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We have investigated the best satellite communication devices for almost 10 years and present a conclusive summary of the top 9 options available today. Our team is in the wilderness almost as much as they are at home and have worked in outdoor and outdoor technology professions for more years than they've been testing for GearLab. Collectively, we watch the market and get every new satellite texting device in hand as soon as it hits the open market. We test every new product and revisit the performance of those we've used prior. Our testing is a uniform blend of formalized investigations and anecdotal evidence gleaned from "real world" use, all interpreted with a solid understanding of the technological landscape that underpins all the products and services.
People are increasingly exploring wild places, adventuring to remote locales, and pushing their limits. Because of this, devices to help track these outings are in high demand, and choosing the right product is crucial. Besides this in-depth look at locator beacons, we offer complete testing and reviews for handheld GPS devices, walkie talkies, and other backpacking gear reviews and all the top hiking gear to help you prepare for whatever nature throws your way.
Editor's Note: This review was updated on September 22, 2022, to give more information on our metrics and test process and ensure that we still stand by our award winners.
Satellite texting only, no continuity onto cell/WiFi
Texting on the device is tedious
The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is the top messaging device on the market. It pairs with an app on your phone and can send and receive many types of messages. It offers customized individual text streams, bulk pre-programmed messages (so you don't have to type out the same "I'm doing fine" message to each person), and GPS and web-linked live tracking. Within normal satellite communication expectations, we rarely had to wait more than five minutes to acquire a satellite signal, and the device confirms whether your messages were sent or not. While we didn't trigger the SOS button in the field, we like its design. The Mini 2 lives up to its name — a device with almost no meaningful functional compromises, small enough for everyone to take literally anywhere. If you can't justify carrying less than 4 ounces of such effective communication technology on your adventure, we want to hear about it. We bet you could cut 4 ounces somewhere else with a much lower overall "cost" to your comfort and safety.
The Mini 2 is expensive at the outset but worth it if you want to send and receive a lot of messages in the field. Garmin's text messaging plans are more cost-effective than a SAT phone, and the messaging functionality is better. You can still send messages from the device if your smartphone runs out of batteries, gets lost, or stops working for some other reason. The Mini 2 also has fully featured GPS capabilities and basic weather forecasting. If you want longer battery life or more advanced navigational features, check out the Garmin inReach Explorer+. We prefer to separate our satellite communication and navigation devices and usually use smartphones to navigate. Our only further wish of the Mini 2 is that its app text messaging was seamless from satellite to WiFi/cell signal. That attribute, appearing on many of the newer messengers (like the ZOLEO), is of great value when your travels take you in and out of cell contact. Pretty much everything we have to say about the inReach Mini 2 can be extrapolated to the slightly older original inReach Mini. The differences between them are subtle. The second version is indeed better, but not enough for us to recommend that owners of the original upgrade immediately.
The ACR Bivy Stick has seen the most exciting and recent "shake-ups," with its second-generation "form factor" greatly improving on the original. 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 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 in late 2021 and early 2022. In comparison, on the inReach Mini 2, 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 the overall final score)
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.
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.
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, both Garmin inReach 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, both inReach 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, ACR, and SPOT Gen4 are nearly indistinguishable and have long been proven to work.
There are two major types of emergency messaging networks used by devices in our review.
Public — The COSPAS/SARSAT satellite network is a product of international government cooperation. Tax dollars fund it, and it is free to use. It has provided satellite SAR support for more than 30 years. This network covers the entire planet and, with rare exceptions, is for emergency use only.
Private — These are for-profit services and partnerships operated by a corporation or corporations. One example is Globalstar, the network that supports SPOT devices. It currently does not cover the entire world. Be sure to research the Globalstar and SPOT coverage map 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 inReach Explorer+.
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 inReach Explorer+ 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.
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 and Global Hotspot, you can have one conversation that moves with you from satellite signal to cell and WiFi. This is very nice for smooth communication on trips and for people that go in and out of the wilderness frequently. The SPOT, Bivy Stick, and inReach apps do not allow you to send and receive messages over cell/WiFi. It might seem minor, but this seamless messaging can greatly smooth communications in certain settings — 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 covers the major terrestrial wilderness destinations of an American adventurer. The inReach, Bivy, ZOLEO, and Somewear products use the same Iridium brand satellite network with global coverage. Within the inherent limitations of all satellite communications, these Iridium networked products truly do work everywhere we've tested them, from 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,ZOLEO, Somewear Hotspot, Bivy Stick and inReach Explorer+ are almost as simple as the COSPAS/SARSAT devices. Simply activate the SOS mode from either the device or from the app. You can send a pre-programmed "OK Message" from the app of 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 either Garmin inReach, 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.
Going to the wilderness usually requires packing light. Therefore, the portability of your communications device(s) is important. Portability, for our purposes, is a function of weight and bulk.
The inReach Explorer+ is one of the largest 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 Explorer+ and does nearly as much. The inReach Mini 2 is exactly the same size and shape as the original inReach mini and does all the important things that the Explorer does. The Bivy Stick is about the same size and weight as the inReach Mini.
The newly added ResQLink View is heavier than the inReach Mini and Bivy Stick and does little more than the ultra-tiny OceanSignal PLB1. The Global Hotspot and ZOLEO are almost as portable as the inReach Mini 2. The SPOT X is similar in size and weight to the Explorer+. The newly released SPOT Gen4 is about the same size and weight as the inReach Mini 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.
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 Mini 2 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 Mini is the way to go.
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