Best Satellite Messengers of 2020
Best Overall for Custom Messaging
Garmin inReach Mini
The Garmin inReach Mini is tied for the best messaging device in our test group. It pairs with an app on your phone and can send and receive many types of messages. It offers customized individual text streams, bulk pre-programmed messages (so you don't have to type out the same "I'm doing fine" message to each person), and GPS and web-linked live tracking. Depending on terrain, we rarely had to wait more than five minutes to acquire a satellite signal, and the device confirms whether your messages were sent or not. While we didn't trigger the SOS button in the field, we like its design. We also appreciate that the latest iteration of this device makes it difficult to send a signal accidentally but is not challenging to use quickly if you need to. The inReach Mini lives up to its name — a device with almost no function compromises that is small enough for everyone to take literally everywhere. If you can't justify carrying less than 4 ounces of such effective communication technology on your adventure, we want to hear about it.
The Mini is expensive at the outset, but worth it if you want to send and receive a lot of messages in the field. Garmin's unlimited text messaging plan is more cost-effective than a SAT phone, and the messaging functionality is better. You can still send messages from the device if your smartphone runs out of batteries, and it also has fully featured GPS capabilities and weather forecasting. If you want longer battery life or more advanced navigational features, check out the Garmin inReach Explorer+. We prefer to separate our satellite communication and navigation devices, and usually use smartphones to navigate. Our only further wish of the Mini is that its app text messaging were seamless from satellite to wifi/cell signal. That attribute, appearing on many of the newer messengers (like the Zoleo, for one), is of great value when your travels take you in and out of cell contact.
Read review: Garmin inReach Mini
Best Overall for Compact Messaging
The Bivystick Blue is a comprehensive and high-functioning satellite messenger. It has most of the features we currently look for in a messenger. What it doesn't have, the inReach Mini does. These two are very close competitors, with slightly different advantages that differentiate them. They are similar in size and weight, and both use the same satellite network and contracted dispatch services. Through their app and in the wilderness, both offer similar messaging and tracking services.
How, then, do these two award winners differ? With the inReach, you can do more on the device itself, should your phone be inoperable for whatever reason. On the Bivystick Blue, you can only send an SOS message and/or a routine "I'm OK" check-in message. (We also review the original Bivystick Orange. Orange offers no on-device functionality. It is also much bigger and heavier than Blue. We very much like the Blue upgrades). We wish that both the inReach Mini and Bivystick Blue had seamless messaging like the Zoleo, Somewhere, and SatPaq have.
Read full review: Bivystick Blue
Best Bang for the Buck for Global Coverage
Somewear Global Hotspot
The Somewear Global Hotspot is a piece of hardware from a relatively new start-up that uses a proven satellite network and SOS monitoring service. The device itself is compact, light, and low profile. With the nearly simultaneous launch of a small handful of similar devices and services, the competitors are being forced to compete on price. The initial purchase price of the Global Hotspot is similar to the other options, but the subscription plans are a little less expensive than average. Depending on how you intend to use your wilderness communicator, the Global Hotspot can be much less expensive than the alternatives. For instance, with their "Plan Ultralight," you can use the Hotspot a few times a month, over five years, for hundreds of dollars less than using another device in the same way.
There are some drawbacks to the Hotspot. Most notably, there is no way to send or view text messages on the device itself. All you can do with the device alone is turn it off and on and send an SOS message. With the inReach Mini you can view or send rudimentary messages directly on the device and through the phone app. Overall, we find the Somewear to be reliable and simple.
Read review: Somewear Global Hotspot
Great Value for SOS Only
Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1
If messaging is not important to you, and you're looking for an emergency signaling device only, the Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 is your best option. It is a little expensive upfront, but there are no annual fees or subscription plans required. It broadcasts a distress signal through two radio channels, 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz. They are sent, respectively, to a monitored satellite network and a local aircraft distress frequency. The powerful transmission is sent on the military's reliable COSPAS/SARSAT network.
Unfortunately, this personal locator beacon does not in any way confirm that someone has received your distress signal. The Ocean Signal PLB1 is an excellent option for pure, personal locator beacon SOS functions and offers a solid value. But the two-way messaging of many of the other options makes them more useful products overall.
