Backcountry communication is serious business. If something goes wrong, you'll be happy to have one of the effective and affordable personal locator beacons or satellite messengers available today. You can now send SOS, "I'm OK" messages, and enjoy routine, two-way text-based communications from the wildest environments on Earth. Still, choosing the right device for your adventure style is a daunting task. To help, we assembled a team that is both tech and wilderness savvy and took these devices way out of cell range to see what they can do. We've followed this technology since satellite messengers were the size of a neighborly loaf of banana bread and were tethered to a similarly sized GPS device. The market has moved steadily forward, and we'll guide you through. Read carefully and choose wisely, your life may depend on it.
Best Satellite Messengers and Locator Beacons
In 2018 the Satellite Messenger market blew up. It wasn't that long ago that we tested the tiny and inexpensive Best Buy personal locator beacon, the OceanSignal RescueME PLB1. Then, the SPOT X and Garmin inReach Mini were released, nearly simultaneously. We bought them as soon as they hit retail. (We buy the products, so we usually get access to them when you do.) Then we had some of our most experienced backcountry travelers and risk managers test them all over the US. Initial buzz about these two faded from social media a few weeks ago, but we put those extra days to good use. We have authoritative feedback and advice for you, gleaned from weeks of first-person, comparative experience with this new equipment. The result is an Editors Choice award for the inReach Mini and a Top Pick award for the SPOT X.
Best Overall Messenger
Garmin inReach Mini
The Garmin inReach Mini is 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. From customized, individual text streams, to bulk, pre-programmed messages (so you don't have to type out the same "I'm doing fine" message to each person), to 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 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. 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.) The Explorer+, though, is quite a bit bigger and heavier than the Mini, with little to no advantages in communication function.
Read review: Garmin inReach Mini
Best Bang For your Buck
Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1
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. It is also much smaller than the Garmin inReach Explorer+ device. Its closest competitor is the ACR ResQLink+. The ACR is functionally the same but is $10 more and both heavier and bulkier. The Ocean Signal 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, the device does not in any way confirm that someone has received your distress signal. The Ocean Signal PLB1 is a great option for purely SOS functions and offers a great value. But the Mini's 2-way messaging makes it a more useful product overall.
Read review Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1
Top Pick for Standalone Use
Like all of our Top Pick winners, 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 any of the other competitors. With this keyboard, the user can text readily, without needing to link to a separate, battery-draining device.
The SPOT X is unique, but it is exceeded in some ways by its close competitors. First, the Editors' Choice inReach Mini is much more portable. The Mini is smaller and lighter, by a real margin. Additionally, we had part of the antenna of the SPOT X come apart. Functionality did not change with this issue. These drawbacks of the SPOT X 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 full review: SPOT X
Developed by a fresh startup company, the GoTenna Mesh is an innovative entry into the wilderness communication field. AMesh 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 3.2 miles. 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.
Read full review: GoTenna Mesh
Analysis and Test Results
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.
How Long Do Rescues Take?
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.Modern smartphone apps and stand-alone handheld GPS devices work so much better for navigation than your satellite messenger. We strongly recommend using a smartphone or a handheld GPS as your primary navigation mode. Because of that, we downplay (basically ignore) the navigational attributes of the satellite messengers we have assessed.
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 COSPAS-SARSAT network. The Ocean Signal and ACR devices are two examples. Currently, the Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 is our Best Buy award winner for its access to the proven and free international satellite SAR network and its tiny size. For a few bucks more and a bit extra weight the ACR ResQLink+ offers similar functionality.
We also compare subscription options in the table above. Note that the initial purchase price is only part of your decision. For instance, at initial purchase, the InReach Mini is more than twice the cost of the Spot Gen3. After 5 years of activation on the least expensive plan, the costs are much closer, and the Mini is actually less expensive.
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. 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." The uncertainty in a simple "help" notification implies the gravity of the situation. 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.
The ACR ResQLink+ and Best Buy Ocean Signal PLB1 both use the COSPAS-SARSAT system. Functionally, for emergency messaging, these two are identical. Both SPOT devices and both Garmin inReach's use private networks and emergency dispatch systems. Aside from coverage differences, elaborated below, they work the same for SOS messaging. Both Garmin inReach's and the SPOT X add significant functionality with two-way, customized 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. For "send help now" signaling, the Ocean Signal, ACR, and SPOT Gen3 are nearly indistinguishable and have long been proven to work.
- 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 operated by a corporation. One example is Globalstar, the network that supports SPOT devices. It currently does not cover the entire world. See Globalstar and SPOT literature for an up-to-date 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 device we tested worked more reliably than the Globalstar-supported devices.
- Mesh Network — This is a relatively new system used by GoTenna Mesh. It is a start-up, terrestrial, "crowd-sourced" communications network. At current adoption levels, it is only suitable for use by a group of friends in fairly proximity. With wider adoption, multiple groups and users could overlap enough to provide for adequate coverage.
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.
