Best Satellite Messengers and Locator Beacons

The initial purchase price of a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger is only part of the equation. Some devices require subscription plans that vary over time, making comprehensive comparisons difficult. We can, though, make some authoritative recommendations.

Yes, both of them are free to use for lifetime. Screen shot of locating someone using the InReach. Satellite phones — Devices that can transmit voice over satellite signal are more expensive and usually bulkier than what we tested here. SAR experts confirm that the most important information to relate is 1.

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Depending on terrain, we rarely had to wait more than five minutes to acquire a satellite signal, and the device confirms whether your messages sent or not. While we didn't trigger the SOS button in the field, we liked its design. We also appreciate that the latest iteration of this device makes it difficult to send a signal accidentally, but it is not challenging to use it quickly if you need to. The Mini is expensive at the outset, but worth it if you want to send a lot of messages in the field.

Garmin's unlimited text messaging plan is more cost-effective than a SAT phone, and the messaging functionality is better. You can still send messages from the device if your smartphone runs out of batteries, and it also has fully featured GPS capabilities and weather forecasting. We prefer to separate our satellite communication and navigation devices, and usually use smartphones to navigate. If messaging is not important to you, and you're looking for an emergency signaling device only, the Ocean Signal PLB1 is your best option.

It is a little expensive up front, but there are no annual fees or subscription plans required. The Ocean Signal broadcasts a distress signal through two radio channels, MHz and They are sent, respectively, to a monitored satellite network and a local aircraft distress frequency.

Unfortunately, the device does not in any way confirm that someone has received your distress signal. But the Mini's 2-way messaging makes it a more useful product overall. This is a two-way, satellite-linked, backcountry messaging device that works entirely on its own. With this keyboard, the user can text readily, without needing to link to a separate, battery-draining device.

First, the Editors' Choice inReach Mini is much more portable. The Mini is smaller and lighter, by a real margin. Functionality did not change with this issue. If that physical keyboard and its benefits appeal to you, there is no reason not to choose the SPOT X. Developed by a fresh startup company, the GoTenna Mesh is an innovative entry into the wilderness communication field.

A Mesh network is ground-based and built by users. Each device serves to connect the user's smartphone to other users' via GoTenna devices nearby. Messages can be relayed through other GoTenna devices, unbeknownst to the owner or user.

Maximum range between individual devices is dependent on terrain, but GoTenna claims a maximum of 4 miles. Our testing revealed a max range of 3. The maximum range of the potential communication network is determined by terrain but also by the number of devices in service. Adoption is currently limited, so GoTenna is best suited for groups of people recreating in close proximity.

Large mountaineering expeditions, small groups of international travelers and hunting camp groups are possible applications. With wider adoption, Mesh could be a more viable option. With the unique technology and potential for growth, we must mention it here.

However, educate yourself thoroughly on the limitations before trusting this new technology. At a recent talk on risk management, world-renowned adventurer Will Gadd offered to buy a satellite messenger for anyone who can't afford their own.

We're not sure he was serious, but his point is clear — emergency communication is now a part of the outdoor experience. Some of the world's greatest adventures take place beyond the reach of modern cell signal. To summon emergency assistance and to communicate more routine matters from these wild settings, special technology — like personal locator beacons and sat messengers — is required.

We test that technology for you. The entire communication process, from SOS activation to notification of local Search and Rescue SAR resources, can take just minutes to a couple of hours.

Local, on-the-ground SAR response time will vary, regardless of the technology used to summon help, from minutes to days. Response time following notification depends on local financial and political factors, terrain, weather, and a whole host of other things.

Educate thyself on the SAR resources where you choose to recreate. All the satellite-linked and cellular, for that matter communication systems are similar enough in speed that they are essentially equal. The devices we test here are meant, first and foremost, to communicate to the outside world. In the event of an emergency, the most important information you can send is where you are and that you need help. The GPS antenna provides the location information.

Once the hardware is there, it is a simple thing to add software that leverages this GPS information for more routine navigation. Some of the devices we review have navigation features. Fact is though, that these navigation features are afterthoughts and they drain the battery of a potentially vital piece of communication equipment. The initial purchase price of a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger is only part of the equation. Some devices require subscription plans that vary over time, making comprehensive comparisons difficult.

We can, though, make some authoritative recommendations. We also compare subscription options in the table above. Note that the initial purchase price is only part of your decision.

After 5 years of activation on the least expensive plan, the costs are much closer, and the Mini is actually less expensive. Sending an emergency signal is the primary reason to carry a communication device into the wilderness. It's also the metric that unites the category. All of these devices, with varying degrees of effectiveness, can be used to summon help in the event of a life or limb emergency.

