Reviews You Can Rely On

The 5 Best Satellite Messengers of 2024

You want, or need, to communicate from beyond cell signal. We test the products and services and report back, on equipment from Motorola, Garmin, SPOT, ACR, Zoleo, and more.
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Best Satellite Messenger Review (Some tested satellite messengers. Left to right: Motorola Defy, Garmin Gpsmap, someway, PLB1, inReach Mini, Zoleo...)
Some tested satellite messengers. Left to right: Motorola Defy, Garmin Gpsmap, someway, PLB1, inReach Mini, Zoleo, Spot Gen4, inReach Messenger, SpotX, BivyStick.
Credit: Jediah Porter
By Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Feb 8, 2024

The Best Satellite Messengers for 2024


We roam the wilderness, testing the best satellite messengers and communicators for you. We have tested over 30 beacons and messengers over the last ten years. Our expert testers have decades of experience in the wild and communications industries. For 2024, we present a summary of the top 12 options available. We do the hard work for you and spare you from wading through dozens of manufacturer's websites to decode and compare subscription plans while sorting through third-party reviews that seem to be focused on comparing having sat comms to not having sat comms without truly comparing your options. It is not always a simple choice, but we work hard to make all the comparisons you might need without extraneous info.

Technology and wilderness travel have a complicated relationship; at least partially, we go to the wild because technology has less reach there. However, technology can be leveraged to optimize our wild experiences. Besides this in-depth look at satellite communications, we offer complete testing and reviews for the best handheld GPS devices and the best walkie talkies, as well as the best backpacking gear and our favorite hiking gear to help you prepare for whatever nature throws your way.

Editor's Note: We updated this review on February 8, 2024, to include the brand new Motorola Defy Satellite Link and to update cost and service comparison graphics and information.

Top 12 Satellite Messengers

Displaying 1 - 5 of 12
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Awards  Editors' Choice Award Best Buy Award  Best Buy Award 
Price $356.00 at Amazon
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$195.35 at Amazon
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Pros Tiny, light, can text from phone and device, great battery lifeSmall, comprehensive, reliableCompact, great network, on-device basic controlsExcellent network, seamless communication, some on-device functionalitySmall, affordable subscription options, proven satellite and dispatch networks, simple
Cons Small antenna, small screenNot the absolute lightest, tiny screen, button useNo on-device message viewing or composition, USB-C charging (could be a pro for some)No on-device message viewing or composition, heavier than close competitorsOnly supports SOS and tracking on the device itself, no custom messaging, occasional hardware issues
Bottom Line The best two-way texting satellite device on the market, now with better battery life and interfaceFor how most people actually use their satellite communicators, this is the best product on the marketA 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 communications at a fair priceCompact, simple, two-way satellite communications using proven technology and relatively affordable subscription options
Rating Categories Garmin inReach Mini 2 Garmin inReach Mess... ACR Bivy Stick ZOLEO Satellite Com... Somewear Global Hot...
SOS/Emergency Messaging (30%)
10.0
10.0
10.0
10.0
10.0
Non-Emergency Messaging (25%)
10.0
10.0
8.0
8.0
6.0
Signal Coverage (20%)
7.0
7.0
7.0
7.0
7.0
Ease of Use (15%)
6.5
6.0
7.0
7.0
7.0
Portability (10%)
9.0
9.0
9.0
6.0
8.0
Specs Garmin inReach Mini 2 Garmin inReach Mess... ACR Bivy Stick ZOLEO Satellite Com... Somewear Global Hot...
2-way Messaging? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
2-way Messaging Available via Cellular/Wifi? No Yes No Yes Yes
Custom Messaging Viewable and Composable on Device? Yes Yes No No No
Passive Tracking (turn on and forget about it - viewers at home can watch your progress on the web) Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Weight w/ Batteries 3.5 oz 4.0 oz 3.6 oz 5.3 oz 4.1 oz
Battery Life Up to 120 (rechargeable lithium battery) Up to 28 days with a message or location sent every 10 minutes with full sky view Up to 120 hours 200+ hours when checking messages every 12 minutes Up to 1000 messages
Waterproof Rating IPX7 (No dust rating. Rain, splashing, and accidental submersion up to 30 minutes) IPX7 (No dust rating. Rain, splashing, and accidental submersion up to 30 minutes) IP67 (protection from harmful dust. Rain, splashing, and accidental submersion up to 30 minutes) IP68 (protection from harmful dust. Rain, splashing, and accidental submersion at least 30 minutes) IPX7 (No dust rating. Rain, splashing, and accidental submersion up to 30 minutes)
Pairs with Smartphone? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Requires recipient to use a special app for two-way communications? No No Yes Yes Yes
On Device Functions (if you lose or disable your smartphone) All, but slow to text All, but very slow to text SOS, check-in, tracking. All texting requires smartphone. SOS, check-in. All texting requires smartphone SOS. All texting requires smartphone app
Satellite Network Iridium Iridium Iridium Iridium Iridium
Dispatch service Garmin Response Team Garmin Response Team Global Rescue GEOS GEOS
Dimensions 3.9" x 2" x 1" 3.1" x 2.5" x 0.9" 1.9" x .9" x 4.5" 3.5" x 2.6" x 1.0" 3" x 3.6" x .8"
Volume 7.8 CU IN 6.9 CU IN 7.7 CU IN 9.1 CU IN 8.6 CU IN


