testing the best satellite communicator devices in the forest

3 Best Satellite Communicators 2023

ZOLEO VS inReach vs Somewear

Beyond 10 essentials, the best satellite communicator will provide a larger boost to your overall outdoor safety than any other gear available. These units offer peace of mind to your loved ones, and two-way communication with search and rescue teams, rangers, and medical professionals. Simply put, you should buy one, learn to use it, and bring it with you on every single wilderness adventure.

This is a Data-Based Guide. As such, it includes a head-to-head field test between the Garmin inReach Mini, and newcomers ZOLEO Satellite Communicator, Somewear Global Hotspot, and the ACR Bivy Stick. In addition, it’s based on years of field use, both professional guiding, and on personal trips around the world.

ZOLEO vs inReach Mini 2

Based on two years of field use, an extensive side by side field test, and our Performance Criteria for Satellite Communicators, The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator has taken our top spot, just edging out the ever popular Garmin inReach Mini 2. And yeah, the ZOLEO is $200 less — half the cost of the Garmin inReach Mini 2.

ZOLEO Satellite Communicator

Top Pick for 2023

$200 | 149.3 g (5.3 oz)

A number of things contributed to ZOLEO’s top spot. First, ZOLEO added tracking (Location Share+). Altho its tracking is quite basic, it adds the last major feature ZOLEO lacked vs. the Garmin inReach Mini 2. Second, is its tri-network communication (WiFi, cellular data, & satellite).

After a ton of field use over the last two years including professional guiding in Alaska and international travel we feel that ZOLEO’s seamless tri-network communication is a big advantage vs. the Garmin inReach Mini 2’s satellite only communication.

Third, the ZOLEO has a dedicated phone number which is a huge usability advantage, especially with folks at home trying to communicate with you. The ZOLEO user app/interface is far easier to use — an interface more in keeping with modern user’s preferences and expectations. And last but not least, the ZOLEO is half the price, $200 less, than the inReach Mini 2.

Garmin inReach Mini 2

Runner Up | Power User’s Choice

$400 | 100.8 g (3.6 oz)

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is smaller and almost 2 ounces lighter. And it’s a great choice for power users — especially if you need fully-featured tracking and trip logging. Due to years and years of refinement, the Garmin inReach Mini is by far the most fully featured Satellite Communicator. Definitely an advantage for power users and professional guides.

For example, the inReach Mini 2’s sophisticated tracking, and web based trip track viewer blows away the ZOLEO’s basic tracking functionality. But for the most part, the average user will only use a small percentage of the Mini’s “power features.” The inReach Mini 2 has a display so you can do almost all operations without needing your phone — that’s a big advantage.

But there’s a catch. This involves memorizing a ton of button pushes to navigate the Mini’s complicated, clunky and deeply nested menus. Thankfully, even if you aren’t a power user, there’s still a lot of useful data on the Mini’s 2 screen — definitely a plus!

Video of our 4-day Backcountry Field Test

We took all these Satellite Communicators for four days of rigours side-by-side testing. See how we did it and our results.

3 Best Satellite Communicator Models

Below are our top picks based on our head-to-head backcountry field test and years of field use both on personal trips and professional guiding. We tested the Garmin inReach Mini, ZOLEO and Somewear on message send reliability, location (waypoints), tracking accuracy, weather reports, phone app features, physical unit features and ease of use, battery life, size/weight/ease of carry, and cost of data plans.

ZOLEO Satellite Communicator

Top Pick | Best Performance, Features, Ease of Use & Cost

$200 | 149.3 g (5.3 oz)

The ZOLEO Satellite Communicator is the messaging ease of use Champ and fully featured unit. ZOLEO recently added tracking tracking (Location Share+) which was the last major feature they lacked vs. the Garmin inReach Mini 2 & Somewear. As such, while this is the heaviest unit here, we feel its features, performance, and ease of use are well worth a few more ounces. It has a dedicated phone number for fully transparent text messaging. This makes it the only unit that friends can send text to without ever knowing that they are sending to you via satellite. In other words, there are no extra hoops to jump thru. And it seamlessly sends/receives messages via cellular, WiFi and satellite (no message charge for cell and WiFi). The ZOLEO was nearly as reliable at sending messages as the inReach Mini. The ZOLEO is also the least expensive unit, costing $200 less than the inReach Mini 2. The ZOLEO has both blinking lights and audible alerts from the unit that give you some idea of its operation and status without having to look at your phone. There is a dedicated button to send OK/location messages. So while it provides far less info and user operation directly from the unit (e.g. without a phone) than the inReach Mini, it’s way ahead of the Somewear or Bivy Stick for operation without a phone. Finally, there are no group messages (more of a pain than you might think at first blush).

