The Best Satellite Messengers for Off-the-grid Communications of 2020

The fact that nature is beautiful can’t be disputed. However, the old saying “every rose has its thorn” contains truth as well. Even relatively tame natural parks can be as deadly as they are awe-inspiring. In fact, according to the National Parks Service, over 140 people died in American national parks in 2014. The main causes of accidental death in parks include drowning, falls, avalanches and exposure to extreme temperatures. Emergencies caused by these kinds of accidents become complicated when communication options are limited.

Satellite messengers provide a low-cost, easy-to-use option for not only summoning help when required, but also staying in touch with loved ones while you’re adventuring. Navigation is another use case for GPS-capable satellite messengers. Some are even equipped with social media features that let you show off your progress to your friends and family. Another benefit of satellite messengers is that they’re usually more rugged, weather resistant and energy efficient compared to standard consumer-grade smartphones.

The most user-friendly satellite messenger

Garmin inReach Explorer+

Garmin in Reach Explorer+, Handheld Satellite Communicator with Topo Maps and GPS Navigation

The best thing about the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is that it’s easy to use. Maps are preloaded, so you don’t have to pay extra for a map subscription and wait for them to download. Other features– like the handy weather forecast utility and the Earthmate app— enhance its usability, as well.

Good

  • Intuitive interface. The compass screen displays your exact coordinates, which you can automatically post to social media so that your friends and family know where you are at all times.
  • Comes with preloaded maps. Other satellite messengers don’t come with maps and you have to buy them separately.
  • Built-in weather app. This feature lets you check weather forecasts from almost anywhere on the planet.
  • Communicate from almost anywhere in the world. Because the Reach Explorer+ runs on the Iridium network, network coverage is excellent compared to other satellite messengers.
  • Smartphone integration. You can get more out of the Reach Explorer+ by using the free Earthmate app to send data to and from your smartphone.
  • Prominent SOS button. If you injure yourself, all you have to do is press the button to establish an interactive emergency communication line.
  • Gathers interesting statistics. It can track your altitude, average speed and other similar data.

Bad

  • Can’t receive SMS messages from some carriers. The text messaging feature is generally reliable when sending messages, but some mobile carriers don’t let their customers send messages to Iridium network phones.
  • Frequent firmware updates. If you don’t keep your Reach Explorer+’s firmware up-to-date, it may not function properly when you need it.

In a nutshell

Ease of use is the inReach Explorer+’s most distinguishing feature. The menus are intuitive and you’ll be able to flip through them effortlessly as soon as you turn on the phone. All its maps come preloaded, so you don’t have to wait for them to download or pay an additional monthly fee to use them.

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The best portable satellite messenger

Garmin InReach Mini

Garmin InReach Mini, Lightweight and Compact Satellite Communicator, Orange

Some excursions require you to squeeze every bit of space you can out of your backpack. That’s where Garmin’s InReach Mini comes in. It’s just four inches tall and two inches wide. Despite its diminutive size, it has a range of impressive features. It’s equipped with GPS functionality, Iridium satellite network connectivity, social media tracking and more.

Good

  • Fits in the palm of your hand. Measuring just four inches and two inches wide, the InReach Mini is one of the most portable satellite messengers on the market.
  • Easy-to-access SOS button. This feature may save lives if you encounter an emergency situation in a remote area.
  • Global network coverage. Iridium is one of the oldest and most reliable satellite communication networks.
  • GPS enabled. In addition to providing communication services, you can also view your geolocation and send it to emergency contacts should the need arise.
  • Connects to smart devices. The InReach Mini has native support for various Garmin devices and you can use the free Earthmate app with any iOS or Android smartphone.
  • Sends social media updates. Social network integration lets your family members experience your adventure vicariously and make sure that you’re safe.
  • Two color options. You either get the discrete-looking black version of the InReach Mini, or opt for the easy-to-see orange version instead.

Bad

  • GPS accuracy is limited compared to other satellite messengers. It will record your approximate location, but competing satellite messengers offer more precision.

In a nutshell

For those with limited space for gadgets, Garmin’s InReach Mini might be the best option. It’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand– but don’t assume that it has less features just because of its diminutive stature. It has GPS, native support for Garmin-brand smart devices and more.

