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Backpacking Gear for Beginners: Satellite Communicators and Emergency Locator Beacons

This post is part of the Backpacking Gear for Beginners course.

Why do you need a satellite communicator? 

First off, what is a satellite communicator or messenger?

They are small handheld devices like a SPOT, inReach or Zoleo that can connect to satellites to get your location, download weather forecasts, and send text messages or emails. 

One of the biggest benefits is being able to contact Search and Rescue. If you are stuck in a bad situation off the grid, with no cell reception, you can contact Search and Rescue through the messenger and organize a rescue. 

There is no guarantee Search and Rescue can get to you or get to you quickly but at least you can communicate with them. Even if it’s just a text to the family letting them know you’ll be late can give everyone more peace of mind.

These require some sort of subscription plan to work. The plans are usually in the $10-30/month range. Some plans can be suspended when you’re not using them. 

Standalone or bluetooth

Some communicators are dedicated units and don’t require anything else to work. You can text, get weather forecasts and send SOS alerts to Search and Rescue. 

Others require your phone. They’re just the satellite antennae that you connect to with an app. They may be able to send an emergency alert straight from the unit but all other features will require a working phone.

2-way messaging is better

Some communicators like the SPOT only support one way messaging. They can send a message but they can’t receive anything. Zoleo, inReach and Somewear Global Hotspots can send and receive too. This lets you carry on a conversation and confirm friends, family or Search and Rescue actually received your message.

Keep them charged

Electronics don’t work if the battery is dead. Batteries on communicators can last for days or weeks if you aren’t using them much. 

What goes faster is the battery for your phone. If you are using your phone for mapping, music, reading and other things, the battery will drain quickly. Make sure you have enough power left on your phone to text with the communicator too.

Enable tracking

All satellite messengers have some sort of emergency alert button that goes to Search and Rescue and/or police. Most also have tracking where the messenger sends your point to a map online. Friends and family can see your location if they have the link. This is helpful for others to see where you are at without sending a message. If you fall and are unable to send a message, they can still see your location. Tracking often costs extra on the plans.

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