The Best Satellite Messengers and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) for 2019
Be prepared. That old Boy Scout adage. All of us going into the backcountry carry some variation of the 10 essentials theme--map, compass, extra clothing and food, headlamp/flashlight, first aid kit, extra water, matches/fire starter, sunglasses/sunscreen, knife—but how many of us are prepared for a real emergency, the kind of life saving emergency that requires immediate action?
We researched top professional and customer reviews on satellite messengers and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs). We narrowed down a list of 26 units to the top six units that will serve most outdoor people’s weight, budget, battery life, and communication needs. Our top pick for most people is the Garmin inReach Mini. For a full featured satellite messenger, we recommend the Garmin inReach Explorer+. If you’re looking for a messenger with a keyboard, we recommend the Spot X. Our budget pick is the Spot Gen3. And for a pure rescue beacon with no subscription fees, the ACR ResQLink+ PLB and the Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 are our top picks. We also considered some of the newest arrivals in the field such as the SatPaq, Somewear Global Hotspot, and goTenna Mesh.
Why you should carry a satellite messenger device
Bill Montgomery had hiked the Pioneer trail over and over again. His beloved dogs were buried in the forest along Cement Creek near Crested Butte, Colorado. On Christmas day, 2018 the temperatures hovered in the single digits. A deep early season snow forced Montgomery to post hole, plunging knee and waist deep into the snow. While sitting down to take off his powder filled boots, he passed out. Upon gaining consciousness he discovered his feet were frozen – “like blocks of ice.” Exposed for several hours to the snow and cold before being found by another hiker, Montgomery was dangerously hypothermic and severely frostbitten. The Crested Butte News reported that both legs would probably have to be amputated.
Otter Olshansky was a Triple Triple Crown hiker--he’d walked the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian trail, the 2,600-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile-long Continental Divide Trail several times each. In November 2015, while walking the CDT in northern New Mexico, The Otter became stranded by a snowstorm. Trying desperately to survive, he sought shelter in a campground restroom, constructed snowshoes and skis out of scraps and burned down a wooden storage shed hoping the smoke would draw attention. Eventually The Otter succumbed to dehydration, starvation and hypothermia. Another CDT hiker found his body the following spring.
How quickly and unexpectedly a person can find themselves in serious trouble, even on familiar trails, no matter how experienced they are. If Montgomery or Otter had been able to send out an SOS with a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon, the outcome would have been different. Press the SOS button on your palm-sized device and within a matter of minutes, search and rescue responds to your emergency no matter where or what it is.
But what exactly are satellite messengers and personal locator beacons (PLBs)? How are they different, how do they work, how much do they cost and which one should you take on your adventures? We dove into all your questions about how these systems work to determine what device will best serve you in your outdoor pursuits.
How we Researched
Here at Treeline Review we’ve culled the S.E.N.D (Satellite Emergency Notification Device) field of more than 26 items down to the 6 best for your adventures. I relied on personal experience, talked to many other outdoors people, did some informal surveys among Facebook hiking groups and read numerous reviews from other sites including: REI and Amazon, Adventure Alan, Andrew Skurka, Backpacking Light, DC Rainmaker, Hiking Guy, Outdoor Gear Lab, Outside Pursuits, Section Hiker, and Two Way Radio Talk.
We’re not including in our review actual satellite phones or cell phones as SOS devices. Even the lightest model satellite phone, the Iridium Extreme 9575, weighs a half pound, costs over a thousand dollars (they can be rented for $50 a week) and requires a pricey $50 a month subscription plan that gives a user 10 minutes of talk or text time. One outgoing text burns one minute of airtime.
Cell phones work as long as you have land based cell towers within range. What happens if an emergency doesn’t coincide with coverage? Some new advances in cell phone connectivity to satellite and land based networks (Somewear Global Hotspot, SatPaq and goTenna Mesh) may change this in the near future. But for now, we aren’t seriously recommending the cell phone-based systems that are just coming to market.
About Dean Krakel
Working as a photojournalist specializing in the outdoors has taken me to numerous remote and sketchy locations. And yet, up until just a few years ago, I never carried any kind of personal emergency device on any of my backcountry trips. I liked being on my own in the wild, dependent upon and responsible for no one but myself. Out of touch, out of reach, off the grid.