Best Overall Beacon with Custom Messaging


Garmin inReach Messenger


87
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 10.0
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 10.0
  • Signal Coverage 7.0
  • Ease of Use 6.0
  • Portability 9.0
Weight: 4.0 oz | Battery Life: Up to 28 days
REASONS TO BUY
Small
On-device messaging
Seamless messaging
REASONS TO AVOID
Not the smallest on the market
Tiny screen and limited on-device interface

For years, the same satellite messenger kept winning our highest award. That product is still very, very good. But we find its sibling, the newer Garmin inReach Messenger, slightly better. This device has a long battery life, full-function messaging, and uses proven satellite technology. If you're ready to step into the world of personal locator beacons, the inReach Messenger is the one we think is the best for most users.

We must compare the inReach Messenger to the former top award-winning inReach Mini 2. The Messenger displaces the Mini 2 from this award by a very narrow margin, a difference that barely even shows up in our scoring rubric. The features that make the Messenger rise above the Mini 2 are longer battery life and a larger antenna. However, the Mini 2 is half an ounce lighter and includes some basic navigational attributes that the Messenger does not have. If weight and navigation are important, you might choose the Mini 2 instead of the Messenger. Otherwise, we think the Messenger respectably ekes out the win. It probably isn't worth upgrading if you already have an inReach Mini 2 (or even the original Mini, sans the “2” qualifier). Garmin has been diligent, so far, in making incremental upgrades such that the previous iterations are not appreciably outdated.

Read more: Garmin inReach Messenger review

personal locator beacon - garmin&#039;s refined inreach messenger is a legitimate upgrade from...
Garmin's refined inReach Messenger is a legitimate upgrade from their other offerings. It isn't perfect, but advancements do seem to be plateauing after a heady few recent years.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Occasional Activation Bang for the Buck


ACR Bivy Stick


84
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 10.0
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 8.0
  • Signal Coverage 7.0
  • Ease of Use 7.0
  • Portability 9.0
Weight: 3.6 oz | Battery Life: up to 120 hours
REASONS TO BUY
Compact
Global coverage
Flexible activation
REASONS TO AVOID
Limited on-device functionality
No seamless messaging

Not long ago, the ACR Bivy Stick was an exciting “shake-up” on the market. It has now achieved a sort of reliable maturity. Most recently, the original “start-up” product and branding were acquired by a much bigger player in the wilderness communication market: ACR. We haven't yet used the latest ACR version, though we've confirmed that it is functionally the same as the Bivy Stick Blue that we have tested (and photographed) for a while. Regardless of its branding (and device color scheme), this product is a solid device employing proven technology and services: the flexible activation and ever-more-competitive pricing scheme combined with our other high-value options.

Prices and activation/subscription protocols are apt to change. We are sure they will. Subscription service innovation is ongoing in all corners of the consumer market. Subscription pricing and configuration can and do change after your initial purchase. If you activate it once a year, the ACR Bivy Stick has one of the lowest 5-year “cost of ownership” measures for global coverage and two-way messaging. Since many will use their wilderness communication device that way, it earns an award among the other value options. If in-device two-way messaging isn't a priority, the Zoleo is another affordable option — just know that you need your smartphone and the Zoleo app to compose messages.

Read more: ACR Bivy Stick review

personal locator beacon - testing the bivy stick in the tetons during the fall ski season.
Testing the Bivy Stick in the Tetons during the fall ski season.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Best Value for Year-Round Global Coverage


Somewear Global Hotspot


78
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 10.0
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 6.0
  • Signal Coverage 7.0
  • Ease of Use 7.0
  • Portability 8.0
Weight: 4.1 oz | Battery Life: 1000 messages
REASONS TO BUY
Compact and light
Flexible and affordable subscription options
It uses a proven satellite network and SOS dispatch
REASONS TO AVOID
No messaging without a smartphone
Long 30-minute tracking interval

The Somewear Global Hotspot is a piece of hardware from a smaller company that uses a proven satellite network and SOS monitoring service. The device itself is compact, light, and low profile. It is slightly larger than others, but not by enough to matter. With a small handful of similar devices and services available, the competitors are forced to compete on price. The initial purchase price of the Global Hotspot is similar to 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 cheaper 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 view incoming text messages on the device itself. All you can do with the device alone is turn it off and on, activate tracking, and send an SOS message. The ability to activate tracking from the device is new to the latest version. We tested this new version from late 2021 through late 2022. In comparison, on the inReach Mini 2 and Messenger, you can view or send rudimentary messages directly on the device and through the phone app. Overall, we find the Hotspot to be simple and affordable. We had hardware issues testing the second version, but Somewear Labs' customer service was prompt and effective.

