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Pros, cons, & my picks: PLB’s, satellite messengers, & phones

The range of satellite communicators. Left to right: ACR Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), SPOT Gen3 Messenger, DeLorme inReach SE and Explorer messengers, and SPOT Global Phone

The range of satellite communicators. Left to right: ACR Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), SPOT Gen3 Messenger, DeLorme inReach SE and Explorer messengers, and SPOT Global Phone

Beyond the reliable range of cell phones, there are three types of satellite communicators that can make or maintain contact with family, friends, and — God forbid — emergency response teams:

In this post, I will detail each device, identify its pros and cons, and share my buying recommendations.

The SPOT Gen3 wins the weight and size award, with the ACR PLB just behind. The inReach units and satellite phones are comparable in weight and size.

The SPOT Gen3 wins the weight and size award, with the ACR PLB just behind. The inReach units and satellite phones are comparable in weight and size.


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Why carry a satellite communicator?

The primary reason that I carry a satellite communicator is to call for help if I ever need it. Because I can share additional details about my emergency with these devices (e.g. location, type of injury, patient information), this also improves the efficiency of search and rescue efforts.

Satellite communicators have other benefits, too. Namely, I can help to minimize the worries of those back home — notably my wife and mother — by regularly checking in, or by simply not signaling for help. Some devices also enable increased engagement with my outings, via online location updates and 2-way texting or voice calls.

Given the general reliability, widespread availability, and relative low cost of some of these devices, I feel that having one is the responsible thing to do. Trust me, I romantically long the era when I could go deep in the backcountry without a technology tether — and without an extra half-pound in my pack and another service bill, too. But ultimately the tradeoff is worthwhile.

Realize — and make your family and friends realize, too — that satellite communicators are subject to failure. They can be dropped, lost and submerged; the batteries can die; and, in areas with limited views of the sky, reception can be spotty or non-existent. Before I leave, I always establish a drop dead date for my exit, and forbid the mobilization of emergency personnel before then.

The primary reason that I carry a satellite communicator is to call for help in the event of an emergency. Hopefully that never happens, and I don't take on additional risk because I have this ability, but it can be a lifesaver.

The primary reason that I carry a satellite communicator is to call for help in the event of an emergency. Hopefully that never happens, and I don’t take on additional risk because I have this ability, but it can be a lifesaver.

My buying recommendations

A personal locator beacon (PLB) is best for someone who:

  • Wants worldwide coverage with one device
  • Prioritizes the long-term cost
  • Needs to communication only in the event of an emergency

A satellite phone is best for someone who:

  • Wants the ultimate in wilderness communication
  • Undertakes trips that are high risk and/or that have complicated logistics
  • Is responsible for the well-being of a private or commercial group, especially if group members have uncertain medical histories and/or backcountry wherewithal

A satellite messenger is best for someone who:

  • Desires more functionality than a PLB, notably non-emergency check-ins
  • Wants a more economical option than a satellite phone

Important: Before buying any satellite communicator, ensure that its satellite network coverage area includes your favorite and intended destinations.

Personal locator beacons (PLB’s)

Examples:

A PLB is only capable of sending an emergency signal. It cannot send an “Okay” message, and it cannot receive messages; it also does not confirm receipt of the emergency signal. Due to this limited functionality, PLB’s are probably the least popular type of satellite communicator among backcountry users.

Coverage is worldwide, via the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite network. Emergency signals are received by the COSPAS-SARSAT mission control center, which then dispatches local search and rescue teams.

Long term, PLB’s are the least expensive satellite communicator. The upfront cost is about $300, but there is no monthly or annual service fee. I’m unsure if some fraction of the unit cost helps fund the COSPAS-SARSAT system, or if the network is entirely subsidized by world governments.

Talking on the SPOT Global Phone near the headwaters of Alaska's Yanert River while on a guided trekking and packrafting trip. Sat phones can be especially invaluable in remote and high risk situations such as this.

Talking on the SPOT Global Phone near the headwaters of Alaska’s Yanert River while on a guided trekking and packrafting trip. Sat phones can be especially invaluable in remote and high risk situations such as this.

Satellite phones

Examples:

A satellite phone is the ultimate wilderness communication device. In a phone call, there is an unmatched opportunity to exchange information, versus a pure SOS signal or a series of 160-character text messages. There is often additional meaning in the tone and nuance of the conversation, too.