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The satellite messenger with the best display

Garmin GPSMAP 66i

Garmin GPSMAP 66i GPS Handheld and Satellite Communicator

Garmin’s GPSMAP 66i is an excellent choice for hikers and mountaineers because of its impressive display and detailed maps. Instead of a basic outline of the voyage ahead, you can view a detailed satellite picture of it. If you’re in need of a satellite phone that can also serve as a navigation tool, it may be your best option.

Good

  • Bright, full color display. The GPSMAP 66i’s high quality display sets it apart from the competition.
  • Up to 200 hours of usage on a single battery charge. In power conservation mode, you can leave the device on for days and it will keep going.
  • Photorealistic maps. With other devices you’re limited to basic maps, but with the 66i you can view satellite imagery of the terrain ahead of you.
  • Advanced sensors. The built-in altimeter, barometer and compass provide you with additional data that you can use to analyze your hike.
  • No subscription required. The maps come preloaded and you can use them without subscribing to a map service.
  • SOS button. Prominently positioned and easy to find, the SOS button provides instant access to emergency services.
  • Reliable worldwide network. Because the GPSMAP 66i connects to the Iridium satellite network, you can access reliable service almost anywhere in the world.

Bad

  • Expensive compared to other satellite messengers. The high MSRP is the 66i’s only significant downside.

In a nutshell

If you’re looking for a satellite messenger that’s just as good at navigating as it is at communicating, the GPSMAP 66i may be your best bet. In addition to your coordinates, the maps display satellite images of surrounding terrain. The built-in altimeter, barometer and compass sensors add even more data to its maps.

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The best low-cost satellite messenger

Spot 3

Spot 3 Satellite GPS Messenger - Orange

What the Spot 3 lacks in advanced features it makes up for in ruggedness and affordability. Interestingly, it doesn’t have a screen– but this downside is an advantage when it comes to battery efficiency. It runs on standard AAA batteries and programmable buttons let you do things like send out prewritten text messages, post check-ins, signal for help and more.

Good

  • Low price. Affordability is one of the Spot 3’s main selling points.
  • Simple interface. The setup process only takes a few minutes and the icons on the buttons correspond to each of its main features.
  • Runs on standard batteries. As long as you have some AAA batteries on hand, you’ll be able to contact help whenever and wherever you need it.
  • Sends out a custom text message. After you configure the SMS feature, you can push out a pre-written text message with the press of a button.
  • Durable design. Spot says that the Spot 3 offers military-grade resistance to impacts, water, dust, vibration and humidity.
  • Sends automatic position updates. You can use either text messaging or email to send GPS updates to up to ten different contacts.
  • Easy to carry. The built-in strap loop on the top of the Spot 3 provides many different convenient mounting options.

Bad

  • No screen, limited functionality. Competing satellite messengers have more to offer in the way of features.
  • Coverage not available in some parts of Africa. Spot 3 will work in most of the northern and southern African countries, but there are significant coverage gaps in the middle of the continent.

In a nutshell

The Spot 3 doesn’t have any kind of display, but it can send out prewritten text messages and post GPS check-ins to the internet. The rubber-coated exterior makes it tougher than the average satellite messenger. Because it runs on standard AAA batteries, it may be the best option for long trips that take you deep into dangerous off-the-grid locations.

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The best smartphone-compatible satellite messenger

Bivystick

Bivystick Satellite Communication Device.

The Bivystick lets you turn any standard smartphone into a satellite messenger. It connects you to the Iridium satellite network, which lets you communicate from nearly any part of the planet. As a backup battery, it can be used to fully recharge your smartphone. You can also use the Bivystick to receive weather updates, which give you the ability to seek shelter when foul weather approaches.

Good

  • Lets you use your smartphone as a satellite messenger device. If you happen to venture outside of your smartphone carrier’s coverage zone, you can communicate via satellite.
  • Can be used as a backup battery. The 5200 mAh lithium ion battery can store enough energy to fully recharge a smartphone about two times.
  • Worldwide coverage. Since the Bivystick runs on Iridium, it has much better service coverage compared to devices the rely on other satellite networks.
  • Transfers data to and from the Bivy app. Bivy is a crowd-sourced map app that shows you pictures and reviews of rock climbing areas, trails, rafting sites and more.
  • Reasonable price tag. The Bivystick is not the cheapest satellite communication device that you can buy, but it’s a fraction of the price of some of them.
  • Weather forecasts. In-depth reports help you identify and avoid dangerous weather conditions.
  • Low monthly fees. Satellite network service plans start at $18/month.

Bad

  • Lacks a dedicated SOS button. While Bivystick does offer an SOS service, the only way to access it is through a smartphone.