Read more: Somewear Global Hotspot review

personal locator beacon - everything about two-way satellite communications can make your...
Everything about two-way satellite communications can make your remote expeditions easier. Using the Somewear Hotspot for routine check-ins, weather forecasts, and as an emergency backstop really smooths the process.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Great Value for SOS Only


Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1


54
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 4.0
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 1.0
  • Signal Coverage 9.0
  • Ease of Use 9.0
  • Portability 8.0
Weight: 4.0 oz | Battery Life: 24 hours
REASONS TO BUY
Dual-frequency SOS transmission
COSPAS-SARSAT is very reliable
No annual fees
Easy to operate one-handed (even with gloves)
REASONS TO AVOID
Lacks 2-way messaging
Lacks non-emergency messaging

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

Unfortunately, this personal locator beacon does not confirm in any way that someone has received your distress signal. The PLB1 is an excellent option for pure, personal locator beacon SOS functions and offers a solid value. Still, the two-way messaging of many other options makes them more useful products overall. If you want more messaging functionality, check out the SPOT X, which has a keyboard on the device.

Read more: Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 review

personal locator beacon - in the event of an emergency, simply deploy the rescueme plb1&#039;s...
In the event of an emergency, simply deploy the rescueME PLB1's stow-away antenna and push the “SOS” button.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Best for Standalone Use


SPOT X


67
OVERALL
SCORE
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging 10.0
  • Non-Emergency Messaging 8.0
  • Signal Coverage 2.0
  • Ease of Use 7.0
  • Portability 2.0
Weight: 6.8 oz | Battery Life: 240 hours
REASONS TO BUY
2-way messaging
Low initial purchase price
Built-in physical keyboard
REASONS TO AVOID
Bulky
Potential durability issues

The SPOT X fills a small niche. This two-way, satellite-linked, backcountry messaging device works entirely on its own. The built-in physical QWERTY keyboard distinguishes it from all of its competitors. This keyboard allows the user to text readily without linking to a separate, battery-draining device. It can be linked to a smartphone if you prefer a smartphone interface or want that option.

The SPOT X is unique, but it is exceeded in some ways by its close competitors, particularly regarding size and satellite system used. Additionally, we had part of the first (of two) SPOT X antennae 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. If you don't mind spending a bit more, our favorites are the Garmin inReach Messenger and Garmin inReach Mini 2.

Read more: SPOT X review

personal locator beacon - the full keyboard of the spot x allows you to easily send and...
The full keyboard of the SPOT X allows you to easily send and receive messages right on the device.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price
88
Garmin inReach Mini 2
$400
87
Garmin inReach Messenger
Best Overall Beacon with Custom Messaging
$300
Editors' Choice Award
84
ACR Bivy Stick
Occasional Activation Bang for the Buck
$300
Best Buy Award
81
ZOLEO Satellite Communicator
$200
78
Somewear Global Hotspot
Best Value for Year-Round Global Coverage
$280
Best Buy Award
78
Garmin GPSMAP 66i
$600
68
Motorola Defy Satellite Link
$150
67
SPOT X
Best for Standalone Use
$250
Top Pick Award
58
iPhone Emergency SOS
$999
54
Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1
Great Value for SOS Only
$360
Best Buy Award
52
ACR ResQLink View
$416
39
SPOT Gen4
$150

personal locator beacon - in all types of wilderness travel, effective communication is key...
In all types of wilderness travel, effective communication is key. The products we review here all have their purpose, but some are definitely better suited for you than others. Shop carefully.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Why Trust GearLab


To compile this review, we carefully selected the top models of satellite messenger and personal locator beacons. It's usually impossible for us to test every product on the market satisfactorily for a particular category. With PLBs and satellite messengers, though, there aren't many options available, and we can test nearly every device. We've worked to get every new option in our hands, especially in the two-way satellite messaging device sub-category and from the list of devices small enough to carry on extended human-powered outings. The result is a set of tested products that represent all available satellite communication options currently on the market. From there, we purchased and activated these beacons and tested them 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 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.

We tested personal locator beacons using a comprehensive testing plan comprised of five performance metrics:
  • SOS/Emergency Messaging (30% of overall score weighting)
  • Non-Emergency Messaging (25% weighting)
  • Signal Coverage (20% weighting)
  • Ease of Use (15% weighting)
  • Portability (10% weighting)

Mountain guide Jediah Porter heads up our personal locater beacon review. Aside from testing gear, Jed's primary work is mountain guiding, including rock, ice, alpine, and ski mountaineering trips. Jed guides 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, mainly 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. His latest adventure is in parenting; he and his toddler daughter have logged dozens of nights deep in the backcountry through each of her first two years. He almost always brings a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon along on his adventures, something all his family appreciates. Jed brings a level of professionalism, competence, and experience to test these important safety devices. Before taking over this category, he consulted for one of the major satellite communication network and hardware providers for a few years.

