Reviews You Can Rely On

Best Satellite Messengers of 2021

Our testing team made up of professional guides tested personal locator beacons from Garmin, Bivystick, SPOT, and more to find the best for all kinds of adventuring
Your loved ones, your partners, and your potential SAR responders want...
Photo: Jediah Porter
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor
Monday July 19, 2021
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Our Editors independently research, test, and rate the best products. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Learn more
Your outdoor communications will benefit from a satellite messenger. We have tested the best for 5 years and, in 2021, assess and describe 11 high-performance products. We've compiled a selection of nearly comprehensive messengers, and our team is perhaps the most qualified communications testing team on the market. We have team members who spend 200 days a year in the wilderness and come from previous jobs in consulting with the developers of backcountry communication technology. We use each product "in real life" and then compile and communicate our findings in a clear, unbiased, and comparative fashion. Our testing reveals test data in SOS function, signal coverage, non-emergency messaging, ease of use, and portability.

Top 11 Product Ratings

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Pros Small, two-way textingCompact, great network, on-device basic controlsExcellent network, seamless communication, some on-device functionalityEasy and affordable two-way messaging, great smartphone app, feature loaded, proven global networkSmall, affordable subscription options, proven satellite and dispatch networks, simple
Cons Complicated to compare costs, texting on device is very slowNo on-device message viewing or composition, USB-C chargingNo on-device message viewing or composition, no tracking, heavier than close competitorsExpensive initial purchase, largest and heaviest messengerOnly supports SOS on the device itself
Bottom Line Emergency and routine text communications from the backcountry, in a tiny packageA small, light, and full-function two-way messenger that competes closely with the top of the heapThis nearly perfect device provides comprehensive, polished, two-way satellite communicationsFully featured and arguably more reliable even than commonly available satellite phonesCompact, simple, two-way satellite communications using proven technology and relatively affordable subscription options
Rating Categories Garmin inReach Mini Bivystick Blue ZOLEO Satellite Com... Garmin inReach Expl... Somewear Global Hot...
SOS Emergency Messaging (30%)
7.0
7.0
7.0
7.0
7.0
Non Emergency Messaging (25%)
9.0
8.0
8.0
9.0
6.0
Signal Coverage (20%)
8.0
8.0
8.0
8.0
8.0
Ease Of Use (15%)
6.0
7.0
7.0
7.0
7.0
Portability (10%)
9.0
9.0
7.0
4.0
8.0
Specs Garmin inReach Mini Bivystick Blue ZOLEO Satellite Com... Garmin inReach Expl... Somewear Global Hot...
2-way Messaging? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
2-way Messaging Available via Cellular/Wifi? No No Yes No Yes
Custom Messaging Viewable and Composable on Device? Yes No No Yes No
Passive Tracking (turn on and forget about it - viewers at home can watch your progress on the web) Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Weight w/ Batteries (ounces) 3.5 3.6 5.3 7.5 4.1
Battery Life (hours) Up to 50 Up to 120 200+ when checking messages every 12 minutes 100 (lithium polymer battery) Up to 1000 messages
Waterproof Rating IPX7 (splashes & weather proof, nonsubmersible) IP67 IP68 (water resistant) IPX7 (splashes & weather proof, nonsubmersible) IPX7
Pairs with Smartphone? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Satellite Network Iridium Iridium Iridium Iridium Iridium
Dimensions (inches) 3.9 x 2 x 1 1.9 x .9 x 4.5 3.5 x 2.6 x 1 6.5 x 2.7 x 1.5 3 x 3.6 x .8
Cubic Inches (LxWxH) 7.8 7.7 9.1 26.3 8.6


Best Overall for Custom Messaging


Garmin inReach Mini


78
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 7
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 9
  • Signal Coverage 8
  • Ease of Use 6
  • Portability 9
Weight: 3.5 oz | Battery Life: 50 hours
Awesome two-way messaging
Smartphone interface works well
Small and light
Satellite texting only. No continuity onto cell/wifi
Texting on the device is tedious

The Garmin inReach Mini is tied for the best messaging device in our test group. It pairs with an app on your phone and can send and receive many types of messages. It offers customized individual text streams, bulk pre-programmed messages (so you don't have to type out the same "I'm doing fine" message to each person), and GPS and web-linked live tracking. Depending on terrain, we rarely had to wait more than five minutes to acquire a satellite signal, and the device confirms whether your messages were sent or not. While we didn't trigger the SOS button in the field, we like its design. We also appreciate that the latest iteration of this device makes it difficult to send a signal accidentally but is not challenging to use quickly if you need to. The inReach Mini lives up to its name — a device with almost no function compromises that is small enough for everyone to take literally everywhere. If you can't justify carrying less than 4 ounces of such effective communication technology on your adventure, we want to hear about it. We bet you could cut 4 ounces somewhere else with a much lower overall "cost" to your comfort and safety.