In a nutshell

Bivystick helps fill in coverage holes when you’re out adventuring with your smartphone. Just use your normal service until you go off the grid. Once you lose your bars, you can use the Bivystick to create a convenient satellite network hotspot. Another perk is the battery, which lets you recharge your phone when it starts to run out of power.

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Buying guide for satellite messengers

Key considerations

Satellite network

Different satellite messengers use different satellite networks, and some of them have better worldwide coverage than others. Check which network your device uses before you buy so that you can be sure that it will work in the off-the-grid area where you intend to go.

Battery type and capacity

Most satellite messengers have built-in batteries and you can’t recharge them if you don’t have an adapter and access to wall power. Others run on standard replaceable batteries. If you intend to remain off-the-grid for an extended period of time, the second type is more ideal.

Durability and water resistance

Satellite messenger manufacturers advertise various military and IP (Ingress Protection) ratings. Typical satellite messengers are watertight enough to resist rain, or IP65 compliant. If you need additional protection against complete water immersion, get a satellite messenger that meets the IP66 or IP67 standards.

GPS availability and precision

Just because a satellite messenger can send messages doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s GPS-capable. Moreover, some GPS receivers are more sensitive than others. If you plan on using your messenger for navigation, be sure to get one that has a high quality GPS receiver.

Display size and type

Messengers with large, brightly-lit displays are much easier to read. On the other hand, the bigger the display is, the more battery power it will consume. Some messengers don’t have a display at all. These tend to be more rugged, but they also lack the features found in messengers that have displays.

SOS button

This feature lets you establish a communication line with an emergency rescue service. You can usually configure the button so that it messages the contact of your choice. Most but not all satellite messengers are equipped with an SOS button, so make sure yours has this feature before you buy if staying safe in the wilderness is your primary need.

Sensor number and type

Navigation-oriented satellite messengers are equipped with sensors that collect various kinds of data. Messengers with altimeters can measure your height, while messengers that have built-in barometers can predict short-term weather changes.

Location tracking

Location tracking lets you not only show off your progress, but also gives your loved ones an easy way to know that you’re safe. Messengers that are equipped with location tracking features can send updates via SMS, email or even social media.

Preloaded maps

Some messenger manufacturers make you pay extra to download maps or pay a monthly fee for map service, while others provide free preloaded maps. You can get a better idea of how much your messenger will cost you if you find out these details before you make your purchase.

Price ranges

Budget

Screenless satellite messengers are the best option if you’re on a budget. You can also use them to back up your other communication devices. They tend to be more rugged and weather-resistant compared to more feature-rich messengers. Expect to pay about $100.

Mid-range

For about $400, you can find satellite messengers that can do things like send out automatic updates. Most messengers in this category are equipped with basic navigation features.

High-end

Full-featured satellite messengers that cost $600 or more have advanced navigation features, like full-color satellite maps, for example. They also tend to be more rugged compared to mid-range messengers.

Frequently asked questions

Q: What kind of messages does a satellite messenger send?
A: Since satellite networks can connect to the internet, a wide variety of kinds of messages are possible. You can send out emails, post your latitude and longitude to the internet and even create automatic social media updates. However, low bandwidth is an important limitation to be aware of before you make your purchase. You shouldn’t expect to be able to send or receive videos, for example.

Q: Do you need a subscription to use a satellite messenger?
A: Yes. Plans vary depending on the brand. Most satellite messengers offer monthly and one-year service plan options. Most monthly plans are more expensive. You can usually get some kind of discount by paying for a year or more of service in advance.

Q: What’s the difference between a satellite messenger and a satellite phone?
A: The main difference is voice communication. Satellite messengers are kind of like fancy pagers. You can use some of them for navigation, but direct voice communication is not part of the feature lineup. High-end satellite phones are equipped with all the features you’d find in a messenger, like navigation, SMS, email support, etc.

Tips

  • One way to conserve your satellite messenger’s battery is by using it only when you have a clear view of the sky. When there’s clouds, it’ll have to work harder to push your messages to and from its satellite network.
  • Before you venture out into the wilderness with your satellite messenger, test it out by sending a message to your smartphone. You don’t want to discover there is an issue with your service or some other kind of technical issue after it’s too late to do anything about it.
  • Read the fine print and identify all the fees your satellite messenger service will charge. You may find maintenance fees that aren’t advertised in the promotional materials.
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