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.
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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.
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.
- ACR Electronics ResQLink 406 GPS Personal Locator Beacon
- Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 Personal Locator Beacon
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.