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We have investigated the best satellite communication devices for 10 years and present a conclusive summary of the top 11 options available today in this review. Finding the best personal locator beacon is a trying task, with dozens of options and many more subscription choices. We summarize our findings below, drawing on real-world experience and a solid understanding of the technology and systems. We have tested all the relevant players across five comprehensive metrics encompassing dozens of individualized tests. In this latest update, we track some exciting developments in the space.
We all want to get further into the wild, at least occasionally, and technology can assist and enable these retreats from civilization. Besides this in-depth look at satellite communications, we offer complete testing and reviews for handheld GPS devices, walkie talkies, other backpacking gear, and all the top hiking gear to help you prepare for whatever nature throws your way.
Editor's Note: This latest review was updated on January 19, 2023, after a season of testing three new products (and retesting four others) in late 2022. The new products include, for the first time in a handful of years, a new highest award winner and a product from one of the world's largest consumer electronics companies.
The same product won our highest award for years and years. That product is still very, very good. But its sibling, the brand new Garmin inReach Messenger, is ever so slightly better. This device has a very long battery life, full-function messaging, and employs proven satellite technology. If you're ready to step into the world of locator beacons, this is the one we think is the best for most users.
We have to compare the inReach Messenger to the former top award-winning inReach Mini 2. The Messenger displaces the Mini 2 from this award by the thinnest of margins. The difference is less than that which could show up in our scoring rubric. We grant this top award to the Messenger for better battery life and a larger antenna. On the other hand, the Mini 2 is a half-ounce lighter and includes some basic navigational attributes that the Messenger does not have. If weight and navigation are important to you, maybe you choose the Mini 2 instead of the Messenger. Otherwise, we think the Messenger respectably ekes out the win.
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 product and branding of the original "start-up" 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 put it in the mix with our other high-value options.
Prices and activation/subscription protocols are apt to change. In fact, we are sure they will. Subscription service innovation is ongoing in all corners of the consumer market. Currently, if you activate it once a year, the ACR Bivy Stick has the lowest 5-year "cost of ownership" for global coverage and two-way messaging. Since many will use their wilderness communication device exactly that way, it earns an award among the other value options.
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 actually matter. With the availability 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 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 absolute 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 some hardware issues in testing the second version, but Somewear Labs' customer service was prompt and effective.
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 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, respectively, 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 in any way confirm 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 of the other options makes them more useful products overall.
The SPOT X fills a small 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.
To compile this review, we started by carefully selecting the top models of satellite messenger and personal locator beacons. It's usually impossible for us to satisfactorily test every product on the market for a particular category. With PLBs and satellite messengers, though, there aren't many options available, and we can test nearly every device. Especially in the two-way satellite messaging device sub-category, we've worked to get every single new option in our hands. The end result is a set of tested products that represent essentially all of the available satellite communication options currently on the market. From there, we 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.
Our comprehensive test plan was divided into five weighted rating 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)
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 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. 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, something his family appreciates. Jed brings a level of professionalism, competence, and experience that we need 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.
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 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 when out there to spotty or nonexistent communication options. Strike your own balance, and use our review findings to make your own choice.
We mix and match some terminology herein. First, a reiteration of what unites this review category. We aim to examine every satellite communication product that is 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/or "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 of the devices that send (and maybe receive) non-emergency messages are referred to as 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.
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 ACR devices are two examples. The rescueME PLB1 deserves a nod for its access to the proven and free international satellite SAR network and its tiny size. 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.
Some of the newer offerings (the Bivy Stick, the ZOLEO, and value option Somewear Global Hotspot) shake up the subscription options further. All of these low- to no-commitment subscription plans are equal to or better than those offered by the established competitors.
If you will own and carry an iPhone anyway, 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. This could be considered a "budget" choice if you already own the phone.
Sending an emergency signal is, for many, 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 any of the reviewed personal locator beacons, you are sending your GPS coordinates and saying, "This is really, really bad." There was a time, not long ago, when COSPAS-SARSAT-style devices did not include GPS data. Location, in that case, 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 are saying, "Get here as fast as possible."
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 minutes or seconds to a max 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, and 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. It is local response resources and conditions that 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 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 in the otherwise "benign" and compact wild 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 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 six 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 nine devices from six brands we tested here, only four 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 and is dispatched, 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.
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.