The Mini is expensive at the outset but worth it if you want to send and receive a lot of messages in the field. Garmin's text messaging plans are 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, gets lost, or stops working for some other reason. It also has fully featured GPS capabilities and basic weather forecasting. If you want longer battery life or more advanced navigational features, check out the Garmin inReach Explorer+. We prefer to separate our satellite communication and navigation devices, and usually use smartphones to navigate. Our only further wish of the Mini is that its app text messaging was seamless from satellite to wifi/cell signal. That attribute, appearing on many of the newer messengers (like the ZOLEO), is of great value when your travels take you in and out of cell contact.

Read review: Garmin inReach Mini

Best Overall for Compact Messaging


Bivystick Blue


77
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 7
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 8
  • Signal Coverage 8
  • Ease of Use 7
  • Portability 9
Weight: 3.6 oz | Battery Life: Up to 120 hours
Compact and smooth shape
Some on-device functions
Tracking
No on-device message viewing or composition
Limited subscription plans

The Bivystick Blue is a comprehensive and high-functioning satellite messenger. It has most of the features we currently look for in a messenger. What it doesn't have, the inReach Mini does. These two are very close competitors, with slightly diverging advantages that differentiate them. They are similar in size and weight, and both use the same satellite network and contracted dispatch services. Through their app and in the wilderness, both offer similar messaging and tracking services.

How, then, do these two award winners differ? With the inReach, you can do more on the device itself, should your phone be inoperable for whatever reason. On the Bivystick Blue, you can only send an SOS message and/or a routine "I'm OK" check-in message. (We also review the original Bivystick Orange. Orange offers no on-device functionality. It is also much bigger and heavier than Blue. We very much like the "Blue" upgrades). We wish that both the inReach Mini and Bivystick Blue had seamless messaging like the Zoleo, Somewhere, and SatPaq have. After initial testing, and once we had settled into our long-term evaluation of it, our first tested BivyStick Blue version developed an issue. It would turn itself off during use. Bivy customer service was prompt and replaced the device. They reported that this is not unheard of but not common either.

Read full review: Bivystick Blue

Best Bang for the Buck for Two-Way Global Coverage


Somewear Global Hotspot


71
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 7
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 6
  • Signal Coverage 8
  • Ease of Use 7
  • Portability 8
Weight: 4.1 oz | Battery Life: 1000 messages
Compact and light
Flexible and affordable subscription options
Uses proven satellite network and SOS dispatch
No messaging without a smartphone
Long, 30 min tracking interval

The Somewear Global Hotspot is a piece of hardware from a relatively new start-up that uses a proven satellite network and SOS monitoring service. The device itself is compact, light, and low profile. With the nearly simultaneous launch of a small handful of similar devices and services, the competitors are being forced to compete on price. The initial purchase price of the Global Hotspot is similar to the other options, but the subscription plans are a little less expensive than average. Depending on how you intend to use your wilderness communicator, the Global Hotspot can be much less expensive than the alternatives. For instance, with their "Plan Ultralight," you can use the Hotspot a few times a month, over five years, for hundreds of dollars less than using another device in the same way.

There are some drawbacks to the Hotspot. Most notably, there is no way to send or view text messages on the device itself. All you can do with the device alone is turn it off and on and send an SOS message. With the inReach Mini, you can view or send rudimentary messages directly on the device and through the phone app. Overall, we find the Somewear to be reliable and simple.

Read review: Somewear Global Hotspot

Great Value for SOS Only


Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1


63
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 9
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 1
  • Signal Coverage 9
  • Ease of Use 5
  • Portability 8
Weight: 4.0 oz | Battery Life: 24 hours
Dual-frequency SOS transmission
COSPAS/SARSAT is very reliable
No annual fees
Easy to operate one-handed (even with gloves)
Lacks 2-way messaging
Lacks non-emergency messaging

If custom messaging is not important to you, and you're looking for an emergency signaling device only, the Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 is your best option. It is a little expensive upfront, but there are no annual fees or subscription plans required. It broadcasts a distress signal through two radio channels, 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz. They are sent, respectively, to a monitored satellite network and a local aircraft distress frequency. The powerful transmission is sent on the military's reliable COSPAS/SARSAT network.

