Getting Help in the Backcountry: Satellite Communication (Part 1)

With all the technology out there these days, it’s almost impossible to go somewhere you don’t have some sort of connection to the outside world.

That connection is nice when you need help. If you’re by yourself or out of cell range and something happens you can get help.

But what’s the best way to do that? Should you get a personal locator beacon? A satellite messenger? Would a GPS help?

This post is the start of a series where we’ll go through each of the emergency communication devices around today and look at their differences, some pros and cons. Each has different features and different prices. You’ll want to know about each before spending hundreds of dollars to buy one.

This would have made a massive article so it’s split up into 4 you can read whenever you want. The other articles are listed at the bottom.

First off we need to sort out some terminology. You’ll see a ton of acronyms readying about this stuff. It can get confusing. Here are the main ones we’ll be using here.

Acronyms

GPS: Global Positioning System
Global Positioning System is the system of satellites that we use with the maps on our phones, in our cars and units when we go hike. The GPS unit sends a signal up to the satellites which they use to figure out our position on the planet. Most people just say GPS when talking about the small devices we use to connect to the satellites.

SM: Satellite Messenger
These are the Spots and InReach’s that can send some type of message over satellite. Some can only send. Some can send and receive.

PLB: Personal Locator Beacon.
No messaging. Only used for emergencies.

Sat phone: A phone that uses satellites to text and call.

Those are the big ones. I’ll be putting together a glossary with all this stuff soon.

Now we know what we’re talking about when see all those letters. Now what do those things actually do?

The Similarities

Each device has separate features but they do have something in common. They use satellites. They send signals up into space and use that for navigation or messaging or both. Because satellites cover most of the planet, they’re useful to us. We need a way to communicate when we don’t have cell signal.

That’s it for the similarities. The differences are the important part.

So what are those differences?

The Differences

These costs will be in Canadian dollars.

GPSSPOTInReachPLBSat Phone
Main usesNavigation1-way messaging2-way messaging1 way beaconVoice and text
Cost$100-$1000$150 + $150/year$360 + $240-$900/year$250-$1000$500 + $600-$2400/year
CoverageGlobalMost of the globeGlobalGlobalDepends on network
NetworkGPS/GlonassGlobalStarIridiumGlobalGlobalStar/Iridium

Each of these deserves an article to dig into the details. Here’s the order we’ll look at these. They’ll get linked after they’re published.

  1. Intro (this article)
  2. GPS: Can they get you rescued? (coming soon)
  3. Spot vs InReach (coming soon)
  4. PLBs and Sat Phones (coming soon)

We’ll get started with looking at GPS in the next article.

 

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Ross Collicutt
Ross is a digital creative addicted to health and outdoor fitness. Right now he's mapping trails on Vancouver Island for the MapVI project and writing Epic Guidebooks for Vancouver Island. Connect with Ross on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
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