Outdoor enthusiasts hike and backpack to escape everyday life. An outdoor adventure can be as simple as a short walk in the woods or it can be as long as a thru-hike spanning multiple weeks. So, why do I need a satellite communication device for hiking? Do you actually need to stay in touch with the “real” world? Remember, you were intent on escaping it? The surprising answer is, yes you do. Here are the top four reasons to carry a communications device when hiking.
- Getting lost
- Medical emergencies
- Contacting family
- Work requirements
Reasons To Carry A Satellite Hiking Communication Device
How many times have you heard on the news about a hiker being lost? You would think with trail mapping software that getting lost while hiking would be a thing of the past. But it isn’t. Electronic devices sometimes fail. Batteries die. Cell service is not available. Without a backup paper map all you have to rely on is the trail.
For instance, it is easy to become disoriented out in the wilderness. One wrong turn at a trail junction and you can easily become lost. The Geez found this out first hand while hiking in the Grand Canyon. We took what looked to be the trail after breaking camp in the morning. However it came to a dead end after a half mile. The actual trail was fifty feet above us on a different ledge. But there was no way to climb up to it. Consequently, we had to backtrack the half mile. And we had gps trail mapping software as well as a paper map. In short, it is easy to take a wrong trail and potentially get lost.
Hiking sees its fair share of twisted ankles, cuts, bruises, mosquito bites, and poison oak/ivy rashes. In addition, each wilderness trek has the potential for unforeseen danger. Hikers often encounter wild animals, snakes, fast-moving streams, loose boulders, and steep cliffs.
Any one of these can be life-threatening and require medical assistance. But serious medical conditions such as broken bones, dehydration, hypothermia, heart attacks, COPD, and asthma also happen while hiking. Most importantly, as a senior hiker, medical emergencies can become serious on the trail. Minor problems can be dealt with immediately. However, serious problems often require medical intervention.
Contacting medical help is impossible if you don’t have a reliable hiking communication device. A cell phone doesn’t have a signal when out of the cell tower’s range. Your only hope of contacting anyone in an emergency to have a communications device that connects via satellite.
- The PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), such as the ACR ResQLink, sends an emergency SOS beacon that is monitored worldwide. Once sent, emergency personnel are dispatched to your location. There is no back and forth communication with a PLB. Moreover, rescue operations can be extremely expensive.
- A satellite messenger, such as the Garmin InReach Mini, allows you to reach someone via email or SMS text. In an emergency, it is helpful to have 2-way communication. You can give medical personnel vital information about your particular situation. In addition, they can offer suggestions to implement before help arrives. Unlike a PLB, an emergency SOS beacon can be canceled.
- A satellite phone is the ultimate in hiking communication devices. Like a cell phone, you are able to place direct calls worldwide. There is no time lag in letting medical help know the particulars of the emergency.
Like the email devices, there is a cost associated with satellite-connected devices. A satellite phone’s fees are rather expensive. You must buy minutes from the service provider ahead of time. Those minutes expire within a certain amount of time if not used. But in an emergency, do you really care about the expense? The Geez had to be helicoptered out of the Grand Canyon a few years ago because of a knee injury. Thankfully we always carry a satellite phone on backcountry adventures. We contacted emergency medical personnel and arranged for a helicopter to transport me to the hospital.
Family and friends, especially a significant other, may worry about you. Having a reliable satellite messenger device allows you to maintain contact with them. This goes a long way toward calming their fears.
Since I am in my 70s, I no longer hike alone. I always like with a group. Still, my wife asks every time I go hiking if I have the SAT phone or Garmin with me. I guess she hasn’t forgotten my Grand Canyon experience.
Hikers and backpackers enjoy the peace and solitude of the outdoors. They don’t want to be bothered with everyday problems at home. Fortunately I am retired. I answer only to myself. That being said, when I was still working my boss required that I call in occasionally. He had to be able to reach me if needed.
Similarly, I now hike with a business owner. When you own a business, you are ultimately responsible. My hiking buddy has to be able to be reached. Email is used extensively in business. While hiking, satellite communication devices that send and receive email are a must if work requires it.
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How Do Hiking Satellite Communication Devices Connect With Internet And Phone Systems
- Cell Tower
The first step in choosing a satellite communications device for hiking is choosing which type of connection to use.
Both cellular and satellite networks provide connectivity for telephone and internet. Which one to use is determined by its ability to connect to a service provider. The most expensive device is worthless if it cannot connect. Therefore connectivity is absolutely necessary. Network proximity and/or line-of-sight signal transmission are required. Following are the most common examples.