Unfortunately, this personal locator beacon does not in any way confirm that someone has received your distress signal. The Ocean Signal PLB1 is an excellent option for pure, personal locator beacon SOS functions and offers a solid value. But the two-way messaging of many of the other options makes them more useful products overall.

Read review Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1

Best Bang for the Buck for US Two-Way Messaging


Higher Ground SatPaq


59
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 6
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 6
  • Signal Coverage 5
  • Ease of Use 5
  • Portability 8
Weight: 4.4 oz | Battery Life: 150-200 messages
Low purchase and operating cost
Stable satellite signal once acquired
Seamless messaging in and out of cell signal
Requires attachment to smartphone and cumbersome aiming
No live tracking
Only covers the United States

The Higher Ground SatPaq is one of the more innovative new entries to the satellite communication market in years. For nearly a decade now, all messaging devices and services have used one of the same three satellite networks. Each of the three original satellite networks supports at least a few different hardware options. The SatPaq is currently alone in employing an entirely different satellite technology and infrastructure. Essentially, Higher Ground has licensed bandwidth on a single, very high altitude satellite that "sees" all of North America and sees it from the same angle all the time. With this arrangement, relative to the other two-way satellite messaging technologies available, they can offer inexpensive service and, once acquired, stable satellite connection over time. The end result of the technology, device, and business structure is that you have access to fully flexible, pre-paid satellite two-way messaging, inside the United States, for far less cost than any other option available.

On the flip side, the SatPaq does not work anywhere in the world outside of North America. It is not licensed outside the United States. Further, given that the satellite is so far from earth, the antenna in your SatPaq device must be aimed very carefully. To do so, Higher Ground designed a slick app that uses your smartphone screen to aim the device. You have to attach device and smartphone together for this. When you get a satellite signal, it will stay good for hours and days, unbroken. Where you can't get a satellite signal right now, you won't ever get a satellite signal (and the SatPaq signal is subject to all the same issues of any satellite communication network: it won't communicate through anything solid like cliffs, canyon walls, buildings, or foliage.)

Read full review: Higher Ground SatPaq

Best for Standalone Use


SPOT X


69
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 7
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 8
  • Signal Coverage 6
  • Ease of Use 7
  • Portability 5
Weight: 6.8 oz | Battery Life: 240 hours
2-way messaging
Low initial purchase price
Built-in physical keyboard
Bulky
Potential durability issues

The SPOT X fills a niche. This is a two-way, satellite-linked, backcountry messaging device that works entirely on its own. The built-in physical QWERTY keyboard distinguishes it from all of its competitors. With this keyboard, the user can text readily without needing to link to a separate, battery-draining device. If you prefer a smartphone interface, the newest version of the SPOT X (denoted as "with Bluetooth" and released mid-2019) can be linked to a smartphone app for use that way.

The SPOT X is unique, but it is exceeded in some ways by its close competitors, particularly in regards to size and satellite system used. Additionally, we had part of the first (of two) SPOT X antenna we tested come apart. Functionality did not change with this issue, but it's not encouraging. These drawbacks are not at all deal breakers. If that physical keyboard and its benefits appeal to you, there is no reason not to choose the SPOT X.

Read review: SPOT X

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price Our Take
78
$350
Editors' Choice Award
Text correspondence to and from the wilderness, wrapped up in a diminutive form
77
$365
Editors' Choice Award
A compact, full service satellite messenger that has all you need, and is close to all you would want
75
$200
This is a smooth, comprehensive two-way communicator that relies on a proven satellite network and brings innovations that raise the bar
74
$450
An excellent device with only one weakness - portability
71
$350
Best Buy Award
A small, basic device that employs established network, dispatch, and hardware systems through affordable subscription plans
69
$250
Top Pick Award
If you want two-way texting that doesn't rely on a smartphone and tend to travel in the Americas and Europe, this one's is for you
64
$350
Offers now-standard wilderness communication options, with a slick app and a robust but big and heavy piece of hardware
64
$360
A great, emergency-only messaging device
63
$305
Best Buy Award
A small, satellite-linked emergency communicator that is exactly what you need and nothing more
59
$150
An inexpensive, proven one-way communicator for wilderness peace of mind and for tracking extended "FKT" style efforts
59
$379
Best Buy Award
If your wilderness adventures are confined to the United States and your communication needs are simple and few, the SatPaq is an affordable choice with just a few quirks in usage

Wilderness adventures of all kinds are suitable venues for testing...
Wilderness adventures of all kinds are suitable venues for testing satellite communications. We are thankful to have never activated SOS functionality on any device we've used.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Why You Should Trust Us