When I began documenting the 3,100 mile long Continental Divide Trail in 2016, I caved in to my family and friends and bought a inReach satellite messenger. Along with the emergency SOS button, the inReach had two-way texting capability, a GPS, and a tracking feature that allowed people to follow my explorations on their computer screens. I could also get a weather forecast.
For the five months we spent walking north from the Mexican border on the Continental Divide Trail in 2018, my hiking partner Morgan Dzak and I relied on our Garmins. She carried an inReach Explorer+. When we misplaced each other, our inReaches reunited us. After an intense lightning storm in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, we used our inReaches to rendezvous with a friend who trucked us to lower ground. Morgan used her Garmin to stay in touch with family and friends. When the need arose, and cell coverage was non-existent, we used the Garmin to summon a much-needed mountain taxi.
Last autumn while hiking solo on the CDT in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, I was “rescued” by an SAR team when I inadvertently pushed the SOS button on my inReach while sleeping with it under my head to keep the batteries warm. I knew nothing about being rescued until a helicopter was hovering above my camp. You can read that story originally published in the Colorado Sun.
No emergency satellite messenger or beacon is failsafe. There are simple tests that you can do to ensure that yours is working. See your owners manual or call the units customer service number to find out how. Ultimately your safety in the backcountry is your responsibility.
That incident sparked a great curiosity about satellite messengers. I wanted to find out more about them and what other emergency units are available. Since I’ve become somewhat evangelical about being able to self rescue or rescue others, I wanted to know which units I’d recommend to my friends and acquaintances.
How do satellite messengers and PLBs work?
All satellite messengers and PLB’s utilize satellite networks to relay SOS alerts to search and rescue response centers. PLB’s use the International Cospas-Sarsat satellite network. Spot uses its own GlobalStar satellites, which are "near-global" (missing the polar regions and some mid-ocean regions). Garmin relies on Iridium satellites, which are truly global.
No matter what kind of messenger device you use, or satellite system your SOS is pinged from, the message is received by an emergency response team that coordinates the rescue. SOS alerts sent from satellite messengers are received by the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center in Houston,Texas. Alerts from PLB’s are received by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and relayed to the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
Twenty-four hours a day, 7 days a week, teams monitor incoming SOS calls spanning the globe. These teams of responders bring up your coordinates on mapping software. They call your emergency contacts for information about what you’re doing, your experience, age, medical history, itinerary, if you’re solo or in a group, and what your food and gear situation is. They will also contact you if your device has two-way texting or emailing capability.
Within minutes of receiving your alert, the search and rescue organization nearest you is contacted and given the known information about your situation.
In most cases help, by whatever means necessary--be it helicopter, airplane, horse, foot, four-wheel-drive, ORV, raft, kayak, boat, snowmobiles, snowcat, skis and snowshoes, police, sheriff’s deputies, military personal, national guard units, SAR volunteers and specially trained canines--is usually on the way to you within an hour of getting the call.
A search and rescue effort can involve several organizations, dozens of people, hundreds of cumulative labor-hours and a wide array of expensive technology. Just launching a search and rescue helicopter can cost over a thousand dollars an hour. Although each county and state has different search and rescue protocols, in New Mexico for instance, the State Police organize a search. In Maine, the Warden Service is in charge. In both states none of the expense is passed on to you.
“Search and rescue is all done by volunteers,” said Chris Boyer, executive director of the National Association for Search and Rescue. “There is no billing component. It’s free throughout the United States.”
The reason for this is because search and rescue teams don’t want people to avoid hitting the SOS button because they’re worried about costs. “Delay,” said Boyer, “could cause someone serious harm.”
Although search and rescue is also free in Canada, in other countries the cost could be passed on to you. Best to ask questions before you embark on a global trip. Likewise, if your rescue involves any kind of medical component--a flight for life, ambulance or hospital--you’ll be footing the bill for those charges.
Nor will pushing the SOS be cost free if you’ve intentionally or recklessly (lots of latitude in those definitions) endangered yourself and the rescue team, skied out of bounds at a resort, broken the law or are a habitual SOS button pusher. In that case, charges are filed at the discretion of the rescuing organizations.