Read review Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1
Best Bang for the Buck for US Two-way Messaging
Higher Ground SatPaq
The Higher Ground SatPaq is one of the more innovative new entries to the satellite communication market in years. For nearly a decade now, all messaging devices and services have used one of the same three satellite networks. The SatPaq is currently alone in employing an entirely different satellite technology and infrastructure. Essentially, Higher Ground has licensed bandwidth on a single, very high altitude satellite that "sees" all of North America, and sees it from the same angle all the time. With this arrangement, relative to the other two-way satellite messaging technologies available, they can offer inexpensive service and, once acquired, stable satellite connection over time. The end result of the technology, device, and business structure is that you have access to fully flexible, pre-paid satellite two-way messaging, inside the United States, for far less cost than any other option available.
On the flip side, the SatPaq does not work anywhere in the world outside of North America. It is not licensed outside the United States. Further, given that the satellite is so far from earth, the antenna in your SatPaq device must be aimed very carefully. To do so, Higher Ground designed a slick app that uses your smartphone screen to aim the device. You have to attach device and smartphone together for this. When you get a satellite signal, it will stay good for hours and days, unbroken. Where you can't get satellite signal right now, you won't ever get satellite signal (and the SatPaq signal is subject to all the same issues of any satellite communication network: it won't communicate through anything solid like cliffs, canyon walls, buildings, or foliage.)
Read full review: Higher Ground SatPaq
Best for Standalone Use
The SPOT X fills a niche. This is a two-way, satellite-linked, backcountry messaging device that works entirely on its own. The built-in physical QWERTY keyboard distinguishes it from any of the 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 antenna of the first (of 2) SPOT X we tested come apart. Functionality did not change with this issue, but it's not encouraging. These drawbacks are not at all deal breakers. If that physical keyboard and its benefits appeal to you, there is no reason not to choose the SPOT X.
Read review: SPOT X
Why You Should Trust Us
This review was crafted by Jediah Porter. Aside from testing gear, Jed's primary work is in all kinds of mountain guiding. Whether on rock, ice, alpine, or ski mountaineering trips, Jed works full-time all around the world. In each of the couple most recent years, he has racked up over 500,000 vertical feet of human-powered ascent. He recently ticked an 800,000 foot 12 month period. Aside from climbing and skiing, you can find him dabbling in mountain biking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, trail running, and occasional adventure travel touristing. He almost always brings a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon along on his adventures. Jed brings a level of professionalism, competence, and experience that we needed when testing these important safety devices. Before taking over this category, he consulted for a few years for one of the major satellite communication networks.
We started things off by carefully selecting ten models of satellite messenger and personal locator beacons. At OutdoorGearLab, we don't always test every product in a category, but with PLBs and Satellite Messengers, we can test nearly every option. Especially in the two-way satellite messaging device sub-category, we work to get every single new option in our hands. We may be missing something, but we don't think so. The end result is a set of ten tested products that represent basically all of the available satellite communication options currently on the market. We then purchased and activated these beacons and put them to the test for over 200 hours, side-by-side in several distinct situations and locations. Test settings included all the close-to-home adventures in the US, plus navigating complex shorelines by boat in the Bahamas, skiing in Chamonix, climbing in Argentina, mountaineering in Peru, traveling Puerto Rican jungles, a ski traverse in Chile, and coordinating aircraft charter in Alaska.
We augmented field tests with consultation and lab tests. Lab tests included water submersion and cooling to -5C. 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.
Analysis and Test Results
At a recent talk on risk management, world-renowned adventurer Will Gadd offered to buy a two-way satellite messenger for anyone who can't afford their own. We're not sure he was serious, but his point is clear — emergency communication is now a part of the outdoor experience. Some of the world's greatest adventures take place beyond the reach of a modern cell signal. To summon emergency assistance and to communicate more routine matters from these wild settings, special technology — like personal locator beacons and sat messengers — is required.
How Long Do Rescues Take?
The entire communication process, from activating your personal locator beacon's SOS function to notifying local Search and Rescue (SAR) resources, can take seconds to a couple of hours. Local, on-the-ground SAR response time will vary from hours to days, regardless of the technology used to summon help. Response time following notification depends on local fiscal and political factors, terrain, weather, concurrent emergencies, and a whole host of other things. Educate thyself on the SAR resources where you choose to recreate. All the satellite-linked (and cellular, for that matter) communication systems are similar enough in speed that they are essentially equal. It is local response resources and conditions that make your emergency resolution time vary the most
The initial purchase price of a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger is only part of the equation. Some devices require subscription plans that vary over time, making comprehensive comparisons difficult. We can, though, make some authoritative recommendations.
