We’re all for big adventures that take us off the grid, but it’s never a bad idea to have a way of getting in touch. For organizing a pick up, initiating a rescue, or just checking in, a satellite messenger has become our go-to means of staying connected in areas without cell service. In addition to their ability to send (and—most of the time—receive) messages, these devices tack on a range of other functions, including location sharing, GPS navigation, weather reporting, and more. Below are our picks for the best satellite messengers of 2023, ranging from high-powered hotspots that pair with your smartphone to simple one-way messengers. For more information, see our comparison table and buying advice.
- Best Overall Satellite Messenger: Garmin inReach Mini 2
- Best Budget Satellite Messenger: Zoleo Satellite Communicator
- Best Satellite Messenger for Organized Groups: ACR Electronics Bivy Stick
Best Overall Satellite Messenger
Weight: 3.5 oz.
Satellite network: Iridium
What we like: Lightweight, great battery life, and fully functional as a standalone device.
What we don’t: Larger upfront cost than the options below.
Most backcountry enthusiasts are looking for a streamlined, long-lasting satellite messenger that enables them to communicate from the comfort of their smartphone, and the Garmin inReach Mini 2 puts it all together better than most. At just 3.5 ounces, the Mini is one of the lightest devices here, but it’s also among the most capable. You get connection to the Iridium satellite network (widely accepted as the most reliable coverage), an impressive battery life, and a small display and relatively easy-to-learn interface that keep the Mini fully functional even if your smartphone bites the dust. Tack on features like weather forecasting, location tracking and sharing, and maps and navigation via the Garmin Explore app, and the Mini 2 is the full package for most backcountry-goers.
Compared to the first-gen Mini, the Mini 2 offers an improved battery life, expanded storage, higher resolution display, connection with a greater variety of satellite systems, and a more powerful USB-C connection. And with a recent firmware update, it's also compatible with Garmin’s new Messenger app for seamless communication between satellite, Wi-Fi, and cellular networks—a great feature for those who frequently move in and out of service, including thru-hikers, international travelers, and those who live in rural areas. It’s worth noting that unlike many offerings below, the Mini 2 can be used without a smartphone, which is a nice safety measure to have if your phone malfunctions or loses power. It’s the complete package for most, and it’s for good reason that we see the InReach Mini 2 being used in the field more than any other device here.
See the Garmin inReach Mini 2
Best Budget Satellite Messenger
Weight: 5.3 oz.
Satellite network: Iridium
What we like: A two-way messenger for just $200; messages can be up to 900 characters long.
What we don’t: Heavy and bulky; limited data plans.
Zoleo's satellite communicator is an appealing budget pick that manages to pack in a functional array of capabilities that belie its $200 price tag. Like the devices above, you get two-way messaging via a smartphone app, as well as unlimited location tracking and sharing, weather forecasts via AerisWeather, connection to the Iridium satellite network, and SOS support from GEOS (the standard bearer for search and rescue coordination). The app also allows messaging over cellular and Wi-Fi networks, making it easy to dip in and out of the wilderness with minimal gaps in communication. All told, for half the price of the inReach Mini 2 above, the Zoleo packs quite the punch.
There are some tradeoffs to opting for such a budget-oriented model, and the most notable is the Zoleo's fairly bulky build—at 5.3 ounces, it’s considerably heavier and less sleek than the devices above. What’s more, unlimited check-ins and location tracking aren’t included in the standard plans (they cost an extra $6/month), and the Zoleo app does not feature maps and navigation. Finally, unlike the competition, Zoleo charges a $4/month suspension fee, and its plans are fairly limited (you don't get the option of saving with an annual plan). But for just $150 at the time of publishing, the Zoleo is a pretty impressive value, and penny pinchers will especially appreciate that you can pack 900 characters into each message (compared to Garmin’s 160).
See the Zoleo Satellite Communicator
Best Satellite Messenger for Organized Groups
Weight: 3.5 oz.
Satellite network: Iridium
What we like: Inexpensive start-up price and helpful GroupTrack feature.
