Korpijaakko

– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Category Archives: gear talk

New Packrafts on the Market!

Since writing the post about New packrafting toys  two years ago a lot has happened on the packrafting market. And on the other hand, not so much has happened: it’s still the same interesting growing niche sport.

But, there are new boats worth a mention!

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New packrafts

Alpackraft Gnu with Vectran fabric and sraydeck. Photo stolen from Packrafting-Store website.

Alpackraft Gnu with Vectran fabric and sraydeck. Photo stolen from Packrafting-Store website.

Two years ago I wrote about the Alpackraft Explorer 42. Since then Alpackraft released the Gnu: a two-person white water capable packraft with a spray deck and somewhat resembling a miniature two-person canoe.  Moro photos and detailed specs on the Packrafting-Store website. For the Europeans wanting to try the Gnu it’s again available for rent from Packrafting Store!

Now that I’ve tried the Explorer 42 I’m finding the Gnu to be very interesting option. Sharing a raft (with enough room for both to paddle…) is refreshing and great fun and feels especially well suited for lakes and easy rivers which are plentiful here in Southern Finland. The Gnu would offer more hull speed and more floatation than th EX42 which would be welcome. And of course there’s the option to use the spraydeck. Spraydeck might be very welcome in some situations even though I wouldn’t see myself using the Gnu for any serious white water (difficult class II or above).

Alpackaraft white water packraft. Photo stolen from the promotional website.

Alpackaraft white water packraft. Photo stolen from the promotional website.

Gnu is already old news for most but the latest thing from Alpackraft is pretty new: The yet-to-be-named Alpackaraft white water specific packraft. It’s a turn-key white water package with no need for glueing attachments for thigh straps or other DIY modifications.

It’s still clearly a packraft but quite a different boat: the hull is longer and narrower than the Denali Llama, the bow is more pointy and there’s more rocker. It comes with a refurnished cockpit, white water spraydeck, knee braces, Cargo Fly, etc. The price is that it’s pretty heavy at 4,5kg, nearly one kilo heavier than a Denali Llama with white water spray deck and Cargo Fly. And it also costs 1900 USD. But if you compare the weight and price to similarly equipped raft and take into account all the DIY work required and the added performance it’s not actually that bad.

The big questions is: do you need that extra performance? Personally I’d love to try the new raft but I don’t think I’ll need the added performance anytime soon so I’ll opt saving my money and carrying little less for now.

Typical for Alpacka Raft company, there’s not much information about the raft available yet but you can see prototypes in use for example on Mike C‘s video from Veracruz:

In addition to Alpackarafts (and the Feathercraft‘s offerings) there is an increasing amount of options for more serious packrafting:

Kokopelli Hornet. Photo stolen from Kokopelli website.

Kokopelli Hornet. Photo stolen from Kokopelli website.

The crowd-funded Kokopelli Raft company is now selling and shipping their packrafts. For me it seems that all the models are based on the same symmetrical hull design and the difference is whether it comes equipped with or without a spray deck and/or Cargo Fly type inner storage option. It seems the design and solutions are pretty similar to those of Alpackrafts but there are also some differences.

The rafts are heavier than Alpackarafts but also use burlier materials (floor: 840den vs 210den and tubes: 210den vs 75den, though the coating is the key here…) and are roughly the size of Alpackraft Explorer. The hull is made of two symmetrical sections with separate valves and eight attachment points. The Kokopellis don’t come with a seat or backrest but with a detachable inflatable floor (by NSR?). Some may appreciate the sturdier fabrics and most will probably welcome the cheaper prices: the basic Kokopelli Hornet sells for 599 USD (compared to 945 USD for the Alpackaraft Unrigged Explorer).

Again something I might like to try but probably not going to buy as I don’t see it offering any advantages over my current packraft. But a lower cost option is always welcome and will likely help making packrafting more popular. The Kokopellis also seem like a great option for bikerafting or for people sharing a raft on easy waters or rafting with a canine companion.

The Aire BAKraft. Photo stolen from Forrest McCarthy's blog.

The Aire BAKraft on a test run. Photo stolen from Forrest McCarthy’s blog.

The very latest boat on the waters is the BAKraft by Aire named Hybrid SBF. Forrest McCarthy blogged about this self-bailing vessel that seems like a hybrid between an inflatable kayak (Aire’s main business) and a classic packraft.

The outcome is very interesting and also different to the classic packraft designs: it looks like a short IK, comes with a self-bailing floor and Aire thigh straps and the hull is constructed of urethane bladder covered with separate layer of Dyneema for high-strength protection. Size-wise its shorter and wider than Alpackraft Alpacka but as the design is very different the comparison on this level doesn’t probably make much sense. It weights under 3 kg with the self-bailing floor and backrest so it’s actually quite light. The beefy Aire thigh straps (also widely used as a DIY modification in Alpackarafts) add about 0,5kg. There’s some room to stove gear in the stern but apparently Cargo FLy type solution for stowing gear inside the tubes is in the making. The Hybrid SBF will be available in 2015 for RRP of 1200 USD. In addition there is a cheaper (and likely lighter) non-selfbailing version, the Hybrid Lite, coming too.