Personally, I have used a satellite phone to request medical assistance from the National Park Service (which led to the helicopter evac in the photo above), to speak directly with the doctor of a client who was having intestinal issues, to receive weather and river updates in Alaska when conditions had me pinned me down, to arrange and confirm shuttle pick-ups, and to comfort my wife during the 2013 Boulder floods when I was still two days from the closest trailhead.

Once you use a satellite phone, you’ll never want to go back to a PLB or satellite messenger. It’d be like downgrading from a telephone to a telegram, or a smartphone to a flip-phone. You don’t know how you ever survived before without it.

But satellite phones are not a perfect solution, either:

  • They are expensive to buy and expensive to operate. Even the relatively affordable SPOT Global Phone costs $500 and a minimum of $.50 per minute. (Consider a rental for occasional and short-term needs.)
  • It can be difficult or impossible to have a conversation if only a weak connection can be established.
  • Because the satellites are constantly orbiting, conversations need to be kept short to avoid a dropped call.
  • And, finally, a satellite phone does not transmit its GPS coordinates or offer a tracking service; located and route information can, however, be shared via voice.

I will also add that a satellite phone is more disruptive than other satellite communicators to my wilderness experience, which I value highly. A phone call is relatively intimate and personal, whereas shallow and short text messages are more conducive to remaining emotionally immersed in my immediate surroundings.

Texting via satellite phones

The ability to send and/or receive text messages with a satellite phone can help to offset the device’s inherent flaws. Text messages can be exchanged even over a weak signal, for example. And confirmation via text of a location, time, decision, or other information is more definitive, and not susceptible to misinterpretation or call quality issues.

Among the satellite phones I have used, unfortunately the texting experience has been poor. The SPOT Global Phone is limited to incoming 35-character messages; the Iridium 9505 utilized the irritatingly slow telephone keypad, and the process was clunky for users on both ends.

For a better texting experience, find a system that can utilize a better keyboard like a smartphone or laptop. Specifically, consider the the Iridium GO! or the Global Phone with the optional Data Kit.

Satellite messengers

Examples:

For most backcountry users, satellite messengers are the happy-medium option: they offer greater functionality than a PLB, but they are less expensive than a satellite phone to buy and operate.

As the name implies, messengers send text messages, which can be preset or customized, and which can be emergency-related (“SOS”) or decidedly not (“Wish I’d packed more M&M’s. Love you, good night.”). Emergency messages are dispatched to local search and rescue teams, while other messages are received by family and friends via email or text (with GPS coordinates included).

As a premium service, messengers also offer tracking, in which a geo-tagged signal is sent at predetermined intervals, e.g. every 10 minutes.

Overlooking the Golden Trout Lakes in Wyoming's Wind River Range. On Buzz's shoulder strap, notice the SPOT Gen3, which he'd set in tracking mode with 10-minute intervals.

Overlooking the Golden Trout Lakes in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. On Buzz’s shoulder strap, notice the SPOT Gen3, which he’d set in tracking mode with 10-minute intervals.

There are three competing messenger units, with two having a very similar user experience. Due to their unique features, I would describe each as being best for a particular user, not necessarily best overall.

SPOT Gen3 GPS Satellite Messenger

At 4 oz and at about the size of a bifold wallet, the Gen3 is the smallest and lightest messenger. It’s also the simplest, limited to just four messages: “OK,” “Help,” “SOS,” and a customizable message that must be pre-programmed via the user’s online profile on SPOT’s website. Finally, it’s the least expensive to own and operate, with the unit retailing for $150 and service plans starting at $12.50 per month.

The Gen3’s largest shortcoming is that it cannot receive messages. Specifically, no message will confirm the receipt by the satellite network of an outgoing message, and family and friends cannot send messages into the backcountry.

The Gen3’s outgoing messages also cannot be nuanced. “Okay” and SOS” are self-explanatory, but “Help” is not. I recommend a pre-trip conversation with emergency contacts to establish protocols. An older device from SPOT, the SPOT Connect, could send 45-character messages via a smartphone app, but it has been discontinued.

Left: A check-in/okay message from a SPOT Gen3, received via email. Right: A 2-way text conversation via a DeLorme inReach.

Left: A check-in/okay message from a SPOT Gen3, received via email. Right: A 2-way text conversation via a DeLorme inReach.

DeLorme inReach SE and DeLorme inReach Explorer

The inReach SE and Explorer are heavier and less compact than the SPOT Gen3. They both weigh 7 oz and look like a handheld GPS unit, complete with the protruding antenna.

