The thought came to me one day when I was on an overlanding trip with my son Kai in the desert backcountry.
What if something bad happens? How do we get help?
The idea of my son alone in the wilderness hit like a bucket of ice water in my face. There was no mobile phone reception and my two-way radio had a short range, a couple of miles at best. I realized that I needed a satellite messenger device.
Satellite messengers such as the devices from SPOT and inReach (more on these below) allow you to send text messages from nearly anywhere and quickly send an SOS message to the authorities.
Ever since that day in the desert, I’ve been using a satellite messenger for overlanding, off-roading, hiking, and mountain biking. Here, I’ll explain the basics of how they work, how and when to use them, and provide some recommendations on specific models. I’ll also cover the difference between satellite messengers and personal locator beacons (PLBs) and why I use a messengers instead of a PLB.
If you are headed into the backcountry on a regular basis, I highly recommend you pick up one of these devices (or at least a PLB, if you don’t want to pay for the messenger service fees). In case you don’t need convincing and are just looking for a quick suggestion, I’ll start there. Further along in the article, I’ll go into more detail on how satellite messengers work and their use in overlanding and off-roading.
Best Satellite Messenger Devices
Satellite messengers fall into two broad categories that are helpful for communication and in emergencies. They are either one-way or two-way devices, meaning they can either only send or both send and receive messages.
The SPOT Gen4 satellite messenger is what I am currently using when I head off-grid on overlanding trips, off-roading and hiking and mountain biking. It does what I need it to do and is less than half the price of a two-way messenger (the run around $150 at the time I’m writing this). The primary reason I carry one is that it features a dedicated S.O.S. button that can contact emergency rescue coordination and monitoring services in North America and other parts of the world with the push of a button.
When I’m in the backcountry, I keep the Gen4 either on me, or very close to me, in case it all goes south and I need to push the orange panic button (knock on wood).
In addition to the SOS, Gen4 can be used to send location information and pre-programmed messages to up to 10 contacts when you are out of range of a mobile phone signal. I have a message that essentially says “all okay” that I send to my wife just to ease her mind when we’re out of touch (and by “we” I mean me and our only-child son – precious cargo indeed.) I typically send messages to my brother also.
The Gen4 also has a tracking feature that provides my wife and brother with updates on our location, and also provides an exact record of our route. In addition to the SOS button, the Gen4 has a “help” button that lets personal contacts know that you need help, but it’s not a life-threatening emergency.
Using the Gen4 requires paying for a monthly service subscription from SPOT. You can either keep the subscription active all the time, or opt for a flex plan where you can turn it on and off as needed (in monthly increments, so any month it’s on, you’ll pay the full subscription price for the month).
I keep my subscription active all the time, as I use it regularly and don’t want to deal with the hassle of remembering to turn it on. SPOT uses the Globalstar satellite network for its service.
The inReach Mini is a two-way messaging device. This means it incorporates many of the key features of a one-way messenger (eg, SOS and location tracking), with the added ability to send and receive messages in real-time to family, friends, your co-travelers and first-responders - and even post to social media.
I’ve been eyeing Garmin’s inReach Mini satellite messaging device since it came out. I haven’t pulled the trigger yet, but am very likely to in the near future – my birthday is coming up, isn’t it? I’ve had a chance to play around with my stepdad’s (he uses it for backcountry fly fishing trips), and it’s impressive.
Like the SPOT Gen4, the inReach Mini has a button to trigger an SOS call to Garmin’s emergency response coordination center, which will then contact the authorities in your location. One very nice thing about two-way messengers is that along with the SOS call, you can communicate the details of your situation (medical emergencies, location details, specific needs, etc.).
Another big advantage of two-way devices is that you can get up-to-date weather forecasts. The inReach Mini
One thing that’s impressive about the inReach Minis is the amount of functionality it packs into such a compact size. It measures only 4 inches x 2 inches and weighs 3.5 oz. It’s also impact and water resistant. Similar to the SPOT system, Garmin users can opt for an annual package or a month-to-month plan. Garmin uses the Iridium satellite network for coverage.
If you already own or are planning to buy a Garmin GPS navigation device, the inReach Mini would be a natural fit, as it can interface with some of the devices (like the Garmin Overlander).
The Garmin Montana 700i is a handheld GPS device that is a good option for off-roaders looking for a more portable option. Like Garmin’s Tread device, the 700i incorporates the companies inReach technology, so it can be used as both a navigation device and a backcountry satellite communications device. Compared to other handheld models, the 700i has a larger screen, making it easier to see when it’s mounted in your vehicle.
