250 check in and custom messages on a single set of lithium batteries’.
It’s difficult to translate this to overall how many hours or days it may last – that really depends how much you’re using it and how hard it’s having to work to find GPS signal and attempt to send out messages and location tracking information, although it’s fair to say that 1,250 is a lot of messages!
Like with a mobile phone (but with satellite rather than cellular data), the battery is going to run down quicker the more you use it. If you’re in a place with poor or patchy signal meaning it has to keep hunting for a good connection and that utilizes more battery than a device with a good connection.
To access the battery compartment to take them out for replacement or charging, you need to unscrew the four screws on the back of the SPOT device.
This seems unnecessarily time-consuming and of course you need something (a screwdriver, knife, coin, etc) to unscrew it with.
You also need to do this to access the USB port needed for updating the software using your computer, which, like me, you’ll likely need to do before you use it for the first time, and for subsequent updates.
The SPOT GEN4 uses an old-style USB-A cable that’s included. This is a shame – we like to see new devices come with USB-C, which provides faster charging and an easier connection.
These battery and charging inconveniences are just that – inconvenient, although when you consider the SPOT GEN4’s low price compared to the competition, you may be happy to overlook them.
You can store up to 10 preset contacts in your account on SPOT’s website, either by adding phone numbers or email addresses.
On the website, where you set up the contacts, you can also select which would receive your check-in, custom and help messages when you send them, in case you want different people, or groups of people to receive them.
Probably the most well-known use for the SPOT tracker, and why it’s so popular with trail runners and people enjoying backcountry adventures is the tracking features it offers.
This, by the way, is a top reason why the SPOT GEN4 made it on to our list of the best satellite messengers and personal locator beacons.
With SPOT, you can set it up to share your progress real-time using ‘SPOT mapping’, which is a comprehensive online mapping system that shows them a ‘breadcrumb’ trail of your location that gets updated at specified intervals.
With any of the data subscriptions, you can choose to have SPOT update your location and send it to your contacts at intervals of 5, 10, 30 or 60 minutes.
If you’re trail running or doing something even quicker such as mountain biking, you’ll probably want a more frequent update interval – I opt for the 5 minute interval for that reason. Depending on the terrain, you may (or may not) cover a lot of ground in 5 minutes.
For an even more frequent update you can pay an extra $5/month on your subscription and get the option of having your tracking update every 2.5 minutes.
This is a great feature, although not foolproof.
If your SPOT does not have enough GPS satellite connectivity then the waypoint will not be sent, regardless of your set tracking interval.
It will try for up to 4 minutes and then just not send any waypoint if there’s still no connection.
That means you may not send waypoints as frequently as you planned, if you’re in an area with limited GPS signal, such as a deep canyon or somewhere with a thick tree canopy.
To maximize your ability to get GPS signal, it helps to keep the SPOT logo pointed towards the sky for the best reception as that’s where the satellite antenna is located. However, this may not make much difference in certain locations if you don’t have that clear sky view.
Preset messages and custom messages
With the SPOT GEN4 you can pre-program check-in and custom messages and choose who of your pre-saved contact will receive the messages when you send them.
You can send messages to pre-selected phone numbers, emails or emergency services.
When you send the message, the device will make up to three attempts to send that message out using satellite data. It also sends your co-ordinates, and, if sending by email, a link to your location.
Although having the ability to send messages could be a useful feature, on the GEN4 it’s very limited, for several reasons.
Firstly, most obviously, this is a one-way messenger. You can’t get responses or feedback from your contacts. You can’t have a conversation with them over text, and you are not able to edit or add custom messages once out on the trail, they have to be pre-set in advance.
For those more advanced features, go for the SPOT X rather than the GEN4, as the SPOT X does allow two-way messaging and has a QUERTY keyboard, looking much like a Blackberry with a large antenna. You can compare the features of both on SPOT’s website.
For these reasons, I would not pick the messaging capability as a big reason to get the SPOT GEN4.
The major reasons you should consider one of these devices are for the ability to send emergency SOS and help messages, and your location, as well as offering your contacts the ability to follow your trail online using its tracking and comprehensive mapping functionality, as described above.
Carrying the SPOT GEN4
The best place to have your SPOT tracker is somewhere you can easily reach it in the event of an emergency, and where it has the clearest view of the sky.
If you slip and fall or otherwise need to contact someone urgently, you don’t want to be spending precious time digging around in deep pockets, which may not even be possible if you’ve fallen.
So that means, not buried somewhere in your running hydration vest or hiking backpack.
If your hydration pack has pockets on the shoulder straps, or bungees and webbing in that area, that’s the best place to attach your SPOT GEN4.
You can either put it in one of the front pockets (such as those designed to store water bottles, if you only have one bottle with you), or get creative with strapping it on using the included carabiner and strap, and your pack’s cords and straps.
Using the SPOT GEN4 – who is it best suited to?
Compare to other similar sized satellite messenger devices targeted at trail runners, hikers and other people enjoying mountain adventures, watersports and traveling, the SPOT GEN4 is most notably one of the most affordable options out there.
With an RRP of US $150 (although this is often discounted) compared to $200+ for other options (the Garmin inReach Mini2, for example, costs $400), this is the most cost-effective way of having an emergency satellite beacon and GPS tracker on you.
Note that there’s also the data subscription to pay for on top of this (as described below) – and you’re going to have to have some form of subscription with any reputable satellite messenger, because that data doesn’t come for free!
If you have the patience to read the instructions (possibly several times) and play around with the SPOT GEN4 before you take it out to actually use it on the trails then that will pay off.
Without doing this, you may find yourself in a situation where you don’t know how to use it to best effect, and that can make a big difference in an extreme or emergency situation.
If you don’t have that level of patience to learn how to test it, use the buttons and know what the various LED flashes mean, then you may want to consider an alternative device that has a more user-friendly interface, such as the Garmin inReach Mini 2.
Or, just make an exception and read the manual 🙂
Cost and where to buy
You may also want to check Amazon (although I personally prefer to buy gadgets from the brand or a retailer like REI):
14 new from $147.92
Service plan options
I really like that the service plans you have to choose from are very simple. You basically have a choice of two, both of which offer unlimited messages and unlimited tracking at 5+ minute intervals.
The two plans are the ‘contract plan – basic‘ or ‘flex plan – basic‘.
The main difference between the two is how long you’re committing to have the contract for, and that depends on how you’re planning to use your SPOT GEN4.
If you just want it for summer trail running, or a winter ski season, for example, then the flex plan is the best choice, because it only requires a one-month subscription, that you can roll forward for as long as you need to. The basic flex plan costs $14.95/month.
For year-round use and not having to cancel and re-activate it between uses, the basic contract plan requires a 12-month subscription and costs only $11.95/month.
For both options, you can also upgrade your plan to tracking at 2.5 minute intervals by paying an extra $5/month.
These plans do auto-renew so that’s worth having in mind if you do want to cancel it at any point.
A $29.95 activation fee applies to the annual contract plans (paid monthly or annually) as well as the first time you activate a flex plan.
Lastly, you should also be aware of the $34.95 flex charge that is billed to you annually if you go for the flex plan – but the good thing about this is it avoids you paying a re-activation fee every time you do so.