The key advantage of the inReach units is 2-way communication. The devices confirm the receipt of outgoing messages, and allow for text message conversations with family and friends, similar to text conversations via cell phone.

Outgoing messages can be preset, or spontaneously customized with the unit’s virtual keypad or via a Bluetooth-paired smartphone with DeLorme’s Earthmate app. The former process is slow and tedious. The latter option is recommended for anything beyond very occasional custom texting, though I dislike the increased weight (+4 to 6 oz) and added susceptibility to pairing problems and battery power.

The inReach SE is a pure messenger, while the Explorer also doubles as a handheld GPS unit. To determine which unit is best for you, read this post and this one too.

Versus the Gen3, the inReach units are more expensive to own and operate. The SE retails for $300; the Explorer, $380. The units require a monthly or annual service plan, with the most basic starting at $11.95 per month.


Disclosure. I have used free and subsidized satellite communicators from SPOT, DeLorme, and Iridium.


Join the conversation!

Which kind satellite communicator are you most inclined to buy? If you already own one, what factors drove your purchase? In hindsight, would you have made a different decision? How could the existing communicators be improved?

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49 Responses to Pros, cons, & my picks: PLB’s, satellite messengers, & phones

  1. Ric R October 5, 2015 at 3:07 am #

    A few years ago I opted for the ACR Reqlink due to cost and weight savings. At the time, the one time fee was very attractive and it seemed to be a more reliable way of alerting search and rescue (that’s all I was looking for). Since I’m not in the back country on a regular basis I did not want to incur a recurring charge for having the device active nor did I want a significant weight penalty.

    Now, with aging parents and the need to “check up” on them frequently I have actually been considering a satellite communication device. With parents in their mid and late 80’s I really do not feel comfortable not being able to call to make sure things are okay. For me the best solution is a satellite phone, although the most expensive, it is the best solution.

    Looking back on the decision, I think I would have arrived at the same conclusion as circumstances drove the need. Now things have changed. I’ve been seriously considering a satellite device but cost still seems to be a bit prohibitive but given my individual circumstances a satellite device will make me feel most comfortable. I would also like a device that will track my route and be able to link that to a website so that friends can check and see my location. I don’t think I’m gong to get the best of both worlds on that desire. It would be nice if they could combine a satellite messenger with a phone, I’m sure that will come, at some point in time.

    To that end, it looks like it will be a sat phone for me.

    • Andrew Skurka October 5, 2015 at 8:00 am #

      You make a great point here: the “best” satellite communicator for you is largely driven by the situation back home, which can be fluid. I have had a similar experience. In my dirt-bagging 20’s, a PLB or SPOT were fine, as it was unlikely that messages needed to get to me. If shit hit the fan back home, my parents could deal with it until I reached a payphone in a few days. But now that I am a husband, homeowner, and business owner, I need to have more communication than that, hence why I never go on a trip without a sat phone anymore.

    • Craig C October 5, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

      Andy,

      Great article. For consideration if you were to develop this guide further, would be compare signal strengths and battery usages. I understand there’s two major types of satellite systems these work off of and 1ay work better in different types of canyon or steep terrain(?) Also battery operating temperatures. I understand one of the lessons learned from mount washington fatality last February was that different devices/batteries may start failing at different temperatures. In the mount washington case, her PLB signal was too weak to distinguish it’s primary source location from signal bounces off neighboring mountains. So the rescuers went to atleast two wrong locations first.

      A good reference sheet could really help save lives especially for winter backpackers at high elevations

      • lanzelot72 October 9, 2015 at 10:55 am #

        “… her PLB signal was too weak to distinguish it’s primary source location from signal bounces off neighboring mountains…” does anyone know which device she used ? Signal reflections actually are an issue regarding accuracy of GPS fix. On the other hand “real” PLBs transmit an additional homing signal on 121.5 MHz (satellite messengers and phones don’t do this !) which can easily and exactly be located by rescue teams in the near range.
        Any sources available which provide more information on this fatality ?

        • rob chan January 2, 2017 at 1:39 am #

          ACR ResQLink,

  2. Charles October 5, 2015 at 6:21 am #

    I recently broke down and bought the Spot3. I’m doing longer trips than I used to and my family starts getting really nervous when I’m out of touch for more than four or five days. The Spot’s ability to send an OK message was the selling point for them. Its complete lack of any ability to do 2-way communication was the selling point for me, and was an absolute requirement for purchase.