In my opinion this is very interesting design as it actually offers something new. Again I’d love to test it but don’t know if I’d buy it due the lack of a spraydeck. For serious white water use the selfbailing floor is probably as good or even better option than spray deck. And if you’ll need to bring a drysuit anyway or paddle in warm waters is makes a lot of sense. But for easier floats in colder climates the spray deck offers extra warmth and protection… Though I think a MYOG spraydeck would be rather easy project here…

The little ultralight packrafts

Supai Flatwater Canyon II on the right, Anfibio Buoy Boy inflatable vest in the middle, simple foam PFD on the left and 1L Nalgene for scale.

From right: simple oam PFD, Anfibio Buoy Boy inflatable vest and Supai Flatwater Canyon II packraft . A Nalgene for scale.

In addition to the full-sized and super capable packrafts there’s the sub-segment of superlight one-person rafts suitable for crossing lakes and rivers on hiking oriented trips, fishing on remote lakes, etc.

– The traditional boat and sort of benchmark in this category is Alpackraft Scout (1660g) being the most robust boat in the group.
Supai Adventure Gear Flatwater Canyon II  is the lightest boat in the group at 680 g with good design but small size and light materials.
– Klymit has the LiteWater Dinghy (LWD). The weight is reasonable 990g as is the price but based on what I’ve seen I’m not convinced by the design.
– Ruta Locura sells an ultralight version of the LWD called LWD-UL made of thinner fabric and thus being lighter (790g).
– FlyweightDesigns has updated the Flytepacker and it’s now called CrossFlyte and has an inner part (740g) and detachable skin (850g) for added robustness (total 1590g).
Advances Elements Packlite Kayak is more like an ultralight “pool-toyed” IK but at 1800g and with reasonable price it fits the segment well.

Packsailing

A client packsailing upstream the Kymijoki on my packrafting course in August.

In addition to the new rafts there are also new accessories which open up new ways of using the pakcrafts with packraft sailing being the latest thing. Packrafting-Store sells a kayak sails sized for packrafts and Joni and Marko have been pioneering the packsailing in Finland and Joery is also pushing the limits of packsailing by sailing the Belgian coast line (67km) in one day!

Being able to cover over 60km of flat water in a packraft in one day is pretty impressive! Packsailing is of course highly weather dependant (as is packrafting on flat water in general) but with the sail weighting only around 400g it makes sense to carry one just in case if the route includes long sections of flat water.

– – –

That’s it for now I think.

I wish I would next see a sub-2kg packraft capable of handling class III white water and preferably equipped with a spray deck. Something like a white water version of the Alpackaraft CuriYak. In the end that would be the ultimate boat for majority of packrafters and I could have done 95% of my packrafting with such a boat and it would’ve been a lot lighter in my pack than my current boat. So, if the great people at Alpacka Raft company are reading this, feel free to start working on the idea! 🙂

Edit: Post edited on 2.10. as I got new infromation: Alpackraft Gnu is again available for rentals from Packrafting-Store and the weight of the Aire Hybrid SBF BAKraft doesn’t include the thigh straps.

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A Friendly Reminder: Boots are not Forever

Traditional heavyweight hiking boots are considered to be very durable. And they are, at least compared to the lightweight trail runners favoured by many, me included. Trail runners seem to last around or under 1000 km while traditional heavy weight leather boots can last for several thousand kilometers.

But even hiking boots are not forever.

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On my latest guiding stint two of my clients were using traditional high quality leather hiking boots about 10 years old. The boots hadn’t seen much use during the last years but were well maintained and seemed used but fine.

But after the first 12km both pairs started to fall a part: The outer soles started to detach from the heels and sides. Closer inspection revealed a well-known but often forgotten problem: The midsole material had reached the end of its service life.

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The midsoles of most modern hiking boots are made of polyurethane (PU) foam. The PU foam can take a lot more abuse than the EVA foam used on trail runners but it seems that the type of PU foam used has a limited service life as a part of planned obsolescence (i.e. planned lifetime of the product). General consensus among experienced hikers is that the lifetime is around 10 years, 15 years at max. At the end of the service life the material starts to crumble and just disintegrate. There is really no reasonable way to fix this except changing the whole midsole.

Of course not all hiking boot midsoles are made from the disintegrating PU and there are more durable options out there but the PU with planned lifetime seems to be the norm nowadays. This was also the case with my client’s boots: around 10 years old and reached the end of their planned service life quietly in a closet without much use for a while.

We survived by scavenging some old slashed rubber boots that we lined with neoprene booties and the other client decided to test the barefoot approach in practise by hiking several days with heavy rucksack in thin neoprene diving booties with insoles from the hiking boots and double socks for extra padding. We also fixed the hiking boots with some paracord and duct tape (if you bring any duct tape, bring a lot!) to be used in the descent to the Reisadalen canyon and they worked well enough for that bit.

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But to avoid getting into the situation: Check the conditions of the midsoles of your boots! Especially if you haven’t used them for a while, which is probably the case for many of us who have changed from traditional boots to lighter footwear. And if you’re taking your old boots for a big hike after some time, go for a test walk before the big thing.

– – –

Inspired by this I’ve decided it’s better to sell my old heavy-duty boots as they still have many years left in them and I don’t have enough use for them. So, if you’d like a pair of Meindl MFS Vakuum GTX boots in size 48 (good secure fit for size 46 foot with double socks) for reasonable price, please contact me!