What we don’t: Unrefined app and expensive pay structure.
Another solid satellite messenger offering is the Bivy Stick, from Salt Lake City-based ACR Electronics. In many ways, this device functions very similarly to the Zoleo above: Lacking a screen, it operates in conjunction with a smartphone app to send and receive messages (via satellite, Wi-Fi, or cellular networks), receive weather forecasts, share your location, and more. It’s also a great tool for recreational groups or off-the-grid camps: The GroupTrack feature allows easy communication between devices in the field, along with a helpful tracking tool for those connected to the internet back at basecamp (keep in mind this service will cost you a premium at $55/month, per device). And at $300, it’ll save you $100 over the upfront cost of the inReach Mini above, too.
All that said, we’ve found the Bivy Stick to be a little disappointing in practice—the app is very busy and unrefined, and the device often was slower to send and receive messages when tested back-to-back with the Garmin. What’s more, Bivy’s subscription will cost you more to start up than other plans, with a minimum 3-month commitment to the Plus Plan at $30/month or higher. But if the GroupTrack function appeals to you, the Bivy Stick will certainly get the job done.
See the ACR Elecronics Bivy Stick
Best of the Rest
Weight: 4 oz.
Satellite network: Iridium
What we like: Double the battery life of the inReach Mini 2; sleek shape is great for remote frontcountry use.
What we don’t: Tiny screen makes standalone use difficult.
Garmin has long been the largest innovator in the satellite messenger space, and they’re still at it with the release of their inReach Messenger. The Messenger was released along with the Messenger app (yes, another app from Garmin), which works with Wi-Fi, cellular, and satellite networks to provide seamless messaging for those who dip in and out of service. What’s more, the device offers about twice the battery life of the already impressive inReach Mini 2, and can also be used as a power bank to charge your smartphone or other electronics (of course, take care with this feature, as you don’t want to drain the Messenger).
Since the release of the Messenger, Garmin has updated the Mini 2’s firmware, which is now compatible with the Messenger app as well for seamless messaging across networks. In other words, the two inReach devices offer largely the same feature sets. That said, the Messenger is intended more for remote frontcountry use: The flat shape will be more at home on the dash of a vehicle or boat than hanging from a backpack, and the tiny screen won’t be an issue when you have your smartphone charged and ready, too (you can type on the Messenger, but the screen is miniscule). And for $100 less than the Mini 2, we don’t blame you if you bring it along on backcountry adventures too (the increased battery life is a major bonus). All told, the newest inReach is a great addition to the lineup, giving devices like the Zoleo and Bivy Stick above a true run for their money.
See the Garmin inReach Messenger
Weight: 7 oz.
Satellite network: Globalstar
What we like: An easy to use standalone device with a full QWERTY keyboard.
What we don’t: Heavy, sticky keys, and Globalstar’s coverage isn’t as comprehensive as Iridium’s.
SPOT devices were made famous (or infamous) early on for their implication in accidental SOS calls and non-emergent rescue initiations, but they’ve come a long way since their beginnings in 2007. Their X here is a two-way messenger most similar to the Garmin inReach Mini above in terms of design and features. Unlike the Mini, however, the X boasts a full QWERTY keyboard, meaning you can type messages, navigate between waypoints with the built-in compass, and scroll through text chains without the need for a smartphone. And along with the SOS button, you also get the option of SPOT’s S.O.V. (“Save Our Vehicle”) feature, which sends your alert out to Nation Safe Drivers for timely vehicle assistance (additional subscription required)—all for $150 less than the Mini.
However, after using the SPOT X as our primary satellite messenger this past summer, we hesitate to give it glowing reviews, especially given the impressive competition above. For one, the keys are sticky (our “a” key was almost worthless) and the computer slow, which makes for onerous typing. To be fair, the X does pair with a smartphone, but at 7 ounces for the device alone, that’s a fairly heavy combination. Second, SPOT uses the Globalstar satellite network rather than Iridium, which proved to be noticeably slower and less reliable in our testing (you can see a coverage map here). And to make matters worse, SPOT’s subscription fees are some of the more expensive available (you'll pay about $80 just to start up a monthly flex plan). All told, the SPOT X will likely get the job done when you need it, but it simply doesn’t measure up against the more refined messengers above.