    I rarely see the Spot’s lack of ability to receive messages discussed as a positive feature. This puzzles me. I would think there’d be a significant number of people who want uninterrupted time in the wilderness but who have to make some kind of accommodation with people back home.

    • Andrew Skurka October 5, 2015 at 7:57 am #

      I think we’re in the minority on both accounts: most backpackers want the ability to 2-way text, and their families sure as hell do. An uninterrupted wilderness experience is becoming something of the past — no new backpacker knows what it was like, and one by one the older crowd gives it up.

    • Benjamin October 6, 2015 at 2:09 am #

      I too value my uninterrupted time in the wilderness.

      The bigger issue for me is that with the Spot, you have no clue if it is working or not. I had the 2nd generation Spot and on the second day of a trip is stopped working. None of my messages for the rest of the trip went through. This wasn’t a huge deal, we’d explained that this was a possibility to loved ones before leaving, so they weren’t too worried or anything. No, the issue is that if an emergency happens, you’re going to take a different course of action depending on whether or not you know people are coming for you.

      With the Spot you literally can have no way to know for sure what actions are being taken on your behalf, so you have to guess about what to do. With the Delorme, you can be in contact with emergency responders or family, so you know what your course of action should be.

      These devices are taken as “in case of emergency” devices, but it seems to me the Delorme is substantially more helpful in emergency situations. With the Spot you always have to operate that it is a possibility that it isn’t working and plan accordingly.

      • Andrew Skurka October 6, 2015 at 7:27 am #

        The lack of confirmation is initially discerning, but as I used the device more and saw the receipt rate, I began to have much more trust in it.

        Indeed, in a true emergency situation, you not only want 2-way communication, but you want 2-way VOICE communication. Satellite phones are invaluable when you really need to communicate with family or emergency personnel.

        • Benjamin October 7, 2015 at 11:54 am #

          That’s funny, as I used the device more and saw the receipt rate (even before it quit working completely, requiring me to buy a new one), I began to have much less trust in it. It frankly never worked consistently enough for it to be reliable in an emergency, or reliable enough for keeping people at home apprised of my whereabouts.

          (I typically sent 3 messages a day, mid-morning, mid afternoon and at night and I’d say it worked 66% of the time, so maybe my success rate would have been much higher had I wanted to send more messages or use the tracking feature, but that isn’t how I wanted to use it, both from a mental engagement perspective, and from a battery requirement perspective).

  3. Don October 5, 2015 at 7:14 am #

    I purchased the SPOT Gen3 from REI via pre-order before they came out and have used it for every trip I take, purchasing additional SARS insurance for my entire family, I feel it is the response able thing to do.

    Sometimes I wish I would have purchased the Delorme or a SAT phone but the Gen3 works with all tests I have conducted and I only power on for “Ok” messages.

  4. Russell October 5, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    I’ve got the Spot Gen3 and love it. However, for a variety of reasons, many of which you touched upon, I’m considering a sat phone.

    I’m undecided at this point because I’ve seen some pretty negative reviews of the Spot sat phone, while the Iridium is $800 (!).

    At the risk of asking you to recommend one or the other – and that’s not my intention – any thoughts you can share on your preference/experience with either or both?

    • Andrew Skurka October 5, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

      I have not used an Iridium phone since 2010 during my Alaska-Yukon Expedition. Things may have changed, but at the time the service was reasonably reliable and the call quality was tinny.

      The last few years I have been using the SPOT Global Phone. Reliability is comparable and call quality is much better, not much different than a cell phone. However, I do miss the texting feature of the Iridium phone, as clunky as it was.

      I used the Iridum GO! in April on a trip in Utah. Call quality tinny again, which I didn’t miss, but using my smartphone for texting and email was awesome.

      I think some of the poor reviews are due to poor assumptions about what a satellite phone can do. It’s not a cell phone; don’t expect that kind of service. Even with a clear sky, you may have to patiently wait for a satellite to come into view. In that respect, it’s no different than a messenger, except with the phone you sit there and wait for it. There is a setting in the Global Phone that will cause it to beep when it establishes service.

  5. Carl Stammerjohn October 5, 2015 at 6:45 pm #

    I purchased the InReach SE for use on the JMT this past summer. We used it to keep the folks back home up to date as to our whereabouts and gave my wife great piece of mind. I didn’t need the maps functionality so didn’t purchase the Explorer.