PROS Least expensive unit. Full feature set. Good battery life. Reasonable cost message data plan, easy to send and receive messages, second best message send reliability. Dedicated phone number for messaging transparency. Leds and buttons provide decent operation of the unit without a phone. Nice detailed weather reports (altho the least accurate of the units, at least in our four day field test — it may not do mountain weather all that well). Multiple users can connect to same device.

CONS Heaviest and largest unit. No text display. Not as power user oriented as Garmin inReach Mini 2. No group messaging. Tracking functionality is basic.

Read out full review of the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator.

Garmin inReach Mini 2 Satellite Communicator

Runner Up | Power User’s Choice

$400 | 100.8 g (3.6 oz)

Garmin Reach Mini 2 are an increased battery life of up to 30 days, faster GPS acquisition, an electronic compass, and it automatically records a user’s activity and passively stores their route so they can retrace it. It also has a new user interface based on Garmin watches

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is a great choice for top communication reliability and most powerful feature set of any satellite communicator. The Garmin inReach Mini 2 has the most reliable message send (only unit to get every message out), it has by far the largest and most robust feature set, including exceptional tracking. It’s the smallest and lightest unit to boot. All your information is available from its screen display, and all features can be activated from the unit without a phone, including reading messages. It also allows group texting, and email messaging. And it has detailed and accurate weather reports. The inReach has a public/private web interface for people to follow your track or see waypoints/message locations on a map. For years this has been the unit we relied on when guiding, doing a challenging/sketchy trip in difficult and remote terrain, or documenting a new route we’re scouting.

All of this performance has been refined and honed over a decade. But that seniority does come with a downside. The inReach shows its venerable roots in its aging and creaky user interface, which by modern standards is complicated with nested menus and tons of features to navigate through (many are power user features not of interest to the average user). You’ll need to do some user manual reading and then practice to learn how to best use the Mini. Unlike the ZOLEO and Somewear, the Mini does not use tri-network communication to seamlessly message between WiFi, Cellular, and Satellite connectivity — that’s because it’s a satellite only device.  It adds to cost (e.g. Somewear and ZOLEO Cellular and WiFi transmitted messages do not count against your totals) and and is serious downside vs. ZOLEO and Somewear. Finally the inReach Mini 2 does not have a dedicated phone number. This adds confusion, especially from folks at home trying to message you via text/SMS.

PROS Lightest and smallest, almost all functionality, messaging, and data available via the front screen; excellent message send reliability, excellent tracking, downloadable waypoints and GPS track. The inReach has a public/private web interface for people to follow your track or see waypoints/message locations on a map and message you, downloadable maps allow you to navigate and see your track via the phone app, detailed weather reports, group texting and emailing (Somewear and ZOLEO do not), and a large number of custom pre-set messages that reduce typing.

CONS High price — double the price of the competition. One of the more expensive monthly data plans. Dated and complicated user interface, no cellular and WiFi messaging, no dedicated phone number, complicated for users to message you back.

Read our full review of Garmin inReach Mini 2 Satellite Communicator.

Somewear Global Hotspot

Ease of Use and Features

$280 | 117.2 g (4.1 oz)

We think of the Somewear Global Hotspot as something of a modernized inReach “Lite.” The Somewear takes some (but not all) of the inReach functionality and updates it with a contemporary user interface so simple it does not have a user manual. As such, it is the best blend of functionality and ease of use. And the Somewear adds seamless text and email messaging between cellular, WiFi and satellite data (no charges for cell and WiFi messages). Like the inReach, The Somewear has excellent full-function tracking and provides a public web interface for people to follow your track on a map. The phone App allows downloading of maps for use when you do not have cell or WiFi data.

On the downside, the Somewear is the least usable stand alone satellite communicator. Basically all you can do without your phone is send an SOS message. This is not surprising with a single on/off button, and a single monochrome LED on the unit (in addition to the protected SOS activation button). [Note: users can also use the power button to toggle tracking on/off on the device.]

PROS Lighter and smaller than the ZOLEO. Reasonable cost data plan. Tri-network connectivity for messaging, locations, and tracking. Has all the basic/necessary messaging and tracking functionality for backcountry use that goes well beyond messaging; including full-function tracking, with web viewing that competes with the Garmin inReach; waypoint setting, and offline maps. Given its functionality it still has a simple and easy to operate App. The Somewear may be the best blend of functionality and ease of use of all the units.