If you are in the market for both a GPS navigation system AND a satellite messenger, you can kill two birds with the Garmin Montana 700i. It provides a robust mapping and navigation system as well as two-way satellite messaging and emergency SOS notification functionality.
The device is preloaded with detailed topographic maps of the U.S. and Canada, and it has the ability to add additional maps and waypoints, making it perfect for overlanding and off-roading. In addition to its robust navigation and mapping capabilities, the Montana 700i also has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, allowing users to share their location and trip data with friends and family, and connect with other devices such as smartphones and tablets.
It’s larger than the inReach Mini, but if for overlanding and off-roading, where you might mount it on your dash most of the time anyway, it makes a lot of sense.
How Does a Satellite Messenger Work?
In case you are completely new to the concept of a satellite messenger, I want to make sure we cover the basics. A satellite messenger is a GPS-enabled device that uses satellite technology to transmit messages and location information. Unlike cell phones, which rely on cell towers to send and receive information, satellite messengers can connect with satellites orbiting the Earth to send and receive messages even in remote or wilderness areas where there’s no cell phone coverage.
To use a satellite messenger, you’ll need to activate it and sign up for a service plan. Companies that make the devices, such as Garmin and SPOT, contract with commercial satellite services to provide connectivity for their devices. Garmin, for instance, uses the Iridium network, while SPOT uses Globalstar. So depending on what device you purchase, you will be using a different satellite service provider which offer different areas of coverage.
Once you are connected to the service, you can use your device to send and receive messages (only two-way devices can receive messages), track your location, and call for help in case of an emergency.
One thing to keep in mind is that satellite messengers typically require a clear line of sight to the sky in order to connect with the satellites. That means you might need to move to an open area or even climb a hill to get a good signal. Also, check the coverage map for your provider to make sure you’ll have coverage in the area where you’ll be traveling.
Types of Satellite Messengers
There are three types of satellite messengers that are typically used for overlanding, off-roading and other types of backcountry adventure: trackers, one-way messengers, two-way messengers.
GPS trackers are relatively simple devices that send out their GPS coordinates to a remote server via a satellite. These devices can let you track the location of your vehicle or equipment and let other people know your location. Otherwise, they don’t allow you to communicate with other parties. While trackers can let people know where you are on your trip, they can’t send out an SOS distress call, which limits there utlity.
One-Way Satellite Messengers
One-way satellite messengers, such as the SPOT Gen4 that I own, allow users to send their GPS coordinates (so act as trackers) and send pre-programmed messages to a predetermined list of contacts, typically via email or text message.
You can’t type a new message on the fly when you are in the backcountry. For instance, I have messages teed up that tell my wife everything is okay and when we are going to bed.
More importantly, they have an emergency SOS feature that sends a distress signal to a rescue coordination center. This is the primary reason to carry a one-way messenger- it’s the “oh shit” button for when things go very wrong.
Two-Way Satellite Messengers
Two-way satellite messengers are a step up in functionality from trackers and one-way messengers. In addition to offering all the features of one-way messengers, such as GPS tracking and allowing you to call for help through an SOS system, they also let you text or email back and forth through the satellite connection.
This enables two-way communication with friends and family and first responders when you are in trouble. They can also act as a GPS navigation system and compass. For instance, the Garmin inReach can pair with the Garmin Explore App on your smartphone to show your location on topographic backcountry maps. The app also allows you to send text messages to contacts in your smartphone via the inReach device while you are off-grid.
Satellite Messenger vs Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
While satellite messengers and personal locator beacons (PLBs) are both useful tools for communication and safety in the backcountry, there are some key differences between the two.
A satellite messenger is a communication device that uses satellite technology to send and (in the case of two-way devices) receive messages, track location, and call for help in an emergency. These devices require a subscription service and typically rely on a clear line of sight to the sky to connect with satellites. Even one-way messengers allow you to send different types of pre-planned messages.
On the other hand, a personal locator beacon (PLB) is a one-way communication device that sends a distress signal to rescue authorities, alerting them to your location in case of an emergency. PLBs do not require a subscription service, but they also do not allow for communication beyond the SOS signal.
Another key difference is the cost. PLBs are a one-time purchase. They tend to cost more initially than satellite messengers (especially considering their limited functionality), but they don’t require an ongoing subscription fee so are cheaper in the long-run.
When deciding which device to choose, consider your needs and priorities. If you want the ability to communicate with loved ones or emergency responders in addition to calling for help, a satellite messenger may be the better option.
I like being able to send my wife a prepared message that says we are okay in the field. However, if your main concern is being able to call for help in an emergency and your budget is a concern, a PLB may be the way to go.