    The SE worked great until it died around day 12 while charging via a solar panel. Wouldn’t turn on or respond in any way. When I got home I sent Delorme support an email and was told how to reset the phone by pushing a couple of buttons for 60 seconds (I forget which but have it printed on a label on the unit). Maybe they should put that in the owner’s manual? Ya think??

    I’d use it again, but with a bit of trepidation.

    • Thierry February 27, 2016 at 10:27 am #

      It seems that no gear should be directly connected to a solar panel, but a sole battery.
      Then connect the battery to the gear.
      At least the smartphones and camera I used really dislike direct charging from a solar panel.

  6. Stephen October 5, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

    My inreach is unable to get a signal in a deep canyon, or in dense forest. I do not plan on getting injured in either location. I have wondered if a PLB would be a better choice for safety without the extra communication, but after hearing about the erratic signal location, may have second thoughts. The inreach and spots send actual gps coordinates, but they need to see the satellites. Any thoughts about the trade off for typical backpacking?

    • Andrew Skurka October 6, 2015 at 11:48 am #

      Two prefacing comments:
      1. Don’t get hurt.
      2. Don’t count on an electronic device that communicates with expensive Erector Sets orbiting in space.

      Okay, now to be more practical. For “typical backpacking” I think a satellite messenger is sufficient. Coverage has proven generally reliable, as evidenced by the number of rescues and the lack of consumer complaints about messages getting through.

  7. David October 6, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    This statement “A PLB is only capable of sending an emergency signal. It cannot send an “Okay” message, and it cannot receive messages; it also does not confirm receipt of the emergency signal. Due to this limited functionality, PLB’s are probably the least popular type of satellite communicator among backcountry users.” is not entirely accurate. ACR Artex PLB’s provides a service that sends “I’m OK” messages. See this web site for details: http://www.406link.com/

    • Andrew Skurka October 6, 2015 at 8:52 am #

      They have a very strange way of mentioning this feature. They describe it as an “advanced satellite testing service,” instead of saying, “You can also use this PLB to send non-emergency check-in messages with your family and friends.” What’s the deal?

      • Christophe Noel October 6, 2015 at 9:15 am #

        And as I recall, and I could be wrong, ACR only permits a limited number of these “OK” transmissions. I think the marketing department at ACR is pushing this “feature” too hard.

        • Andrew Skurka October 6, 2015 at 9:38 am #

          I looked into this a little bit more. The vagueness is for a reason: as you said, there’s a limit on the number of tests you can do, so they have to be really careful in selling it as a feature of the product.

    • Andrew Skurka October 6, 2015 at 9:46 am #

      I looked into this. You need to read the details, http://www.406link.com/faqs.aspx, and watch this video, https://youtu.be/qhMLpGSUXT0. The messaging services are not the same.

      The number of “self test” messages is limited, though you’d have to send a lot of messages to exceed your quota. These messages only confirm that your device is working, nothing more. If you want the messages to be geo-tagged, you’re limited to 12 messages per year with the ACR unit. And even with the “Plus” package, you’re limited to 5 email addresses.

  8. Christophe Noel October 6, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    Nice review, Andrew. About two years ago I spent 16 months testing all of the leading devices for a product review that continues to this day to send questions to my inbox. This is a great topic.

    For my personal needs, I’ve found the inReach Explorer is hands down the best non-phone device. I’ve used it in Iceland, the Andes, Amazon Basin, Baja, and all over the West. To date, I’ve sent and received hundreds of messages, never failing a single transmission.

    I also spent six months researching the transcripts of more than 30 actual rescues in great. Those emergencies involving a two-way communicator were always, invariably, more successful rescues with faster, more effective response times. Most of the bungled rescues used a one-way communicator like a SPOT device, or more so, a standard PLB. GEOS dispatched rescues seem to be far more precise and expedited than those initiated by COSPAS-SARSAT, the exception being sea-based incidences where the Coast Guard seems to have more resources than their land-based counterparts.

    Again, nice review.

    Christophe Noel

  9. Human David November 9, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    Hi Andrew,

    Next year I start my trip from north Alaska till south Argentina by bicycle. I will pass many countries with different nature and situation. I m thinking about GPS, PLB, skyroam device, Delorme Inreach and ,,, fo rmy trip I need to have ability to upload the maps, navigation, acces to internet and of course S.O.S, what do you suggest to me?

    Regards
    Human David.

    • Andrew Skurka November 9, 2015 at 11:53 am #

      There is no single device that will do everything you need.