Composing a message on the device itself is a slow, laborious...
Composing a message on the device itself is a slow, laborious, one-letter-at-a-time procedure. But, it can be done and that is more than can be said of the inReach competitors.
These guys are staying in touch with an inReach in their pack...
These guys are staying in touch with an inReach in their pack connected to their phone. The phone provides interface clarity that the device doesn't need to integrate. Essentially, your ubiquitous smartphone serves as the "screen" for the smaller device.
The SPOT X ready to search for a signal.
The SPOT X ready to search for a signal.

Analysis and Test Results


It has become increasingly common for wilderness travelers to carry and use satellite communications. You might choose to buck that convention, but your loved ones hope you are at least considering such technology and service. We head to the wild to escape certain types of communication but are also vulnerable to spotty or nonexistent communication options. Strike your balance, and use our review findings to choose.

We mix and match some terminology herein—first, we reiterate what unites this review category. We aim to examine every satellite communication product small enough to carry on terrestrial, human-powered outdoor adventures. A subset of those examined receive full reviews. What we test here is described elsewhere as “PLBs,” "Satellite Messengers," and “Satellite SOS.” PLB stands for “Personal Locator Beacon.” This term is largely confined to the dedicated devices that send just emergency location information, like the OceanSignal PLB1 and the ACR ResQLink. Any devices that send (and maybe receive) non-emergency messages are called Satellite Messengers. “Satellite SOS” is a function or mode on any of these dedicated devices or, increasingly, built into other personal electronics, as in the new iPhone 14.


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.

The best value for SOS/Emergency use is a device on the public-sector/governmental COSPAS-SARSAT network. The ACR devices are two examples. The rescueME PLB1 deserves a nod for its tiny size and access to the proven and free international satellite SAR network. The high-scoring Somewear Global 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 require 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.

personal locator beacon - a tool for rough comparison of cost of ownership for the tested...
A tool for rough comparison of cost of ownership for the tested products. Shop carefully; terms and conditions of service are ever changing for these products. Further, your use patterns will likely differ than these idealized cases.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Start-up offerings from Bivy Stick, ZOLEO, and Somewear Global Hotspot further increased the subscription options. All of these have low- to no-commitment subscription plans that are equal to or better than those offered by the established competitors. The bigger, older “legacy” contenders are responding with their own flexible, low-commitment subscription options. Finally, bigger, mainstream electronics companies (Apple and Motorola, to name two) are getting into the satellite communications game and offering their twists on the subscription/pricing matrix.

Suppose you will own and carry an iPhone anyway. In that case, the latest version (number 14 as of this writing) now offers (in the USA and Canada, below 62 degrees latitude) their Satellite Emergency SOS service. This service, for now, is free, and the hardware is automatically integrated into Apple iPhone 14 models. You can also perform very basic non-emergency messaging with the Apple iPhone 14. If you own the phone, this could be considered a “budget” choice.

SOS/Emergency Messaging


For many, 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. With varying degrees of effectiveness, these devices can be used to summon help in 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 any of the reviewed personal locator beacons, you send your GPS coordinates and say, “This is really, really bad.” There was a time, not long ago when COSPAS-SARSAT-style devices did not include GPS data. The location was ascertained in a two-stage triangulation, first via the communication satellite and then by SAR aircraft. The uncertainty in a simple “help” notification implies the gravity of the situation. With satellite SOS transmission, you say, “Get here as fast as possible.

personal locator beacon - 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.
Credit: Jediah Porter

IMPORTANT: How Long Do Rescues Take?


The communication process, from activating your personal locator beacon's SOS function to notifying local Search and Rescue (SAR) resources, can take minutes to a maximum of a couple of hours. Depending on your location, on-the-ground SAR response time can vary from hours to weeks, regardless of the technology used to summon help. Response time following notification depends on terrain, weather, potential concurrent emergencies, not to mention local fiscal, personnel, and political 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. Local response resources and conditions make your emergency resolution time vary the most.

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 need to have a device, current registration, a clear view of the sky, and the money and mobility to activate the SOS feature of your device. Don't take these things for granted. Finding yourself in an emergency is possible without one or more of these essential things in your favor. (A recent test-team visit to the dense forests of the Northeast US pointed out just how tenuous satellite signal can be. We went days at a time without reliable satellite coverage in the otherwise “benign” and compact wilderness of the “civilized” East Coast). 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 wild spaces.

personal locator beacon - a wilderness emergency is no place to begin thinking about...
A wilderness emergency is no place to begin thinking about emergencies. This knee injury eventually required ACL reconstruction surgery. Leaving the field was a smooth process, thanks to careful advance planning and good communications.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Provided your emergency fits the above criteria, your device sends a signal to one of four satellite networks. We review equipment from six different brands, but they all use one of these four satellite networks. Once your distress signal reaches its satellite network, it must get to a staffed, terrestrial dispatch service. Only six operations provide all monitoring and dispatch services across the 12 devices from the seven brands we tested here. The staff at those services will identify your location and then work to secure local assistance for you. Your message will be methodically funneled to local resources. It is very likely that, regardless of how your message goes out and is dispatched, the local SAR response will be the same. This final, crucial, local response depends on too many factors to list here. Do your homework to know your SAR options for any adventure.

personal locator beacon - emergency response summoned from your satellite device is a function...
Emergency response summoned from your satellite device is a function of the device and its service, plus a significant amount of variability in local resources. In fact, local SAR resources impact the outcome way more than the technology employed to summon that help.
Credit: Jediah Porter

SOS messaging says, “I am here and in dire need of assistance.” This is all that SAR needs to know in the worst of emergencies. Of course, being able to relate more nuanced information and 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 rescueME PLB1 use the COSPAS-SARSAT system. Functionally, for emergency messaging, these are identical.