Both SPOT devices, all three Garmin devices, the Somewear Global Hotspot, ZOLEO, 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 coordinating your emergency response.
In summary, the Garmin devices, 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 a corporation 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 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.
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. 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 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 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," standing 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 resolution of location data. That increased resolution is more important in urban and highway navigation than it is in outdoor recreation.
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 performances. Another 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, signal allowing. All these different sorts of messaging can go, variously, to web interfaces, text messages, and/or email addresses.
The Garmin GPSMAP 66i provides all forms of non-emergency communication. It and the inReach Mini 2 lead the market and lead our test, primarily for this reason. Similarly, the SPOT X, Bivy Stick, ZOLEO, 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.
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 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, and my device works." The test message could imply whatever more you and your informal emergency response network determine in advance.
This is nuanced. It is worth noting that ACR once suspended operation of its 406Link program for years, and their service description explicitly states "is not a 'check-in' or 'I'm ok' service." However, in the same description, ACR clearly implies that it might be used just how we describe above. It is currently (early 2022) 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.
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.
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, Garmin, and Global Hotspot, you can have one conversation that moves with you from satellite signal to cell and WiFi. (From Garmin, only the very latest devices are compatible with the app that provides seamless messaging. The Explorer and original Mini devices are not compatible). This is very nice for smooth communication on trips and for people that go in and out of the wilderness frequently. The SPOT and Bivy Stick 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 — like 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. The ability to do this has raised the bar in terms of what we expect from our sat messengers; we now wish all of our satellite messenger apps allowed for seamless text chains. Those communicating from home would especially appreciate this; they really don't want to jump between messaging apps if they don't have to. Unfortunately, they do not currently do so.
Each of the four satellite communication networks 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.
Terrain, vegetation, structures, and electronic interference all compromise message transmissions. 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 a 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 and the iPhone 14 covers the major terrestrial wilderness destinations of an American adventurer. Apple service, within the limitations of the GlobalStar network, 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 truly do work everywhere we've tested them, from California beaches to NE forests to Alaskan glaciers to Patagonia cabins.
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.
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 rescueME 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, Bivy Stick, Somewear, ZOLEO, and Garmin inReach devices is similar to each other. All require you to select and activate a subscription plan.
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 2, ZOLEO, Somewear Hotspot, Bivy Stick, and Garmin GPSMAP 66i 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 many of the 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.
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 it 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 the user to do any non-emergency customized texting without a smartphone. With the ZOLEO, Bivy Stick, and Somewear, you can still send a basic "I'm ok" message if you lose function of your cell phone. Make sure your at-home team understands what this means in advance of your travels. Sending all kinds of messages from either inReach device is tedious but doable in a pinch.
Bluetooth connectivity and smartphone app reliance introduce 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 their own 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, away from WiFi and cellular data, you cannot re-download a lost app. 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, then, in comparing this sort of "digital reliability" across app-enabled devices?
First, assuming that the likelihood of app failure is never zero, we will look at the consequences. If you lose your app functionality, the SPOT X is the best. It has a large screen and a full QWERTY keyboard. 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 of 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 were able to get 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 that of the Somewear Hotspot. 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. There are reports (from other users, not our testers) of backcountry failure of Garmin app login, resulting in reliance on the on-device functionality alone. The relative likelihood of app/Bluetooth failure is really hard to ascertain, as there are so many more user hours on the Garmins than on the others. Bottom line, the few accounts of failed inReach/app connection aren't enough to draw any real conclusions from.
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 one of the largest devices we tested, but it also does a little 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 exactly the same size and shape as the original Mini and does all the important things that the larger device does. The Bivy Stick is also about the same size and weight as the Mini 2, and the inReach Messenger is just a tiny bit heavier.
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 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.
You will likely have a smartphone with you on your outdoor adventures. If that smartphone is an iPhone 14, 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.
Choosing a satellite messenger can be thoroughly mystifying. New products are added and upgraded at a dizzying pace. We work hard to stay ahead of the matter and to keep you informed. All that said, it is indeed complicated. Our lead tester has become a go-to authority for other mountain guides that are choosing their satellite messaging equipment and service. At this point in history, for full-time, high-end practitioners, he recommends the inReach Messenger and recommends that you carry it all the time, everywhere you go outside. More occasional users have slightly different criteria, including budget restraints. But as of the publication of this article, we believe if you want the best of the best, the inReach Messenger is the way to go.
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