Traveling near or far? Going with friends, family or solo? Regardless of your trip destination, duration or travel companions, you should always have the ability to stay in touch, especially in case of an emergency.
When an illness or injury occurs, the most reliable way to get help is through two-way communication. Since cell service isn’t always reliable, or available, your smartphone won’t be enough. You’ll need a satellite communications device in your travel kit.
There are various satellite communications devices available that don’t rely on cell tech. These include satellite tracking and messaging devices where you can send a 160-character text messages or emails to anyone. You can also activate an SOS feature notifying an emergency coordination center of your location and emergency.
There are also personal locator beacons (PLB) devices for personal use available. But a PLB is not two-way, it is a one-way emergency signaling device that sends a distress signal on a specific emergency radio frequency.
With two-way satellite communication devices, you can provide important information for rescue services. Two-way satellite communication allows the rescue service to ask you specific questions to help them assemble the most appropriate resources for your rescue.
When you need two-way communication capability and your cell phone will not work, a satellite messaging device is your next best choice.
These devices use communication satellites to send an email, SMS or an SOS message. They also have a tracking feature, where the recipient back home – or rescue service – can track your trip progress on the interfacing device web page.
There are several available devices. The Garmin InReach and the SPOT X devices have been around the longest, followed by the Bivy Stick and Zoleo devices and others. These devices are easier to use, manage and carry than a satellite phone. They are also significantly less expensive, between $300 and $500 versus $1,500 and up for a satellite phone.
Some satellite messaging devices have internal keyboards and standalone messaging capability and some devices must pair with a smart phone to maintain two-way communications.
For the more extreme adventures, the devices with standalone messaging capability are best because you won’t have your messaging device and your smartphone running simultaneously.
The Garmin InReach Explorer and SE have standalone messaging capability, as does the SPOT X device. The InReach Mini can send custom messages but it’s not an easy to do as with the other devices.
The Bivy Stick and Zoleo devices must be paired through Bluetooth with a smartphone for two-way satellite communications capability. The smartphone does not require cell service for this – it is working via the satellites through the messaging device.
It is important to understand that you cannot communicate using your cell phone when paired with these satellite devices. It does not turn your cell phone into a sat phone. The phone is used to type messages that are sent by the sat device.
When you send a message, SMS or email, the recipient receives a web link in text or email. When the link is opened, a map graphic shows your location on the map, coordinates and a message of up to 160 characters. The recipient can answer directly to the text message or respond through the linked website.
Messages from these devices remove the potential for human error. If somebody calls with a satellite phone and cannot provide coordinates, it’s difficult to get an accurate location. There could also be voice quality issues. I often have to share information with various rescue services and when it’s in an email message, the original content is guaranteed to remain consistent.
Following are seven pro tips to help you choose what’s right for you and your traveling plans.
- Satellite Constellations: These devices communicate through satellite constellations – or networks. The Garmin InReach, Bivy Stick, Zoleo and Iridium satellite devices use the Iridium Satellite system. It’s a global satellite communication network. The Spot X devices and Globalstar satellite phones use the Globalstar satellite network and will work in North America, most of South America, in Europe, North Africa, Australia, and Eastern Asia.
- User costs: User fee options include either a monthly subscription or purchasing blocks of minutes and messages. Rates are generally consistent across device types.
- Battery life: Battery life and charging capabilities are generally quite similar across all devices. Your battery life will depend on the amount of “transmit” time and “standby” time for your device.
- Size and weight: Satellite phones measure five to seven inches and weigh about half a pound. Satellite messengers and PLBs measure about four inches and weigh about a quarter of a pound.
- Connection and synching speeds: Connecting and synching can vary from close-to-instant for some devices versus up-to-several-minutes for others. A connection requires an open view of the sky. Connecting with the satellites is more difficult in a dense forest.
- Test your device: You should be very familiar with how to use the device before heading into the backcountry. Send yourself and friends test messages. You may also test the SOS feature, but contact the provider ahead of time. You never want to send a false SOS message.
- Satellite device bans: Satellite devices are illegal in some countries. Possessing or using satellite devices in China, India, Iran, Chad, Yemen, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and several other countries is illegal and can lead to immediate arrest and imprisonment. Ensure to research the legality before travelling.
If having continual access emergency services or staying in touch in remote regions without cellular coverage is a requirement, then two-way satellite communication capabilities are necessary, and be certain to obtain medical evacuation protection.
Written By: Harding Bush
- Harding Bush is a former Navy SEAL and associate manager operation for Global Rescue, the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services.