Can I purchase rescue insurance?
An emergency device user can purchase insurance to cover medical evacuations. GEOS offers GEOS Travel Safety insurance (starting at $18 per year) to cover those kind of charges as does Global Rescue and a few other companies. Some personal and travel insurance policies cover backcountry medical emergency costs. Most do not. GEOS also offers global medical evacuation insurance, starting at $110 for 30 days or $175 for a year of coverage. Again, best to do a little research and read the fine print. A good place to start looking into the why and what of backcountry insurance coverage is Expedition Portal.
It’s important to note the incredible expense of air ambulance trips, even with insurance. This recent NPR story documents a backcountry rescue that cost more than $50,000.
Is it possible to accidentally send an SOS?
False alarms triggered by satellite messengers and PLB’s occasionally happen. As I wrote above, it happened to me. My rescue was initiated by a faulty screen lock and SOS switch on the inReach--design flaws that have been corrected in newer models.
“Ten years ago when (satellite messengers) came out, that first generation, we saw the vast majority of false alarms,” said Boyer. “There are two extremes on why we have false alarms. a) mechanical malfunction and B) stupidity.”
Boyer told the story of a skier in Colorado that received a PLB as a Christmas present and assumed it was an avalanche beacon, turning it on everytime he went into the backcountry. At the other extreme, a group of Boy Scouts hiking in the Grand Canyon called in a search and rescue team three separate times because they’d run out of water. People have hit the SOS button simply because they’re cold, or sore or low on food.
What kind of emergency unit do you need? Personal locator beacon or satellite messenger?
Personal Locator Beacon
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) like the Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1 or ACR ResQLink+ have one function: to send an SOS. These small, lightweight, inexpensive and nearly indestructible units offer no texting or two-way communication; they won’t function as a GPS, won’t track you with waypoints, give you a weather report or link to social media. As far as keeping the people back home informed of your whereabouts and state of health, using a PLB is a “no news is good news” thing.
All the satellite messengers we considered come with a monthly subscription cost (a subject so detailed, that we’ll running a separate story on just subscription plans for these devices). But there are no monthly subscription charges for using a personal locator beacon. Not having a subscription fee is one of the main advantages of a PLB. One less thing to worry about if your credit card is stolen or your debit card draws from an empty bank account mid-adventure.
PLB’s have to be registered with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) beacon database. The registration is free.
When you send out an S.O.S. from a Personal Locator Beacon, your ping along with the coordinates of your location is received by NOAA and then forwarded to the United States Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. They take over organizing your rescue, responding or contacting the nearest search and rescue organization just like GEOS does for satellite messengers.
Having the Air Force in your back pocket may be a really handy thing if you’re poking around in foreign lands. Might be a lot better to have the Air Force responding to a personal crisis in the Sudan then relying on local search and rescue, if a country actually has such a thing. Some don’t.
Satellite messengers offer emergency global response just like PLBs. But before you travel, you should definitely check each company’s coverage to be sure.
Another advantage of PLBs is that batteries last for years (if not used for an emergency). This means you never have to remember to charge your device. But once the batteries are low (you don’t want to go into the woods with low battery on any unit), they have to be sent back to the factory for a checkup and battery replacement.
One reason you may prefer a satellite messenger over a PLB is that once an SOS is sent by a personal locator beacon, it cannot be canceled. Once initiated, your PLB will bring you a rescue team whether you meant to press that button or not. You also can’t communicate via PLB with rescuers to let them know the nature of your emergency.
Still, a PLB has some perks when compared to more sophisticated satellite messengers. If you’re interested in a lightweight, inexpensive emergency-only device that provides a strong signal (like all emergency devices it has to have an unobstructed view of the sky) anywhere in the world, that has little upkeep, and no monthly fee, then a PLB may be what you’re looking for.
Satellite messengers, like the ever popular Spot Gen3 and Spot X, Garmin inReach Mini and Garmin inReach Explorer+, differ from PLB’s in that most models (the SPOT Gen3 being the exception) allow two-way non-emergency communication by text or email with nearly anyone you put into your contact information.
