There was a time when only professional adventurers carried satellite communication devices. For some, these things were just far too costly. For others, they were far too complicated to figure out. That has changed drastically in the past year or so, with user-friendly, reasonably-affordable satellite messengers becoming readily available in the market.
While they’re not cheap enough that you can pick one up without much forethought, the barrier to entry is low enough that folks who frequently venture off-range of the cellular grid will be wise to consider making the investment. Whether you’re an avid mountaineer, an overlanding enthusiast, or a backpacker looking to explore an entire continent, a reliable communication device can make the difference between being stuck on your own and having much-needed assistance.
To those considering this purchase, make sure to note that buying a satellite messenger isn’t a one-time thing. Because they use either the Iridium or Globalstar low-earth-orbit satellite networks, there are fees involved. Instead of being charged each time you use, though, satellite messaging providers have opted for subscription models. As such, there’s a monthly cost associated with the purchase of one of these devices. Those costs can go anywhere from around $10 for those who plan to use it sparingly and just under $100 for unlimited packages. If you choose one of the lower-costing plans and actually use up all your message allotments, you will remain connected and able to communicate, although you should expect overage charges come your next bill, so going for the base plans might be a good idea if you expect that to happen very infrequently.
With that out of the way, here are some of the best options for user-friendly, consumer-grade satellite messengers you’re going to find today.
Garmin inReach Mini
If you value a compact size and lightweight heft during your adventures, Garmin’s 3.5-ounce satellite messenger is what you first want to look at. Running on the Iridium network, it facilitates impressively fast communication, whether you’re sending an SOS signal or providing pertinent details on your emergency situation. Granted, sending messages can be tedious since you’re using a cursor to choose one letter at a time (it’s so small, that’s the only way to do it), but it does have Bluetooth, so you can sync it with either your phone (using Garmin Earthmate) or a compatible Garmin watch for more convenient texting capabilities. Aside from emergency messaging, there’s also two-way texting, so you can stay in touch with your travel group for those times you decide to split up, along with weather information, tracking points, and location pings. Do note, the small size means the battery is smaller, too, so you’re going to have to charge it daily (you’ll need a power bank or a solar panel) if you keep the live tracking permanently on.
Arguably the best value satellite messenger out there, the Bivystick’s associated service doesn’t come with activation fees. As such, subscriptions work out more like prepaid credits, since you can cancel and reactivate at any time without any additional cost. That means, you can buy an expensive package when you’re planning a month-long trip and cancel it as soon as you get home, making it very cost-effective for those who only need satellite messengers a few times throughout the year.
Clad in a stick-like form factor, the device doesn’t come with its own screen. Instead, it pairs with a companion app on your phone that you can then use to send an emergency SOS signal, perform two-way messaging, and provide weather forecasts. It provides tracking and location sharing in 10 minute intervals, so you don’t have to wait too long to figure out where you are on a map (all maps can be downloaded offline before a trip), while the lack of a screen actually helps the battery life, so it can go a few days between charges.
Styled to look like one of those old Blackberry phones, this satellite messenger, which uses the Globalstar satellite network, has its own physical keyboard, making it easier to send text messages without having to rely on your phone. Granted, typing is not that easy, since the buttons are small and kind of cramped, so you’re going to struggle if you don’t take off your gloves, but it’s still better than having to keep two devices charged the whole trip. It’s got all the necessary features, from SOS and two-way messaging to mapping and tracking, all available directly from the onboard display. Because it has a keyboard and big screen, it’s larger than other satellite messenger options, so make sure to keep that in consideration.
Make sure to also check: Spot Gen3, the outfit’s compact satellite messenger, which retains all the same capabilities and limitations, with the exception of two-way messaging. If you want a more compact device and don’t care about texting your companions, this highly-affordable unit might make for a more suitable option.
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Somewear Global Hotspot
We like the simplicity and user-friendliness of this satellite messenger, which, similar to the Bivystick, requires pairing with the companion smartphone app. Once paired with the app, you can send SOS messages, perform two-way messaging, get weather information, and track your location. Aside from letting you talk with your fellow travelers, you can chat with family and friends, who can reach you through the web app, so your wife can keep nagging you about that thing you needed to fix in the basement. Yeah, you should have fixed that before you left. Battery, by the way, isn’t a strong point, so you’ll need to charge it every day to get continuous tracking, so make sure you have a power source on hand to keep it running.
No, the Mesh doesn’t use a low-orbit satellite network like all the previous devices. Instead, it relies on other GoTenna users within a four-mile radius to create a mesh network, where you can hop on using the companion app to send messages among each other. For users looking to save on subscription plans, you can go with carrying just one satellite messenger for your group, which you can use in case of emergencies. The rest of the time, you can stay in touch with each other using this device, which requires no monthly subscriptions to use. You just have to make sure the group doesn’t get split up beyond the communication range (or hope there’s a random GoTenna user in the middle to hop off of).