      For emergency situations, personally I’d take a satellite phone. Check the coverage maps of various service providers — you probably will have to use an Iridium phone or GO!, since SPOT’s coverage is less robust.

      I’m less familiar with mapping options for international locations, especially since the nature of your route (is it along established roads or unmapped tracks; is it fixed or spontaneous) is unknown to me. Normally I plan my entire route beforehand, then get paper and digital maps for it, but you might be served just as well or better by an all-digital solution.

  10. Rick January 1, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    I believe the woman had SPOT plb in the Mount Washington fatality.

    • Andrew Skurka January 1, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

      Perhaps. But an inReach or sat phone would probably not have saved her either — it was too cold for the batteries to operate well. Plus, in this case more important is what she did not have: the sense to turn back before she was over committed, or to cancel her trip entirely in light of the weather forecast.

  11. Joyce M Bennis January 17, 2016 at 9:19 am #

    Hi, Andrew! My husband Al and I have used an Iridium Extreme satellite phone with great success while hiking on the PCT, CDT and in Utah/ We’ve never failed to get a connection (although we’ve sometimes had to try a few times.) The phone’s included SOS feature allows you to send and receive messages with the GEOS emergency center (same facility used by the Spot devices, I think) and in fact, optionally places a phone call to them at the same time as the SOS messages are sent. The SOS messages include GPS coordinates. We had the opportunity to speak to the GEOS folks on duty during a scheduled test of our unit before our latest CDT segment hike and were very impressed. We’ve luckily never had to use the phone for emergency purposes and in fact keep it turned off most of the time, but we do use it regularly to coordinate shuttle pickups for town stops and to call our home voice mail regularly from the trail (our designated “how to get in touch with us if you really need to” mechanism for family.)

    • Andrew Skurka January 17, 2016 at 9:22 am #

      Hi Joyce –

      How do you deal with recharging the device on your long trips? Do you carry the charger, or bounce it forward in a box. I know the batteries last a very long time, so I imagine you probably do not need to charge it very often.

      Andrew

  12. Eric Stephenson February 15, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    You can text your coordinates (Lat/Lon) with the Iridium Extreme 9575 sat phone. I’ve had this model since 2012 and it works well.

    In an emergency scenario where you are not able to communicate, you can also press a recessed button on the phone, and the phone will send your coordinates with an emergency message to a pre-designated number; in my case, my wife.

    Of course it also works as a sat phone. 🙂 I purchase a 200-minute global SIM card every year for backpacking, high country fishing trips, and bivy hunts.

    Enjoy your blog!

    Eric

  13. Mike Mikha April 4, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

    Hello to all,

    I have been in the satellite phone business for many years and thought I would share some info to at least help in any way I can on the devices mentioned above.

    Spot phone is basically the GSP 1700 Globalstar phone with tracking on it.

    Pros – Smaller, great voice quality when you get a solid signal and really easy to use, great for the backpacking etc.

    Cons – Can have a good of amount of dropped calls due to the fact they have about 1/2 the satellites that iridium has and at times it can take several minutes to get a signal, no texting.

    Iridium 9500-9505A models

    Pros–Works anywhere on the planet earth as long as it can see uninterrupted sky otherwise signal can be affected. You send and receive text messages, 66 satellites that allow these phones to work from pole to pole.

    Cons–Bigger, old school texting, voice quality not as good

    Iridium 9555

    Pros–smaller then the above Iridiums about 30% smaller, voice quality is a bit better, send and receive text, speaker phone

    Cons- old school texting

    Iridium 9575 Extreme – smaller then the above Iridiums about 30% smaller, voice quality is a bit better, send and receive text, speaker phone, water resistant, you can send you’re GPS coordinates via text message and when someone gets the message they can find you’re exact location, SOS button, rugged and better antenna

    Cons- old school texting

    Iridium GO

    Pros– Small, easy to sink up with any smart phone, texting is much easier, compact, rugged, GPS coordinates via text, water resistant

    Cons–You have to keep 2 devices charged and one does not work without the other, service is a bit more expensive

    Delorme InReach units –

    Pros — Great for tracking, GPS coordinates and texting

    Cons–You cant make phones

    You folks did a great job providing user feed back.. I hope the info above is helpful in some way.

    If anyone has question feel free to ask or email me at [email protected] or call 1-800-279-2366 our store and ask. We will be more then happy to help in any way we can even if you have service elsewhere. We also have quick reference guides we can email out if any could use them.