See the SPOT X Satellite Messenger
Weight: 5 oz.
Satellite network: Globalstar
What we like: Simple, inexpensive, and enough options to communicate fairly nuanced information.
What we don’t: Only one-way messenger on our list.
The majority of satellite messengers are two-way communicators that offer convenient smartphone pairing, but the SPOT Gen4 does neither. With a simple five-button, display-free interface that operates only as a standalone device, the Gen4’s functionality is limited to simple check-in messages, location tracking, SOS, Help (this option alerts friends and family rather than SAR), and SPOT’s Save Our Vehicle feature. In essence, this is SPOT’s modern take on a personal locator beacon (PLB). But despite its simplicity, we think it’s a great emergency backup for a lot of people. Not to mention, the Gen4 costs only $150, which ties it for the most affordable satellite messenger here (with the Motorola below).
A one-way messenger is undeniably limited, but SPOT has built in a lot of potential for nuanced communication with the Gen4, including three distinct help options and two separate preset messages. For example, one could say, “I’m doing great and all is going according to plan,” while the other reads, “My itinerary has changed, but no need to worry.” The Gen4 is also a great tool for tracking, with the choice between 2.5, 10, 20, and 60-minute intervals and a long battery life aided by the simple design. But it’s hard to go back once you experience the convenience of a two-way messenger, and with no screen, you'll have to decipher the SPOT's blinking lights to determine if your message has been sent. Finally, keep in mind that many of the same gripes we have with the SPOT X above are also applicable to the Gen4, including an expensive subscription plan and Globalstar’s sparser coverage.
See the SPOT Gen4 Satellite Messenger
Weight: 2.5 oz.
Satellite network: Inmarsat and Echostar
What we like: Inexpensive device and subscription plan.
What we don’t: Not as reliable as Iridium and Globalstar devices; required app has issues.
Motorola’s Defy Satellite Link is the newest satellite messenger to hit the market, with no shortage of buzz around its low $150 price tag. And Motorola isn’t hiding fees: The Defy also has very affordable monthly plans—at the time of publishing, the Essential plan (30 messages/month) is free for the first 12 months (and only $5/month after the first year). The Defy is also the most streamlined device here at just 2.5 ounces, and includes most of the same features as the offerings above, including two-way messaging, location sharing, and more. So, what’s the catch?
First off, the Defy operates on the Inmarsat and Echostar geostationary satellite networks, which don’t provide the reach and speed of Iridium and Globalstar’s low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. In other words, the device might leave you SOL in deep canyons or particularly remote areas—and at the time of writing its coverage only extends to the U.S. and Western Europe. Second, the Defy requires the use of an app both for the sending and receiving parties, which unfortunately is riddled with reports of glitching, crashing, and even uninstalling (a pretty big issue when you’re out of service). And finally, you don’t get tracking, which will be a deal-breaker for some. These downsides are enough to land the Defy a spot at the bottom of our list; if you’re looking to save money, we’d stick with the Zoleo above.
See the Motorola Defy Satellite Link
|Satellite Messenger||Price||Category||Weight||Network||Battery Life||Cell/ Wi-Fi||Location Sharing|
|Garmin inReach Mini 2||$400||Two-way||3.5 oz.||Iridium||14 days||Yes||Yes|
|Zoleo Satellite Communicator||$200||Two-way||5.3 oz.||Iridium||200 hours||Yes||Yes|
|ACR Electronics Bivy Stick||$250||Two-way||3.5 oz.||Iridium||120 hours||Yes||Yes|
|Garmin inReach Messenger||$300||Two-way||4 oz.||Iridium||28 days||Yes||Yes|
|SPOT X||$250||Two-way||7 oz.||Globalstar||240 hours||No||Yes|
|SPOT Gen4||$150||One-way||5 oz.||Globalstar||156 days||No||Yes|
|Motorola Defy Satellite Link||$150||Two-way||2.5 oz.||Inmarsat & Echostar||5 days||No||No|
- What is a Satellite Messenger?