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My Inov-8 390s failed me after few hundred kilometers so here’s my new choise for the shoulder seasons: Merrel Proterra Mid Sport with Gore-Tex.

Yellowbrick YB3 review

This is a review of (arguably) the best two-way satellite messaging and tracking device on the market: Yellowbrick YB v3.

Yellowbrick YB v3 and Samsung Galaxy Xcover in tent in Reisadalen valley.

Yellowbrick YB v3 and Samsung Galaxy Xcover in a tent in Reisadalen valley.

I’ve written about satellite communication devices earlier covering a bit of tech, the basic options and some messaging devices and later about more messaging devices. And not long ago I shared my experience and a word of warning regarding the SPOT devices. In the review I promised also to tell more about the YB v3. So here we go!

Yellowbrick YB v3

This review is based on my experience with the Yellowbrick Traking’s YB v3 that is the predecessor of the now available updated YB v3 Mk II. The technology and functionality of the devices are basically the same so the remarks here apply also to the YB v3 Mk II.

The latest model: YB v3 MK II.

The latest model: YB v3 MK II. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.

Systems

The YB v3 is a two-way communication and tracking device based on satellite technology. The unit uses GPS satellites to locate itself (just like the SPOT) and Iridium Communications satellite network to send and receive data (unlike the SPOT). The latter is a big thing!

Iridium is the only satellite communication company providing true global coverage from Pole to Pole and even under dense vegetation. The Iridium satellite constellation consists of 66 satellites on low Earth orbits covering the whole globe. In addition to communicating with ground stations the satellites can also communicate with each other improving the system even more. This means a device based on the Iridium system (like the Yellowbrick) should work reliably anywhere on the globe (unlike the SPOT).

The system aka how YB v3 works.

The system. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.

Device

The YB v3 is not especially small gadget but still fits in a large pocket and gives a good grip. The new YB v3 MkII measures 144 x 76 x 36mm and weights 305 grams. It’s bigger than SPOT devices but the size means proper big buttons and an OLED screen!

The 26 x 35 mm screen fits four lines of text and enables easy use. You can see the state of the device, browse the menu, send messages, read messages and even write them with a virtual keyboard and the 4-way keys. In addition to the screen there is an indicator light showing green or red light to mark certain things, for example blinking green light means that the device is sending a message.

On the original YB v3 I was testing there were five buttons: 4-way arrow buttons and the Alert button covered with a flap. The updated model has gained a dedicated OK/enter button which is a great improvement. The buttons are big and chunky and easy to use even with gloves (the thumb of mittens works as well) and feel very robust.

The YB v3 in Sarek National Park in March 2012.

The YB v3 on top of my pulka in the Sarek National Park in March 2012.

The name Yellowbrick is actually very fitting: it feels solid and very rugged. Just like a brick. It is tested to meet IP67 (total protection from dust and submersion down to 1m for 30min) and MIL-STD-810G for vibration, shock and shock. The operating temperature is said to be from -30C to +60C (storage -40C to +85C) but I know it has been used in colder temps without any problems.

Inside the device there is Bluetooth, a high quality GPS chip set, Iridium antenna, 9602 Iridium modem and other stuff to keep the device connected. And even a built-in accelerometer! A built-in 5300 mAh LiPo battery keeps the device up and running. A single charge lasts about 2500 transmission meaning that in real life you can get about three weeks of tracking with 15 minutes interval with just one charge. If you use the YB v3 as a standalone device the battery lasts really long. The use of Bluetooth drains the battery faster. And the battery is conveniently charged with standard mini USB (cable provided). The USB port is covered with a sealed screw-on cap.

Functions and features

The YB v3 offers a lot of functions and the final bundle varies depending on which of the four service levels you buy (apparently the device itself is the same for each but the software varies). For typical personal (or small expedition) outdoor’s use I’d recommend the standard version which has the following functions:

Tracking: The device will send you position information automatically at set intervals and the information will be visible online at YBlog (or on Social Hiking). The Tracking is set from the unit so you can start and stop tracking or even change the interval on the go.

Send basic messages:  You can send preset messages (max 250 characters) from the device to preset recipient’s mobile phone and/or e-mail. You can have hundreds of preset messages but you need a computer to change the messages and an internet access to change the recipients. In addition you can use a virtual keyboard to write free text (again max 250 characters) on the device and send it as a basic message if you are lacking a suitable preset message.

Receive basic messages: You can receive messages up to 250 characters to the device. These messages can be sent either from Yellowbrick’s web service or via e-mail (the device has its own e-mail address).

Advanced messaging: Advanced messaging enables connecting the YB v3 to an Android or iOS device over Bluetooth to send and receive messages up to 1000 characters. You can also then choose the recipient’s e-mail address freely. The advanced messaging also includes social media integration making updates over Twitter, Facebook and the like easy.

Alert: While other functions are used thru the menu of the device the Alert is simply launched with a single dedicated button. There is a red button with a protective cover and once you press the button the device will send an Alert message with your location to preset recipients (mobile phone and/or e-mail). The recipients can be different from the ones for the basic messages. By definition the distress message is not transmitted to any authorities.

Features included in each contract level.

Features included in each contract level. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.