Both SPOT devices, all three Garmin devices, the Somewear Global Hotspot, ZOLEO, Motorola Defy, and the Bivy Stick 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 to coordinate your emergency response.


In summary, the Garmin devices, Motorola, ZOLEO, Global Hotspot, Bivy Stick, and SPOT X are the best for emergency messaging since they offer the opportunity to send and receive more nuanced information in an emergency. For “send help now” signaling and nothing more, the Ocean Signal rescueME, ResQLink View, and SPOT Gen4 are nearly indistinguishable and have long been proven to work. Apple's iPhone 14 Emergency Satellite SOS functionality, as long as you are within the coverage area (USA and Canada, for now, and ever-expanding, theoretically), works more like the two-way devices in that it allows for sharing of more nuanced information about your emergency.

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 corporations or corporations. One example is Globalstar, the network that supports SPOT devices and the iPhone service. It currently does not cover the entire world. Be sure to research the Globalstar and SPOT coverage map to make sure it will work where you wish to adventure. Another example is Iridium, which supports the Garmin inReach, ZOLEO, Somewear, and Bivy Stick. It covers the entire planet, and its track record over the past decade or so has been less imperfect than that of Globalstar's. The Iridium-supported devices we tested worked more reliably than the Globalstar-supported devices. Iridium and Globalstar-enabled services partner with an external monitoring and dispatch service.

personal locator beacon - 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.

Should You Navigate With Your Satellite Messenger?

The devices we test here are meant, first and foremost, to communicate with the outside world. In an emergency, the most critical information you can send with an SOS message is where you are. Most of the devices we tested feature a built-in GPS antenna that provides that location information, usually automatically. Once the hardware is there, it is simple 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 plan to do any navigation with your wilderness communication device, your only reasonable option, due to its extended battery life, is the Garmin GPSMAP 66i.

If you navigate with your satellite device (or any device, for that matter), note that some important terminology matters. Many people, ourselves included, inaccurately use “GPS” as a synonym for “GNSS.” GNSS is the proper, generic abbreviation for Global Navigation Satellite System. “GPS,” for “Global Positioning System,” is just one currently available GNSS. Devices are increasingly adding the use of different GNSSs. More GNSS options in a single device increase the resolution of location data. That increased resolution is more important in urban and highway navigation than it is in outdoor recreation.

personal locator beacon - the zoleo satellite device on a teton ski tour. zoleo recently added...
The Zoleo satellite device on a Teton ski tour. Zoleo recently added tracking functionality to the service. Certain types of users in certain situations will appreciate this.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Non-Emergency Messaging


Regarding non-emergency messaging, there are various options available on these devices. Some have features that allow you to text and share your location, giving you the feel of using a smartphone. Others have a more straightforward approach, offering the ability to send a quick message saying that you're okay and where you are. Then, some have no non-emergency messaging options at all. Different devices offer different levels of performance and features. Additionally, some devices come equipped with location tracking capabilities, which can be set to share your location and status update automatically at regular intervals.

personal locator beacon - original inreach mini on left, inreach mini 2 on right. they are...
Original inReach Mini on left, inReach Mini 2 on right. They are basically identical, from the outside. The second version has everything we loved about the original, and more.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Looking at it differently, 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, manual “OK” messages are transmitted, which usually have location data attached. Finally, there is automated tracking. Automated tracking is a function in which the device will send location information to a front country correspondent on some predetermined time interval, signal allowing. Various sorts of messaging can go to web interfaces, text messages, and email addresses.


The Garmin GPSMAP 66i provides all forms of non-emergency communication. It and the inReach Mini 2 and Messenger lead the market and our test, primarily for this reason. Similarly, the SPOT X, Bivy Stick, ZOLEO, Motorola, and Somewear Global Hotspot offer all the above forms of non-emergency communication. The SPOT Gen4 has fewer options for non-emergency communications. It has a pre-programmed “OK” message functionality, with location data attached and a few different tracking mode configurations.

personal locator beacon - understand satellite coverage limitations before relying 100% on...
Understand satellite coverage limitations before relying 100% on your fancy new device. Steep terrain is often problematic for all kinds of satellite communication.
Credit: Jediah Porter

COSPAS-SARSAT personal locator beacons do not offer much in the way of non-emergency communication. The ACR ResQLink View and Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 provide no explicit non-emergency messaging. That 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. These “test” messages imply that “I am here, and my device works.” The test message could imply whatever more you and your informal emergency response network determine in advance.

