SAT Communicator or SAT Phone?

TG Smith

New member
As the post suggest, looking for some opinions...

Background: I live in COLORADO, into Trails/Overlanding. Rig: 2014 Wrangler JKU, appropriately modded. Travel Companions: 2 English Labs. Weakness: Communications

Immediate Future: Overland Trailer, longer trips in CO & surrounding states.

Question: I’m running ( and learning ) Gaia GPS through my iPhone which I can also run via my iPad. I am not Ham licensed nor do I have a CB as I ( currently ) typically run known trails with others. This being said, cell phone coverage is not good to non existent in the mountains on the trails so I’m looking into purchasing a Communicator and/or SAT Phone for emergencies.

Future plans include camping trips ( both to sites and semi-remote ) with the dogs (probably but not necessarily with others/groups). I do expect to take hikes from camp site but nothing too far ( 3 miles or less one way )...so it’s not like I’m solo in the Outback or remote in Africa but hey, stuff still happens and when seconds count, help is only minutes - hours away...

Can I please ask experienced Overlanders to weigh in on which you prefer, Communicator/GPS or straight away SAT Phone and why?

Thank you for sharing your opinions and expertise.
 
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kbroderick

New member
My two cents: the monthly cost to have a basic tracking plan with an InReach is under $30/month, whereas last I looked, trying to have satellite voice comms will run you a lot more. The devices aren't cheap, but they're not terribly expensive, and it's nice insurance to have (particularly if you have family / friends who get worried about your solo travel). The sub-$30 plan includes something like 10 (er, maybe 20) non-emergency texts per month (emergency comms are included) and unlimited tracking at the one-point-per-ten-minute-interval rate. At that pricepoint, and given the device size, I can justify leaving service on and just bringing it with me. I don't think I could say the same of an actual satellite phone.
 

DaveInDenver

Expedition Leader
I've never owned a sat phone, so can't speak to the possibility of having it all the time. But I don't think it's a practical thing to have like a cell phone. It's too expensive and limiting for that. But you can buy a used one and get pre-paid minutes so I don't think it has to be a super costly option.

But that said, the main reason to get a SPOT or InReach is the constant tracking. If all you want is communication I think a phone that can send texts is better than an InReach or Spot X. Being able to two way text is good but the option to reach someone by voice might be useful in some situations. Honestly if I wanted reliable SHTF plan it would be a pre-paid sat phone and a PLB as a rip cord. You lose tracking but gain in my mind very reliable options.

I got a regular Spot tracker a couple of years ago, which is a one-way device. I know that's not the hip thing but having someone informed about my plans being able to watch my progress has been sufficient and is much better than how it was before. I think we convince ourselves that we need this or that but don't appreciate that the middle ground is pretty good too. Back 10 years ago before SPOTs and wide cell phone coverage we were really out there in the backcountry and had to rely on people in your party. So not having two-way now is maybe not cutting edge but it's really not bad either comparatively speaking.

So FWIW, I'm satisfied with a Spot Gen 3 and cell phone (I'm also a ham, so there's another option for me). On the Colorado Trail last summer I was never more than a few hours ride (perhaps a detour, though) from cell phone coverage or a fairly sizable road and had 100% 10-minute tracking for my wife with evening check-ins so she knew my camp locations.
 

crazysccrmd

Observer
A spot or inreach is a more capable emergency device than a sat phone. If you’re looking for emergency preparedness not constant communication the sos/text messenger is better. A rescue coordinated via satphone is not a quick process whereas a single button push on a PLB or Spot/Inreach can bring help.

On a less serious note, your post makes me think of this:

D7743E7B-1823-4B5B-976C-DA31ECAF64EF.jpeg
 

TG Smith

New member
Thanks for the replies and smart a$$ comments 😂. Appreciate the serious and not so serious inputs!

Looks like the Garmin InReach is the way to go!
 

cdthiker

Meandering Idaho
The new/ current gen InReach seems to be a really solid device. The older ones, not so much. What is appealing about the inreach is that you are able to link it to your phone. You can also send texts from it to other peoples phones. You can go in and pre program your account with x number of auto reply texts that you can send to normal cells that will not count towards how many texts you can send a month and of course it also comes with tracking and the SOS button.