The cheapest “Basic” options is missing the Advanced messaging and Bluetooth connectivity so you can save £50 if you don’t need that function. The more advanced “Professional” and “Corporate” options have things like “Advanced Alerting“, encryption, support for multiple units for single account and multi-language support. Features which are not necessary for typical outdoors use. But they are available for little extra if you want to have them.

Interfaces and options

As mentioned above the YB v3 works as a standalone device able to track, send and receive messages. In addition there is an option to connect the YB v3 to a mobile phone or tablet over Bluetooth. This makes reading and especially writing longer messages more enjoyable. The “Yellowbrick Messenger App” is available for both Android and iOS devices. I found the app a little clumsy to use but it does what it needs to do. The app also enables choosing who to send the messages and sending messages directly to linked social medias of choise.

I’ve paired my device with a rugged Samsung Galaxy Xcover phone to tweet and to receive and send longer messages. This has worked fine.

The Yellowbrick is compatible with the still awesome Social Hiking providing a great option for the Yblog service the Yellowbrick offers. The Yblog is an all-in-one service and thus feels little limited compared to the Social Hiking but works as well. And the Yblog is also more than a map and blog as it’s also the online interface for administrating your device(s), contacts, account(s) and messages. It’s not especially sleek but simple and easy to use and gets the things done.

Cost

The price of the units is shown above but a word about the running costs here.

The plan is flexible and you basically pay only for use. For each month you use the device you pay a £8 flat fee per month to keep the device active and in addition sending and receiving messages costs credits. One tracking beacon and each 50 characters of send or received text costs 1 credit. You can buy credits in bundles and they don’t expire. The pricing in September 2013 was the following:

Bundle per Credit Bundle Price
50 Credits £ 0.12 £ 6.00
100 Credits £ 0.11 £ 11.00
200 Credits £ 0.10 £ 20.00
500 Credits £ 0.09 £ 45.00
1000 Credits £ 0.08 £ 80.00
2000 Credits £ 0.07 £ 150.00
5000 Credits £ 0.06 £ 300.00

It is definitely not the cheapest option around but you really get bang for the buck. For example for me paying the considerably cheaper price for a SPOT device doesn’t really make any sense as I can’t trust the thing. It would be simply money wasted so I’m quite happy to pay the higher price for a device that works reliably.

The Use

I’ve used the YB for over 40 full days in the outdoors. Use has been on Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, in Southern Finland and in the Northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway. The device has been used in the cold and in the wet, it has taken some hits and it’s share of exposure to the elements. I’ve used all other functions except the advanced alerting functions which I don’t find useful for normal outdoors use. (Except maybe the “Dead man’s switch” type alert with a timer counting down to an automatic alert if not stopped but needing that on an adventure is quite a grim idea, isn’t it?) I’ve even tested the Alert button as it doesn’t alert authorities but you chosen contact(s) instead. And yes, also the Alert worked just fine.

The YB v3 in Sarek National Park in September 2012.

The YB v3 in the Sarek National Park in September 2012.

Successes

Yellowbrick’s marketing line for the YB v3 is “Robust, Reliable, and Well Designed” and it seems to be very accurate. It can take a lot of abuse. Temps around -30C, freezing super-cooled rain (that sucks!), sleet, torrential rain… no problem.

The durability is a premiss for the greatest success of the device: It just works! I’ve had the device fail sending a message only one single time and this happened indoors in a hut next to some big hills. And the great thing is that the YB v3 can tell me this: there was a GPS fix but the message didn’t go through and so I was able to open the door, place the device outside and get my message sent. Outdoors the device has been able to transmit every single tracking beacon and message successfully.

To get an idea of the capability of the device compare the Social Hiking maps from two similar packrafting tours to Reisadalen in Northern Norway. The Reisadalen is a deep, steep walled canyon well beyond the Arctic Circle meaning it’s quite challenging environment for getting messages through. On the first map you can see beacons sent with YB v3. These are unfortunately with long interval so they are not very frequent but every single one sent has made it through (as have the tweets send from the app).

Yellowbrick track from a tour in August 2012. Sparse beacons but all made it through.

Yellowbrick track from a tour in August 2012. I used long interval but all beacons made it through.

On the second map there are beacons sent with SPOT 2. Or there should be. There should be plenty of beacons as they are sent with 10 minutes interval but there are only few random ones in the whole Reisadalen section. In addition the map is missing all the beacons from a 6,6km day-trip to Imofossen in the Reisadalen. Not a single beacon from the day trip.

SPOT 2 track from a tour in September 2013. Notice the missing beacons.

SPOT 2 track from a tour in September 2013. Notice the missing beacons.

So, the Yellowbrick just bloody works!

And as a two-way communication device you can also use the Yellowbrick to receive messages (say weather forecast for the summit-bid day) and get to know if your messages and tracking has worked successfully. Both very useful features. You can also see the coordinates from the latest tracking beacon or message sent. This way the device also doubles as a sort of a back-up GPS device.

I was also very pleased with the support from the Yellowbrick team: quick and helpful responses to any situation and also great patience as returning the test device and writing this review took a lot more time than anticipated. Nice guys.

Improvements?

Not much to say here really.

The original YB v3 had couple of points to improve: A dedicated OK button would’ve made the use a lot easier (especially typing “free text” with the device only) and the free text written with the device was limited to a single line of text and exceeding the limit caused it to crash requiring simple rebooting. Both of these issues have been addressed in the now available YB v3 Mk II: There’s a separate OK button and you can write messages long enough that you’ll get frustrated doing so before you run out of characters. In addition the design of the YB V3 Mk II looks little more sleek and the see-through cover on the Alert-button is also a nice touch.

