3 Best Satellite Messengers 2020
Beyond the classic 10 essentials, modern Satellite Messengers provide a larger boost to your overall outdoor safety than any other gear available. They 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.
The Newcomers | Zoleo & Somewear
Revised June 2020: To include an extensive head-to-head field test between the Garmin inReach, and newcomers Zoleo Satellite Communicator & Somewear Global Hotspot.
We’ve been using Satellite Messengers since the first SPOT Gen 1 unit over a decade ago. Since then we’ve tested and used every subsequent version of SPOT and inReach all over the world. And until last year they had little competition. But a release of an inexpensive Iridium chipset has spawned some serious challengers to the inReach and SPOT. Read on to find out just how much of a challenge.
What is in This Guide
- How to Best Use a Satellite Messenger – Especially how to get reception in difficult areas, setup messaging, and how best to configure/use their tracking modes
- The limitations of Satellite Messengers – what they can’t do for you
- You Need a Trip Plan – If you’re carrying a Satellite Messenger, your work is only half done. To close the safety loop, you also need a trip Plan. So read Why You Should Make a Trip Plan and how to create one. It’s faster and simpler than you think and it may save your life.
Below are our top picks based on our recent-head-to-head backcountry field test. 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.
Garmin inReach, Somewear, & Zoleo Best of the Best
And just to be clear, after months of field testing we determined that these are the best three units on the market. They are all great and worth your consideration. Depending on your use and budget one may be a better fit for you.
Top Pick | Garmin inReach Mini Satellite Messenger
3.5 oz $350 (current price)
Highlights: Top performance in almost every category, best message reliability, smallest & lightest, visual display, almost all operations can be done without a phone
Look no further than the Garmin inReach Mini If reliability, top performance and a full set of features are your criteria. The inReach Mini was the best performer by almost every measure. It 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 (Somewear and Zoleo do not). 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. In summary, it is the unit we rely 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 seamlessly message between WiFi, Cellular, and Satellite connectivity — that’s because it’s a satellite only device. This adds confusion, especially from folks at home trying to message you, and it adds to cost (e.g. Somewear and Zoleo Cellular and WiFi transmitted messages do not count against your totals).
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 One of the more expensive monthly data plans, complicated user interface, no cellular and WiFi messaging, no dedicated phone number, complicated for users to message you back. Can painfully compose messages from the unit if your phone went dead, but you really need to compose messages via your phone (but Zoleo and Somewear have no ability at all to compose messages via the unit)
#2 Ease of Use & Features | Somewear Global Hotspot
4.2 oz $300 (current price)
Highlights: Best blend features and an easy to use modern app, seamless messages between cellular, WiFi, satellite, good size & weight
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, it does tracking and provides a public web interface for people to follow your track on a map, and the phone App allows downloading of maps for use when you do not have cell or WiFi data — albeit all these functions are more limited than on the inReach — nonetheless they get the basic job done.
On the downside, the Somewear is the least usable stand alone unit. 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 Only slightly heavier and larger than the inReach. Reasonable cost data plan. Has all the basic/necessary messaging and tracking functionality for backcountry use that goes well beyond messaging, including tracking, waypoint setting, and offline maps. Given its functionality (far greater than the Zoleo) it still has a simple and easy to operate App. The Somewear is probably the best blend of functionality and ease of use of all the units.
CONS 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. Tracking is basic/adequate but is not as robust as inReach. 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 plan is actually a better deal if you intend to do a bunch of tracking).
#3 Value Messaging | Zoleo Satellite Communicator
5.2 oz $200 (Amazon)
Highlights: Lowest cost both for unit and data plan, ease of use, only unit to have dedicated phone number for totally transparent messaging between cellular, WiFi, and satellite.
The Zoleo Satellite Communicator is the messaging ease of use Champ. It is the only unit to have 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. Like the Somewear it seamlessly sends/receives messages via cellular, WiFi and satellite (no message charge for cell and WiFi). The Zoleo was nearly as reliable sending messages as the inReach Mini. The Zoleo is also the least expensive unit, costing $100 less than the inReach Mini and Somewear. And if you take into account that it doesn’t track, it has the least expensive messaging data plan. 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 for operation without a phone.
But it ends at messaging and sending out an SOS. The Zoleo does not track, has no mapping capabilities in the Phone App, nor does it have any web app where users can see your track or messages on a map. There are no group messages (more of a pain than you might think at first blush). And you can’t download all your message locations to even get a basic track of your trip. So again, when we say messaging only (albeit you can send messages with location), we mean it. As such, power users or people that want a trip track will likely look elsewhere. Finally the Zoleo is the heaviest and bulkiest of the devices.
PROS Least expensive unit, least expensive message data plan (if you take into account it sends no tracking points), easiest to send and receive messages, second best message send reliability, only unit with a dedicated phone number for messaging transparency, leds and buttons provide decent operation of 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). Good battery life, but lack of tracking means that it will inherently use less battery than the inReach or Somewear.
CONS Heaviest and largest unit, no mapping on app, no tracking, no public web interface for people to follow your track or see waypoints/message locations on a map, no downloading of waypoints or location messages.
Field testing Satellite Messengers
Budget Option | SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger
4 oz $150
Currently $100 Amazon
If you are on very limited funds, and are willing to go with basic 1-way messages and SOS services the SPOT Gen3 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 Gen3 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!
Compared to Garmin units, SPOT Gen3 uses replaceable AAA Batteries. And a single set of lithium batteries lasts a long time—about 120-150 hours of tracking/use in our field experience. 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, based on my field experience 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.
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.
If You Don’t Carry a Smartphone
SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Messenger
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 $50 for the inReach Mini if you want a 2-way satellite messenger or go with the SPOT Gen3 for a lot less money.
How to Best Use a Satellite Messenger
Test your unit with your emergency contact(s) before leaving for your trip:
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- Battery drain test. Put your Satellite Messenger 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.
- 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 unit “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.
- 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. And 1) your lack of momentum will tip off your emergency contact that something is not right and 2) it will greatly accelerate locating and getting help to you.
- Avoid turning the unit 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 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 flat units without a visabel antenna, 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.
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.
Batteries and Recharging
See Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear for more detail on lightweight batteries and re-charging.
- Consider carrying an external USB battery in the range of 6,000 to 10,000 mAh. (This can be also be used to recharge most of your other electronics.)
- For the SPOT Gen 3 carry a spare set (4) four AAA lithium batteries. Note: once the SPOT starts to blink red you don’t have a lot of operational time left.
Always Bring a Backup Battery!
It’s a critical safety precaution to make sure your inReach is always available for use (especially if you are using it in tracking mode during a trip). My three favorite lightweight and high capacity backup batteries are:
- Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (pictured)- With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
- EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery This has slightly more capacity (tested) than the Jackery battery but has a slower charging rate and only a built-in micro-USB cable (altho you can attach your own lightening cable to charge an iPhone). It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 about 1.4x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 2.3x.
- Anker PowerCore 10000 (only 6.4 oz) this is the lightest option f you need to recharge your inReach a lot. It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x. Its limitation is that it only has one USB port for a cable.
- And of course for the SPOT Gen 3 a spare set of lithium AAA batteries.
Sometimes a timely rescue is not possible. A Trip Plan and/or a Satellite Messenger 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 Messenger should never be considered a license to take unnecessary risks.
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