For SOS/Emergency use only, the best value is a device on the COSPAS/SARSAT network. The Ocean Signal and ACR devices are two examples. The Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 deserved a nod for its access to the proven and free international satellite SAR network and its tiny size. The high-scoring Somewear Hotspot also provides fantastic value — some of the best in our entire review — and does it on the Iridium satellite network.
Note that the initial purchase price is only part of your decision. Some devices may be a much higher upfront cost but, when counting the cost of activation and subscription plans, end up being closer in price — or even cheaper — over the long haul.
Some of the newer offerings (Both Bivysticks, the ZOLEO, and value buys Somewear Labs Global Hotspot and SatPaq) shake up the subscription options further. All of these low- to no-commitment subscription plans are equal or better to those offered by the established competitors. In two major use patterns, the SatPaq is hundreds of dollars less expensive (over a five-year use cycle) than other two-way messengers.
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 is where you are and that you need help. The GPS antenna provides the location information. Once the hardware is there, it is a simple thing to add software that leverages this GPS information for more routine navigation.
Some of the devices we review have navigation features. 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 and stand-alone handheld GPS devices work so much better for navigation than your satellite messenger. We strongly recommend using a smartphone or a handheld GPS as your primary navigation mode. Because of that, we downplay (basically ignore) the navigational attributes of the satellite messengers we have assessed. 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+.
Sending an emergency signal is the primary reason to carry a communication device into the wilderness. It's also the metric that unites the category. All of these devices, with varying degrees of effectiveness, can be used to summon help in the event of a life or limb emergency. SAR experts confirm that the most important information to relate is 1. Where you are and, 2. How bad it is. When you push the SOS button on a personal locator beacon, you are sending your GPS coordinates and saying, "This is really, really bad." The uncertainty in a simple "help" notification implies the gravity of the situation. With satellite SOS transmission, you are saying, "Get here as fast as possible."
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. The wilderness is dangerous. No piece of equipment will eliminate that danger. Your emergency needs to be one that still gives you some time. Satellite communications can be nearly instant, but wilderness emergency response will take hours or days in even the most accessible of wild spaces.
Provided your emergency fits the above criteria, your device sends a signal to one of just four satellite networks. We review equipment from eight different brands, but they all use one of these four satellite networks. Once your distress signal reaches its satellite network, it needs to get to a staffed, terrestrial dispatch service. Across the eight brands we review, only two operations provide all monitoring and dispatch services. The staff at those services will identify your location and then work to secure local assistance for you. Your message will methodically funnel to local resources. It is likely that, regardless of how your message goes out, the local SAR response will be the same. This 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, SatPaq, ZOLEO, and both Bivysticks use private networks and emergency dispatch systems. Aside from coverage differences, elaborated below, they work the same for SOS messaging. Of these, only the SPOT Gen3 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 inReach, ZOLEO, SatPaq, Global Hotspot, Bivysticks, and SPOT X are the best for emergency messaging, because of the opportunity to send and receive more nuanced information in an emergency. For "send help now" signaling, the Ocean Signal, ACR, and SPOT Gen3 are nearly indistinguishable and have long been proven to work.
- Public — The COSPAS/SARSAT satellite network is a product of international government cooperation. Tax dollars fund it, and it is free to use. It has provided satellite SAR support for more than 30 years. This network covers the entire planet and, with rare exceptions, is for emergency use only.
- Private — These are for-profit services and partnerships operated by a corporation or corporations. One example is Globalstar, the network that supports SPOT devices. It currently does not cover the entire world. Be sure to research the Globalstar and SPOT coverage map. Another example is Iridium, which supports the Garmin inReach Mini and Explorer+. It covers the entire planet and its track record over the past 5-6 years has been less blemished than that of Globalstar's. The Iridium-supported devices we tested worked more reliably than the Globalstar-supported devices. Iridium and Globalstar enabled services work in partnership with an external monitoring and dispatch service. Finally, the Higher Ground SatPaq uses a high altitude "geostationary" satellite that is more commonly used for cable TV distribution. Coincidentally, all of the non-COSPAS/SARSAT devices we tested route SOS messages through GEOS monitoring and dispatch. Currently, regardless of whether they travel on the Iridium, geostationary, or Globalstar space hardware, private-network emergency messages go to local SAR through GEOS. GEOS is a subcontractor that provides exactly this sort of monitoring service.
Non-emergency messaging takes multiple forms on these devices. Some offer texting and location services that simulate smartphone functionality. Others provide the ability to send a simple "I am here, and I am OK" note. Some offer no option at all for non-emergency messaging. There is a wide range of features and performance. A different sort of non-emergency messaging is location tracking. Some devices can be configured to automatically send, on some preset interval, your location and a sort of implied status update.
