If you find yourself lost in the woods, chances are your phone isn’t going to be much help. And unless you have a map and some sharp navigation skills, a compass probably won’t help, either. That’s where personal locator beacons (PLBs) and satellite messenger devices come in: Put one in your pack, and you’ll be able to alert rescuers and even loved ones if you find yourself in a bind.
PLBs vs. Satellite Messengers
Phones rely on cell towers that have limited connectivity in remote areas, whereas PLBs and satellite messengers use satellite networks to alert the nearest emergency dispatch stations of your location. PLBs and satellite messengers operate differently, however. When activated, PLBs send an SOS signal to a global network of satellites, such as those maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S., and in order for them to work, users must register them in the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) database. The downside of PLBs is that they’re simple: They just send out an SOS. There’s often no confirmation that dispatchers have received your message, and you can’t send custom messages.
Satellite messengers, on the other hand, use GPS satellites for location information, but they also allow you to send or exchange texts, access weather reports along your journey, and even view preloaded topographic maps.
Every device has different features and functions, and the best choice for you depends on how connected you want to be. To help you choose, we’ve rounded up a list of the best models on the market and detailed their specs below. No matter what type of off-grid adventure you’re planning, consider these handheld gadgets to keep you and your companions safe.
The Best Personal Locator Beacons and Satellite Messengers
1. Lightweight: Bivy Stick
At just 3.35 ounces (about half the weight of a cell phone), the Bivy Stick is the lightest beacon on this list. Founder Vance Cook created it after his wife was convinced he had died on Everest. Two-way communication allows you to send messages and your real-time location to friends and hear back from them. The lithium ion battery lasts up to 120 hours, and it connects to your iPhone and the Bivy Stick app. If your phone dies, no problem: You can still use the buttons for check in, location sharing, and SOS. It’s also waterproof and compatible with GoPro mounts. You can choose a data plan for just the months you need, and unlimited data is $50 for a month of use.
2. Best Navigation: Garmin inReach Explorer
Garmin is one of the oldest navigation companies around, so you can be confident the tech is legit. The brand has a number of satellite and tracking devices, but the inReach Explorer is the highest performer thanks to its compact size, two-way text messaging via the Iridium satellite network, long-lasting battery (up to 30 days on power save mode), weather forecasts, and navigation tools. Before leaving for your trip, download topographic maps or marine charts through the free Earthmate app to ensure you stay on course. Subscription plans start at $12 per month, and both annual and month-to-month plans are available.
3. Affordable Data Plans: Somewear Global Hotspot
When James Kubik was a kid, he lost a friend in a sailing accident because she couldn’t call for help. As an adult, he built a beacon that could help others avoid that kind of tragedy: the Somewear Global Hotspot. The device fits in the palm of your hand, weighs just four ounces, and floats in water. It connects to the Iridium network—or WiFi for those who move in and out of connectivity—for two-way communication, tracking, and weather updates accessed through an app. You can also download satellite and topographic maps for offline use. Its data plans are the most affordable and flexible of the bunch—there’s a $25 activation fee and subscriptions range from $8 per month for 10 messages and 75 pin drops to $50 per month for unlimited data.
4. One-Way Communication: SPOT Gen4
The only one-way choice on this list, the SPOT Gen4 is great if you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive option and don’t need to receive messages from loved ones. You can still keep them informed, though: Program up to 1,250 messages to provide updates on your whereabouts, changing plans, or general well-being. SPOT utilizes the Globalstar satellite network; it works everywhere but has a weaker signal in parts of Africa, Greenland, and northern Russia. This device requires a $20 activation fee and a yearly contract plan or flex plan. The cheapest is the basic plan at $12 per month for 12 months. One ding: It doesn’t pair with a smartphone, so there aren’t extra functions outside of what’s already on the device.
5. SOS Only: ACR Electronics ResQLink View Personal Locator Beacon
If you don’t need to send and receive custom messages, consider this SOS-only beacon that’s just over 5 ounces (about the weight of a billiard ball). No subscription is needed, and to send a distress signal, simply deploy the antenna and turn it on. You’re covered worldwide since it works with GPS, Galileo, GNSS, and MEOSAR (Medium Earth Orbiting Search and Rescue) satellites. A small digital display shows your live coordinates, and an LED light strobes for visibility. Numerous attachment clips keep it secure on your pack or belt, and you can even test it out before you go with the built-in “self-test” function.
6. U.S. Only: Higher Ground SatPaq
A lesser-known but still capable option, the two-way SatPaq uses a series of existing geostationary satellites (rather than data from the Globalstar or Iridium networks) to track your location. No subscription is required, but you’re billed for messages on a pay-as-you-go basis: 150 messages cost $55, while 10,000 messages cost $1,750. To send and receive texts over satellite and via WiFi or cell signal, pair it with your smartphone and aim it in the direction of the connection. The app also shares seven-day weather forecasts and the AI assistant Dr. Dex answers first-aid questions. One caveat: The SatPaq only works in the U.S., so it’s best for the domestic traveler.
[$379 plus messages; satpaq.com]
7. Ski & Snowboard: Aleck 006
This ski-oriented Bluetooth earpiece system doesn’t connect directly with emergency dispatch, but we put it on the list because you can track your friends’ locations on the mountain (via a smartphone app) and find them if they’re in need. It’s designed to fit into the ear flap of a ski or snowboard helmet (before purchasing, double check that your helmet is compatible) so you can talk one-on-one to a pal or to the whole group in walkie-talkie mode. In addition to location tracking, the app allows you to dial in the sound and volume settings, and when you’re not talking to friends, you can use the Aleck to listen to music, too.
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