Many of us like the fact that there’s no cellphone service or Wi-Fi in the backcountry. But as someone who has seen tragedy strike in the mountains, I can assure you that when your group needs it, you’ll appreciate being able to communicate immediately with help.
No matter where you plan to explore, here are the top devices for letting you do that — and some advice on which is best for your group.
Connecting in 3, 2, 1 …
Personal locator beacons, satellite emergency notification devices and satellite phones all use one of the major satellite systems orbiting the Earth. Some employ the U.S. government’s system, the largest in operation. Others use the commercial Iridium satellite network, which also spans the globe. Another network, Globalstar, covers the continental U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.
Any device capable of transmitting a message can connect to the subscription-based Global Rescue service (globalrescue.com). Subscribers can text a specific message to a reliable operator at Global Rescue when medical, rescue or evacuation help is needed.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are compact, lightweight, relatively affordable handheld devices that transmit an emergency message via satellite to a local rescue or first-responder team. They are easy to use and their batteries don’t run down quickly.
However, these are simply SOS devices used to send an emergency message that provides only your location; they cannot communicate details of your situation because they lack messaging. Also, you get no confirmation that someone received your message and is sending help.
Although users must be careful not to inadvertently send a false distress signal, PLBs are useful for mountain climbers and the like, especially when they know they’re transmitting to a reliable recipient.
The ACR ResQLink+ ($269), weighing just 5.4 ounces, sends a 5-watt signal directly to search-and-rescue teams using the U.S. government’s satellite network and pinpointing your location within 100 meters (about 328 feet). While it must be registered with NOAA, no subscription is required. Housed in a casing made of impact-resistant plastic, it’s waterproof and buoyant. One set of lithium batteries will last six years from the manufacture date.
Handheld Satellite Emergency Notification Devices represent a technological step up from PLBs because they allow two-way transmission of text messages via satellite. You can communicate with people at home to assure them all is fine. However, a required subscription service increases cost. You also have to make sure the person receiving your message knows when and how to respond to an emergency.
The 7-oz. DeLorme inReach SE ($300, not including subscription) provides two-way, 160-character text messaging and social-media posting using the worldwide Iridium satellite network. It has its own screen and can also be paired with a smartphone (using DeLorme’s Earthmate app) for the convenience of a larger touchscreen. Its USB-rechargeable lithium battery lasts about 100 hours (more than four days of continuous use). An SOS button with a lockout switch (to prevent accidental triggering) sends an emergency message, but for a fee, you can also text back and forth with first responders. Big plus: DeLorme’s Freedom Plan permits a month of unlimited two-way messages without an annual contract.
The DeLorme InReach Explorer ($380) basically adds GPS navigation tools — such as creating and viewing routes, waypoints, a compass and data like your average speed and elevation — to the set of features present in the InReach SE. If you also want a GPS, this 6.7-oz. unit gives you two in one without the additional weight and bulk of a second device.
The more affordable Spot Gen3 ($170) has an SOS button to transmit your GPS coordinates and the capability to send a preprogrammed “all OK” text or email with your GPS coordinates to up to 10 recipients — all packaged in the smallest device reviewed here, measuring 3.4 by 2.6 inches and weighing 4 oz. (including four AAA lithium batteries). On the downside, it doesn’t always connect with a satellite in dense forest or steep terrain, and it cannot receive messages. (Tip: Point the Spot logo skyward for best reception.)
Sat phones connect to orbiting satellites and let you call any telephone, provided you know the number of, say, the closest public-safety or rescue agency — and as long as dense vegetation or tall terrain features don’t block reception.
While prohibitively expensive for most individuals ($1,000 or more for the phone before service fees), they nonetheless offer highly reliable, complete communication capabilities useful for expeditions and outdoor leaders responsible for clients. The good news? These are available for rent in some areas.
The sturdy 9.4-oz. Iridium 9555 ($1,099) lets you make voice calls and send text messages worldwide through annual or monthly subscription plans that range greatly in price, or by purchasing a prepaid SIM card with a specific number of minutes to be used within a specified period of time.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT communication device for your next trip using this guide.
MICHAEL LANZA is author of the book Before They’re Gone, and he shares his gear and trip reviews at thebigoutside.com
(Products above not shown at actual size.)