With all of that being said, I carry an SOS button only PLB. There are a few reasons. First being price point. My current version happened to be a gift and you cant beat free. But the start up cost is also lower, and I dont have to pay a fee for a monthly plan. Second, Old school proven technology. The PLB tech has been around for decades. Current PLB's use the older style frequency to ping the location as well as sending specific GPS info to get help with in a few feet. I like this system primarily because it is run via NOAA/ Government/ Military hardware. Response is fast, and managed by the people who invented the system. Not some third party call center then forwarding things on to the appropriate resources. 3. it is stupid proof. There is no Battery to charge, bill to pay or extra buttons. It is a shock proof, dirt proof, water proof small package and the only thing I have to do is make sure I have it with me. If it were to hit the fan it is one button instant on. The fact that it uses two forms of location is also nice. I am not sure if you have ever used Sat comms in the past but I have extensively. I can tell you that you can be in the middle of a field on a sunny day with full service and not be able to make a call. Or on top of a mountain at the highest point in the land, and not be able to get any bars. My point being, Sat Comms will almost always work if you wait long enough and work hard enough. It is not unusual to have to move locations with a Sat phone to get a call out. The connection is also rather bad a good bit of the time. Sluggish and frustrating would be the best way to describe it. I worked in the back country of utah for a while and we carried radios running off a company owned system of repeaters, cell phones, and Sat phones.

The Down Side of the PLB is that depending on the model, there is a shelf life. You can not change the battery. Typically it is around five or six years and after that you have to get a new one. In theory, as long as the PLB beacon is registered with NOAA and the battery is good then it is fine. From what I have read if the self test function comes back good, then it very much like taking some Ibuprofen from the giant bottle that expired a while back. It wont kill you, but the company will no longer promise that it is 100 percent effective as written on the label.

There is some argument to be made to have a device that has two way communications. Some SAR folks will tell you that you might get better resources faster if they can talk with you and know just how bad the situation is. What I can say, is that part of this is most likely linked to the number of stupid SOS calls. The yearly number went through the roof when the first spot came out. Prior to this PLBs were little known outside of the flying and boating world. Now people seem to have no problem hitting their spot sos button because their dog is too tired to walk down off the mountain. What I can say, is that the tech from all of these devices these days works fairly decently and you are going to get a response. When a group of NOLS students was attacked by a grizzly bear in the brooks range a few years back and multiple students were hurt they triggered their PLB beacon and an alaska state trooper chopper was on the scene with in a few shorts hours.

With all of that being said. The inreach and spot have forced the market to inovate and make things cheaper. I have played around some with the Newest version of the Mini Inreach. It is pretty dang slick and when my current PLB reaches retirement stage, there is a good change that is what I will get for off roading, hunting and other outdoor remote activities. The plans to use these devices keep getting cheaper as the technology improves and the devices keep getting better. It is pretty dang cool to push a button and send a pin on a google map to a loved one with your location saying spending the night here will head back at first light. all is well. etc etc
 

TG Smith

New member
The new/ current gen InReach seems to be a really solid device. The older ones, not so much. What is appealing about the inreach is that you are able to link it to your phone. You can also send texts from it to other peoples phones. You can go in and pre program your account with x number of auto reply texts that you can send to normal cells that will not count towards how many texts you can send a month and of course it also comes with tracking and the SOS button.

With all of that being said, I carry an SOS button only PLB. There are a few reasons. First being price point. My current version happened to be a gift and you cant beat free. But the start up cost is also lower, and I dont have to pay a fee for a monthly plan. Second, Old school proven technology. The PLB tech has been around for decades. Current PLB's use the older style frequency to ping the location as well as sending specific GPS info to get help with in a few feet. I like this system primarily because it is run via NOAA/ Government/ Military hardware. Response is fast, and managed by the people who invented the system. Not some third party call center then forwarding things on to the appropriate resources. 3. it is stupid proof. There is no Battery to charge, bill to pay or extra buttons. It is a shock proof, dirt proof, water proof small package and the only thing I have to do is make sure I have it with me. If it were to hit the fan it is one button instant on. The fact that it uses two forms of location is also nice. I am not sure if you have ever used Sat comms in the past but I have extensively. I can tell you that you can be in the middle of a field on a sunny day with full service and not be able to make a call. Or on top of a mountain at the highest point in the land, and not be able to get any bars. My point being, Sat Comms will almost always work if you wait long enough and work hard enough. It is not unusual to have to move locations with a Sat phone to get a call out. The connection is also rather bad a good bit of the time. Sluggish and frustrating would be the best way to describe it. I worked in the back country of utah for a while and we carried radios running off a company owned system of repeaters, cell phones, and Sat phones.

