Welcome to the BWCAW blog of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service!

See our websites at ElyOutfittingCompany.com and BoundaryWatersGuideService.com.

We are a Boundary Waters canoe trip outfitter, Quetico outfitter, and guide service in Ely, Minnesota. This Boundary Waters blog shares photos, stories, humor, skills, and naturalist insights from guiding in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Most entries are from our founder and head guide, Jason Zabokrtsky. He is the Boundary Waters Blogger.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gear Review - SPoT in the BWCA


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This entry is by guest Blogger Kyle Courtaway. Kyle has extensive backpacking, canoeing, and camping experience. He lives in Illinois and ventures to the Boundary Waters as often as he can.

People travel in the wilderness to, among other things, feel a sense of space apart from other humans. It is one aspect of being in the Boundary Waters that I have always valued.

I brought a satellite phone during my first canoe solo trip in case there were any emergencies and to put a call into my wife halfway through. While I felt like it was a smart decision, it also felt like a very large connection back to civilization. Personally, it felt like there was always a “crutch” in case I felt uncomfortable. Also the act of dialing a phone and speaking to someone back at home can have the effect of taking you out of the wilderness. The reality is that whether traveling alone or with a group it is important to have a method of communication in case something unexpected occurs.

On my solo trip this month, I took along the Satellite Personal Tracker (SPoT). The SPoT is a device that, similar to a sat phone, uses satellites as a method of communication (as opposed to mobile phones that are still spotty in the BW).

However, it is the differences between the SPoT and the satellite phone that, I believe, make it a great alternative to the sat phone for wilderness travel.

Construction: The first thing that you notice is that the SPoT is half the size of the sat phone. This makes it easier to carry in the day/fanny pack leaving it closer to you in case of emergency.

Durability and Portability: The SPoT is both durable (hard plastic shell) and waterproof. The sat phone requires it’s own waterproof case. This gives the sat phone a bulky profile to carry with you and generally leaves it sitting in a portage pack.

Communication: This is really where the SPoT is the optimal choice. The SPoT interface has three function buttons:
  • 911: Sends a rescue signal and alerts the first responders to your location.
  • Ask for Help: Sends a SMS text or email message to family and friends for their help at your location (obviously this is a non-life threatening emergency).
  • OK: This button sends a pre-programmed SMS text or email message to family and friends and includes a link to Google Maps so they can see your location.

While the first two function buttons are critical, it’s the OK button that I found to be the best of part of the SPoT. This button allowed me to let my wife and family know I was ok as well as give them a picture of where I was without mentally leaving the wilderness to do it. In the "OK" email, SPoT provided a link to Google Maps showing my location. The above Google map is a sample from my trip. The SPoT also provided a set of satellite waypoints so I could review my route post-trip. Using the SPoT is unobtrusive; I would send my OK message when I was preparing dinner at night and put it away. Luckily, I can only give a first-hand review of the OK function and will have to leave the 911 and Ask for Help buttons for another trip!

Finally, the rental rate was half of what a satellite phone would have cost. For those who spend a great deal of time in the wilderness, it is still a significantly cheaper purchase than a sat phone and service. I also found the SPoT to be more reliable than the sat phone, which could take a long time to acquire satellites and sometimes didn’t work at all. As a safety and communication option for the wilderness, I would definitely recommend the SPoT for a BWCA trip.

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