The award winning inReach Messenger device and associated Garmin Messenger app. In use.
Credit: Jediah Porter

This is nuanced. It is worth noting that ACR once suspended the operation of its 406Link program for years, and their service description explicitly states that it “is not a 'check-in' or 'I'm ok' service.” However, in the same description, ACR implies that it might be used as described above. It is currently (early 2024) operational and, with a full understanding of all the involved parties, could provide a bare-bones sort of non-emergency messaging. Do your further homework on its limitations and functionality.

personal locator beacon - apple&#039;s satellite sos service on all the iphone 14 models is a...
Apple's Satellite SOS service on all the iPhone 14 models is a ground-breaking advancement in wilderness comms. It isn't perfect. Read our full review of the iPhone service for further elaboration
Credit: Jediah Porter

Apple's iPhone 14 includes a very basic sort of non-emergency messaging. Through their “Find My” app, you can manually send a location “pin” via satellite. Properly coached, your contacts at home can interpret this to mean, “I am here, and I am capable of pushing this button on my app,” or whatever you want them to deduce from it. Discuss how you want these location messages to be interpreted.

personal locator beacon - 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.
Credit: Jediah Porter

On the topic of non-emergency messaging, we have to make one further distinction. Of the products and services offering two-way messaging, some of the newest options allow their messaging app to work seamlessly on satellite signal and cell/WiFi. With the apps from ZOLEO, Garmin, Motorola, and Global Hotspot, you can have one conversation that moves with you from satellite signal to cell and WiFi. (From Garmin, only the latest devices --Messenger, Mini 2, GPSMap 67i-- are compatible with the app that provides seamless messaging. Older devices use an older Garmin app that does not support seamless messaging). This is very nice for smooth communication on trips and for people who frequently go in and out of the wilderness. The SPOT and Bivy Stick apps do not allow sending and receiving messages over cell/WiFi. It might seem minor, but this seamless messaging can greatly smooth communications in certain settings — like international travel or thru-hiking. You're in and out of signal but want to participate in one clean, uninterrupted text chain with someone. The ability to do this has raised the bar regarding what we expect from our satellite messengers; we now wish all of our satellite messenger apps allowed for seamless text chains. Those communicating from home would especially appreciate this; they don't want to jump between messaging apps if they don't have to.

personal locator beacon - on a long thru-hike having seamless messaging from your satellite...
On a long thru-hike having seamless messaging from your satellite device app (maintain the same text thread with satellite, cell, and wifi connection) is a great boon to the efficiency and clarity of your communications. Zoleo and Somewear offer this seamless messaging. Others do not.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Signal Coverage


Each of the four satellite communication networks has coverage limitations, and all satellite communications have inherent restrictions. Additionally, we found differences in the reliable transmission of sent messages, even when coverage seemed intact. 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 “ send” 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. Regardless of your communication network or carrier, these terrestrial variables are important and can determine 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, which 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 life of a built-in, non-rechargeable battery limits the number of tests. 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 confirm the signal's actual transmission, 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 cannot test the signal coverage of these three emergency-only devices.

personal locator beacon - the flip side of those insta-famous destinations and photos is the...
The flip side of those Insta-famous destinations and photos is the tougher communications they might entail. You won't see high level wilderness communication planning on the influencer's pages; that's why we're here.
Credit: Jediah Porter

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 and the iPhone 14 covers an American adventurer's major terrestrial wilderness destinations. Within the limitations of the GlobalStar network, Apple service is limited even more than the SPOT devices. The inReach, Bivy, ZOLEO, and Somewear products use the same Iridium satellite network with global coverage. Within the inherent limitations of all satellite communications, these Iridium networked products work everywhere we've tested them, from California beaches to NE forests to Alaskan glaciers to Patagonia cabins.

personal locator beacon - 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.
Credit: Jediah Porter

The latest entry to the market is from Motorola. The Motorola Defy Satellite Link is manufactured by a smaller company called Bullitt. Bullitt licenses the Motorola brand to sell their product. Bullitt also works with Motorola to sell Motorola smartphones with built-in satellite connectivity. We did not test this smartphone. The Bullitt/Motorola products, including the Defy device we tested, use a different satellite network than we are accustomed to testing. As noted above, most of our devices use one of three proven, reliable satellite networks. New products, up to this point, have leveraged existing satellite networks. Motorola/Bullitt branch out further. They use a satellite service called Skylo. Skylo is an intermediary that contacts a host of satellite communications hardware providers. This is how we understand Skylo to work: Many private-sector communications satellites are up in the sky. A bunch of them cover the whole world and are owned and run by Iridium. Another whole bunch covers the inhabited latitudes and continents and is owned and run by GlobalStar. Then there are a bunch of individual satellites and smaller networks of satellites at various orbit elevations that serve different purposes and industries. Skylo works with many of these “other” satellite businesses to connect terrestrial Motorola devices with overhead satellites.