I also encountered some problems with long (over 250 characters) messages send over the Bluetooth connection and had to send them in 250 character sections but also this is fixed with the new device.

So, the YB v3 MkII seems like quite a perfect device. To have something to whine about, it would be nice to have an option to use AA lithium batteries instead of the built-in battery. I’d still like to have option of using the built-in battery instead as it performs very well but sometimes extra AA batteries would be easier to take along than an USB-compatible power source. I’m not sure if it would be possible to do but still something worth keeping in mind.

What other say

There aren’t many reviews of the YB v3 online. There’s for example this one of a pre-production YB v3 Mk I used on Southern Patagonian Icecap and  this one of the latest YB v 3 Mk II used on a last degree ski expedition to the North Pole. In addition many hardcore expeditions and adventures are using Yellowbrick, for example the Coldest Journey and The Dark Ice Project. So even though the reviews are scarce the track record seems good.

Summary

The YB v3 is not especially small or especially cheap but it is robust as a brick and has about all the functions you’d need in recreational outdoor sports or on a more demanding expedition. It’s easy to use and the battery life is good. The pricing is flexible and you basically pay only for what you need and use. In my opinion the YB v3 is (arguably) the best two-way satellite messaging and tracking device on the market.

And in case I forgot to mention: It just works!

Again in Sarek National Park in September 2012.

N checking messages at the Sarek National Park in September 2012.

Availability

The YB v3 is available directly from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd. You can order it easily from their website. Prices start from £399 (around 470 EUR or 615 USD). Depending on your needs, I’d advice getting the “Standard” model for general outdoors use. I think that the Bluetooth is worth the extra £50.

For those living down-under the Yellowbrick (and some interesting Rock7 products) are available from G-layer.

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Disclaimer: Yellowbrick Tracking offered me a free unit with free use as a sponsorship arrangement for the Vatnajökull 2012 expedition. After the expedition I continued testing the unit on different trips before returning it back to Yellowbrick Tracking and reviewed it here because I genuinely think it’s a great product.

Satellite Communication: SPOT 2 – review and warning

SPOT is probably the most widely used satellite messaging device in recreational outdoor sports. It was the first of its kind and something the market needed. It has helped a lot of people during the years but one should know that it also has limitations and in my opinion, is unreliable.

Warning!

The SPOT is not reliable!

Be it SPOT, SPOT 2 or SPOT 3, the system of one-way communication thru satellite network with limited coverage is simply not reliable. In most places and for most people SPOT’s systems work just fine but the system is limited and this should be taken into account while considering using it. In addition to not being able to save yourself or someone else with the SPOT it can also cause a lot of anxiety and worry back home and maybe also initiate a needless search and rescue operations.

Be warned and use at your own risk.

Oh, In case you are wondering what is a SPOT or satellite messenger or are in the market for one, please take a look also on my earlier posts on Satellite Communication! and Satellite Communication: Follow-up 1.

The device – SPOT 2

The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, also known as the SPOT 2, is updated model of the original SPOT Personal Tracker (known simply as SPOT). The latest model in the line is SPOT Gen3 (I bet it’ll be called SPOT 3) and there is also smart phone compatible SPOT Connect,  boat security system SPOT HUG, and satellite phone SPOT Global phone. But anyway, lets concentrate on the SPOT 2 which is also close enough to the original SPOT and SPOT Gen 3 for this review and the following warnings to be useful.

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SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger – aka SPOT 2.

The SPOT 2 is a one-way tracking and messaging device that uses GPS to locate the device and Globalstar satellite network to transmit pre-defined messages with your location information.

The SPOT 2 is nice package: small and relatively simple to use. It measures 9,4 x 6,6 x 2,5 cm and weighs about 150g so it fits your hand or pocket easily and doesn’t really slow you down. In addition the device is rather rugged (waterproof according to IPx7 and resistant to humidity and vibration). The device should work in temps between -30C and +60C and up to altitude of 6500 meters. (Though I think SPOT units have been used on top of Mt Everest as well.) In my use the device has been robust enough and it’s taken all I’ve thrown at it.

The device runs on three lithium AAA batteries (and lithium batteries only!) and with fresh batteries you can expect to send up 700 messages or use the tracking function up to 7 days, in optimal conditions. I’ve found this to be true: using the tracking function while moving 6-10 hours per day one set of batteries lasts over a week even in freezing temperatures and sub-optimal conditions. The lid of the battery compartment is sealed with an o-ring and secured with two screws that can be opened and closed without tools.

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The backside of SPOT 2.

The RRP for SPOT 2 is $159 and in addition you need an annual subscription plan costing $99,99 – or 99 euros for us in Europe. The annual plan includes unlimited messaging and tracking which makes it very affordable in the satellite messenger market.

The features – Messaging, Tracking, SOS

As said above the SPOT 2 is used to send pre-defined messages with your location information or to track your progress. The device is capable of only sending messages, not receiving them which means one-way communication. (Keep this in mind!) All messaging options are activated by pressing a dedicated button and holding it until light starts to blink. The messaging options are:

Track Progress: Activated by pressing the button with foot track symbol. While tracking the device will send out your location every 10 minutes and also include two previous locations to add reliability (the system removes any doubles). The tracking function has to be re-activated every 24-hours. Your progress can then be followed over the internet on your own SPOT page (shared or private) or you can re-direct the data to the always awesome Social Hiking service.