CONS More expensive that ZOLEO or Bivy Stick. Larger & heavier than inReach or Bivy Stick. No group messaging. Of all the units this is the one that relies entirely on phone/App use except for sending an SOS. From the unit itself there are no audible alerts and a single blinking light provides little or no user feedback on the unit’s status. It has the least detailed weather reports (e.g. no wind speed predictions). Mid-level data plan is a good value, but if you want to do any serious tracking, you’ll need to upgrade to the $50 premium plan (the $35 Garmin Recreation plan is actually a better deal if you intend to do a bunch of tracking).

A hiker tests satellite communicators liek zoleo and inreach mounted to shoulder straps

Field testing Satellite Communicators

The Rest of the Best Satellite Communicator Models

ACR Bivy Stick Satellite Communicator

Light, Small, Low Cost, Good Feature Set

$250 | 107.3 g (3.8 oz)

On paper the ACR Bivy Stick looks good and checks all the boxes. It’s small, light, with a full feature set including tri-network communication for tracking. And it has a very attractive price! We love its compact form and the open hole at the top to attach to a ‘biner. It has a dedicated phone number which makes messaging so much easier and transparent — and it supports group messaging. Messages, tracking points and locations are sent tri-network, cellular, WiFi or satellite. The Bivy Stick uses the same Iridium network, antenna, modem, and transmission power as inReach. So in theory it should have the same level of connectivity and message reliability. And it has the basic functionality — messaging, sending locations, tracking, weather reports and of course sending out SOS messages. It has a nice 120 hr battery life and uses Bluetooth Low Energy – BLE to conserve power when connected to your phone. And it has a modern app, which is fairly easy to use. The Bivy Stick has no display and just a few buttons and leds for basic functions, so you’ll be doing most operations via your phone. The good news is that for it’s most used functions, the two multi-colored leds do give you some idea of what’s going on, and you can stop and initiate tracking and send check-in messages without a phone.

Tantalizingly Close to a Top Pick

The ACR Bivy Stick is tantalizingly close to achieving its full potential and competing head to head with our top picks. As of now, its tracking is basic, a bit buggy and unpredictable. Some aspects of its operation are confusing. In particular, it is confusing what functions can be done only via the App vs only via the physical Bivy Stick — which of those functions are carried out via WiFi, Cellular, or Satellite only — and whether your phone GPS or the Bivy Stick GPS is being used for locations! This does matter, including significant battery drain if you chose the wrong option. Finally, as far as we can tell, the Bivy Website is under revision and has little functionality. If Bivy were to improve upon these, and we are hopeful they can, it would rightfully compete for a place in our top picks. That would make us very happy. Stay tuned as we continue to test updates, and refinements from Bivy.

PROS Only $200 (reduced from $350!). Small and light. Dedicated phone number. Group Messaging. Good battery life. On paper it has all the basic/necessary messaging and tracking functionality for backcountry as well as weather and SOS messaging. App design is decent, and not hard to use. Top tier service plan is a good deal for moderate to heavy users.

CONS Unit and App’s functionality and performance are still a little rough around the edges and can be confusing at times. Tracking is very basic. Currently it has high battery drain in iOS. With no display and just a few buttons the unit relies heavily on a connected phone for operation.

Read our full review of the ACR Bivy Stick.

SPOT Gen4 Satellite Communicator

Budget/Minimalist | Limited Functionality

5 oz $150

SPOT Gen4: Are a new case, 4 AAA batteries and an ounce more weight. For that you get a more rugged and ergonomic case and significantly longer battery life — 78–156 days of tracking, 8hrs/day (60min intervals). It also adds Motion Activated tracking – SPOT Gen4 sends tracks at a chosen rate for as long as the device is turned on and moving, conserving battery life. And this solves the problem of turning it off at rest stops and forgetting to turn it back on.

If you are on very limited funds, and are willing to go with basic 1-way messages and SOS services, the SPOT Gen4 Satellite GPS Messenger with the Basic Service Plan is still the lowest cost option, especially if you use your SPOT on a monthly basis. It is also a good choice for those that desire simplicity in their backcountry experience. Like other Satellite GPS Messenger SOS Devices, the SPOT Gen adds an important margin of safety for remote backcountry trips — but without becoming an intrusive piece of electronics. So NO 2-way texting… but at the press of a button, you can call for emergency help. There are also buttons to let loved ones know you are safe, or that you need a non-emergency pickup. Messages arrive at your contacts with a GPS location and a link to a map to see where you are. The SPOT doesn’t let you create and send messages in the backcountry like the Garmin inReach units, but it also costs a lot less! That being said, data plans are the bulk of the cost to operate a satellite communicator, so in the long run the SPOT is not going to be all that much cheaper.