SAR experts confirm that the most important information to relate is 1. Where you are and, 2. How bad it is. When you push the SOS button a personal locator beacon, you are sending dispatch your GPS coordinates and saying "this is really, really bad. With SOS transmission you are saying "get here as fast as possible. Of course, being able to relate more nuanced information and being able to answer questions from SAR responders is of great value.

Satellite messengers or PLBs that allow two-way, customized communication improve emergency response. Functionally, for emergency messaging, these two are identical. Aside from coverage differences, elaborated below, they work the same for SOS messaging. Finally, to summon help in an emergency with the GoTenna requires that you are texting within a "Mesh" network that overlaps with cell signal.

In an emergency, coverage allowing, you will text someone who has cell signal who can forward, usually by telephone, relevant information to dispatch. This works, but not nearly as well as the others. In summary, the inReach and the SPOT X are the best for emergency messaging, because of the opportunity to send and receive more nuanced information in an emergency.

Non-emergency messaging takes multiple forms on these devices. Some offer texting and location services that simulate smartphone functionality.

Others provide the ability to send a simple "I am here, and I am ok" note. Some offer no option for non-emergency messaging at all. There is a wide range of features and performance. A different sort of non-emergency messaging is location tracking. Some devices can be configured to automatically send, on some preset interval, your location and a sort of implied status update.

Looking at it a different way, there are three major types of non-emergency messaging. First, there is two-way texting with or without location data attached. This is, of course, the most useful. Next, there's the transmission of manual "ok" messages, usually with location data attached.

Finally, there is automated tracking. Automated tracking is a function in which the device, on some predetermined time interval, will send location information to a front country correspondent. All these different sorts of messaging can go to web interfaces, phone numbers, or email addresses. It and the Editors Choice inReach Mini lead the market and lead our test, primarily for this reason.

It has a preprogrammed "OK" message functionality, with location data attached, and it has a few different tracking mode configurations. The GoTenna Mesh only offers intuitive two-way texting and location sharing, provided you participate in or have built a good network.

It has no default SOS button. It has only an SOS button and no non-emergency messaging. Personal locator beacons do not offer much in the way of non-emergency communication. Previously, it provided an inexpensive subscription to Link, a device test that sends notifications to friends and family, sometimes with location data attached. This is nuanced, read the full ACR review for elaboration. It is worth noting that, as of mid-August , ACR is suspending new subscriptions with its Link program.

Why this is and whether or not it will return, we do not know. It is also not clear whether current Link subscriptions are working. Each communication network has coverage limitations, and all satellite communications have inherent restrictions.

Additionally, we found differences, even when coverage seemed intact, in the reliable transmission of sent messages. Because all remote communications are fraught, communication reliability is greatest when it can be "two-way.

When the communications are "two-way," confirmation of receipt is a little clearer. For reasons we hope are obvious, we could not and did not test the coverage and effectiveness of SOS messaging. Each device allows a sort of test mode, but this does not activate the entire SOS system on any device.

Those of us who have not yet had a backcountry emergency have to trust the manufacturers and the experience of other, less fortunate, users. For these ratings, we rely on research. Lots and lots of research. Both can be tested, but the number of tests is limited by the life of the built-in, non-rechargeable battery.

The ACR offers a subscription plan that will confirm the results of each test via email and cell phone. The Ocean Signal rescueME confirms its functionality with on-device lights.

This is less comforting as it doesn't involve satellite confirmation. Aside from institutional knowledge and the basic testing we performed, we have no way to test signal coverage of these two devices. The other five devices are easier to test for range and coverage using their non-emergency communication options. Our goal was to verify manufacturer claims. The SPOT satellite network covers the major terrestrial wilderness destinations of an American adventurer.

The inReach products use a satellite network with global coverage. Within the inherent limitations of all satellite communications, the inReach Mini truly does work everywhere we've tested it. Finally, the GoTenna employs an entirely different communication network.

In short, for now, it works where you and your friends have "built" a ground-based network. There are ways to customize your network and ways to cooperate with other users, but coverage is far less robust than all the other technologies we tested. GoTenna claims that device-to-device range is up to 4 miles, as long as the terrain is open.

In our testing we found 1: See the full GoTenna review for more information. We also found subtle differences in message integrity. The inReach messages were received faster than the SPOT messages about 60 percent of the time, with the inReach messages either confirmed as failed or received within 20 minutes almost always.

The SPOT messages confirmed as failed only 45 minutes after the send attempt at times, and were sometimes received more than two hours after the initial send. The inReach , when paired with a smartphone, also allows the user to watch the progress of the message with clear visual confirmation. This is a lot nicer than trying to decipher the blinking lights on the SPOT , wondering if the message was sent or not. Since the chief feature of the SPOT is its ability to send messages to your contacts, and the inReach performs message sending so much better, the inReach is quite clearly a superior device for this purpose.

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