Check-in/OK, Custom message and Help: These are all pre-defined messages sent to pre-defined contacts to their cell phone and/or e-mail. Each message can be sent up to 10 pre-set contacts. You need an internet connection to customize or change messaging settings so it’s not usually possible on the field. The Help message button has a cover to prevent accidental messaging. The Help is also sent once every 5 minutes for an hour while the other messages are just send three times within 20 minutes (the system again removes doubles).

SOS: This in an emergency assistance request that is transmitted every 5 minutes until the battery dies or it is cancelled. The message is directed to GEOS, a private emergency response center with good reputation operating from Houston, Texas. The SOS message has also a dedicated button with button cover. Unlike the other messages the SOS message will be sent also even if the device can’t locate itself via GPS, the rest of the messages require a GPS fix to be sent.

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Button covers open.

In addition to the message buttons there is a power button and two indicator leds: one to show the status of GPS fix and one to show that the device is done with the message sending protocol (Note! This doesn’t mean the message is delivered!).

The device is quite easy to use and each button has a blinking light to signal activation of the function. This is little problematic as the indicator light will be covered by your finger pressing the button. I can live with this but it’s been improved for the SPOT Gen3. The buttons are also inset which makes using them with thick gloves little challenging, this is again improved for SPOT 3.

There are two slot at the top on back of the device for adding lanyard but the SPOT 3 has, again, better attachment options with big slots on top and on the bottom.

Another minor improvement I’d like to see would be earlier “battery low” information (red light blinking in the power-button). Once on a ski expedition I activated the tracking in the morning just like any other day. There was no signal of low batteries at the end of the previous day (I put the power off once OK message from camp is sent) or in the morning. I put the device in my pocket and we started to ski towards and over steep edges of a down flowing glacier. During the day the weather was terrible and I didn’t check the device until in the camp in the evening and I noticed that batteries had died during the day. This had happened just at the bottom of the steep part and caused some unnecessary anxiety back home. So, battery level indicator with various levels and earlier warning signal would be good addition.

The use

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Not visible in the photo but SPOT 2 in use on expedition across the Vatnajökull glacier.

I’ve tested the SPOT 2 in Southern Finland and used it on one-week ski expeditions in Sarek in Northern Sweden (North of the Arctic Circle) and on two-week ski expedition across the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland (South of the Arctic Circle). Altogether I’ve used it about 30 days. In addition I’ve participated on several expeditions using SPOT and SPOT 2 (around 20 days) and followed (somewhat live) several expedition and trips using the SPOT and SPOT 2 (hundreds of days combined). The device has proven to be robust and durable and works just fine most of the time. (Note! Most of the time!) To my surprise the device even worked reasonably in Svalbard which should be out of the coverage of the satellite network.

The limitations

The SPOT devices (1, 2 and 3) have two serious limitations that, in my opinion, make them unreliable and not fit for the job they are marketed to do.

First thing is that it’s only one-way device. You can only send data, not receive it.  (To be exact, it receives signal from the GPS to position yourself but you can’t get the co-ordinates from the device.) One-way messaging wouldn’t be much of a problem if you could trust your message (or location) being transmitted to the recipient every time but as there is no information coming back to the SPOT device you can’t tell if your message made it to the satellites or not. The only feedback the device will give to you is whether is has fixed the location with GPS and if it has gone thru the process of sending the message. The latter does not mean the message has been transmitted thru the system.

Analogy would be that you’re in the back country, you know your own position and from there shoot up a signal flare. You can see the flare yourself and know it worked but there is no way of knowing if anyone else saw it. The flare can’t tell. The SPOT 2 does exactly the same: it shouts out as loud as it can and then blinks a light to tell you it did what it was programmed to do, but there is no certainty of the outcome. In my opinion this is somewhat serious problem especially when combined with the second limitation.

Globalstar satellite network coverage in autumn 2013. Orange >99%, yellow >96%, grey = reduced or no coverage.

SPOT is a subsidiary of Globalstar and thus naturally uses Globalstar’s satellite network. Globalstar’s satellite constellation consists of satellite on low-Eart orbits with inclination of 52 degrees. This means it doesn’t cover the polar regions and coverage in the Arctic and Antarctic regions is limited. In addition the satellites act as simple “repeaters” transmitting the signal to ground stations but not from satellite to satellite. This also limits the coverage on areas where there are no ground stations nearby.

How the system works. It’s a one-way one-line system with no options or  shortcuts.

The structure of the network used means that the system itself is not very reliable. We could expand the above signal flare analogy so that even though you know there are people visiting the area were you shot the signal flare, you don’t know if anyone saw it. And if someone saw the flare you don’t know if they alerted the authorities or not. You just have to sit, wait and hope.