A satellite messenger gives you the ability to cancel an SOS and communicate with rescuers about the severity of your emergency.
Satellite messengers also give you the ability to turn a tracking application on and drop waypoints along your route. These waypoints can be timed at intervals that span anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. You can use these waypoints to help you navigate in the field or to retrace your route on a map later at home. You can share your tracking with anyone you send a link too, which can be done from your device in the field, allowing them to follow your route in almost real time on their computers at home.
To be honest, I’ve never had much luck with using my satellite messenger as a GPS. Newer models (mine is an older unit) are more GPS friendly. I have, however, used the tracking feature. I know my family appreciates me sharing the tracking link with them.
You don’t have to utilize the tracking feature to be rescued. You do however, have to have the ability to hit that S.O.S. button in an emergency. When you send out an S.O.S. from your satellite messenger, it relays your coordinates to the search and rescue coordination center (in this case GEOS) with near pinpoint accuracy.
Case in point: This winter there was a fatal avalanche near where I live in Crested Butte, Colorado. Two very experienced backcountry skiers were training for the Grand Traverse ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen, a gnarly route that crosses the West Elk Mountains. They were carrying satellite messengers as well as avalanche beacons. With the tracking feature on, their families were able to follow their progress on a training exercise. All was well until their tracking waypoints stopped moving at Death Pass and never moved again. Something had gone terribly wrong. Search and rescue was contacted. From the coordinates given out at their last known location, SAR knew that the pair were together at the bottom of the slide. Those coordinates got searchers close enough to pick up the signal from their avalanche beacons to locate them.
Unlike PLBs, satellite messenger batteries are rechargeable. This could be a drawback if you’re bad at remembering to charge your phone or if you already have many backcountry devices that need to be charged, like a phone, camera, and watch. (Links to to our respective stories on the best for outdoor adventurers).
Satellite messengers work all over the world, though coverage varies depending on the satellite network. Like PLBs, messengers also need a clear view of the sky to operate.
Unlike PLB’s, messengers require a monthly subscription fee for use. Plans for texting, sending preset messages, tracking and receiving data (like weather reports) vary from $14 a month upwards depending on which unit you choose and how many features you anticipate using and how often. We’ll compare the various plans in a Treeline Review story in the next few weeks, but when applicable, discuss some of our findings here.
Best for most people
Weighing a scant 3.5 oz and measuring just 4” tall by 2” wide, the Garmin inReach Mini is a full featured satellite messenger that, though miniscule, does everything other satellite messengers do.
“This is our most highly rated satellite messenger,” says Outdoor Gear Lab. “In our decades of using and testing satellite communications, this is what we've been waiting for.”
The Garmin inReach Mini is “a two-way satellite communications device and, at only 3.4 oz, represents one of the lightest available devices in this category,” wrote Backpacking Light. “The Garmin inReach Mini is the smallest, lightest, and most powerful satellite messaging device on the market.”
“The Garmin inReach Mini,” is a solid device that I use and recommend,” said HikingGuy. “You can send and receive your GPS location to anyone with a text or email (or another inReach Mini) in the backcountry where your cell phone doesn’t work. You can also receive messages, allowing you to communicate with family, friends, and emergency services. Additional features on the inReach Mini allow you to get weather reports, track your trip and share with friends, and perform navigation.”
Size comes with a few caveats. Preset messages like “I’m Ok” or “Stopping for the night” or custom preset messages that you’ve composed on a computer and synced to your device are easy. Anything beyond that requires syncing the Mini to your phone in the field or using the virtual keyboard.
The Mini pairs with your Apple or Android cell phone by Bluetooth wireless technology. You can then use your phone’s contact list and compose text messages or emails on a much larger keyboard or more easily utilize the Mini's other features. Through Garmin’s free Earthmate app you can also access maps, aerial imagery and U.S. NOAA charts.
To achieve its weight and size, some secondary features had to be sacrificed, like navigation and battery life,” said Andrew Skurka. “The new virtual keyboard is even more painstakingly slow. When paired to a smartphone via the Earthmate app, however, most functionality is fully regained.” The Mini does not have a built-in compass or barometer; it uses the GPS for all of these readings.
