3 Backcountry Satellite Safety Devices, Reviewed

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On a late July afternoon in 2016, I scrambled down the summit ridge of Pyramid Peak (14,026 feet) in Colorado’s Maroon Bells Wilderness, listening to the tink tink of a mountain goat picking its way through the talus above. Suddenly, the sound of rockfall stopped me in my tracks. I pressed my back against a short buttress and watched as a river of football- and baseball-sized blocks tore down the slope with hair-raising speed. Six miles—and several thousand vertical feet—from the trailhead, with no cell service, I shuddered to think what would have happened had I gotten caught and injured in the onslaught.

Remote, exposed landscapes have long been a draw for trail runners of all stripes. Many of these locations lack cell service, and, most of the time, that’s a good thing—until it’s not.

If you spend a lot of time in the backcountry, then a satellite-based communication device may be worth the investment. These devices come in several shapes, functionalities and price ranges—whether you want to be able to send an S.O.S. signal or just let your family know you’ll be a few hours late.

SPOT Gen 3

Cheapest Plan: $200/year or $20/month
Weight: 4.0 oz
Text messages: Yes (outgoing only, limited to pre-set messages)
Voice calls: No
SOS button: Yes
Live GPS tracking: Yes

The palm-sized Gen 3 functions as a one-way messenger and location tracker. The device offers two ways of calling out for help: an S.O.S button for life-or-death situations, and a “help” button for non-life threatening emergencies (like a flat tire at the trailhead). The S.O.S button routes a geo-tagged signal to local search and rescue, via GEOS global emergency-rescue coordinators. The “help” button sends GPS coordinates to a list of pre-set personal contacts.

The Gen 3’s messaging capabilities are limited to two pre-set messages of 110 characters. As with every other function, each message gets its own button, one for “I’m OK” and another completely customizable option (“Stopping for the night,” or “I’m going to be late, don’t worry”) that you set online ahead of time; you can also pre-determine which contacts receive which message. Messages arrive in an email, with a link to view your GPS coordinates. You can also set the device to automatic tracking, adding GPS “pins” to your Find Me Spot page every five, 10, 30 or 60 minutes. You can set this page as public or private.

The SPOT’s emergency capabilities are life saving, but (thankfully) it is best known among trail runners for its role in proving the validity of FKT attempts, like Anna Frost and Missey Gosney’s Nolan’s 14 run.

SPOT Global Phone

Cheapest plan: $780/year or $65/month
Weight: 7.1 oz
Text messages: Incoming only
Voice calls: Yes
SOS button: No (dialing 911 links you directly to GEOS)
Live GPS tracking: No

The Spot Global Phone offers (most of) the comforts of a basic cell phone—ingoing and outgoing voice calls, voicemail and incoming 35-character text messaging (but not outgoing). You can add contacts into an address book, or type in numbers on the fly. The device is compact and relatively intuitive, since the buttons are laid out similar to a traditional cell-phone keypad.

Rotate and extend the antenna and wait to locate a signal—depending on cloud cover, forest density etc., this may take anywhere from seconds to minutes. In case of an emergency, simply dial 911, which connects you directly with the GEOS global-emergency rescue service. Though the phone doesn’t automatically transmit your GPS location to GEOS, you can manually pull up your coordinates in the menu bar. Call quality depends on how exposed you are and on the position of the satellites as they move.

Delorme In-Reach Explorer +

Cheapest plan:$144/year or $15/month
Weight: 7.5 oz
Text messages: Yes
Voice calls: No
SOS button: Yes
Live GPS tracking: Yes

The Delorme InReach Explorer + has the same S.O.S. and location-sharing functions as the SPOT Gen 3, but with more advanced two-way messaging and navigational features. As with the Gen 3, the InReach’s automatic tracking feature (which can be activated/deactivated at will) sends GPS waypoints to an online profile at pre-set intervals.

You can also send 132-character messages to any email address or cell-phone number, or message with other InReach devices. You can pre-set “quick” messages, type messages out (tedious) or pair the InReach with your cell phone via Bluetooth and use the (faster) keypad on your phone.

In addition to basic communication, the In Reach Explorer + has a compass, barometric altimeter, weather reports and downloadable topographic maps that you can use to pre-program routes and drop “breadcrumbs.” A cheaper version of the InReach—the InReach SE—offers the same messaging, tracking and S.O.S functions without the on-screen topo maps or altimeter.

Both InReach devices are a good option for runners who don’t mind sacrificing weight—and a little extra cash—for more functionality than the more basic SPOT Gen 3, but who don’t want or need to make voice calls.

What type of satellite-communication device is right for you?

Satellite messenger

Upside: These devices are cheaper, simpler and smaller than satellite phones, and are minimally invasive to your run.

Downside: Communication is limited to the basics.

Best for: Situations where emergency messaging or location tracking, not communication, is the priority. Messenger devices have the benefit of clearly and quickly communicating your exact location to search and rescue without having to rely on a phone call to stay connected.

Once the S.O.S function has been initiated, the device will typically continue to send out a signal every few minutes until rescue has arrived—so if you press the button and then pass out, help will still be able to find you.

Messenger devices also afford a hands-off way of letting your loved ones know where you are, via auto-tracking or pre-set messages, rather than a full-on phone call.

Satellite phone

Upside: Unfettered communication.

Downside: Unfettered communication. (Read: it’s easy to get sucked into having backcountry conversations when you don’t really need to). Also, without a tracking function, the only way to let your loved ones know your whereabouts is by calling them.

Best for: Situations where communication, and not location tracking, is your primary concern. Sat phones are great for trips that will involve complex logistics that cannot be explained in a text message—like coordinating a remote pickup point with your crew or if extenuating circumstances back home require you to say connected.

However, without the built-in location tracking, the only way to coordinate assistance is by verbally telling people where you are—which is only valuable if you are conscious enough to do that.

Don’t Count On …

Battery life. All three devices reviewed here are rechargeable, but that dreaded “low-battery” symbol has a habit of appearing at the worst possible times.

Reception. These devices all get reception from varying satellite networks. As the satellites move, service fades in and out.   

Mechanical failure. Things break. These devices can save your life … but don’t bet your life on them.

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