Cell phones are commonly used for both phone calls and internet access. A cell phone connects to the closest cell tower. The problem with this form of communication is coverage. The distance to the nearest cell tower may be too great. Consequently, you will not have cell service. In other words, without a reliable connection, your cell phone and internet will not work.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’s) run on their own satellite system. The COSPAS-SARSAT system was designed specifically for rescue purposes. The system uses both low Earth orbit (LEO) and high Earth orbit (GEO) satellites. As long as the sending unit has an unobstructed view of the overhead sky it will be connected to the satellite system. When the SOS button is activated on a GPS-enabled PLB, the unit transmits your exact location to rescue teams. However, it does not transmit the nature of the emergency. In addition, you cannot cancel the emergency distress call.
PLBs send a digital signal at 406 MHz to the SARSAT Search and Rescuer satellite system. It actually alerts the military. That is to say, if you press the SOS button for help and are hiking in the United States, the U.S. Military intercepts the SOS signal. They, in turn, forward the information to the relevant Search and Rescue (SAR) teams.
When SAR teams get closer, they pick up on a honing signal at 121.5 MHz that helps them find you even if they don’t have an exact GPS location.
Inmarsat’s operates four satellites which rotate in a geosynchronous orbit. They appear stationary when observed from any position on earth. At 32,000 miles above equator they cover 90% of the planet, missing only the northern and southern poles.
For non-arctic explorers, 90% worldwide coverage is more than adequate. The Inmarsat IsatPhone2 uses this satellite network. It is typically the best value in voice communication for hikers and backpackers. However because the phone signal has to travel 32,000 miles, there is a noticeable time lag between you and the connected party on the other end.
Iridium’s 66 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites offer connectivity to 100% of the globe. These LEO satellites are positioned only 1,200 miles above the earth. Therefore the signal from a communication device does not have to travel as far to connect. Users normally get crystal-clear voice communication using this network.
A couple of tradeoffs are noteworthy. Using the Iridium network usually costs more. In addition, as with all satellite networks, LOE satellites are more prone to line-of-sight issues. They require direct line-of-sight for signal connection. In valleys and canyons it may be harder or impossible at times to get a reliable connection. Dropped calls are also a problem.
Satellite messenger devices, such as the Garmin InReach, connect via the iridium network. In addition the Iridium 9555 satellite phone operates on the network.
Globalstar’s network of 48 LEO satellites, once shunned for spotty coverage, has vastly improved. However, multiple areas of the world remain outside Globalstar’s coverage. This makes the decision to use the Globalstar network debatable.
It is advisable to check area coverages before purchasing a device that connects to this network. If the network provides coverage in the areas you hike, it is a non-issue. A satellite messenger, such as the SPOT-Gen3, will work.
Thuraya operates two geosynchronous satellites providing telecommunications coverage in more than 161 countries. Coverage includes Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Australia. Therefore North and South America must use one of the other satellite networks.
Types Of Satellite Hiking Communication Devices
Communication devices fall into three main categories: voice, messaging, and emergency beacon. Many are a combination of these categories. The communication devices available are:
- Cell Phones
- PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons)
- Satellite Messengers
- Satellite Phones
Cell phones are the most common form of electronic communication. According to the Pew Research Center, 81% of Americans now own a smartphone. By 2023 more than 285 million people are expected to have one. Of those aged 18-29, 94% own smartphones.
Network providers are constantly constructing new cell towers to increase network coverage. Many remote wilderness areas now have cell phone coverage. The need to leave your cell phone at home is slowly evaporating.
Hikers and backpackers take smartphones with them for a number of reasons. A smartphone includes all the basic necessities for a hiking communication device. Phone, text, and internet capability allow for sending and receiving phone calls, text messages, and emails. Although smartphones do not have SOS functionality, 911 calls can be placed in emergencies. 911 calls are monitored 24 hours a day. GPS coordinates are transmitted so emergency responders can locate you.
But communication isn’t their only advantage. Smart phones also have excellent quality cameras for taking photos and videos. Hikers can enjoy music and videos on smartphones as well.
In addition, software apps can be downloaded to provide added capabilities. AllTrails and Gaia GPS provide trail mapping and topographical maps on your smartphone. Seek by iNaturalist uses image recognition technology to help you identify the plants and animals you spot while you’re out adventuring. PeakVisor uses your phone’s camera and state-of-the-art 3D technology to show you the names and elevations of 1,016,681 peaks around the world. Star Walk 2 identifies the constellations above you in the night sky. These are but a few of the apps available for smartphones.