Looking at it a different way, there are three major types of non-emergency messaging. First, there is two-way texting with or without location data attached. This is, of course, the most useful. Next, there are the transmission of manual "OK" messages, which usually have location data attached. Finally, there is automated tracking. Automated tracking is a function in which the device, on some predetermined time interval, will send location information to a front country correspondent. All these different sorts of messaging can go to web interfaces, phone numbers, or email addresses.
The inReach Explorer+ provides all forms of non-emergency communication. It and the inReach Mini lead the market and lead our test, primarily for this reason. Similarly, the SPOT X, Bivysticks (both Blue and Orange models), and Global Hotspot offer all the above forms of non-emergency communication. The ZOLEO and SatPaq each offer two-way texting and check-in messaging, but no tracking. The SPOT Gen3 has just two options for non-emergency communications. It has a preprogrammed "OK" message functionality, with location data attached, and it has a few different tracking mode configurations. The rescueME PLB1 has only an SOS button and no non-emergency messaging.
COSPAS/SARSAT personal locator beacons do not offer much in the way of non-emergency communication. The ACR ResQLink View and OceanSignal PLB1 provide no explicit non-emergency messaging. That being said, through an inexpensive subscription to 406Link you can replicate an informal "off label" non-emergency message protocol. This service leverages a device "test" procedure to send notifications to friends and family, sometimes with location data attached. Implicit in these "test" messages is the idea that "I am here, my device works, I am well, and my plan is intact." The test message could imply whatever you and your informal emergency response network determined in advance.
This is nuanced. It is worth noting that ACR once suspended operation of its 406Link program for years. It is currently operational and, with full understanding of all the involved parties, could provide a bare-bones sort of non-emergency messaging. Do your homework on its limitations and functionality.
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. SPOT, Bivystick nor inReach apps allow you to send and receive messages over cell/wifi. With the apps from ZOLEO, SatPaq and Global Hotspot, you can have one conversation that moves with you from satellite signal to cell and wifi. This is very nice for smooth communication on trips and for people that go in and out of the wilderness frequently
Each communication network has coverage limitations, and all satellite communications have inherent restrictions. Additionally, we found differences, even when coverage seemed intact, in the reliable transmission of sent messages. Because all remote communications are fraught, communication reliability is greatest when it can be "two-way." We know from experience with one-way devices that the field user can be "sending" messages that no one is getting. When the communications are "two-way," confirmation of receipt is a little clearer.
For reasons we hope are obvious, we could not and did not test the coverage and effectiveness of SOS messaging. Each device allows a sort of test mode, but this does not activate the entire SOS system on any device. Those of us who have not yet had a backcountry emergency have to trust the manufacturers and the experience of other less fortunate users. For these ratings, we rely on research and SAR consultation.
The ResQLink View and rescueME PLB1 use the same network and communication protocol. These can be tested, but the number of tests is limited by the life of the built-in, non-rechargeable battery. All these "COSPAS/SARSAT" devices confirm functionality with on-device lights. This is limited in its ability to comfort you, as it doesn't involve satellite confirmation. 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 SPOT satellite network covers the major terrestrial wilderness destinations of an American adventurer. SatPaq uses a satellite that covers North America and has a license that works in the United States. The inReach, Bivy, ZOLEO, and Somewear products use the same satellite network with global coverage. Within the inherent limitations of all satellite communications, the inReach Mini truly does work everywhere we've tested it.
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, 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.
inReach, when paired with a smartphone, also allows the user to watch the progress of the message with clear visual confirmation. This is a lot nicer than trying to decipher the blinking lights on the SPOT Gen3, wondering if the message was sent or not. Since the chief feature of the Gen3 is its ability to send messages to your contacts, and the inReach performs message sending so much better, the inReach is quite clearly a superior device for this purpose. The SPOT X, especially in the latest Bluetooth version, rivals both inReach devices in non-emergency messaging.
Ease of Use
Personal locator beacon and sat messenger ease of use is a function of set-up procedure and in-the-field interface clarity and options. Set up complications range from a simple, one-time online form to an ongoing process of charging and deploying devices to remote locations. In-the-field interfaces range from a button on the device, accompanied by flashing lights that must be decoded, or a paired smartphone app from which one can communicate and deduce various status information.
First, let us look at set up of each device. The COSPAS/SARSAT devices — the ResQLink View and Ocean Signal PLB1 — have identical set-up procedures. You fill out an online form and await the arrival, via mail, of your free registration sticker. Through the online interface, you can make changes down the road if needed.
