Cons: No functionality without your smartphone, large and heavy device
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Bivystick uses a secure network and dispatch service, a relatively simple phone app, and a suite of features that we've come to accept as standard. Before the great sat comms shake-up of 2018, when four products were released with fairly similar features, (drastically increasing options on the market), the Bivy would have been a revolutionary alternative to the long-standing options. Thrown into the mix with the other new launches, though, this device is somewhat underwhelming.
The Bivystick is essentially a modem that acts as a conduit between the Iridium satellite network and the Bivy app on your smartphone. Through the app and the associated hardware and networks, one can send and receive messages, activate an SOS call to a 24-hour dispatch service, perform automated tracking that is web-viewable, and get weather forecasts. This suite of features is what we now consider standard for wilderness communications, though you still have choices. With other products and services, one can arrange for more robust communications (e.g., voice or data) or fewer features (e.g., SOS only or SOS plus one-way "OK Message"). All the options Bivy offers are easy to access and affordable.
When you truly need help (with a life or limb-threatening injury or health condition), you can use your Bivy and its app to summon help. The apps SOS button tells the Bivy to tell Iridium to tell GEOS (a for-profit dispatch and monitoring service) to find local assistance to come to your aid. When you need it, this can save lives. This chain of command for the Bivystick is proven with the only specific drawback being that you must use the phone app to activate SOS.
Once SOS is activated on this kind of hardware, the signal and response should be straightforward and predictable. As you compare services and sort through your options, simply realize that every satellite SOS message routes through one of only two monitoring/dispatch services. All direct the call to the same local resources. There isn't very much difference between the SOS functionality of the different options. However, the type and timeliness of ground (or air) response will vary based on a whole host of variables. Communication itself will take seconds, but a rescue response will take hours, if not days
Non-emergency services on the Bivystick include two-way messaging, weather forecasts, and tracking services. All are coordinated through the app, and all depend more on the function of the Iridium network than on hardware or software specific to the Bivy. The network's function is influenced by your location, the terrain, and satellite timing issues.
There are a few universal truths that affect the signal coverage of any emergency location device. First, and most importantly, all satellite communications are subject to the same inherent issues. Your device needs to have a clear view of the sky. Buildings, trees, cliffs, and steep valley walls all impede signal transmission. This is true for all the devices we tested.
Secondly, a growing number of devices are using the same satellite networks. Many options now, including the Bivystick, all use the Iridium network. Our testing shows no statistically significant difference between the signal coverage of these Iridium-enabled devices. However, the Iridium network is definitely better than the GlobalStar network that some other devices use. This difference is even more critical if you plan to visit the most remote corners of the globe. If your travels are limited to low or mid-latitude terrestrial venues, you will notice little real difference between GlobalStar and Iridium. In short, the network your device uses affects signal coverage more than the devices themselves. The Bivy's signal coverage is as good as it gets.
Ease of Use
Modern electronics users have high standards. We like slick apps and fast processing. The Bivy is good enough, though other apps are a little simpler to set up. Still, we got the Bivy working in mere minutes. Once you configure it, it's easy to use, as long as you consider and plan for inherent satellite communication issues.
The Bivystick weighs 7.3 oz and is 5.6 inches long. For what it does, this is remarkably small, especially when comparing it to options available just five years ago. However, recent product releases have realigned our expectations, and the size of the Bivy isn't early as competitive as it used to be. It does offer a USB port you can use to charge your phone or other electronics, but this isn't particularly appealing to us as we don't like to drain battery power from crucial emergency equipment.
The initial purchase price of the Bivystick is competitive with the other options available, but the subscription services are what really matter if you're looking for a good value. Newcomers to the world of beacons definitely offer better value than many of the established products. That said, the Bivy's subscription plans require no commitment. You prepurchase what you anticipate you will need for a coming trip. The downside of this is that you're out of luck if you end up wanting or needing more messages than you anticipate while in the field and away from wifi or cellular data. Other services have overage fees that kick in if you go over your prepaid or contracted allotment. You get billed for it, but you can keep sending and receiving messages. No such option exists with the Bivy.
The Bivystick launched amidst a full-on maelstrom of new satellite communication device innovations. All the shake-ups are good for wilderness travelers, but not great for the Bivy. Most of the other products and services exceed it in one way or another. The good news is that Bivy uses proven technologies that can be adjusted and are adaptable enough to change with the times. We may eventually see a price war where the companies compete, prices drop, and the consumer wins. Watch for changes and consider grabbing a good contract at the right time.
— Jediah Porter