The Down Side of the PLB is that depending on the model, there is a shelf life. You can not change the battery. Typically it is around five or six years and after that you have to get a new one. In theory, as long as the PLB beacon is registered with NOAA and the battery is good then it is fine. From what I have read if the self test function comes back good, then it very much like taking some Ibuprofen from the giant bottle that expired a while back. It wont kill you, but the company will no longer promise that it is 100 percent effective as written on the label.

There is some argument to be made to have a device that has two way communications. Some SAR folks will tell you that you might get better resources faster if they can talk with you and know just how bad the situation is. What I can say, is that part of this is most likely linked to the number of stupid SOS calls. The yearly number went through the roof when the first spot came out. Prior to this PLBs were little known outside of the flying and boating world. Now people seem to have no problem hitting their spot sos button because their dog is too tired to walk down off the mountain. What I can say, is that the tech from all of these devices these days works fairly decently and you are going to get a response. When a group of NOLS students was attacked by a grizzly bear in the brooks range a few years back and multiple students were hurt they triggered their PLB beacon and an alaska state trooper chopper was on the scene with in a few shorts hours.

With all of that being said. The inreach and spot have forced the market to inovate and make things cheaper. I have played around some with the Newest version of the Mini Inreach. It is pretty dang slick and when my current PLB reaches retirement stage, there is a good change that is what I will get for off roading, hunting and other outdoor remote activities. The plans to use these devices keep getting cheaper as the technology improves and the devices keep getting better. It is pretty dang cool to push a button and send a pin on a google map to a loved one with your location saying spending the night here will head back at first light. all is well. etc etc
Great response information. Thank you!!!
 

DaveInDenver

Expedition Leader
I like this system primarily because it is run via NOAA/ Government/ Military hardware. Response is fast, and managed by the people who invented the system. Not some third party call center then forwarding things on to the appropriate resources.
I think it is @moabian who provided some good information regarding this (such as this post: #28). There is no difference between AFRCC and GEOS origination or subsequent handling for SOS activations so this probably shouldn't be considered a primary decision point.

He provides several other useful SAR points. He does like being able to two-way communicate, for example. If they can't they have to make an assumption and that usually means a large response. Which I think many people would expect for an SOS, it means it's at least serious if not life or death. But that's not universally understood. So you'll get helicopters for someone running out of water and that wastes time and money (which may be billed back to you).

The two-way thing is something that's of course better to have than not, but I think a one-way device such as a Spot tracker or a PLB is fine if they work in your planning. From a practical standpoint I gather from what he's said that there is no reason to worry that you won't get help if you need it with any of the types or systems as long as you understand the limitations.

It kind of all really boils down to you having a plan and then communicating it to your emergency contacts and they being able to provide information to GEOS or AFRCC if they call.
 

EMrider

Explorer
I had a globalstar and then an irridium sat phone for about 7-8 years. Sat phones are expensive, unreliable and frustrating. Replaced them with a Garmin Inreach two years ago and could not be happier. The reliability and quality of text communication with the Inreach is far superior to any sat phone I've used. Even if it weren't just a fraction of the cost, I'd much prefer Inreach over a sat phone.

R
 

kbroderick

New member
He provides several other useful SAR points. He does like being able to two-way communicate, for example. If they can't they have to make an assumption and that usually means a large response. Which I think many people would expect for an SOS, it means it's at least serious if not life or death. But that's not universally understood. So you'll get helicopters for someone running out of water and that wastes time and money (which may be billed back to you).

The two-way thing is something that's of course better to have than not, but I think a one-way device such as a Spot tracker or a PLB is fine if they work in your planning. From a practical standpoint I gather from what he's said that there is no reason to worry that you won't get help if you need it with any of the types or systems as long as you understand the limitations.
One of the biggest benefits of a two-way device is being able to summon non-emergency help before an unfortunate situation turns into an emergent one. (or, more likely, in that middle stage where your stupidity has started nipping at your ass but hasn't sunk its teeth in just yet)

My personal anecdote:
I was out playing with my new-to-me sleds at the local NF (this is while living back in Montana), probably around 8k feet in elevation, on a late-March or early-April afternoon. I've gotten bored trying to do laps in what little open area is there, and it's getting close to dusk, so I'm headed back to the tire, and come across a dude on the unplowed road, in a high-centered, highway-tire-equipped Wrangler trying to dig out with an e-tool.