Setting up the SPOT, BivyStick Orange and Blue, Somewear, ZOLEO, SatPaq and Garmin inReach devices is similar. All require you to select a subscription plan. All have various features that you can choose to use. With both the SPOT and the inReach, you can and should tailor the address list that receives your "OK" messages and tracking notifications to each trip separately. The inReach, Bivy, ZOLEO, SatPaq, latest SPOT X, and Somewear devices each have an app and associated Bluetooth tethering.
In use, the COSPAS/SARSAT devices are super simple. For most people in most settings, the device will live in your emergency kit for years and years with no changes, maintenance, or deployment. The batteries are fixed and long-lasting. Since the only features are for emergency use, few will use the device at all. 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 Gen3, SPOT X, inReach Mini,ZOLEO, Somewear Hotspot, BivyStick Blue and inReach Explorer+ are almost as simple as the COSPAS/SARSAT devices. Simply activate the SOS mode from either the device or from the app. You can send a preprogrammed "OK Message" from the app of all two-way messengers. With the SPOT Gen3 you have to send the OK message from the device itself. With the inReach's, the SPOT X, ZOLEO, and Somewear Hotspot, you can send an OK message from the app or from the device itself. On the BivyStick Orange and the SatPaq, OK messages can only be sent from within the app.
Using the two-way, customizable messaging attribute of either Garmin inReach, SPOT X, Bivystick, ZOLEO, SatPaq or Global Hotspot requires further effort but is well worth it. Sending customized messages directly from the inReach devices is slow, but it works. Sending customized messages from the app, on any of these devices, is far more user-friendly. In this context, using your smartphone's familiar keyboard leverages the best attributes of the inReach, Bivy, ZOLEO, SatPaq, and Somewear options. The SPOT X is usable with its app or entirely stand-alone. The device has a built-in, physical QWERTY keyboard. This makes it the easiest two-way texting device to use. The ZOLEO, SatPaq, Bivystick, and Somewear do not allow the user to do any non-emergency texting without a smartphone. Sending messages from either inReach device is tedious, but doable in a pinch.
Going to the wilderness usually requires packing light. Therefore, the portability of your communications device(s) is important. Portability, for our purposes, is a function of weight and bulk.
The inReach Explorer+ is one of the largest and heaviest products we tested. It also does more than everything else we tested. Its function is disproportionate to its size, and it does enough that we didn't mind its additional weight. We didn't mind, that is, until the inReach Mini came along. The Mini is less than half the size of the Explorer+ and does nearly as much. The BivyStick Blue is about the same size and weight as the inReach Mini. The newly added ResQLink View is heavier than the inReach Mini and BivyStick Blue and does little more than the ultra-tiny OceanSignal PLB1. The Global Hotspot, ZOLEO, and SatPaq are all almost as portable as the inReach Mini. The SPOT X is similar in size and weight to the Explorer+, which is about the same size and weight as the Bivystick Orange.
Most PLBs or Sat Messengers are equipped to clip to the outside of your backpack or clothing, which suggests that they should be. We don't recommend this. While GPS navigators are often clipped outside your pack because they work best when they have a clear view of the sky, your SOS device shouldn't necessarily be on at all times, so you can turn it off and stow it safely away. This lowers your chance of losing it. If you are tracking with your satellite device, it will work just fine inside the top of your backpack.And don't worry about it taking a little longer to dig the device out of your pack. Fact is, an emergency response will take hours, at best. A few seconds to take your backpack off won't make any appreciable difference in the response time. Further, maybe in those minutes you will take a breath and realize that you don't actually need outside help. Save the backpack strap space and your worries about losing electronics for devices you use frequently, like your smartphone or navigation GPS.
Our intention and hope here is to have shed some light on a confusing topic and category. There are plenty of great reasons to carry modern satellite communications into the wild. Ignorance of how and what to choose shouldn't be an obstacle. Our reviews are carefully considered and based on testing of purchased equipment by dedicated wilderness travelers. We are adventurers first, and communicators second. Our priorities are always in "getting out." That lends efficiency and clarity to our own equipment selection and hopefully lends authority to our recommendations.
- Satellite phones — Devices that can transmit voice over satellite signal are more expensive and usually bulkier than what we tested here.
- Two-way radios — Require significantly more user education to emulate half the clarity, coverage, and convenience of the devices we test here.
- Nautical Options — Many nautical devices use some of the same technology and protocols.
— Jediah Porter