  14. nikita April 7, 2016 at 8:58 pm #

    I’ve used an ACR PLB since 2009. As a solo hiker, this greatly puts my mom’s mind at ease! At that time, SPOT products only worked with open skies, but I live and hike in the southeast — full of trees and wooded hollows. ACR fit the bill. It’s no doubt much heavier than newer models, but I gladly carry it on my belt. It never leaves me, even when I take off my pack. I send a test signal twice a year to ensure the battery is strong, annually confirm my personal and emergency contact info on the NOAA site, and add trip info when I’m heading out for a long stay or out of area so they know any signal is truly from me. (They request this info.) Absolutely worth the upfront cost.

  15. Dr. WPW May 23, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    Thank you for an excellent review. Have you or any of your readers had personal experience with the Breitling Emergency II with dual frequency that broadcasts on the 121.5 and 406 MHz frequencies? I realize it is a very expensive PLB, but is a wearable option readily available and “on hand”.

    • Andrew Skurka May 23, 2016 at 2:59 pm #

      No personal experience with it, sorry.

      If you like the watch, and you’re debating between it and another watch of similar price, maybe this will win you over. But you could never talk me into the extra cost vs a standard PLB. The “on hand” benefit seems like a reach — in the few cases where I was close to sending a SOS message, getting my PLB out of my pack was not a problem.

  16. James July 9, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    Another advantage of the tracking devices is if something happens to you where you are unable to send an SOS you have a track leading to your current location without having to do anything.

  17. Liz July 10, 2016 at 6:57 am #

    Great article, I’m going for a PLB. Probably the best for my situation: I’m in my twenties and particularly want to have this for emergencies. Reability is the most important feature for me, although I also consider weight and money. The Ocean RescueMe is the lightest PLB and cheaper than the ACR RescueLink+, so that sounds pretty good, but I was wondering if the RescueMe is as reliable as the ACR ResqueLink+??

  18. James Mills July 10, 2016 at 7:34 am #

    Liz, I would search for some rescue stories from the in reach. Often an emergency is far more nuanced than a, I am here, help me. Particularly look for the guys suck in a cave while a blizzard rolled in

  19. Liz July 10, 2016 at 7:51 am #

    Yeah, I see your point and understand why a two-way-communication could be better. But is its a lot more expensive and I’m gonna use it for thru hiking purposes (the Te Araroa in New Zealand actually and the Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland) so it’s not extreme what I’m doing.. so if in an emergency, I guess I guess I would be fine if I press “help me” and then of course, stay at the same place?

  20. Julian August 3, 2016 at 11:30 pm #

    Nice post. Can you elaborate on how you choose a “drop dead date” for rescue mobilization?

    • Andrew Skurka August 4, 2016 at 11:44 am #

      I have a date on which I expect to finish. And they are supposed to give me 24 hours after that before calling authorities.

      • Julian August 4, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

        Thanks! Always trying to decide which emergency instructions to leave with my family. I guess you break your longer trips into sections, with frequent checks set in advance. Otherwise, it would be pretty easy to take an extra day or two to finish a 1000km trip.

  21. Kuschel Kahn August 22, 2016 at 5:51 am #

    I looked up everything from cellular signal amplifiers to HF radios for emergency communications.

    I didn’t bother to look up satellite networks because, in the past, the tariffs for these had been prohibitive, and besides most of the satellite networks had eventually gone extinct for lack of funding.

    I know Iridium covers 100% of the Earth. Is the coverage on Inmarsat limited only to the oceans? Does anyone have coverage maps for Inmarsat and some of the other satellites? Do they provide cheaper messaging plans?

    Finally, is Cospas-Sarsat purely for emergency beacons or does it also provide messaging and location sharing services? Does anyone have information on messaging plans for it?

    As for the Satellite Messengers, does the Freedom Plan for InReach mean that, as long as, you pay the $25 annual fee, you can subscribe and unsubscribe for individual months? Does the $300 purchase also provide you with a lifetime PLB service?

    Since messaging services are needed only when cellular data doesn’t work, it would have helped if $25 provided you with an annual plan consisting of a fixed number of messaging and location- sharing options for the whole year and you then got to choose how you used the data and location services within that year. This would have extended the user base for these services and made the plans affordable for everyone and profitable for the satellite service providers.

    If the rates are low enough, everyone might enrol for a backup satellite data plan.

