Being out in the wilderness exploring new areas, whether its by hiking, trail running, backcountry skiing or by paddling can be an amazing experience. Unfortunately, it can also be dangerous. If you don’t take precautions, you might get lost in the woods or hurt. If you can’t reach out for help it can be really difficult to rescue you in case of an emergency.
Satellite Messenger Beacons (SMBs) are devices that connect to smartphones. They can be attached to clothing or gear, allowing hikers to receive alerts on their phones in backcountry areas where there is no cellular coverage. You can also send SOS/emergency messages or have two-way messaging with your friends and family or with the search team.
In this article we are going to look at different models and how to choose the best satellite messenger for you and your activities.
Garmin satellite messenger beacons
Garmin is know for making the best satellite messaging products for both non-emergency messaging and emergency messaging. Garmin satellite messenger devices use the GPS and enhanced mapping technology that Garmin has been developing for years. The devices are not as simple to use as personal location beacons, but offer a lot more additional features.
Garmin inreach mini 2
The Garmin inReach Mini is a satellite-based personal locator beacon (PLB) that can be used to send messages and track the location of its user. It was developed by Garmin International, who also manufacture the GPS devices that it uses as part of its system. The first version of the device has been sold since 2013 and there have been some improvements with the device through the years. The newest inreach mini has extended battery life and the 2-way messaging on the mini 2 has got easier with the improvements on the device’s interface. The phone app for this emergency satellite messenger has improved as well. Unfortunately neither of the Garmin devices offers seamless messaging with wifi, satellite network and cell service.
Garmin inreach explorer+
Garmin inreach explorer+ is a much larger emergency satellite messenger when compared to Garmin’s mini devices, but there are other benefits that you get if you opt for the larger device. The explorer+ has better navigation capabilities and better two-way texting and that is not only, because of its size, larger keyboard and bigger screen. The battery life is better in the explorer+, but of course you do have more weight to carry as the device is much larger. As with all the reviewed two-way messengers, the explorer is a handheld device, but its more like an old cell phone when compared to the smaller emergency devices. If you just want an affordable emergency device to send a distress signal in the (hopefully) unlikely event of an emergency then the explorer+ is most likely not the best device for you. If you do want a solid device for a several day backcountry ski trip or any other long backcountry trips the Explorer+ is a great option with easy two-way communication and a lot of useful navigation features.
Spot personal locator beacons and two-way messaging devices
Spot Gen4 Satellite GPS Messenger
Spot Gen4 is an affordable device for one-way messaging and for tracking your path. The spot device is very easy to use, but it does have limited functionality. Two-way messaging is not available and navigation capabilities are limited to the tracking feature. In an emergency situation the Gen4 has a SOS button that sends a preset message and your location to the dispatch for emergency services. The spot gen4 also has a spot assist mode where the need for help is being transmitted, but without the urgency of the emergency response. As there is no two-way messaging available it is good to agree what situations would warrant the SOS button and in which kind of situations would you use the spot assist button. You can also send custom messages or an ‘OK’ message. The biggest improvements from the Spot Gen3 version have been made water resistance and in tracking activation. The spot Gen3 was even better than the Gen 4 in some aspects such as weight and that the Spot gen3 could be used with a USB power bank. If you have the Spot gen3 then you might not want to update to gen4. Both of these are great backcountry devices.
Spot X is the bigger brother of Spot Gen4, much like the Garmin’s Explorer+ is to the Inreach Mini 2. Spot X is specialized in the way that it can be used independently without phone apps. It has a full keyboard and a larger screen so it can be used without any other device or app. Virtual keyboards are often slow and having the keyboard in the Spot X makes it a lot more reliable to use. With the keyboard you can also have two-way communication in an emergency situation to help ease the stress of people at home, but also to help out with the emergency response, especially what kind of emergency rescue is necessary and at what kind of response time.
ACR Electronics PLBs and messenger devices
ACR Bivy stick
The Bivy stick is a great option as it works a locator beacon and has two-way messaging so you can keep in touch with the folks at home and communicate the situation with the rescue team in case of an emergency. The Bivy stick is one of the smallest satellite messengers as its a little bit thinner than the Inreach mini 2 and only a bit larger on the other aspects. You do need to use a phone app for other than preset messages, as there is no built-in keyboard.
ACR ResQlink View
The ResQlink is a personal locator beacon without two-way communication options. This is a solid device that can be used to send out a SOS/emergency preset message. The ResQlink does not need an annual subscription so this might be a great option for you if you want a lightweight and affordable device with out the additional features like mapping, digital compass, seamless messaging, weather reports etc.
Ocean signal RescueMe PLB1
The RescueMe PLB1 from ocean signal is a very simple and reliable emergency beacon. As there is no 2-way messaging with the ocean signal PLB1 you can hope that you never need to use it, but in case you ever need to summon the rescue team you will be glad you have it. This emergency device has a SOS-button and a stow-away antenna that you can deploy to set up as a locator beacon for the rescue team. The ocean signal PLB does not have any keyboard and its not used with a phone app so there is no two-way communication, but at the same time you have the ease of use that might be helpful in a backcountry rescue situation. Especially in a real emergency when you are wounded or in shock you want simplicity in the use of a personal locator beacon. Ocean signal RescueMe PLB1 has affordable pricing as once you pay the initial device payment you don’t need to get a paid subscription for the global emergency coverage. This handheld device is slim and lightweight like most personal locator beacons as they don’t have the additional feature that many other messaging products have.