Compared to Garmin units, SPOT Gen3 uses replaceable (4) AAA Batteries. And a single set of lithium batteries lasts a long time — 78–156 days of tracking, 8hrs/day (60min intervals) — far and away the longest life of any major satellite communicator. The batteries can be easily replaced mid-trip with a spare set. In comparison, the inReach has less tracking time and a non-removable battery that has to be recharged via an external USB battery. But this battery efficiency comes at a price. The SPOT’s low 0.4 watt transmission power, and the fact that its patch antenna is rarely if ever oriented properly (needs to be flat and facing up!). This means fewer successful waypoints/messages sent in difficult reception areas. And the SPOT’s GlobalStar Satellite Network has less coverage than inReach’s Iridium Network. Or field experience corroborates this lower reliability.

Finally, depending on how much you use your unit, the annual service plan for the SPOT may or may not be less expensive than the as-needed Freedom Plan for the inReach. Note that over time the service plan is far and above the major cost for the inReach or SPOT.

PROS Low cost, simple. Long battery life, easily replaced AAA batteries. No need for a phone to operate it. Less intrusive to backcountry experience vs. tempting 2-way satellite communicators like Garmin inReach.

CONS Only 1-way communication (a serious disadvantage!). Less reliable communication. Heavier than the competition. No custom message compose. Data plan not that cheap, so in the long run not really saving much money vs. 2-way devices like Zoleo or Bivy Stick.

spot x 2 way satellite communicator in orange and black

SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Messenger

Use a 2-Way Satellite Communicator Without a Smartphone

7 oz  $250

If you want to compose and send messages and don’t want to also carry a smartphone then this is your device. Recently SPOT entered the 2-way texting/communication arena with the SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Messenger with Bluetooth. Among other things it has a built in keyboard in an attempt to make it useable without pairing with a smartphone (although you can use it with one if you want).

While the full, blackberry style keyboard makes message typing a lot easier, it also seems to add weight and bulk. As such at 7 ounces it’s almost three times the weight of the Garmin inReach Mini.

We’ve found it much buggier and harder to use than the inReach and SPOT, and technical support and billing are not stellar.

Finally, it uses a satellite network (GlobalStar) with less coverage than the inReach (Iridium Network) and we assume (based on it’s 250 hour battery life) it has the same 0.4 watt transmitter vs the 1.6 watts for the inReach.

Thus, we’ve experienced poorer reliability of sending and receiving messages and tracking points, especially in difficult areas like canyons and heavy tree cover. As such, we recommend you consider paying the extra dollars for the inReach Mini if you want a 2-way satellite messenger or go with the SPOT Gen3 for a lot less money.

Performance Criteria for the Best Satellite Communicators

To date, no Satellite Communicator has all these Performance Criteria, altho a few like the Zoleo and Garmin inReach Mini 2 come closest. But with some improvements to their phone apps and some software/firmware improvements, Bivy Stick and Somewear could easily close the gap.

  • SOS capabilities [essential capability]
  • 2-way messaging [essential capability]
  • Pre-set location sends to contacts [essential capability]. Custom location sends a plus.
  • Tri-network communication for messaging, location sends, and tracking [highly desirable]
  • Multi-day tracking, web viewable, with individually saved tracks & ability to export tracks to a .gpx file [highly desirable, nearing essential capability]
  • Group messaging [highly desirable]
  • Good battery life
  • Buttons and LEDs on unit capable of basic control and understanding of the unit’s status and what it’s doing
  • Display desirable but not necessary

How to Best Use a Satellite Communicator

Bring a Backup Battery!

It’s a critical safety precaution to make sure your satellite communicator is always available for use (especially if you are using it in tracking mode during a trip). So Bring an external USB battery in the range of 6,000 to 10,000 mAh.

  • Most communicators |  The Anker PowerCore 1000 above. At only 6.4 oz this is the lightest option f you need to recharge your communicator. And it can easily charge larger Android and iPhones, as well as most other electronics.
  • SPOT Gen 4 | carry a spare set (4) lithium AAA batteries
  • Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear for more detail on lightweight batteries and re-charging.

Anker Powercore 10000 Battery Charger

Anker Powercore 10000 Battery Charger

6.4 oz | $26

Weighing just 6.4 oz, this powerhouse, rechargeable USB battery can charge most phones multiple times — great for use on trips longer than three days. And unlike many “smart” batteries The Anker Powercore 10,000 will detect & charge low drain devices like a fitbit or smart watches.