I tell him that I can yank him out, so I bring the sled back to the trailer, unhook, and pull the XTerra around, hook up a strap, and attempt to pull the Wrangler free. Predictably, I ran out of traction, got pulled a bit sideways and into deeper snow and I've now got a high-centered XTerra with a tensioned strap hooked to the back of it. Applying chains to the XTerra gave enough movement to get the strap loose but not to actually free the rig.

Now, this is not yet an emergency situation—if we had started walking back towards town, we'd probably have made it before getting hypothermic, and maybe we could've holed up in the vehicles overnight and hoped someone happened to come by the next morning. However, especially after an hour or so of digging (at least I had avy shovels), we were both soaking wet, it was getting dark, and it was getting cold. I was able to use the InReach to text a friend (and his lifted XJ, which made short work of getting us unstuck). No way would I have been willing to hit a PLB SOS at that point, but if we hadn't managed to dig out in the next hour or so, I'm not sure where I'd have been at with that decision. I suppose we could've ridden a sled on pavement back into town, but that would've been not exactly good (nor legal), either.

Now, was I being stupid to begin with, in failing to consider the potential to end up with two stuck vehicles? Absolutely. But being able to nicely ask a friend to bail my ass out rather than having the all-or-nothing choice provided by a first-gen Spot or PLB was well worth the monthly fees in that case.

YMMV, of course.
 

DaveInDenver

Expedition Leader
Totally agree with you @kbroderick, InReach and Spot X two-way is undoubtedly handy. You'll get no argument from me on the convenience. Just will say that your situation is certainly not the first time in the history of trucks and snowy roads, though.

I did something similarly stupid one time skiing, got off a little too far parking on the side and rear wheel dropped into a soft shoulder. Misjudged it. I wasn't high centered but without lockers or a winch I was done and alone. And this was before Spots at all, so by alone I mean my wife wouldn't know what happened until that evening when I didn't make it home. And only then would she start to wonder, so it would have been at least 12 hours and probably 24 before I'd have gotten home.

A guy in an old Scout happened up as I was considering the several mile hike back to the highway and up to a nearby mine. He was able to yank me back eventually, but a text to someone would have been nice to save me a few hours of waiting around for sure. Like yours it was never critical enough to push the SOS, though. If I had to leave the truck I'd have been fine. I had the dog with me, all my backcountry ski stuff. We'd have survived.
 

MCX

TalesFromTheDesert.com
Not sure there's a "right" answer, a lot of personal preference & similar functions, just different interfaces (text vs voice, etc.). So, here's my two cents...

I also use Gaia GPS and do a lot of hiking, camping, exploring in areas where there's no cell service. I purchased an Inmarsat satellite phone. You can purchase minutes based on however you like to use it. I usually refill mine in 90-day increments (but you can do it in just about any type of subscription, or one-time, too). It also has an SOS button and GPS locator indicator, so if you're ever in trouble and can't dial, or talk, you can press the SOS button to get rescued. I also purchased an extra battery, just in case. Overall, I like my setup...I've looked at the InReach and others, but prefer the phone with SOS button. Plus, if you can always use the minutes/air-time to check-in at home, etc. Here's a link to my setup: https://www.talesfromthedesert.com/my-gear/
 

pluton

Adventurer
I have the earlier Mk I Inmarsat phone, but have never needed it for an emergency. You better bet that I tested it when I first got it, and test it every time I re-up the prepaid service.
One nice thing:If your service provider (in my case Satphonestore.com) allows it, you can buy 30 or 90 days of prepaid service, let that expire, then 'recharge' the same SIM card months later with another 30/90/180 days of prepaid service. If the service provider continues to allow these ad hoc recharges, fine. But if they eventually force you to hire continuous service, it'll cost too much IMO. At that point, I'd get a newer InReach device.
Note: the Inmarsat satphone system uses geostationary satellites. The single satellite that services North America (I-4 Americas) sits at a fixed location roughly 22,000 miles above the Galpagos Islands, which in the Southwest USA means that you need to aim the antenna of the phone about 45º up from the horizon. I have visited deep canyons where contact with that satellite would be impossible due to high, narrow canyon walls.
The InReach devices use the Iridium satelllite constellation, which are multiple satellites in low Earth orbit, and thus do not require 'line of sight' to the single fixed point in the sky that the Inmarsat system does. Therefore, InReach (and Iridium satellite phones) should work in more places than Inmarsat.
 
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