2019 Best Satellite Messengers – SOS Devices
Beyond the classic 10 essentials, modern SOS devices (like our top pick, the Garmin inReach Mini) 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.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series
- The Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT? – what’s the best Satellite Messenger. And how to best use both the inReach and SPOT
- Why You Should Make a Trip Plan – how to create one. it might be faster and simpler than you think!
What is in This Article?
- 2019 Picks for the Best Best Satellite Messengers – SOS Devices
- Which is best? – Comparing inReach vs SPOT – A comparison of the pros and cons of the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger. And yes, I have a strong favorite
- Tips on How to Best Use an inReach or SPOT – 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
Both of these Satellite Messengers can call for a rescue and track your route, but the iReach can do far more… Pictured L to R
- My older $250 DeLorme inReach SE (current model $400 Garmin InReach SE+)
- and the SPOT Satellite Messenger.
- For the SPOT a spare set of lithium AAA batteries.
- Also Pictured is the the 5.4 oz EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery and a better alternative is the Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery 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.
- Finally the Anker PowerCore 10000 (only 6.4 oz) is the lightest option f you need to recharge your electronics a lot. It can charge the inReach many times, a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x.
- See more on batteries below.
Both SPOT and inReach Perform Well – either is far better than not carrying anything!
I have used both the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger extensively over years. Both of these units will do the job. They will send out location and emergency messages as well as record tracking waypoints along your route. Either of these units is way better than not carrying anything at all. And they are the perfect complement to your Trip Plan.
Comparison Table – Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT
Advantages of SPOT Satellite Messenger
- The SPOT Satellite Messenger is less expensive* than the inReach, $150 vs $250
- It is lighter at 4.8 oz vs 6.9 oz
- A single set of lithium batteries lasts a long time—about 120-150 hours of tracking/use in my 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 receptions areas.
- 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: Over time the service plan is far and above the major cost for both the inReach and SPOT
Advantages of Garmin inReach
- The Garmin inReach has 2-way communication similar to a Sat. Phone, but the device and service plan cost a lot less than a Sat Phone. Garmin calls it “The satellite communicator that allows you to type, send and receive, track and SOS all from the palm of your hand.”
- Better emergency options:
- 2-way communication is a BIG DEAL! You can send and receive text messages. As such, you can get interactive help like medical advice (assessment and treatment) and a ton of other useful information like helicopter landing sites, best evacuation routes, etc.
- And you might even get enough information to help yourself and not need a rescue
- If you do need a rescue, the authorities will know what the problem is and therefore show up with the right personnel and equipment. [vs. a “blind” SOS message from a SPOT where they have no idea what the emergency/problem is.]
- Finally, you’ll get some peace of mind knowing that help is on the way, and where and when they will arrive
- More reliable messaging:
- 4x higher transmission power, 1.6 watts vs 0.4 watts for the SPOT. In my experience this gives you a higher percentage of successfully sent messages vs. SPOT. This is especially true in difficult transmission areas like dense tree cover and/or tight canyons
- Better satellite network (Iridium) equals faster and more reliable message transmission
- You get confirmation that your tracking points have been sent. Again, especially helpful if you are a difficult transmission area
- You can request and receive a weather report for where you are hiking/climbing
- Ease of use: Compose and send/read messages via your smartphone. It’s pretty much the same as regular texting. (You can send them via the unit too, although the typing is tedious).
- Cost: There is an option for a month-to-month service plan which might be less expensive than SPOTs annual plan
Note: skip the Garmin inReach Explorer+ and use the Garmin inReach SE+. Your smartphone with GAIA is far superior for the GPS mapping functionality then anything the Explorer adds. See How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS.
Conclusion – so which is the Best Satellite Messenger inReach vs SPOT?
The Garmin inReach SE+ is by a large margin the better device. The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger’s lack of 2-way messaging, lower transmission power, difficulty to carry in the optimal antenna orientation, and no confirmation that messages or waypoints have been successfully sent are problematic. Especially since there is an alternative unit with similar cost that outperforms it (the inReach). And there just are times when you need to send out a message but are in a crappy reception location (like a deep forested canyon). It’s good (possibly critical) to have higher transmission power and know that your message actually went out!
In summary: you might pay a slightly higher annual price (unit and service plan) for the inReach vs. SPOT, but you get far more functionality, safety, and peace of mind from the inReach. That being said, the SPOT is still a valid Satellite Messenger and is way, way better than not carrying anything at all.
b) Tips on How to Best Use an inReach or SPOT
Make a Trip Plan
- A Trip Plan and a Satellite Messenger are complementary—you are safest when you have both
- How to make Trip Plan: See Why You Should Make a Trip Plan and Leave it with Someone for Every Trip
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 like the picture above
- 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
- InReach only, 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
- InReach battery drain test. Put your inReach in tracking mode 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 Recharging below.
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.
- My 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 moment 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 this is with the antenna pointing towards the sky and free of your body or other obstructions.
- The SPOT 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 SPOT, 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 all 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 use 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.
- For both SPOT and inReach, delete all pre-trip/at-home messages and tracking points. This will make tracking the trip a lot easier than having a thousand(s) mile long track line from your home to the start of your trip.
- inReach only: 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.
Batteries and Recharging
See Best Lightweight Backpacking Electronics Gear for more detail on lightweight batteries and recharging.
- For the SPOT 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.
- For the inReach consider carrying an external USB battery in the range of 6000 to 100o mAh. (This can be also be used to recharge most of your other electronics.)
- See lead picture of SPOT and inReach for a visual on these battery options.
Always Bring a Backup Battery!
It’s 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:
c) The limitations of Satellite Messengers
Sometimes a timely rescue is not possible. A Trip Plan and/or a Satellite Messenger like the Garmin inReach and the SPOT 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 do silly things or take unnecessary risks.
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