One of your Motorola Defy messages might go through a low earth orbit satellite owned by company x. In contrast, the next might go through a geo-stationary, higher satellite owned by company z. Skylo works all that out on the back end. Theoretically, this allows comprehensive coverage. In practice, Motorola/Bullitt and Skylo provide a coverage map on their websites that suggests coverage over all of North America and Europe. We have yet to test Motorola in enough places and contexts to compare the satellite networks we know better thoroughly. The “big three” satellite networks are proven and established, and we have deep institutional knowledge of their coverage and limitations. Skylo is newer. In our decade of testing, we watched one satellite communication “innovation” come and go. Any of these businesses and technologies can come and go, but we have more faith in those that have proven their durability over decades.

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 difference between messages sent or received to and from devices on the same satellite network.

personal locator beacon - garmin has changed their app landscape. with the latest garmin...
Garmin has changed their app landscape. With the latest Garmin satellite communication devices realize that you can update some software and change to the “messenger” app to get seamless texting across satellite, cellular, wifi.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Ease of Use


The combination of setup procedures and in-the-field user interface matters largely determines the ease of use for this equipment. It's worth noting that we're evaluating both the on-device interface and the included networked app interface to get a complete picture. While messaging function and coverage issues are important factors impacting the overall ease of use, we're assessing, comparing, and ranking those elsewhere in our review.


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

Setting up the SPOT, Bivy Stick, Somewear, ZOLEO, Motorola, and Garmin inReach devices are similar. All require you to select and activate a subscription plan.

personal locator beacon - another size comparison of these two performers.
Another size comparison of these two performers.
Credit: Jediah Porter

The COSPAS-SARSAT personal locator beacons are super simple to use. 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. Few will use the device since the only features are for emergency use. All of these we tested have rudimentary instructions printed on the device. The instructions are accurate and effectively comprehensive.

For SOS use, the SPOT Gen4, SPOT X, inReach Mini 2, ZOLEO, Somewear Hotspot, Bivy Stick, Motorola, and Garmin GPSMAP 66i are almost as simple as the COSPAS-SARSAT devices. Activate the SOS mode from either the device or from the app. You can send a pre-programmed “OK Message” from the app of many of the two-way messengers. With the SPOT Gen4, you must send the OK message from the device itself. With inReach, the SPOT X, ZOLEO, and Somewear Hotspot, you can send an OK message from the app or the device itself.

A comparison of the guarded SOS button on the inReach Messenger and the unguarded SOS button on the Motorola Defy Satellite Link
Credit: Jediah Porter

Let us discuss SOS buttons and inadvertent triggering. Unintentional, undesired triggering of SOS functionality is bad. As in any emergency reporting setting (crime, fire, etc), a “false alarm” has serious repercussions. We don't want to be part of falsely requesting a costly and dangerous emergency response to the wild. Any device/service with an SOS function is vulnerable to false alarms. Parents of toddlers who have somehow called 911 from smartphones know what we are talking about… Because of the severity of an SOS false alarm, we need to consider the technological and physical protection of that SOS trigger. Digital activations (from within messenger apps) require some “two-stage” activation. “Are you sure you want to call for help?”. Physical buttons on most devices have a latched/secured cover for the SOS button. Most, except for the SOS button on the Motorola Defy. The SOS button of the Motorola Defy is entirely uncovered.

As is the power button and check-in button. If the device is turned on (as it would be when you are texting or tracking. It can also inadvertently be turned on by the exposed power button), the SOS button could be unknowingly pushed or bumped. This is unacceptable. Suitably protecting that SOS button without modification is impossible. Protecting that SOS button, with design and manufacturing, would have been very simple; Motorola included a cover for the USB charging port. Why not include a similar cover for the SOS button? We aren't alone in noting concern for this potentiality; other reviews online mention the same possibility. We are in the process of testing improvised “solutions” to this potential problem. In the meantime, we cannot recommend using (and couldn't confidently test some functionality) the Motorola Defy Satellite Link. If, through reliable tinkering, third-party parts, or a Motorola/Bullitt aftermarket adaptation, you can gain some confidence in the security of the SOS button, the Motorola should be on your radar. If not, wait until we all get some better information/solutions. Any solution, we hope, would maintain the compact and light stature of the Defy; it is tiny and light. We like that.

personal locator beacon - 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.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Using the two-way, customizable messaging attribute of the Garmin Mini 2, Messenger, and GPSMAP, SPOT X, Bivy Stick, ZOLEO, or Global Hotspot requires further effort but is well worth it. Sending customized messages directly from the inReach devices is slow but works. None of the other two-way messengers can 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, 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, Bivy Stick, and Somewear do not allow users to customize non-emergency texting without a smartphone. With the ZOLEO, Bivy Stick, and Somewear, you can still send a basic “I'm ok” message if you lose the function of your cell phone. Ensure your at-home team understands what this means before your travels. Sending messages from either inReach device is tedious but doable in a pinch.