The Mini is also compatible with other Garmin products, including the Altitude, Barometer, and Compass watches and GPS watches. “The inReach Mini also gains connectivity to the Fenix 5 and Forerunner 935 watches, hopefully paving the way for other devices,” writes DC Rainmaker. “You can trigger an SOS message from the watch too. I could see this being useful in cases where you had an inReach on a backpack or something and during a fall it got separated from you physically.” We discuss triggering InReach devices from watches in our Best Altitude, Barometer, and Compass GPS Watch story.
Garmin inReach Mini
Best Upgrade / Full Featured Satellite Messenger
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ has all the features of the inReach Mini but in a larger size, heavier weight and higher price. But for the weight, size and cost penalty, a user gets more features integrated directly into the device that don’t have to be paired with a smartphone to utilize.
At 2.7” wide by 6.5” long and weighing 7.5 oz, the inReach Explorer+ is the largest and heaviest (by a mere 0.5 oz) satellite communicator in our review. The Explorer+ is also the most full featured satellite communicator available.
The Explorer+ “has a focus on navigation, with enhanced mapping and GPS features,” writes Two Way Radio Talk. “This product is a great choice for backpackers, climbers, and others who are looking for a messaging product which doubles as a powerful navigational aid for exploring distant places.”
With a screen size of 1.4” x 1.9”, active texting directly on the unit is easier to accomplish then on the Mini. You can also view preloaded and downloadable maps. The Explorer+ can be used as a fully functioning GPS in the field unlike some of the other two-way satellite messengers we considered. The Explorer+ also contains a digital compass, altimeter and accelerometer (the Mini can access similar features through its phone app).
Like the inReach Mini, the Explorer+ can also be synced to your Apple or Android phone by Bluetooth, increasing your ability to access its features, such as maps, on an even larger screen and larger keyboard. Without a phone sync, a user can still text directly on the Explorer+ keyboard. However, texting anything beyond pre-set messages will test your fingers’ nimbleness and patience.
The Explorer+'s battery life is rated at 100 hours in 10 minute tracking mode (compared with the Mini’s 90 hours).
“Its only weakness is in portability,” Outdoorgearlab wrote. “The Explorer+ is the right choice if you want a longer battery life and more navigation attributes.”
We would argue that the Explorer+ has another downside: it’s the most expensive unit we considered. Like all satellite messengers a subscription is required. Between the price of the actual unit and its subscription fee, the Explorer is one of the most expensive units to operate.
Still, the Explorer+ is easy to use and easy to learn to use. When powered on, it has a blinking light that lets you know when you have unread messages and when the tracking feature is on. The Explorer+ screen gives the user more detailed information about battery level, email, texting and tracking status than any of the other units we considered.
Garmin inReach Explorer+
The Best Budget Two-Way Messengers
Introduced in May 2018, the Spot X is a fully contained two-way messenger unit that doesn’t use a phone link to make its features more user friendly. Instead, Spot X has an illuminated QWERTY keyboard that GearJunkie reported as “small,” but “easy to type on.” Depending on which subscription plan you get, the Spot X can offer two-way messaging for half the price of a similar subscription plan with Garmin. Its main perk is that it’s a texting device that works everywhere, even without cell reception.
At 6.54” tall by 2.9” wide and weighing 7oz., Spot X is slightly smaller and lighter then the Garmin Explorer+. Another huge benefit of the Spot X is that its battery life (rechargeable by USB) is 240 hours in continuous 10 minute tracking mode with 100% clear view of the sky, well over twice that of the Explorer+.
For me, two-way messaging capability is critical if you’re sending out an SOS. There’s a big difference between being able to tell rescuers that you’ve got a debilitating sprain versus my partner’s fallen and unconscious. This gives the Spot X an advantage over the more basic Spot Gen3, which can only send out a few pre-programmed texts.
Like the Garmin devices and the Spot Gen3, the Spot X can easily send the usual “I’m ok,” or “Camping here,” preset or custom messages. You can also send a link to the folks at home so they can track you waypoint by waypoint as you travel.
