Korpijaakko

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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.

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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. ;)

There Have Been Guest Posts

Some time ago I was asked to write my very first guest posts.

One request came from Andrew Mazibrada who is a freelance outdoor copywriter and photographer and also has a great blog: The Journeyman Traveller. He is also a joint editor in the awesome Sidetracked online journal and much more. I liked his work and style and was happy to work with him.

Andrew was planning to publish a series of posts about outdoor-capable carrying systems for cameras and asked me to write a guest post on Ortlieb Aquazoom waterproof camera bag that I’ve been using for few years. And as I felt that I had something to say I wrote a review on it and a few days ago it got published on The Journeyman Traveller blog. The opening part of the series on Andrew’s own carrying system (Lowepro Toploader Zoom) is available from here. And it won’t end there, so stay tuned for the next posts!

I’d prefer having the discussion on the topic on The Journeyman Traveller blog but if you prefer writing your comments here, feel free to do so. I’ll be answering to the comments on both blogs.

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I also wrote a post about my beloved La Sportiva Wild Cat trail runners to Relaa.com, “Finland’s #1 outdoor forum” which is on its way to become Finland’s #1 outdoor portal (And probably already is).

The article is only in Finnish but if you are initiated to the dark secrets of our strange language (or are using Google Translate) it’s here Kamarakas: La Sportiva Wild Cat -maastojuoksutossut. And if you are interested in the topic I also wrote a long-term report about my first pair on my blog and that’s in English.

Discussion and questions about the Wild Cats are welcome here, on the original long-term report or on Relaa.com. Anyway you fancy!

Hilleberg Anjan 3 – First Impression

I don’t usually do first impression posts on gear I acquire but as this happens to be relatively new product in the market (has become available this month) I thought I’d make an exception and share some ideas about my new shelter: Hilleberg Anjan 3, a “three-season” tunnel tent from the very well-known manufacturer of traditional high quality tents.

Anjan is another of Hilleberg’s new lightweight three-season tents launched in May 2012. It is available as a two-person and three-person versions. The other interesting lightweight alternative is Rogen, a two-person dome tent with two vestibules. What Hilleberg means with “three season tent” is that there are large mesh panels in the inner tent and the outer tent doesn’t reach all the way tot he ground to provide protection from drifting snow. Despite being “three seasons” tents the tents use the high quality 9mm DAC poles and Hilleberg’s great Kerlon fabric (though a slightly thinner version named Kerlon 1000 meaning a minimum tear strength of 10kg). All this means that these tents are quite bomb-proof, especially in their class (lightweight two-skin shelters). And I also think that the tents could easily handle easy winter conditions on forested areas. The only real problem in winter would be keeping the drifting snow out on open mountaineous or tundra areas like.

I haven’t been completely satisfied with my previous three season shelter, a Golite ShangriLa 3 with MYOG mesh inner tent and when Hilleberg came out with these new lightweight wonders I was quite tempted… and decided to pull the trigger. The Rogen was way too expensive for me, so Anjan it was. And as I do about all my trips with a partner sharing a shelter, the three-person version seemed like a better alternative: 200 grams weight penalty but a lot more room, especially headroom to sit in the inner tent protected from bugs. It would be a palace for two and could also fit three if needed.

I’ve yet only pitched the tent in the garden but it is very impressive and will probably see a lot of use. Here are some ideas and observations with photos:

Great workmanship and nice details. Typical Hilleberg.

From a distance the tent looks like a typical Hilleberg tunnel tent, though there are no vents but the ventilation is arranged by raising the outer tent generously from the ground (resulting also into a higher bathtub floor in the inner tent). It is yet to be seen how well this works. I have to say that I have my doubts but usually Hilleberg knows what they do. The zipper is simple two-way “inverted J” with a little flap protecting the top part from rain. The door can be opened to front, to the side or two thirds or the whole vestibule can be rolled away.

Familiar profile to all Nallo owners.

Simple zipper and no vents on the outer tent.

The tent is the same size than its big brother” Nallo 3 (weight 2,4kg) but a lot lighter weighting only about 1,9kg out of the box. Hilleberg’s dimensions are usually quite correct so I didn’t measure them. But here’s Hilleberg’s idea of them:

Hilleberg Anjan 2 and 3 dimensions. Pic from http://www.hilleberg.com.

As you can see from the pics below there is enough room for three and very good room for two. The only little problem is the foot-end fabric that eats away 10-20cm of the usable length of the inner tent. This shouldn’t cause any condensation on the sleeping bag as there is generous space between the inner and outer tent. But it’s still a little issue and I’m not too happy with it. I’ve been thinking about a way to  fix if in the new Nallo (GT) tents with the  zipper vent in the foot end but I have to see if I come up with a solution suitable to Anjan… The vestibule is also roomy enough to be functional: it can easily fit two traditional 60 liter rucksacks full of gear, two pairs of boots and there is still easily enough room for cooking between them.

Three typical 50cm wide and about 180cm long CCF pads. The inner tent tapers a bit towards the end but not too much. Notice also the rolled away vestibule.

168cm long model sleeping in a long summer sleeping bag. The rucksack is a traditional 60 liter model.

Close-up of the backpack and shoes in the vestibule. Plenty of room.

As I mentioned the outer tent is raised of from the ground and should provide enough ventilation. The foot end is supposed to be pitched towards the wind and thus can reach all the way down. There is a largish panel of bug netting (really fine no-see-um mesh type fabric) in the foot end of the inner tent to provide ventilation and even larger section of mesh in the inner door. These will likely provide enough ventilation inside the inner tent assuming that the outer tent vents well enough. To enhance venting the foot end of the outer can be rolled up, as can be the vestibule.

The mesh panel in the foot end and the outer tent rolled up.

The foot end staked down to provide protection from elements.

What is also new compared to older Hillebergs is that the pole sleeves are open from both ends and the pole ends are attached to rivets instead of plastic cups. The attaching and adjustment system is identical on both sides of the tent enabling changing the fly position to provide more protection on the wind/rain side. The attachments connect the inner and out tent enabling using either part of the tent individually. It feels like a simple and solid system.

The new pole attachement system. Red clip connects to the inner tent, black to the outer tent. The longer pole and sleeve are color coded with red.

And some weights for those interested in such things:

– total weight out of the box: 1938g
– outer tent: 715g
– inner tent: 679g
– poles: 342g (shorter 161g, longer 181g)
– pegs (12 in a bag): 115g (á 8g, bag 11g)
– bag for poles: 15g
– bag for the whole set: 40g
– spare parts (pole section & sleeve): 32g

As the tent is not really a modular shelter system, there is not much to take away to save weight during the bug seasons. You could leave spare parts, few pegs and bags at home but that’s about it. But when the inner is not needed it could be replaced by simple polycro sheet and would result into very lightweight and roomy shelter for two or three people.

New lighter pegs and the bag (a bit overkill). Depending on trip, I might replace few of them with sturdier Hilleberg Y-stakes for main anchor points.

More to come after a season or two of use. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to comment!