I have had occasional undelivered OK/Check-in messages and several missing tracking points, occasionally from periods of several hours. Problems seems to be more frequent the further North you are (Northern Scandinavia and further), when having limited visibility towards South (being on a Northern slope of a hill) and under dense vegetation (normal Finnish forest). As I think the failures in delivering messages are location related I think it’s very likely that the same results would apply for Help or SOS messages from the same locations. The programming of the SPOT gives priority to the distress messages sending then several times instead of the normal three but that doesn’t help if there’s no connection to the satellite network and to the ground stations. In case of no coverage waiting might help and moving to better position would definitely help, but you can’t tell if you need to move and in distress situation moving isn’t always an option.

To illustrate the problem here is a screen shot of my Social Hiking map of a ski expedition in Sarek Northern Sweden in March 2013. I’ve turned on all the markers (blue squares) showing positions from where data was sent and received. As the skiing speed is quite slow and consistent, it means that when the blue boxes are more scarce or missing the data was not received. The longest stretches of missing tracking data are several kilometers long and lasted several hours meaning dozens of messages sent from the SPOT during the time but not received. Most of the breaks in the tracking are from valleys with limited visibility to South but there is also missing tracking from the flat, open lake ice. It’s quite scary to think for example an avalanche burying part of the expedition in one of those narrow valleys or hiking there in summer and hurting yourself and loosing your pack in a river crossing gone wrong. No guarantees that the SPOT would help. Probably it wouldn’t.

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SPOT track from guiding a one-week ski expedition in Sarek.

Here is also a screen shot of my Social Hiking map of a ski expedition across the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland in May 2013. The blue boxes tell similar story. The longest break in the tracking is from the dead batteries (explained above) but there are multiple shorter breaks lasting for several kilometer and hours. And all this on big, flat and open glacier with good views to the South (except for the Eastern most part of the track). Think of being hit by the famous storms of Iceland in one of those place and your tent being torn into a flapping mess of fabric with the gale force winds driving wet snow inside. No guarantees that the SPOT would help. Probably it wouldn’t. Or think about the tent holding up just fine and you waiting out the storm with hot drinks for couple of days sending OK/Check-in message to home-team every now and then. But none of the messages made it to the worried weather-forecast-checking home-team as there was no reception on the area.

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SPOT track from guiding a two-week ski expedition across Vatnajökull glacier.

In addition to the above mentioned elementary limitations I’ve occasionally had problems with getting OK/Check-in messages deliver to my contact’s cellphones. There have also been reports on the delivery of messages being delayed several days, spotty tracking data and other hiccups in the system (some of them can be found here). I believe these are mostly or solely due the limitations of the satellite network SPOT uses and not because of flawed individual devices. It seems to be a game of chance in places…

The Conclusions

I really wish the SPOT would work in a reliable manner. It would be perfect safety tool, way to tell your family your okay, track your progress, et cetera. It’s well-built device and easy to use (especially the latest SPOT Gen3 with the little improvements). It’s also relatively cheap to buy and even more so to use.

SPOT seems to work very well for most people on most areas. But not for all the people and on all the areas where it should work. This is especially true on mountainous and densely vegetated areas or areas far in the North or South. In my mind this means it’s not reliable enough to be considered as a safety tool. It’s also not reliable enough to be used to comfort your family or inform interest groups of your situation. What it is good for, in my opinion, is for non-crucial tracking and adding a social dimension to your hiking.

If you need a real safety device in case of an emergency, get a PLB. They are reliable. If you want to stay in touch with people outside the cellphone coverage, get a satellite phone or a better messaging device, preferably something that uses Iridium network. Two-way communication is a lot better than one-way messaging and a reliable network better than an unreliable one.

And if you’d prefer getting a SPOT device (cheaper, smaller, lighter and easily available), first do research on how SPOT performs in the area you intent to use it. SPOT devices are starting to be so common they are used in most places people go out to do recreational outdoors stuff. And if you end up getting a SPOT device , keep in mind the limitations of the system and also make your family or other contacts understand the limitations: i.e. a message from you means what it says but no message from you doesn’t mean anything at all.

Despite it’s shortcomings I will keep using SPOT devices occasionally. I will be using them as fun gadgets that enable home-teams to follow the progress. But I’ll keep the limitations in mind and do not consider a SPOT device as an safety device or as a way to inform interests groups of my situation.

If you’d like to have a safety device and a way to communicate with other people outside cellphone reception, I’d recommend the Yellowbrick YB v3. It can do all SPOT should be able to do and does it damn reliably. In addition it can do a plethora of other things which are nice and useful as well. The downside is that it’s more expensive and heavier. I’ve been testing the Yellowbrick YB v3 also in various locations and it has performed marvellously. A review of it is to come later.

What other’s say?

I’ve been thinking of writing this post for quite some time and writing it was finally sparked by Brian Green’s disappointment and some comments to the post. The folks at Outdoorgearlab were not too impressed by SPOT 2. But on the other hand, for example Andrew Skurka uses SPOT 2 and finds it good for his needs. Andy’s post is worth reading also regarding general mindset towards these devices. People at Backpackinglight liked it (subscription needed to read) and it worked quite well for them. Nick also has a good review of SPOT 2 worth reading if you’re interested in getting the SPOT 2.

What I’d like to say… Warning!

The SPOT is not reliable!

Be it SPOT, SPOT 2 or SPOT 3, the system of one-way communication thru satellite network with limited coverage is simply not reliable. In most places and for most people SPOT’s systems work just fine but the system is limited and this should be taken into account while considering using it. In addition to not being able to save yourself or someone else with the SPOT it can also cause a lot of anxiety and worry back home and maybe also initiate a needless search and rescue operation.