- One-Way vs. Two-Way Messengers
- Satellite Messenger Features
- Standalone vs. Smartphone-Compatible Devices
- Subscriptions and Credits
- Weight and Size
- Battery Life
- What About the Apple iPhone 14?
- Other Remote Communication Options
A satellite messenger is a small but powerful tool that allows you to stay connected in areas without cellular reception. Instead of using cell towers, satellite messengers rely on satellites, which means you can connect in the majority of places on Earth as long as you have a clear line of sight to the sky. Specifically designed for outdoor adventurers, these compact and lightweight devices work alone or pair with your smartphone to send and receive messages, dispatch SOS alerts and location coordinates, transmit live tracks, get the latest weather forecast, and more. Unlike standard GPS devices, each messenger here uses a private system of satellites and thereby requires a subscription in order to operate (similar to a cell plan). The technology continues to improve, and in 2023, there’s an option for nearly everyone, whether you’re a serious adventurer headed out on a big expedition, a resident of a rural area looking to stay connected, or a weekend warrior wanting an extra measure of safety.
Whereas personal locator beacons (PLBs) can only transmit SOS signals (more on this below), a defining feature of all of the satellite messengers here is the ability to communicate more nuanced information. This can be very helpful for getting in touch in non-emergent situations, sending out live tracks or requesting weather forecasts, transmitting updates to SAR teams during rescue attempts, and more. These more capable devices can be further broken down into two main categories: one-way and two-way messengers.
One-way satellite messengers are the more basic option, epitomized by the SPOT Gen4. These devices have limited functionality, including an SOS button and the ability to send a few separate preset messages and your GPS coordinates to a list of predetermined phone numbers or email addresses. Importantly, one-way devices do not allow you to type out a unique message and cannot receive any input. A one-way device is a clear step up from a “no news is good news” PLB, but your ability to communicate is still very limited.
On the other hand, two-way devices (which comprise the majority of our list) can both send and receive nuanced information, akin to the texting capabilities of a cell phone. You get a convenient user interface too: Most of these messengers have large screens or pair with your smartphone, which is a big step up from a standalone device with just a few buttons. The benefits of two-way satellite messengers are seemingly endless: you can source weather reports, communicate detailed logistics information, say hi to friends and family, navigate using built-in mapping tools, and much more.
One of the primary reasons for bringing a satellite messenger into the field is the extra measure of safety that it provides. All of the devices here include an SOS button—when pressed, the device sends your location to a private search and rescue service (the standard bearers are GEOS and Global Rescue), alerting them that help is needed. These services are staffed 24/7 by trained responders who relay your request to local search and rescue teams, in addition to continuing to track your device and respond to messages (in the case of two-way messengers). In short, if you press the SOS button on your device, help will come, whether via helicopter, by vehicle, or on foot.
While it’s comforting to know that you can call for help, there are some clear disadvantages to the SOS feature. In recent years, we’ve heard story after story of individuals using this service in non-emergent situations or pressing the button accidentally. An SOS call is worth taking extremely seriously—once you make it, many people will start to rally on your behalf (and in many cases, your rescue bill will start to rack up). For this reason, most modern satellite messengers have made accidental SOS requests difficult—on the Garmin inReach Mini 2, for example, you must first lift a protective cover and then press and hold the SOS button. Notably, the one-way SPOT Gen4 has added Help and S.O.V. (Save Our Vehicle) buttons in addition to the SOS button, which are a step down from SOS by alerting friends and family or pinging a road assistance service, respectively.
There are a variety of ways to communicate using a satellite messenger, including check-ins, preset messages, custom messages, and social media updates. Knowing the difference between these formats is important for getting the most out of your subscription—most plans have limited custom messaging, including social media updates—with overage fees for each additional message, while check-ins and preset messages are usually unlimited.