This review was assembled, with input from many others, by Jediah Porter. Aside from testing gear, Jed's primary work is in all kinds of mountain guiding. Whether on rock, ice, alpine, or ski mountaineering trips, Jed works full-time all around the world. In each of the few most recent years, he has racked up over 500,000 vertical feet of human-powered ascent. In 2020 he ascended 800,000 vertical feet of human-powered mountain terrain. Most of this was while backcountry skiing. Aside from climbing and skiing, you can find him dabbling in mountain biking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, trail running, and occasional adventure travel tourist-ing. He almost always brings a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon along on his adventures. Jed brings a level of professionalism, competence, and experience that we needed when testing these important safety devices. Before taking over this category, he consulted for a few years for one of the major satellite communication networks.

We started things off by carefully selecting ten models of satellite messenger and personal locator beacons. At GearLab, we don't always test every product in a category, but with PLBs and Satellite Messengers, we can test nearly every option. Especially in the two-way satellite messaging device sub-category, we work to get every single new option in our hands. We may be missing something, but we don't think so. The end result is a set of tested products that represent basically all of the available satellite communication options currently on the market. We then purchased and activated these beacons and put them to the test for hundreds of hours, side-by-side in several distinct situations and locations. We do so while calling on decades of experience with wilderness communications. Test settings have varied through most latitudes, terrains, and climate/vegetation types.

We augmented field tests with consultation and lab tests. We paid special attention to how well the devices did things most important in the function of a messenger/beacon, like message transmission, signal coverage, and ease of use. We also consulted with SAR experts and engineers most familiar with the underlying technology. If you're looking for a comprehensive resource to help you find the device that will work best for you, you've come to the right place.

Related: How We Tested Personal Locator Beacons

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Analysis and Test Results


Like it or not, it has become convention for wilderness travelers to carry and use satellite communications. You might choose to buck that convention, but your loved ones hope that you are at least considering such technology and service. We head to the wild to escape certain types of communications, but we are also vulnerable there to spotty or nonexistent communication options. Strike your own balance, and use our review text and findings to make your own choice.

IMPORTANT: How Long Do Rescues Take?


The entire communication process, from activating your personal locator beacon's SOS function to notifying local Search and Rescue (SAR) resources, can take seconds to a couple of hours. Local, on-the-ground SAR response time will vary from hours to days, regardless of the technology used to summon help. Response time following notification depends on local fiscal, personnel, and political factors, terrain, weather, concurrent emergencies, and a whole host of other factors. Educate yourself 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. It is local response resources and conditions that make your emergency resolution time vary the most.

Related: Buying Advice for Personal Locator Beacons

Value


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.

For SOS/Emergency use only, the best value is a device on the public-sector/governmental COSPAS/SARSAT network. The Ocean Signal and ACR devices are two examples. The Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 deserved a nod for its access to the proven and free international satellite SAR network and its tiny size. The high-scoring Somewear Hotspot also provides fantastic value — some of the best in our entire review — and does it on the Iridium satellite network.


Note that the initial purchase price is only part of your decision. Some devices may be a much higher upfront cost but, when counting the cost of activation and subscription plans, end up being closer in price — or even cheaper — over the long haul.

Many numbers in the &quot;Monthly plan price. One month each year&quot; column...
Many numbers in the "Monthly plan price. One month each year" column are the sum of various costs, only part of which could be active service. Including, but not limited to, flexible plan activation fees, suspension fees, etc.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Some of the newer offerings (Both Bivysticks, the ZOLEO, and value buys Somewear Labs Global Hotspot, and SatPaq) shake up the subscription options further. All of these low- to no-commitment subscription plans are equal or better to those offered by the established competitors. In two major use patterns, the SatPaq is hundreds of dollars less expensive (over a five-year use cycle) than other two-way messengers.

Should You Navigate With Your Satellite Messenger?

The devices we test here are meant, first and foremost, to communicate to the outside world. In the event of an emergency, the most critical information you can send with an SOS message is where you are. A built-in GPS antenna on most tested products provides that location information, usually automatically. Once the hardware is there, it is a simple thing for manufacturers to add software that leverages this GPS information for more routine navigation.

Some of the devices we review have navigation features. However, the fact is that these navigation features are afterthoughts and they drain the battery of a potentially vital piece of communication equipment.

Modern smartphone apps work so much better for navigation than your satellite messenger. We strongly recommend using a smartphone as your primary navigation mode. Because of that, we downplay (basically ignore) the navigational attributes of the satellite messengers we have assessed. If you are planning to do any navigation with your wilderness communication device, your only reasonable option, due to its extended battery life, is the Garmin inReach Explorer+.