In an emergency, a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) sends out a distress signal when the SOS button is activated. This distress signal is picked up by Search and Rescue personnel worldwide. It provides one-way communication to emergency responders. It does not provide details of the emergency. The ACR ResQLink+ and the ARTEX rescueME PLB1 are available. Most other manufacturers now include satellite messenger capability with the SOS function.
Some outdoor enthusiasts want to totally disconnect from the world. A PLB offers that. Yet if a real emergency takes place, Search and Rescue can locate you and provide emergency response. You eliminate the worry that comes from being alone in the wilderness.
Satellite phones are specific the satellite network they connect to. For example, the Iridium 9555 phone operates on the Iridium satellite network. The IsatPhone-2 connects to the Inmarsat satellite network. Whereas the GSP-1700 uses the Globalstar network. Lastly, the X5-TOUCH works on the Thuraya network.
Personal Locator Beacons are not the only devices that access satellite networks. A satellite messenger also connects to one. However, the messenger has a number of advantages over PLBs. The most basic satellite messenger provides incoming and outgoing emails. In addition, they are equipped with an SOS emergency button. Like a PLB, when triggered it sends a distress signal to the GEOS search and rescue monitoring station. A satellite messenger can send and receive emails. Therefore the nature of your emergency can be relayed to search and rescue responders.
Garmin dominates the satellite messenger space. Their product line of InReach messengers offer additional features. They can send and receive SMS text messages, track and share location with family, and connect wirelessly to smartphones. The free Earthmate app syncs your InReach device to your phone. Thus you can access your contact list, trail mapping, aerial imagery, and NOAA charts. In addition, an optional weather forecast feature is available.
Nothing beats voice communication for instant feedback and clarity. Email and SMS text messages cannot convey subtleties. For example, consider the simple question; how badly are you hurt? An email or text cannot convey the quiver in your voice or the labored breathing of a broken rib. Emergency responders can cue in to these subtleties well in advance of reaching you.
Satellite phones operate in much the same way as a cell phone. That is, you enter the phone number and wait for it to ring and get answered. But there is a slight difference. You have to connect to the satellite network before you can enter the phone number.
Satellite phones can be purchased or rented. The purchase or rental cost is not the only cost. Each satellite network charges for the minutes used. Depending on the network, this may be a monthly or yearly charge for a certain number of minutes. Each network has different areas of coverage. Many prefer the Iridium network because of its 100% worldwide coverage and voice clarity. However, it is generally not the least expensive.
How To Decide What Satellite Communication Device To Carry for Hiking
Deciding to carry a hiking communication device is a personal choice. Much depends on your risk tolerance. Ultralight backpackers and adrenaline junkies may choose to forego carrying any electronic devices. They would rather rely on the infrequent encounters of fellow hikers should something unforeseen happen. They may even shun carrying a Personal Locator Beacon.
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The Geez does not believe in that philosophy. My risk tolerance is not that high. I had to be helicoptered out of the Grand Canyon. We had been hiking almost three days before we saw our first fellow backpacker. I was thankful we carried a satellite phone with us. Had my injury been life-threatening I could have died. Not carrying some form of communication is a risk I am not willing to take.
A cell phone should be your first choice if you hike in an area with cell service. You may want to carry one of the other electronic devices as well. But that isn’t required.
You must choose another option if you hike or backpack in an area without cell service. The most basic device is a PLB for emergency use. The only upfront cost is the unit itself. There are no monthly fees or connection charges. However, you do not have the ability to cancel an emergency signal once it is sent. The costs of Search and Rescue operations can run into the thousands of dollars.
Whether to take a satellite messenger or satellite phone has a lot to do with your risk tolerance. A satellite messenger works well if you want to keep family up to date on where you. You can let them know how the trip is going and any problems encountered along the way. In an emergency you can email or text someone in your contact list. In addition, the upfront cost of a satellite messenger is much less than a satellite phone. Ongoing costs can be controlled as well. You can suspend satellite service monthly fees when not being used.
If you are hiking or backpacking in remote wilderness areas you may want to consider a satellite phone. The initial cost is worth every penny in an emergency. Even the per minute connection charges are worth it. A phone call can accomplish much more in a fraction of the time. There isn’t the wasted back and forth frustration of a text or email. Consequently, being able to place a call brings you peace of mind. You know that whatever arises can be handled immediately.
In summary, enjoy and be safe! Safety is my number one criteria as an older hiker. Let’s face it we are not in our 20’s anymore! Expect each outdoor adventure will have no adversities. But plan for the unexpected. Carry a reliable hiking communication device as a contingency for the unexpected.