    I don’t really need mobile data because I have WiFi in most premises that I frequent, so if the tariffs for satellite data were to go down I’d prefer to have satellite data in lieu of the mobile data.

    With enough users for satellite data, the economics of scale would lower the tariffs to enable us all to have an annual satellite data plan and a monthly mobile data plan.
    The larger the user base, the more profitable the satellite companies, and the cheaper the plans for all of us.

  22. David September 5, 2016 at 7:58 am #

    I have owned a spot, then a Globalstar sat phone and now an Inreach.

    The spot was OK and purchased for the communication of an emergency. However, I did not like the OK or I need help options. It was black or white. Often on my adventures in the Canadian wilderness situations happened and delayed the trip. Not an emergency but just a delay. My family would worry as I am now late coming home. In this situation I would continually send OK messages and the tracking would indicate no movement until the situation was resolved. I then went with the sat phone because I wanted two way communication and this worked well but this option was expensive and only worked somewhat economically in Canada for the plan I bought. If outside the country the long distance costs added incredibly to the already high cost. So I moved on to the Inreach which tracks, texts anywhere in the world (same price) from the middle of the Pacific ocean to the Canadian wilderness. It offers 2 way communication and the price is good. It is easy to carry. As I dislike the keyboard I often take a 7″ tablet and bluetooth it to the inreach to type but more items and weight, so this depends on the trip and the temperature of the day. The tablet doesn’t go out on a -30 C day. The bonus is I can use it anywhere in the world for the same price.

  23. Matts Persic September 12, 2016 at 1:20 pm #

    Used the GlobalStar Spot handset for a year now (5/2015 – 9/2016). About 60% of the total calls are actually connected. Less than 20% of the calls are connected the first time for more than a duration of 2 minutes of talk time. For work the phone has been useless: working mountain passes in Idaho (with an unobstructed view of the sky), I’ve had about a 5% success rate (meaning that I’ve been able to actually connect a call and keep the connection alive for five minutes). In the Nevada desert (no mountains, no trees, clear sky), I’ve had about a 20% success rate. I purchased the permanent mount vehicle antenna/car/marine kit and I still have a poor success rate. I have the annual unlimited voice and data plan and I have used about an hour of talk time over the past year because of lack of sat signal acquisition in the open spaces where I work. The data network is completely useless – real life baud rates are equivalent to a 300 baud acoustic modem and drop frequently (I’m using M2M or ASCII data transfer, not surfing web pages).

    I recommend a sat phone for anyone working solo or in remote regions, however, the user should remember that a connection is not guaranteed even under the stated ideal conditions of a clear view to the sky. GlobalStar does a poor job of explaining the technology (versus high orbiting systems), so some of the lack of sat signal acquisition could be a function of the moment at which one sat is moving out of view and another is moving into view. This may also be the reason for dropped calls – that the hand-off process is not as robust as with cellular towers.

    • David September 12, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

      I would try the In reach unit as it is on the Iridium sat system with more birds in the air. Works anywhere in the world. See my comment above yours.

      • Thomas October 7, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

        I tend to agree, I have an Iridium satphone and I can’t think off hand of when it has not had signal immediately with clear LOS with the sky. You do get drop outs too though. But this is just part of using a satphone. I can still hold 10 min plus conversations.

  24. Marco October 26, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    Very interesting topic. I have a Globalstar gsp 1700 for the last 3 years. I use it when sailing and in the mountains, where gsm coverage is poor.
    If you can’t get signal, navigate the menu and choose the “find home” options. I believe that trigger a full rescan of the channels.
    My experience with Globalstar is great so far. Voice quality is like a cell phone. I had calls of over 20 minutes without drop.
    I agree that having two way voice is great when you are in remote places, much better than texting

    • David October 26, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

      Had a globalstar for years and sold it and now use a Inreach. The inreach is duplex and does a check to make sure the text got there. Spot is simplex.
      Advantages of Inreach over a phone:
      1. Cheaper data plans.
      2.gives my co-ordinates in the message which if I need help or lost I can be found.
      3.never happened but if I am really hurt I just hit the SOS button and don’t have to fiddle with the antenna etc. on the phone
      4. no extra costs when using it worldwide

      Don’t get me wrong the Globalstar phone was great but I prefer my Inreach here in Northern Canada

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  1. Ultramarathon Daily News, Mon Oct 5 - October 5, 2015

    […] I’ve done my share of back country running, but have never taken a PLB or sat phone.  Skurka dishes the pros and cons of each right here. […]

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