Pre-Trip Testing

Test your unit with your emergency contact(s) before leaving for your trip:

  1. Do a quick pre-trip, test hike and make sure your emergency contacts can see both your “location messages” and “tracking waypoints” on the tracking webpage.
  2. Send out your basic message types, like OK, Custom and Help (SPOT and inReach) and make sure that each of your emergency contacts receives them
  3. Make sure your emergency contacts can reply to your text messages and independently send texts to you. Again this is best done with test texts before you leave on your trip
  4. Battery drain test. Put your Satellite Communicator in tracking mode if it has one and take it for a 4-8 hour hike on the weekend. Send a few locations and messages along the way. After the hike, check the remaining battery percentage– do the calculations on % battery drain per hour. Use this to estimate whether you’ll need a recharging battery on your trip. See Batteries and Re-charging below.

Account Management for your Satellite Communicator

  • If you have a limited text plan, know that all incoming messages count towards your plan total—none are free. So let your contacts know to only reply to text messages when needed, like when you ask for a weather report. If 2-3 people reply to each message it can quickly add up.
  • Consider giving a trusted person (knowledgeable about the account) access to your account. See Trip Plan for an example.

Agree on Meaning of Messages and What to Do

  • Make sure that you and your emergency contacts know/agree on the meaning of the basic message types, like OK, Custom and Help (SPOT and inReach). And that they know what to do for Custom and Help messages. See Trip Plan for examples.
  • Have an agreement on what to do when tracking points stop and do not resume in an agreed upon time (i.e. within a 12-hour time period).
  • Have an agreement on what to do when the Satellite Communicator “goes completely dead,” i.e. no tracking points and no messages. See Trip Plan for examples.

All of the above is best done in a Trip Plan. Here is a  link to Template Trip Plan Document that you can fill out and use: Full Trip Plan for Backpacking.

Tracking Mode for Satellite Communicator

  • Our suggestion is to use the tracking mode (10 minute interval seems about best). If nothing else, at the end of your trip you’ll have a nice map of your route and your friends may enjoy following your progress and adventures real-time.

Most important, Tracking Mode can alert your emergency contact of a problem even if you can’t. 

  • In a bad accident (especially when off-trail and solo), you may be severely injured (i.e. a serious fall, getting struck by a tree limb, etc.) such that you can’t activate the SOS function of your device. Your tracking (bread crumb trail) will let your emergency contact monitoring the trip (and SAR personnel) know your last known location within 10 minutes.
    • Your lack of momentum will tip off your emergency contact that something is not right and
    • It will greatly accelerate locating and getting help to you.

Avoid turning the Satellite Communicator off at breaks

  • (my experience is that I inevitably forget to turn it back on).
  • When in tracking mode, carry your inReach or SPOT in the correct position for best transmission (see owner’s manual).
    • For the inReach and Bivy Stick (and other devices with a visible antenna sticking out this is with the antenna pointing towards the sky and free of your body or other obstructions.
    • For a flat Satellite Communicator without a visible antenna (ZOLEO, Somewear, SPOT, etc.), the device should be oriented so the face is pointing to the sky (unit horizontal). This is difficult to do while hiking.
    • If you use the clip provided with the unit, it usually ends up hanging vertically (face of the unit pointing away from your pack/body). While not optimal, it seems to work for many people.
 How to carry a Satellite Communicator on a backpack shoulder strap

Good antenna orientation: The Mountain Laurel Designs Shoulder Strap Pocket  is an excellent way to carry an inReach with optimal vertical antenna orientation. It’s also very easy to access while walking.

Improving Performance in Difficult Reception Areas

Improving performance in difficult reception areas boils down to increasing your view of the sky. That is, increasing your line-of-sight/unobstructed-sky to the satellites you are trying to reach, along with proper antenna orientation. In other words, your transmission reliability may be impaired if you can’t see a good portion of the sky (e.g. heavy trees, deep canyons, etc.).

  • This is especially important for SPOT 1-way units like the Gen 3 because in bad reception areas, you will get no indication of whether you have successfully transmitted messages.
  • Make sure your antenna is properly oriented (see end of Tracking Mode above). This is especially important in difficult receptions areas!
  • Physically move to where you can get a larger, unobstructed portion of the sky. Try walking to a large clearing in the trees. Or moving to a wider point in a canyon with more view of the sky. You may even need to hike up the canyon wall some to increase the percentage of sky you can see. I had to do this once in the Grand Canyon to initiate a helicopter rescue.

Best Satellite Communicator Limitations

Sometimes a timely rescue is not possible. A Trip Plan and/or a Satellite Communicator is not the solution to everything. I have been in some extremely bad situations where rescue was not feasible even if I had sent out an SOS. As they say, the best rescue is self-rescue. And to state the obvious, Goal One is not needing rescue in the first place. So be sensible and safe out there.

Finally, a Satellite Communicator should never be considered a license to take unnecessary risks.


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