Another feature that sets Spot X apart from the some of the other satellite messengers reviewed is that it has its own unique cell phone number. Anyone that has the number can text with you like they would on a normal cell phone. This is in contrast to the older Garmin systems where you would have to add folks to your contact list (or text them first) before they could text you. This helpful if friends or family want to text you encouragement, even if you only had time to enter one person on your contact list before you headed for your trip (we’ve seen it happen). But the new phone app on the 2018/19 Garmin systems now provides a satellite messenger number, so this feature is becoming more common.
Still, Sectionhiker found the Spot X keyboard unique but still difficult to use. The “keys are tiny. I have the nimble and thin fingers of a violinist (fiddler, actually) and even I mistype characters because the keys are so small. While the keyboard is smart enough to capitalize letters at the beginning of sentences, there are certain characters, like the “@” that can only be entered into address-specific fields if you enter a special, undocumented mode where the special character keys work. Seriously?”
Although the Spot X can record trip statistics, has a digital compass and basic navigation capability, including the ability to list waypoints, Sectionhiker found that “there's no way to specify these waypoints graphically on the device itself and you must type in their lat/long by hand. I'd recommend that you keep using whatever Smartphone GPS app or GPS device you're already using instead of the navigation functionality included in the SPOT X because it is so primitive.”
We don’t put much weight behind this complaint. We find navigating on the Garmin Explorer+ is almost equally as difficult and the Garmin Mini requires a phone for any kind of navigation. We’d argue that Sectionhiker’s complaints hold true for all satellite messenger devices in general: you’re better off using your Smartphone GPS app (we like the Gaia navigation app) or handheld non-transmitting GPS device.
Andrew Skurka found the Spot X keyboard lacking in “touch-sensitivity and responsiveness,” the weight twice as heavy as the inReach Mini, and “no smartphone connectivity, which could allow sharing of contacts..and use of the phone’s keyboard and touchscreen.”
It’s worth noting that our staff has heard anecdotally that SPOT’s coverage is not always reliable, including a recently viral story about a mountaineer’s experience with the SPOT Gen 3 (more in that section). However, the mountaineer in that story upgraded to a Spot X, so this may be an issue isolated to the Gen3.
Still, the Spot X is a good option for folks who don’t want to rely on their phone or don’t want to carry a phone. In our research, it's subscription fees are less expensive than Garmin and offer more for your money (like more texts and more tracking). Like the other satellite messengers we considered, the Spot X requires a subscription to use (see our comparison chart for a summary).
At 3.43” high by 2.56” wide and 4.0 ounces. the Spot Gen3 is one of the smallest, lightest, most basic satellite messenger available. The Gen3 has the ability to send a one way SOS or preset messages and has a motion activated tracking feature.
However, unlike the other two-way transmitters we considered, the Gen3 offers no two-way communication, navigational features, or cell phone connection to an app. It does last longer, though: powered by 4 AAA batteries, the Gen3’s manufacturer specs claim it will last for 408 hours in continuous 10-minute tracking mode with 100% clear skies. (We know battery life depends on variables like whether the sky is obstructed, if SOS is activated, messages or used, and interval of tracking).
CMotion activated tracking means that a vibration sensor tells your Spot to send track updates when you are moving and to stop when you do. A pre-programmed text message with GPS coordinates giving your location can be sent to any one of ten contacts loaded into the Gen3. Your stored waypoints can be easily integrated into a Spot Shared Page or Spot Adventure account on your home computer.
Andrew Skurka says the Gen3 may be for you if you, “are not an avid texter or talker in ordinarily life, think that four basic messages — OK, Help, SOS, and a custom message — are adequate and family and/or friends do not insist that they have the ability to reach you.” But if you send an SOS accidentally, you can’t cancel it like in the two-way transmitters.
No emergency satellite messenger or beacon is failsafe. But when it comes to the Spot Gen 3, there is at least one recent viral story of two charged devices failing to send a signal in an emergency. There are simple tests that you can do to ensure that yours is working. See your owners manual or call the units customer service number to find out how. Ultimately your safety in the backcountry is your responsibility
“This satellite messenger is handy, compact, and proven in its value and limitations. It is an excellent tool and a reasonable value,” wrote Outdoorgearlab. “However, competitors have closed the gaps on either side, bringing greater functionality for only slightly more money on one side, and bargain basement emergency communications on the other.”