What to consider when choosing a satellite messenger for your outdoors adventures
– Battery life
The battery life of your SMB is very important if you want to use it on long hikes or backcountry trips. Battery life is often informed with a variety of metrics usually with hours and sometimes with the number of messages sent before running out. Battery life is affected by how frequent the tracking is as well as outside factors like the temperature. Colder temperatures usually deplete the battery faster, especially if the personal locator or messaging product is used on top of the clothing or strapped to a pack. Obviously the longer the battery life the better and its important to keep a close eye on the battery level when the device is being used.
In case of battery levels going down or even a battery failure it might be time to cut the trip short. A battery failure is more likely on a less know brand than with brands such as Spot, Ocean signal or Garmin as they have been making these kinds of devices for years. A reliable battery is therefore quite important and many companies offer a 7-year battery life or some other battery lifetime limit that you should definitely check before choosing your device.
Make sure to check if the device has rechargeable batteries, if you can get an extra battery pack that can be changed and what kind of batteries are used in the device. Most of the SMBs use rechargeable lithium battery packs.
– One- or two-way messaging
Satellite messengers can be divided into two different types: the one-way emergency messaging/SOS and two-way satellite messengers. One-way messaging means that only a distress message can be sent, but no back and forth communication can be done. Two-way messaging satellite messengers allow you to communicate with the people at home and with the search team with texts.
– Emergency messaging
The main reason for carrying an SMB is to send out an emergency message when necessary. This kind of emergency device can be programmed to send a pre-set message with anything from “I am lost” to “I need help” and with your location. The emergency message will then be delivered to any nearby cell phone towers which have been preconfigured to deliver these messages.
With a one-way messenger only the need for help can be communicated while with a two-way messenger you can receive information on the rescue efforts and the emergency services can ask for more information about the situation in order to better prepare for the emergency rescue. The time needed for the emergency response will be affected by the information they receive.
You should know who the emergency contacts in your SMB are during your trip in the wilderness. Familiarize yourself with the backcountry rescue SAR teams before any trip. If you are planning to go hiking or camping alone it is always good to know who you can contact in case of an emergency. You should also make sure that your family knows where you are going so they can reach you in case something happens.
– Other non-emergency communication
Some satellite messengers can also be used for sending regular text messages. These messages can be sent to multiple recipients and include things such as weather forecasts, directions etc. This is usually two-way communication with other your friends and family rather in case of a real emergency. For both SOS and for non-emergency communication its good to familiarize yourself with the virtual keyboard and the phone app before the trip.
Tracking is the ability to see where the user is located. It can be useful to know where you are so that you can return home safely or find your way back to camp. Tracking features are also used by trail runners and hikers who are out to set a record and need proof of their accomplishments.
– Ease of use
It is very important to know how to use your SMB and you should never start learning how to use the device when you already are in an emergency rescue situation. Time is of the essence and you might need to send the SOS to the search team as quickly as possible.
The ease of use is also affected by the phone sync of the device and the phone app. Whether you have and android phone or an iPhone its always good to make sure that they are compatible.
You should always choose a device that is easy to use and learn how to use the it beforehand. If you do not know how to use your satellite messenger there are many online tutorials available for most models.
As these devices are often used in emergency situations its vital that they can endure the emergencies themselves. Most of the devices have protective covers and durable materials that protect the electronics inside. The protective cover is often necessary to avoid accidentally pressing the SOS signal button by accident. This way the protective cover can save you the cost of an expensive backcountry situation where a search team is sent after you without any need.
– Weight and size
All personal locators and emergency satellite messengers are handheld devices but there are differences in their weight and size. When buying a satellite messenger make sure that it fits comfortably in your hand, your pocket and your backpack. The SMB should not be too heavy as this always makes it more likely that its left behind when packing for a trip. You should always make sure that the size of the SMB fits well with your activities. You will need to attach it somewhere on your clothes or gear so make sure that it doesn’t interfere with movement. Especially for athletes such as trail runners and climbers who like to keep their equipment light and move fast it is important to take the weight and size of your device in to consideration.
The types of possible costs with SMBs and PLBs include:
– Device cost
– Activation fee
– Monthly or annual subscription fee
Depending on what type of SMB you decide to buy there are many options available for both device costs and subscription costs. Depending on what type of satellite messenger you buy you may get a discount or even free shipping. There are some companies that offer discounts for bulk purchases and cheaper annual contracts.
Some companies offer free trials where you can try out their products for free of without a subscription fee. Others charge a small fee for using their service whether its a monthly or an annual plan. It is always good to check the costs of using the SMB before buying it. There are many expensive plans and you might get a cheaper basic plan if you do some research. You should know exactly what you are paying for and what features you are getting.
If you want a personal locator device without an annual fee you could go with the ocean signal RescueMe PLB1 or with ACR ResQlink View.
– Size of screen
If you plan on using the SMB for navigation purposes you should choose a model with a large display. A larger screen allows you to get more detailed information at once without having to scroll down. Navigational features on a small screen are hard to use and might have the opposite outcome as you might be lead even more astray from your desired path.
– Phone Apps that are used with SMB devices
Before purchasing any device its good to figure out how well it can be connected with your phone. There are many apps available for smartphones that work with satellite messengers. Most of these apps allow you to send and receive messages and other useful information to your phone.
– Additional features
Many SMBs have additional features to take into consideration such as weather reporting, navigational features, built-in compass or a digital compass, GPS tracking, SOS alerts, voice recording, and more. Make sure to read all the details carefully before purchasing a product. If you want to learn more about the additional features of the SMBs reviewed in this article you can click on the links we have provided.