SOS/Emergency Messaging


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. Some of them do not do anything more. 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 on a personal locator beacon, you are sending your GPS coordinates and saying, "This is really, really bad." The uncertainty in a simple "help" notification implies the gravity of the situation. With satellite SOS transmission, you are saying, "Get here as fast as possible."

The SOS button on the SPOT Gen4. It is covered with the orange flap...
The SOS button on the SPOT Gen4. It is covered with the orange flap to avoid accidental deployment. Don't let an inadvertent SOS message get out: it's dramatic, to put it mildly.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Effective SOS messaging (read: help is summoned, acquired, and is helpful) requires a few steps and connects a few players. Let us spell out how it works and how different categories of devices accomplish these steps.

First, you absolutely need to have a device, current registration, a clear view of the sky, and the wherewithal and mobility to activate the SOS feature of your device. Don't take these things for granted. It is entirely possible to find yourself in an emergency without one or more of these essential things in your favor (A recent test-team visit to the dense forests of the Northeast US point out just how tenuous satellite signal can be, for instance. This tester went days at a time without reliable satellite coverage). The wilderness is dangerous. No piece of equipment will eliminate that danger. For an effective response, your emergency needs to be one that still gives you some time. Satellite communications can be nearly instant, but wilderness emergency response will take hours or days in even the most accessible of wild spaces.

Provided your emergency fits the above criteria, your device sends a signal to one of just four satellite networks. We review equipment from eight different brands, but they all use one of these four satellite networks. Once your distress signal reaches its satellite network, it needs to get to a staffed, terrestrial dispatch service. Across the eight brands we review, only two operations provide all monitoring and dispatch services. The staff at those services will identify your location and then work to secure local assistance for you. Your message will methodically funnel to local resources. It is likely that, regardless of how your message goes out, the local SAR response will be the same. This final, crucial, local response depends on way too many factors to list here. Do your homework to know what your SAR options are for any given adventure.

For wilderness travel of any kind, the communication products on the...
For wilderness travel of any kind, the communication products on the market as of early 2020 are crucial and super useful.
Photo: Jediah Porter

SOS messaging says, "I am here, and I am in dire need of assistance." In the worst of emergencies, this is all that SAR needs to know. 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 personal locator beacons that allow two-way, customized communication improve emergency response.

The ACR ResQLink View and Ocean Signal PLB1 both use the COSPAS/SARSAT system. Functionally, for emergency messaging, these are identical.

Both SPOT devices, both Garmin inReach devices, the Somewear Global Hotspot, SatPaq, ZOLEO, and both Bivysticks use private networks and emergency dispatch systems. Aside from coverage differences, elaborated below, they work the same for SOS messaging. Of these, only the SPOT Gen4 doesn't allow two-way messaging in any context. With the rest of the aforementioned private sector devices and services, you can text back and forth with the team coordinating your emergency response.


In summary, the inReaches, ZOLEO, SatPaq, Global Hotspot, Bivysticks, and SPOT X are the best for emergency messaging because of the opportunity to send and receive more nuanced information in an emergency. For "send help now" signaling, and nothing more, the Ocean Signal, ACR, and SPOT Gen4 are nearly indistinguishable and have long been proven to work.

There are two major types of emergency messaging networks used by devices in our review.
  • Public — The COSPAS/SARSAT satellite network is a product of international government cooperation. Tax dollars fund it, and it is free to use. It has provided satellite SAR support for more than 30 years. This network covers the entire planet and, with rare exceptions, is for emergency use only.
  • Private — These are for-profit services and partnerships operated by a corporation or corporations. One example is Globalstar, the network that supports SPOT devices. It currently does not cover the entire world. Be sure to research the Globalstar and SPOT coverage map. Another example is Iridium, which supports the Garmin inReach Mini and Explorer+. It covers the entire planet and its track record over the past 5-6 years has been less blemished than that of Globalstar's. The Iridium-supported devices we tested worked more reliably than the Globalstar-supported devices. Iridium and Globalstar enabled services work in partnership with an external monitoring and dispatch service. Finally, the Higher Ground SatPaq uses a high altitude "geostationary" satellite that is more commonly used for cable TV distribution. Coincidentally, all of the non-COSPAS/SARSAT devices we tested route SOS messages through GEOS monitoring and dispatch. Currently, regardless of whether they travel on the Iridium, geostationary, or Globalstar space hardware, private-network emergency messages go to local SAR through GEOS. GEOS is a subcontractor that provides exactly this sort of monitoring service.