We see an advantage to the Gen3 requiring AAA batteries vs. a USB rechargeable lithium battery. If you need to immediately charge in the field, it could be easier to insert new batteries than wait for a battery pack to charge your device.
The Spot Gen3, like the other messengers, has a subscription fee. See our comparison chart for a summary of costs over time. We found that the Spot Gen3 has one of the most affordable and generous plans of those we considered.
The Best Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
Weighing just 4 ounces and measuring 3 inches long by 2 inches wide, Ocean Signal describes its PLB1 as the world’s smallest PLB. Which indeed it is, but not by much.
For comparison, ACR’s ResQLink, the only other PLB we included in this review, weighs just a half ounce more. Size alone seems to be a niggling way of comparing emergency SOS devices. But if you’re into carrying the lightest weight, no frills unit, this diminutive, inexpensive PLB may be just what you’re looking for.
Like all PLB’s the Ocean Signal has just one function, to summon a rescue with an SOS button. PLBs in general offer no two-way communication, no navigational GPS or mapping capability and have no subscription plan for service. If you send an SOS accidentally, you can’t cancel it like the two-way transmitters we describe in this story. You can’t communicate the severity and needs of your emergency, either.
PLBs have to be registered in the United States with the National Oceananic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after purchase. This registration is free of charge.
The rescueME PLB1 has a retractable antenna, a GPS receiver, 7 year battery life, high intensity strobe light and is waterproof to 15 meters (about 50 feet).
Once used, or after the battery life time limit has been reached, the rescueME PLB1 must be returned to the manufacturer for battery replacement.
“The Ocean Signal is the easiest device to use in our tests,” wrote outdoorgearlab.com. “Set-up requires you to fill out an online form and mount a mailed sticker. You can make some changes to your registration if needed, but you are then good to go for two years. You renew, for free, every two years. If you have a life-threatening emergency, there are basic activation instructions right on the device housing."
Best Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
ACR's ResQLink+ shares nearly all the same features as Ocean Signal’s rescueME. The ACR ResQlink+ weighs just a half ounce more (for a weight of 4.5), is waterproof to 5 meters (16 feet), has a built in GPS, used strictly for locating you (but no navigational or mapping capability), and a retractable antenna and strobe. Outside Pursuits says, “ACR has been making PLBs for years and they’re by far the most common PLB used in backcountry situations around the United States.”
The one major difference being that the ACR ResQLink+ isn’t just waterproof: it floats. That may come in handy if your adventures involve any type of river, ocean or lake activities.
Battery life is rated at 6 years. The ResQLink+ also has a self test to make sure everything is functioning. However, that test button should only be used once or it could lead to a depleted battery. “99% of the people who have battery failure do so because they’ve tested the unit more than once,” writes Hiking Guy. “The manual mentions that you should only perform the test once. In fact, you should only use this twice, once to test, and once to activate.”
As an added plus, if you have to use your ResQLink+ for a rescue, you can send your unit and story back to ACR and they’ll mount your device on their Wall of Fame and send you a free replacement. Their survivor stories are a testament to all the things that can go wrong in the front and backcountry.
It’s worth noting that one common comment among those who have been rescued using the ResQLink+ is that they weren’t sure whether it had been activated until the rescue helicopter arrived.
Still, compared to the set-up required for the Garmin units, the easy-to-use ResQLink+ is a simple way to provide yourself a means for emergency rescue. “This Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is ready to go right out of the box,” said Outdoor Pursuits. Almost. Like the Ocean Signal rescueME, the ResQLink+ must be registered for free with the National Oceananic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after purchase.
Since beginning work on this review, some new technology has arrived on the satellite messenger scene. Since two of these devices, Somewear and SatPaq, have just launched, there aren’t any user reviews or other outdoor gear reviewers. You heard it first here at Treeline.
Somewear Global Hotspot ($350) and Higher Ground SatPaq ($249) are both palm sized devices-- weighing 4oz--that turn iOS and Android cell phones into a hotspots allowing satellite connectivity just like the Garmins, Spots and PLBS we reviewed earlier. (See our guide on Best iPhones for Outdoorspeople.)