Bluetooth connectivity and smartphone app reliance introduces a potential failure mode to your backcountry communication system. All three Garmin devices, Bivy Stick, Somewear, SPOT X, and ZOLEO have Bluetooth and app connectivity to your phone. As you know from routine smartphone use, Bluetooth and apps inherently have potential issues. This baseline of potential unreliability is uniform across the board and is exaggerated by backcountry communication realities. Apps can be deleted from your phone, and Bluetooth connections can be “forgotten.” In the wild, you cannot re-download a lost app away from WiFi and cellular data. If the app relies on a web-confirmed account “login” and that “login” is interrupted, you can't reconnect in the wild. What have we found in comparing this sort of “digital reliability” across app-enabled devices?

Texting on the physical keyboard of the SPOT X device.
Credit: Jediah Porter

First, assuming that the likelihood of app failure is never zero, we will look at the consequences. The SPOT X is the best if you lose your app functionality. It has a large screen and a full QWERTY keyboard. The next best are all the Garmin devices. With all three of the Garmins we tested, you can perform all of the functions, albeit slowly and on smaller screens. The Bivy Stick allows you to trigger SOS, send a check-in message, and activate tracking without the app. All texting requires a smartphone. ZOLEO allows SOS activation and sending a check-in message on the device. The Somewear Labs Hotspot allows only SOS activation on the device.

Next, what about the likelihood of an issue? First, we had no spontaneous app/device connection failures in our testing. All our testing was intentional “sabotage,” if you will, of the connection. The Bluetooth/app connection of the ZOLEO is pretty robust. The only way we could get it to fail was to make a multi-step, in-signal process of “delete app account.” On the Somewear Labs Hotspot, we got the Bluetooth to disconnect but could reconnect without a signal. If you log out of the app, you need a signal to log back in. The SPOT X Bluetooth connection is similar to the Somewear Hotspot's. All Garmin products behave similarly. Bluetooth connection can be interrupted but regained in the wild. If you log out of either of the Garmin apps, you need WiFi or cellular to log back in. Though we haven't experienced it, we have read reports from other users of backcountry failure of Garmin app login, resulting in reliance on the on-device functionality alone. The relative likelihood of app/Bluetooth failure is hard to ascertain, as there are many more user hours on the Garmins than on the others. The bottom line is that the few failed inReach/app connection accounts aren't enough to draw any real conclusions from.

personal locator beacon - wilderness travel is a high consequence environment. make sure your...
Wilderness travel is a high consequence environment. Make sure your equipment is up to speed and that you understand the use and limitations of your satellite communication device and service.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Portability


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 GPSMAP 66i is large compared to most devices we tested, but it also does much more than others. We didn't mind the bulk until the inReach Mini came along. The Mini is less than half the size of the GPSMAP and does nearly as much. The inReach Mini 2 is the same size and shape as the original Mini and does all the important things the larger device does. The Bivy Stick is about the same size and weight as the Mini 2, and the inReach Messenger is slightly heavier.

The Bivy Stick with a compact multi tool for size comparison. This...
The Bivy Stick with a compact multi tool for size comparison. This thing is really small, in league with the smallest options on the market.
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.

The ResQLink View is heavier than the inReach Mini 2 and Bivy Stick and does little more than the ultra-tiny OceanSignal PLB1. The Global Hotspot and ZOLEO are almost as portable as the Mini 2. The SPOT X is similar in size and weight to the Garmin GPSMAP 66i. The SPOT Gen4 is about the same size and weight as the Mini 2 or Bivy Stick. Notably, the SPOT Gen4 is slightly heavier than the Gen3, which is odd. We normally expect newer products, especially products with less function, to be smaller than their predecessors.

You will likely have a smartphone with you on your outdoor adventures. If that smartphone is an iPhone 14 or newer, you already have emergency satellite communication and a form of rudimentary non-emergency communication. This is perhaps the ultimate in “portability,” as sat comms are built into your ever-present pocket computer.

The Motorola Defy Satellite Link is tiny and light. It is less than half the bulk of its nearest close competitor and only a little more than half the weight. We like this. This is a very portable piece of equipment if you can sort out a secure cover for the SOS button (as described above) without appreciably adding to the weight and bulk.

personal locator beacon - wilderness adventures of all kinds (and adventurers, and loved ones...
Wilderness adventures of all kinds (and adventurers, and loved ones of adventurers) benefit from at least basic satellite communications.
Credit: Jediah Porter

Conclusion


Choosing the right satellite messenger can be a daunting task. With so many new products constantly added and upgraded, it can be hard to keep up. Fortunately, we're here to help. Our team is dedicated to staying up-to-date on the latest developments and keeping you informed.

Our lead tester is considered an authority among mountain guides when choosing satellite messaging equipment and services. Wherever the adventure may lead, he recommends that full-time, high-end practitioners carry the Garmin inReach Messenger at all times. We know not everyone has the same needs or budget, but as of the publication of this article, we believe that the inReach Messenger is the product to choose for those who want the very best.

Jediah Porter