Be warned and use at your own risk.

Availability

In Finland SPOT 2 is available for example from Varuste.net (199 euros) and Savantum (210 euros). You can also rent one from Savantum (70-80 euros per week) or from Vaiska (30 euros per week). If you need the device only for a week a two every year, renting makes more sense than owning one. And if you need it more often, I’d recommend you also considering the other options out there.

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Please, share your experience and thoughts on the topic!

La Sportiva Wild Cat 2.0 – First Impression

Usually new gear is exciting. But new shoes are not. They are terrifying!

Well, that is not always the case but when you find your tried and true footwear of choise being discontinued or changed you do feel little uncomfortable. At least this was the case when La Sportiva updated my beloved Wild Cat trail runners (see the original long-term report) into Wild Cat 2.0. Would the perfect outdoor adventuring shoe be ruined for good? As I assume I’m not alone with my fears, I thought it would be fair to share my first impressions on the new design. There’s also little extra in the post comparing Wild Cats to La Sportiva Raptors (predecessor of the “Ultra Raptor” model).

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Form left: old Wild Cats, new Wild Cat 2.0s and old Raptors

Wild Cat vs. the 2.0

To put it short: They’re not ruined!

Luckily La Sportiva seems to have done just a bit of cosmetic changes to the fantastic trail runner and the Wild Cat 2.0s are very similar to the original Wild Cats. They are not ruined and actually, there are even minor improvements.

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Old Wild Cat and the new Wild Cat 2.0 side by side

The only remarkable differences I noticed between the originals and the updated model are:

– webbing loop near the top of the tongue, to hold up the tongue
– little flap of rubbery fabric on the upper outer edge of the heel, to help putting on the shoes
– different, softer feeling fabric used in the lining

I see all these as minor improvements. I don’t think I really need the first two but I don’t mind having them and maybe they are useful for some. The third point I hope to be an improvement as the lining in my last two pairs of the original Wild Cats worn out quite fast from many places in the heel area. Because of the good heel fit this hasn’t been a big problem but not having things breaking and developing holes is always nice. I hope the change is for better, even though the softer touch might be a sign of less durable fabric…

I was told earlier that the heel would’ve been changed and was afraid the shoes would’ve been ruined but apparently the only change in heel section is the addition of the little piece of fabric. The Wild cat 2.0s still have the deep close-fitting heel cup which is crucial for good fit (at least in my case). The general design and fit are still the same. The sole seems to be exactly the same. In addition to the aforementioned additions the only difference seems to be new colors (and the new orange-grey looks very nice). In my opinion this is great as the Wild Cats are perfect for for me and I’m very happy with them.

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The perfect heel cup is still there. (From left: Wild Cat 2.0, Wild Cat)

I would still love to see the changes I mentioned in the original long-term report: little stiffer (mid)sole, more durable and/or aggressive lugs on the sole (both would increase the lifetime a bit) and little stronger mesh on top of the shoe. None of these are included in the Wild Cat 2.0s, but at least they are still great shoes.

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Training tool as a shoe stand.

To summarize: The Wild Cat 2.0 offer still the perfect fit and adequate performance just like it’s predecessor. I’m happy.

Raptors and Wild Cats

As many people have been happy with the La Sportiva Raptors (see for example Martin Rye’s review) and I’ve occasionally (scrambling, running in woods, etc.) wanted a more durable outer for my runners I decided to give the Raptors a try.

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Nearly identical soles. (From left: Wild Cat, Wild Cat 2.0, Raptor)

The Raptors are very similar to the Wild Cats: Same pattern and sole structure, though Wildcats seem to have lugs made of slightly softer and thus maybe a little stickier  material (yellow material in the photo above) while the whole Raptor outer sole is of the same compound. Both shoes share the superb secure and close-fitting heel cup and the generally wide fit (for an Italian running shoe).

The major difference is that the Raptor has fine mesh fabric on the outer with quite substantial reinforcements on the sides while Wild Cats have fine mesh covered with beefier mesh instead of extra reinforcements. The Raptors have a rand of rubbery material covering the lower part of the shoe (yellow band in the photo below) and  ribs of similar fabric protecting the sides (shiny black stuff on the photo below). This should make the Raptors outer more durable but make the Wild Cats faster draining and more breathable (though the difference might be meager).

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Wild Cat 2.0, Raptor, Wild Cat 2.0, Raptor…

The big news is that the reinforcements do seem to affect the fit as well! The mesh on the Wild Cats stretches quite a lot allowing estra width and room in general. The reinforcements on Raptors don’t stretch much if at all and thus the fit in the forefoot is a more snug. Unfortunately this means that size 46 (my normal size) Raptors with my normal running socks caused blister on my toes. I’ll give them a try with thinner liner socks and see if they would stretch a bit in use but if they don’t I might have a very little used pair for sale for reasonable price…

With limited experience my advice would be: If you have Wild Cats and feel that they have good snug fit, size up half a size if buying Raptor or the new Ultra Raptors.

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Disclaimer: I’ve bought all the footwear discussed and pictured in the post with my own money and own them. And I don’t even make any money with the links in the post. But I’d happily take a pair or two of trail shoes for free. If interested in supporting me, please send an e-mail for address and details. ;)