The &quot;alphabet soup&quot; that describes SOS messaging can be complicated...
The "alphabet soup" that describes SOS messaging can be complicated. It doesn't help that many products overlap in the services they work with. Hopefully this diagram can shed some light.
Photo: Jediah Porter

A glimpse of the size spread of some recent OGL satellite...
A glimpse of the size spread of some recent OGL satellite messengers. Left to Right: ACR AquaLink, Spot X, Somewear Labs Hotspot, InReach Mini, Ocean Signal PLB1.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Non-Emergency Messaging


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 at all for non-emergency messaging. 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 are the transmission of manual "OK" messages, which usually have 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, variously, to web interfaces, text messages, and/or email addresses.


The inReach Explorer+ provides all forms of non-emergency communication. It and the inReach Mini lead the market and lead our test, primarily for this reason. Similarly, the SPOT X, Bivysticks (both Blue and Orange models), and Global Hotspot offer all the above forms of non-emergency communication. The ZOLEO and SatPaq each offer two-way texting and check-in messaging, but no tracking. The SPOT Gen4 has fewer options for non-emergency communications. It has a pre-programmed "OK" message functionality, with location data attached, and it has a few different tracking mode configurations.

The inReach Explorer+ works seamlessly with a smartphone app to send...
The inReach Explorer+ works seamlessly with a smartphone app to send and receive text and location information.
Photo: Jediah Porter

COSPAS/SARSAT personal locator beacons do not offer much in the way of non-emergency communication. The ACR ResQLink View and OceanSignal PLB1 provide no explicit non-emergency messaging. That being said, through an inexpensive subscription to "406Link" you can replicate an informal "off label" non-emergency message protocol. This service leverages a device "test" procedure to send notifications to friends and family, sometimes with location data attached. Implicit in these "test" messages is the idea that "I am here, my device works, I am well, and my plan is intact." The test message could imply whatever you and your informal emergency response network determined in advance.

This is nuanced. It is worth noting that ACR once suspended operation of its 406Link program for years. It is currently (mid-2021) operational and, with full understanding of all the involved parties, could provide a bare-bones sort of non-emergency messaging. Do your homework on its limitations and functionality.

You might picture typical backpacking adventures when you think of a...
You might picture typical backpacking adventures when you think of a satellite messenger. But remote travel of any kind proves their utility. On a service farming trip in rural Puerto Rico in January 2019, we used satellite communications to coordinate logistics.
Photo: Jediah Porter

On the topic of non-emergency messaging, we have to make one further distinction. Of the products and services that offer two-way messaging, some of the newest options allow their messaging app to work seamlessly on satellite signal and in cell/wifi. With the apps from ZOLEO, SatPaq and Global Hotspot, you can have one conversation that moves with you from satellite signal to cell and wifi. This is very nice for smooth communication on trips and for people that go in and out of the wilderness frequently. SPOT, Bivystick, and inReach apps do not allow you to send and receive messages over cell/wifi. It might seem minor, but this seamless messaging can greatly smooth communications in certain settings. Picture international travel or thru-hiking. You're in and out of signal, but you want to participate in one clean, uninterrupted text chain with someone. With the option out there now, we've raised the bar in terms of what we expect. We want all our satellite messenger apps to allow seamless text chains. They do not currently do so.

Signal Coverage


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." We know from experience with one-way devices that the field user can be "sending" messages that no one is getting. When the communications are "two-way," confirmation of receipt is a little clearer.

Satellite Coverage — Terrain, vegetation, structures, and electronic interference all compromise message transmissions, geographically and, in most cases, temporally. Regardless of the communication network or carrier you use, these terrestrial variables are important and can determine everything about your communication reliability. Some places have no satellite coverage ever. Other places will have windows when the signal is in and out. Few places have universal, perfect satellite coverage.

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 and SAR consultation.


The ResQLink View and rescueME PLB1 use the same network and communication protocol. These can be tested, but the number of tests is limited by the life of the built-in, non-rechargeable battery. All these "COSPAS/SARSAT" devices confirm functionality with on-device lights. This is limited in its ability to comfort you, as it doesn't involve satellite confirmation. Some also provide rudimentary test procedures that offer confirmation of actual transmission of the signal, but this drains the battery and sometimes costs more. Decades of history and anecdotal evidence confirm the global coverage and effectiveness of the COSPAS/SARSAT system that these devices employ. Aside from institutional knowledge and the basic on-device testing we performed, we have no way to test signal coverage of these three emergency-only devices.

