GPS Goes Social: Delorme and SPOT Bring Facebook and Twitter to the Backcountry

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could update your Twitter feeds and Facebook pages via GPS units when we are far afield? Well, the wait is over. By Keene Haywood

As the social networking scene explodes around us, it seems there is nothing it has not touched in our lives–except for maybe those venturing into far-flung corners of the world. But this, too, is changing.

One of the pieces of technology that has been with backcountry travelers for years is the venerable GPS unit. These devices have become our virtual wayfinders–a bit of comfort on the trail and a great tool to know where we are, where were are going, and where we have been. While GPS has been in the backcountry for some time, the more urban mobile world has only recently embraced GPS technology, where it is now embedded in almost all modern smartphones that use the technology to tap into a myriad different location based apps.


Nevertheless, our smartphone GPS systems are still no match for dedicated GPS receivers in the backcountry. They use too much power and have less sensitive chips in them. So while GPS units are better in the backcountry, they fall short with things like location-based social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook, two of the dominant networks that many people use to communicate with each other and the world. Most dedicated GPS units do not utilize apps the way smartphones do, and they definitely don’t do social networking.

Map provider and GPS maker Delorme has jumped onto the bandwagon with their new Earthmate PN-60w GPS and SPOT satellite communicator. This system supports the ability to send a text message to your Twitter or Facebook account so you get both the social networking and the advantages of a dedicated GPS in the field. What Delorme has done in a novel move is partner with SPOT, a separate company which makes satellite GPS communicators and has been at this game for a little while now, allowing users of its devices to send emails and cell phone text messages via their hardware. Pairing this system with a GPS gives backcountry travelers the best of a dedicated GPS and a one-way satellite communication system. Sound great? It is, but there are several things to keep in mind before you decide if it is right for you.

First, it has two pieces of hardware. You have the SPOT communicator and the GPS unit, so these are two things to keep track of and powered up in the field. Second, the SPOT service requires an annual fee of around $100 per year to use its system. If you don’t subscribe then you can’t use the messaging system that SPOT provides. But if you are frequently in the field or in sketchy areas, it is small price to pay for some peace of mind. Finally, the messaging system is one way. You can send messages, but not receive them. For people on your email list they can follow your movements online via a topo map. And if you send messages to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, your followers will get the message.

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While this is not as rich of a solution as what you find on a dedicated smartphone with two way communication, this does provide a nice way to keep people abreast of your movements and travels in the backcountry. And it is a great safety net without the need for an expensive satellite phone system. Again the only drawback is that you cannot receive any messages with this system, only send them out. And, of course voice, is not supported. But by utilizing SMS text, email, Twitter and Facebook, this system can keep you covered for updates to those back in civilization.

Whether you need to just send a message to family and followers updating your progress or you need to really get serious help, the SPOT and Delorme GPS can do this all the while keeping you in the Facebook and Twitter loop. So while smartphones are finally catching up to the GPS game, GPS receivers are starting to hook into social networking with a little help from SPOT’s satellite communicators. And yes, there is also an app for this. SPOT makes an iPhone and Blackberry app that allows one to follow tracks on their smartphone while you are far off trekking the hinterlands. Pretty cool.

For more information check out : SPOT’s information page and Delorme’s GPS system page.

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