The inReach Explorer+ provides all forms of non-emergency communication. It and the Editors Choice inReach Mini lead the market and lead our test, primarily for this reason. Similarly, the SPOT X offers all the above forms of non-emergency communication. The SPOT Gen3 has just two options for non-emergency communications. 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. The Best Buy Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 is the opposite. 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. The ACR ResQLink+ provides no explicit non-emergency messaging. Previously, it provided an inexpensive subscription to 406Link, 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 2018, ACR is suspending new subscriptions with its 406Link program. Why this is and whether or not it will return, we do not know. It is also not clear whether current 406Link 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." 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.
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 the ACR ResQLink+ and the Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 use the same network and communication protocol. 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. Decades of use and anecdotal evidence confirms the global coverage and effectiveness of the COSPAS-SARSAT system that these two devices employ. 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. We found that by sending non-emergency messages from each, the SPOTs, inReach's, and GoTenna work as intended. 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 1:1 device range to be as low as 0.6 miles in mountainous terrain, with a confirmed 3.2-mile range on the flat bottom of Idaho's Teton Valley. See the full GoTenna review for more information.
We also found subtle differences in message integrity. We used the SPOT Gen3 side-by-side with the Garmin inReach Explorer+ throughout the test, recording the time needed for standalone messages to be received by contacts and confirmed as sent. 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.
Later, comparative tests of the inReach Explorer+, inReach Mini, and SPOT X were less conclusive. In many rounds of head-to-head testing, we found no noticeable difference in the message transmission time (in and out). It is a bit of a mystery why the SPOT X seems to work more reliably than the SPOT Gen3. It is a good thing, but a little mystifying, because they use the same network.
Anywhere within its limited signal coverage, the GoTenna reliably delivered messages, and the app provides delivery confirmation.
Ease of Use
PLB and sat messenger ease of use is a function of set-up procedure and in-the-field interface clarity and options. Set up complications range from a simple, one-time online form to an ongoing process of charging and deploying devices to remote locations. In-the-field interfaces range from a few buttons on the device, accompanied by flashing lights that must be decoded, or a paired smartphone app from which one can communicate and deduce various status information.
First, let us look at set up of each device. The COSPAS-SARSAT devices, the ACR ResQLink+ and Ocean Signal PLB1, have identical set up 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 SPOTs and the Garmin inReach 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 devices have an app and associated Bluetooth tethering. Setting up the GoTenna Mesh to its most straightforward configuration is the same as with any other modern personal electronic device — charge it, download the app, and follow syncing and configuration instructions on the app. However, to build an effective GoTenna network requires further work and planning.
In use, the COSPAS-SARSAT devices 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. Both the ACR ResQLink and the Best Buy Ocean Signal PLB1 have rudimentary instructions printed right on the device. The instructions are accurate. For SOS use, the SPOT Gen3 and inReach Explorer+ are almost as simple as the COSPAS-SARSAT devices. Simply activate the SOS mode. Sending a preprogrammed "ok" message from either device is similar.
Using the two-way, customizable messaging attribute of either Garmin inReach requires further effort but is well worth it. Sending customized messages directly from the devices is slow, but it works. Sending customized messages from the app is far more user-friendly. In this context, using your smartphone's familiar keyboard truly leverages the best attributes of the inReach options. The SPOT X is entirely stand-alone. The device has a built-in, physical QWERTY keyboard. This makes it the easiest two-way texting device to use.
When coverage is ample, and you are sending 1:1 messages, the GoTenna is very simple. However, to build and maintain a network that fully leverages the meshing capability of this technology requires an engaged and savvy user. There are many ways to optimize the function of the GoTenna Mesh and all require that the user is well-versed in just how this technology works.
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 Garmin inReach Explorer+ is the largest and heaviest product we tested. It also does more than everything else we tested. Its function is disproportionate to its size, and it does enough that we didn't mind its additional weight. We didn't mind its additional weight until the inReach Mini came along. The Mini is less than half the size of the Explorer+ and does nearly as much. The inReach Explorer+ is also almost twice as heavy as both the SPOT Gen3 and the Best Buy Ocean Signal rescueME. The ACR ResQLink+ is about halfway between the weight and size of the inReach and the SPOT Gen3. The SPOT X is similar in size and weight to the Explorer+.
One GoTenna Mesh device is less than half the weight of the next closest competitor and in an easily packed package. However, a team needs multiple Mesh devices to leverage their effectiveness. And, of course, the Mesh network covers far less territory than the other products we assessed.
The ACR ResQLink+ and Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 are identical in function. The only functional difference is that the ACR floats on its own, while the Ocean Signal requires a flotation pouch. This difference is minor. The major difference between them is size and weight. The Ocean Signal is smaller and lighter, earning it our Best Buy award, just ahead of the ACR ResQLink.
Choosing a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger is an important choice and a complicated one. Your options are distinguished by competing considerations of price, weight, bulk, functionality, and network coverage. There is no one product that we can truly recommend for everyone, even if cost is not a concern. This means that your choice requires careful attention and thorough self-education.
- 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 the clarity, coverage, and convenience of the devices we test here.
- Nautical Options — Many nautical devices use some of the same technology and protocols. We did not test them.
— Jediah Porter