Somewear and SatPaq are both waterproof, offer two-way communication, mapping and navigation features, weather reports and the ability to send out SOS alerts. Somewear offers tracking features. SatPaq offers tracking only in that your route is traced between one text message and another.
You do not need your phone to send an SOS from Somewear. SatPaq requires a phone sync to initiate a rescue. Both have two-way communication so that once the S.O.S is activated you can communicate by text.
SatPaq, according to founder Rob Reis, utilizes GEO satellites that are stationary 23,000 miles above the earth. (Editor’s note: GEO satellites are different than the GEOS who run the International Emergency Response Coordination Center mentioned earlier in the story). The GEO satellites are less expensive to use than the Iridium satellites most other satellite messengers use. This allows SatPaq to offer a more economical alternative in satellite communication. From a fixed satellite there is no waiting for a connection window with moving satellites. Messaging is faster.
However, our hesitation with the SatPaq system is the pay-as-you-go message billing integration with the SOS messaging. According to the user guide, “an initial charge of 70 Message Credits is billed for the use of SOS Emergency Services regardless of whether initiated over the satellite or over cellular or WiFi. If you do not have any Message Credits, you cannot use SOS and no information will be sent if you tap the Send SOS button.”
Does this means that if you don’t keep a minimum balance of 70 message credits in your account at all times, the Satpaq cannot be used as a true SOS device? SatPaq’s Reis responded that if you have 1 message credit or zero message credits SatPaq will still send the SOS. SatPaq just has to get reimbursed for the fee charged by GEOS. SatPaq, Reis said, “won’t strand our customers who are in trouble.”
SatPaq recommends that users refill their message credits when it gets below a threshold.
Also keep in mind that if your phone battery is dead, you cannot use the Satpaq to send an SOS message. There is no dedicated SOS button on the device itself.
SatPaq also offers Dr. Dex, an interactive artificial intelligence doctor. If you’re snakebit, need a quick CPR lesson or want to diagnose symptoms Dr. Dex is there to help.
In February SatPaq was featured on NBC’s Today show as one of the 6 most innovative products at the Consumer Electronics Show.
The upside to both the Somewear and SatPaq is that almost all of us carry our phones everywhere anyway. Why not add a 4 oz piece of equipment that can turn them into satellite messengers and emergency devices? The downside? Even in protective cases cell phones are fragile and of course, your phone has to be kept charged in order for Somewear and SatPaq to operate at full capacity.
Although Somewear has extreme athlete Jeremy Jones, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, as a mentor, field tester and spokesperson, neither unit, as of this review has been tested in a real emergency.
This story is about PLBs and satellite transmitters. The goTenna Mesh is neither of these. But it is potentially a way humans may use the cellular phone network for non-emergency communication.
goTenna Mesh is a land-based cell phone communication device that pairs with your Android or iOS device and bypasses towers, routers and satellite. Instead, it depends upon the signal being bounced between other goTenna users. You are the network. It’s almost like daisy-chaining cell phone connectivity across devices. Other people have to be using goTenna units for things to work. Although you can text and relay GPS locations between users, such as others in your party that are also on goTenna, you can’t talk on your phone or download data.
“GoTenna doesn't give your smartphone LTE-style data, so no Twitter scrolling or Facebook browsing,” said CNET.com. “What it does is create a low-frequency radio wave network for its iOS and Android app that can last around 1 mile in skyscraper-filled urban areas, but up to 9 miles in most outdoor situations like hiking and camping. If you're climbing or, say, out skiing, it shoots from 9 miles to as high as 50 miles once you start ascending to higher elevations.” (The manufacturer's website says 4 miles). If functions somewhat like a text message-based Walkie Talkie.
In comparison to all the messengers we reviewed above, goTenna is miniscule, weighing 2 ounces. Shaped like a wand, goTenna measures 5.8 inches long. It’s water resistant and can be clipped onto a pocket or pack.
Somewear, SatPaq, and goTenna are heralds of the future. The field of emergency transmitters is evolving fast, ever lighter, ever smaller, ever smarter. One of our Search and Rescue interviewees told us that NASA has developed a PLB for astronauts the size of a quarter. With two-way messenger technology, innovation is happening fast. We look forward to seeing how this field advances in the coming years.