A check-in message is one of the best ways to share your location with friends and family. In most cases, the accompanying text can be pre-programmed online (e.g., “All is well. No need for help!”) and includes your GPS coordinates with each dispatch. Preset messages (SPOT calls them predefined messages) are also customized before you leave home, and many devices allow you to program more than one (Garmin permits up to three at a time). We like to use preset messages to say something totally distinct from the check-in message—it could be a request for a weather forecast, a note that conveys a non-specific itinerary change, or a simple “I love you.” Finally, all two-way messengers allow you to send completely custom messages to any phone number, email address, or even a social media account, which are usually limited in length (for example, Garmin’s character limit is 160 and Zoleo’s is 900). Unless you have an unlimited plan, custom messages (including incoming messages) will be counted against your message allotment.
Location Tracking and Sharing
With built-in GPS connectivity, most satellite messengers can track your location at various intervals, allowing you to share your progress with friends and family or via social media and view your track on a map after your trip. Both tracking and sharing are included in the majority of subscriptions, and spending up will often give you the ability to track at shorter intervals. For example, SPOT’s basic plan offers tracking at 10, 30, and 60-minute intervals, while their unlimited plan allows you to choose among 2.5, 5, 10, 30, and 60 minutes. And with interfaces like Garmin’s MapShare, followers can actually ping your device to request your real-time location, which can be helpful if you’re too busy moving to share.
While tracking is a cool feature, it’s important to keep in mind that it does take its toll on battery life (especially if you’re using the shorter intervals). In the end, we prefer to conserve our satellite messenger for important communications and use a sports watch to log our route instead (the downside here is that most watches don’t allow you to share your track in real-time). But location sharing nevertheless is a cool feature, especially if you have friends, family, or other devoted fans that want to follow along on your adventure. And remember: You don’t have to keep your device on at all times or share your entire track in order to keep folks at home updated. As we mentioned above, the majority of subscriptions allow unlimited check-in messages, which come with your location coordinates attached. This means you can turn on your satellite messenger, send a check-in message to an individual or group, and turn off your device to preserve battery life.
Getting up-to-date weather forecasts can make or break an expedition, so most satellite messengers do a great job prioritizing this feature. Garmin’s inReach products are our favorite in this respect, with basic, premium, and even marine forecasts for any waypoint you request (including your current location), displayed either on the device or your smartphone. We’ve used this tool both in the Alaska Range and remote areas of the North Cascades and found it to be impressively reliable. Messengers like the Bivy Stick and Zoleo also include weather forecasting (like the Garmins above, most of these are powered by Dark Sky), but the SPOT X and Gen4 notably do not. Keep in mind that weather forecasts are not free and will generally apply toward your message count—or cost you $1 per request in the case of Garmin’s premium and marine forecasts. While undertaking serious objectives in high-alpine environments, we’ve also found it prudent to have a point person back home who knows our whereabouts and is able to answer any weather-related questions.
Maps and Navigation
Many of the satellite messengers above include navigational features, including preloaded maps or app-based mapping, the ability to create routes and navigate to waypoints, and more. However, this tech is not at the top of our must-have list. First and foremost, using your satellite messenger to navigate will be a huge drain on the battery, and we prefer to conserve our device’s power for emergency situations and necessary communications instead. Second, most satellite messengers are simply no match for modern smartphones, which outpace every messenger above in terms of navigation with large and colorful screens, detailed and capable mapping apps (Gaia is our favorite), and integrated GPS technology. To summarize: Navigational tools aren’t something we tend to look for or rely on in a satellite messenger, although they can be helpful if you leave your smartphone behind.
Depending on the make and model, you’ll either use your satellite messenger alongside your smartphone, as a standalone piece, or choose between the two. As expected, these capabilities correspond to price: The one-way SPOT Gen4 ($150) is a simple standalone device with an interface limited to just a few buttons (i.e., no screen). Moving up the list, you get barebones two-way messengers like the Bivy Stick and Zoleo, which can send SOS signals on their own but must be paired with a smartphone for most other functions. Finally, splurging for a high-end satellite messenger with a screen and push-button interface (like the Garmin inReach Mini 2) gives you the best of both worlds: you can carry out most functions from either the device or your smartphone.