The other options are easier to test for range and coverage using their non-emergency communication options. Our goal was to verify manufacturer claims. We found that, by sending non-emergency messages from each, all work as intended. The GlobalStar satellite network used by SPOT brand devices covers the major terrestrial wilderness destinations of an American adventurer. SatPaq uses a satellite that covers North America and has a license that works in the United States. The inReach, Bivy, ZOLEO, and Somewear products use the same Iridium brand satellite network with global coverage. Within the inherent limitations of all satellite communications, these Iridium networked products truly do work everywhere we've tested them, from Utah canyons to NE forests to Alaskan glaciers to Patagonia basecamps.

With the newest update, the SPOT X includes Bluetooth functionality...
With the newest update, the SPOT X includes Bluetooth functionality and an associated app, increasing the overall utility of this model.
Photo: Jediah Porter

We also found subtle differences in message integrity. In a host of head-to-head tests, we found that the Iridium networked devices are a little faster and more reliable than the GlobalStar devices, even with what should be equal overhead coverage. Different devices, even from different brands but on the same network, had signal speed and integrity that were statistically equal. Again, we found no real difference between message sending or receiving to and from devices on the same satellite network.

A selection of recently tested products, left to right: SatPaq...
A selection of recently tested products, left to right: SatPaq, Zoleo, BivyStick Blue, InReach, OceanSignal
Photo: Jediah Porter

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 Gen4, wondering if the message was sent or not. Since the chief feature of the Gen4 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. The SPOT X, especially in the latest Bluetooth version, rivals both inReach devices in non-emergency messaging.

On each COSPAS/SARSAT device are basic activation instructions. The...
On each COSPAS/SARSAT device are basic activation instructions. The ACR ResQLink (previous version) is on the left. The OceanSignal PLB1 is on the right.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Ease of Use


Ease of use for this equipment results from a combination of setup procedures and in-the-field user interface matters. In some cases, we are assessing both the on-device interface and the included networked app interface. To be clear, messaging function and coverage issues certainly affect your ease of use, but those are assessed, compared, and ranked elsewhere in our review.


First, let us look at the setup of each device. The COSPAS/SARSAT devices — the ResQLink View and Ocean Signal PLB1 — have identical setup procedures. You fill out an online form and await the arrival, via mail, of your free registration sticker. Through the online interface, you can make changes down the road if needed.

Setting up the SPOT, BivyStick Orange and Blue, Somewear, ZOLEO, SatPaq and Garmin inReach devices is similar. All require you to select a subscription plan. All have various features that you can choose to use. With both the SPOT and the inReach, you can and should tailor the address list that receives your "OK" messages and tracking notifications to each trip separately. The inReach, Bivy, ZOLEO, SatPaq, latest SPOT X, and Somewear devices each have an app and associated Bluetooth tethering.

Another size comparison of these two top award winners.
Another size comparison of these two top award winners.
Photo: Jediah Porter

In use, the COSPAS/SARSAT personal locator beacons are super simple. For most people in most settings, the device will live in your emergency kit for years and years with no changes, maintenance, or deployment. The batteries are fixed and long-lasting. Since the only features are for emergency use, few will use the device at all. All of these that we have tested have rudimentary instructions printed right on the device. The instructions are accurate and effectively comprehensive.

For SOS use, the SPOT Gen4, SPOT X, inReach Mini,ZOLEO, Somewear Hotspot, BivyStick Blue and inReach Explorer+ are almost as simple as the COSPAS/SARSAT devices. Simply activate the SOS mode from either the device or from the app. You can send a pre-programmed "OK Message" from the app of all two-way messengers. With the SPOT Gen4, you have to send the OK message from the device itself. With the inReach's, the SPOT X, ZOLEO, and Somewear Hotspot, you can send an OK message from the app or from the device itself. On the BivyStick Orange and the SatPaq, all messages (routine and SOS) can only be sent from within the app.