There are a number of pros and cons to consider when it comes to user interface. Devices that pair with a smartphone are undeniably easy to use, but with this capability, your chances of encountering technological difficulties increase—instead of just one battery to preserve and one device to keep safe from the elements, you now have two. On the bright side, most messengers are designed to send check-ins and SOS alerts without a smartphone, which is a nice backup (you just won't be able to access the more complex feature set without a display). Cost aside, we prefer the versatility of messengers that can be used both standalone or paired with a smartphone, such as the aforementioned Garmins.
Unlike PLBs, which use a public (read: free) satellite system to initiate rescues, the advanced tech of satellite messengers requires a subscription to a private network. It can be a challenge to parse out the differences between the various fee structures, but in general, we see two main styles: flexible monthly subscriptions and annual contracts. With both commitment levels, you’ll pay a setup fee and choose among a range of plans that offer a limited (or unlimited) number of messages, location tracking intervals, and more. Monthly flex plans typically are more expensive than annual plans, involve an extra fee (Garmin’s is $34.95 and SPOT’s is $34.95 on top of a $29.95 activation fee), and can be suspended at any time.
Your end use will determine what sort of payment plan is the best for you, but there are a few generalizations we can make here. If you don’t want to bother with conserving messages, getting an unlimited plan for the duration of your time in the backcountry (whether it’s a month or a year) is probably your best bet. For year-round emergency use for everything from backcountry skiing to backpacking, a basic annual plan makes more sense. And if you only need your messenger for a few trips a year, a flex plan (Garmin has nicknamed theirs “Freedom plans”) can be a good idea, although you’ll want to pay attention to the hidden fees. All told, the style of subscription or credits included with each device is worth considering and should be a factor in which model you choose.
As with all gear we take on human-powered adventures, many will also want to take into account in a satellite messenger’s weight and size. The devices above range from 3.5 ounces for the Garmin inReach Mini 2 and Bivy Stick to the 7-ounce SPOT X. Keep in mind that if your messenger requires pairing with a smartphone, you’ll want to factor in that weight too—for example, our iPhone 11 weighs 8.4 ounces with its case. And size generally correlates with weight: the inReach Mini and Bivy Stick are slightly larger than a snickers bar, while the SPOT X feels like a bulky walkie talkie. For activities like trail running, backpacking, and backcountry skiing, you’ll want to prioritize a streamlined device, which is why the Mini (which doesn't necessarily need to be paired with a smartphone) gets our top pick.
Satellite messengers connect to private networks of satellite systems, which are designed for communication and data transfer (unlike the GPS network, which specializes in location pinpointing). The two main services are Globalstar and Iridium: Globalstar supports the SPOT devices here, while Iridium is more widely used by Garmin, Bivy Stick, Zoleo, and more. Both networks use low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, but Iridium’s network has greater coverage with 66 operational satellites in orbit versus Globalstar’s 48. The new Motorola Defy Satellite Link is an outlier: It connects to the Inmarat and Echostar geostationary satellite networks, which offer less speed and reach than LEO alternatives.
The general takeaway is that all of the messengers above are capable in most areas of the US, as long as you have a clear view of the sky. Importantly, we have noticed no distinction in the speed at which devices like the inReach Mini, Bivy Stick, and SPOT X establish connection—they are all fairly equal in this respect. However, if you hope to venture out (especially to the oceans or the poles), Iridium is by far the most reliable service, and the Motorola Defy’s geostationary networks are the least. And if you plan on getting a SPOT device, it’s worth checking out their coverage map first.
For the uninitiated, the first thing we’ll note here is that a satellite messenger is not a hotspot that allows you to simply use your smartphone apps (like messages, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) as you would with a cellular signal. What a satellite messenger does do is give you access to the greater world via its corresponding app—if you’re going to pair your device with your phone, all functions (including messaging, mapping, obtaining weather forecasts, and more) must be done through the app. Each manufacturer has their own app, all of which are fairly basic and generally disappointing in terms of UI, but they get the job done on an interface you’re extremely familiar with (i.e., your own phone).