Tracking speed records (&quot;Fastest Known Time&quot; or &quot;FKTs&quot; for short) is...
Tracking speed records ("Fastest Known Time" or "FKTs" for short) is an emerging and important use of satellite communications. For these purposes you want simplicity, reliability, great web interfaces for the spectators, and really long battery life. The SPOT Gen4 could be a favorite in this realm, as could our top-scorers.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Using the two-way, customizable messaging attribute of either Garmin inReach, SPOT X, Bivystick, ZOLEO, SatPaq, or Global Hotspot requires further effort but is well worth it. Sending customized messages directly from the inReach devices is slow, but it works. On none of the other two-way messengers can one send or view messages without the app. On any of these devices, sending customized messages from the app is far more user-friendly than the on-device messaging of the inReach satellite messengers. In this context, using your smartphone's familiar keyboard leverages the best attributes of the inReach, Bivy, ZOLEO, SatPaq, and Somewear options. The SPOT X is usable with its app or entirely stand-alone. The device has a built-in, physical QWERTY keyboard. This makes it the easiest two-way texting device to use. The ZOLEO, SatPaq, Bivystick, and Somewear do not allow the user to do any non-emergency texting without a smartphone. Sending messages from either inReach device is tedious, but doable in a pinch.

By 2010 millions of people got really good at typing on a keyboard...
By 2010 millions of people got really good at typing on a keyboard like this. If we learned it then, we can make it work now. You can type quickly and clearly on the physical board of the SPOT.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Portability


How to carry your important compact electronics

Most personal locator beacons or sat messengers are equipped to clip to the outside of your backpack or clothing, which suggests that they should be. We don't recommend this. While GPS navigators are often clipped outside your pack because they work best when they have a clear view of the sky, your SOS device shouldn't necessarily be on at all times, so you can turn it off and stow it safely away. This lowers your chance of losing it. If you are tracking with your satellite device, it will work just fine inside the top of your backpack. We've tested all the tracking devices from inside our backpacks (always near or at the top, but inside) and have found little to no difference in tracking/messaging function.

Further, don't worry about it taking a little longer to dig the device out of your pack. Fact is, an emergency response will take hours, at best. A few seconds to take your backpack off won't make any appreciable difference in the response time. Further, maybe in those minutes, you will take a breath and realize that you don't actually need outside help. Worse than a few minutes of delay is losing your satellite messenger entirely. In summary, we don't recommend carrying your personal locator beacon or satellite messenger on the outside of your backpack

Going to the wilderness usually requires packing light. Therefore, the portability of your communications device(s) is important. Portability, for our purposes, is a function of weight and bulk.


The inReach Explorer+ is one of the largest and heaviest products we tested. It also does more than everything else we tested. We didn't mind the bulk until the inReach Mini came along. The Mini is less than half the size of the Explorer+ and does nearly as much. The inReach Mini does all the important things that the Explorer does. The BivyStick Blue is about the same size and weight as the inReach Mini. The newly added ResQLink View is heavier than the inReach Mini and BivyStick Blue and does little more than the ultra-tiny OceanSignal PLB1. The Global Hotspot, ZOLEO, and SatPaq are all almost as portable as the inReach Mini. The SPOT X is similar in size and weight to the Explorer+, which is about the same size and weight as the Bivystick Orange. The newly released SPOT Gen4 is about the same size and weight as the inReach Mini or BivyStick Blue. Notably, the SPOT Gen4 is a little heavier than the Gen3. This is odd. Normally we would expect newer products, especially products with less function, to be smaller than their predecessors.

Size comparison of the SPOT X and inReach Mini. Clearly, the Mini is...
Size comparison of the SPOT X and inReach Mini. Clearly, the Mini is much more, well, miniature.
Photo: Jediah Porter

BivyStick Blue with a compact multi tool for size comparison. This...
BivyStick Blue with a compact multi tool for size comparison. This thing is really small, in league with the smallest options on the market.
Photo: Jediah Porter

Conclusion


In this day and age, you need a real good reason not to carry some sort of emergency communication technology for wilderness adventures of all kinds, durations, and intensities. Options exist, and price points span across the entire spectrum for every level of connectedness. Even routine, two-way satellite communications are affordable enough now that not taking something is borderline negligent. Our testers that are also outdoor professionals (guides, rangers, SAR team members, etc.), tell us that, in every professional context we can think of, two-way, satellite-linked communication is now required. If those professionals are carrying personal locator beacons and/or satellite messengers, all of us should at least be considering it. Of course, outside of professional situations, the choice is entirely yours; that is the essence of outdoor recreational freedom. We won't tell you that you have to carry satellite communications, but we will lower the barriers to entry by helping you shop and relate the above summary of how high-level professionals are behaving in the wild. Shop carefully, and adventure well!

Other Remote Communication Options — Here are a few communication options that we omitted.
  • Satellite phones — Devices that can transmit voice over satellite signal are more expensive and usually bulkier than what we tested here.
  • Two-way radios — Require significantly more user education to emulate half the clarity, coverage, and convenience of the devices we test here.
  • Nautical Options — Many nautical devices use some of the same technology and protocols.

Jediah Porter