It’s worth noting that a few apps—including those from Zoleo, Bivy Stick, and most recently, Garmin—function on a cellular or Wi-Fi network as well, making messaging seamless for those dipping in and out of service. This isn’t a necessity for most users, but for those consistently moving around the frontcountry and backcountry and wanting to keep their messaging in one easy-to-read chain (instead of moving back and forth from your standard messages app to your Garmin Explore app, for example), it can be a nice feature.
Battery life is a very important consideration in choosing a satellite messenger, as it will be your lifeline in the case of an emergency. Battery life can be a mixed bag depending on how often your device is powered on and what you’re using it for, so most manufacturers will give a few different specs, including how long the device lasts when powered off, how many messages it can send, and the lifespan while tracking. In general, you can expect the more basic, screenless messengers to have longer lifespans, while colorful screens and a greater range of functions will be a quicker drain on battery life. Activities like location tracking and navigation can really drain the battery quickly, so we recommend these uses only if you have a way to repower your device, such as a portable power bank (like Anker's Portable Charger) or solar panel. And remember that in the case of the non-standalone devices here, you’ll also want to keep your smartphone powered (with a much shorter battery life, this will be the true limiting factor).
Last year, Apple rolled out their newest iPhone 14, which made waves with its inclusion of SOS support. In areas with no cellular service, users will now be able to message with emergency rescue providers, and also share their location with friends and family via the FindMy app. According to Apple, this service will be free for two years. But while this release is great news and will undoubtedly save the lives of many, it’s important to note that the newest iPhone 14 is not a worthy substitute for a dedicated satellite messenger.
First off, Apple’s emergency services aren't available everywhere (although in 2023, they did extend their coverage to countries in Europe), while the messengers above can be used world wide. Second—and this is important—a two-way satellite messenger can send and receive messages to and from friends and family, while the iPhone 14 can only communicate specifics with emergency responders. This means that in a nuanced situation (perhaps you need to change your itinerary or resupply point, ask for help with a flat tire, or get a buddy to join you on the hike out), you basically have two options: communicate with search-and-rescue, or communicate with no one at all. Another key distinction is that the iPhone does not include a tracking function, which can be a great way for those back home to follow along on your adventure.
All that said, we still see an important place for Apple’s new technology. For the many iPhone users who would never consider purchasing a satellite messenger (those who only head out of service infrequently, for example, and rarely in adventurous contexts), it is a nice safety net. What’s more, the fact that it’s free is a fairly big deal, especially given that the average satellite messenger will cost you about $25 in startup costs and a minimum of $15 per month. Your intended use will be the final determinant: We still highly recommend a satellite messenger for dedicated backcountry-goers, but the iPhone 14 will be a more suitable choice for some.
For those headed into the backcountry on human-powered adventures, satellite messengers are our favorite means of communication. They’re small and lightweight yet offer powerful and timely connectivity in an easy-to-use format. But depending on your needs, it could be worth looking into a few other options as well, including personal locator beacons (PLBs) and mobile mesh networking devices.
PLBs are extremely limited one-way devices capable of communicating one thing and one thing only: SOS. As a result, they can be misused in a variety of ways (such as calling for emergency assistance in non-emergent situations) and don’t allow you to communicate with your rescuer in the case of a true emergency. However, thanks to their affordability (no subscription needed), simplicity, and years-long battery life, PLBs can serve as great backup devices. The ACR ResQLink 400 and rescueMe are popular models amongst outdoor adventurers.
Mobile mesh networking devices (Beartooth and the goTenna Mesh are the two most popular) are a relatively new technology that allow you to create a network between yourself and other individuals carrying similar devices. Paired with your smartphone, a mesh networking device allows you to talk, text, and share locations with other users up to 10 miles away, without the need for cell service or Wi-Fi (they also work great in congested areas, such as a festival or sporting event). We really like the idea of mobile mesh networking for basecamp operations and when adventuring in the same areas as friends, but in most situations, they’re no substitute for a satellite messenger.
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