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Best Satellite Messengers and Locator Beacons of 2017

By Chris McNamara ⋅ Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Wednesday
What is the best personal locator beacon or satellite messenger? We researched 15 options and choose six for detailed hands-on testing. We took them outside of cell range for over 200 hours and 400 messages of glorious satellite communication. Our mission: to find out what is the top device to tell your family and friends you're okay and what is best for sending out an SOS signal. Skip to the bottom to see a discussion of how SAT messengers compare to SAT phones and SAT internet hubs.

Updated Spring 2017
Garmin bought DeLorme and introduced the Garmin InReach Explorer+ to replace the DeLorme InReach Explorer. Similarly, the Garmin InReach SE+ replaces the DeLorme InReach SE. We detail the changes below and in the individual reviews.

Best Overall Messenger


Garmin InReach Explorer+


Editors' Choice Award

$449.95
at Backcountry
See It

Easy one-handed SOS operation
Awesome two-way messaging
Smartphone interface works well
Pairs automatically on startup
Expensive
Largest of the devices we tested
The Garmin InReach Explorer+ is by far the best for sending and receiving messages. It's expensive but worth it. If there are concerned people who want to track you, this device is by far the most reliable. The InReach models are the only devices that reliably let you communicate two ways. We especially like the unlimited text messaging plans that let you communicate much easier and cost effectively than a SAT phone. If you don't need weather reports, a barometer or as much on-device mapping, consider the Garmin InReach SE+ and save $50.

Read full review: Garmin InReach Explorer+

Best on a Tight Budget with Annual Plan


SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger


Best Buy Award

$129.99
at Amazon
See It

Compact and lightweight
Least expensive annual plan
No 2-way messaging
The SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger does not support two-way messaging like the Garmin InReach.** However, it's much smaller, lighter, and is much less expensive up-front and for an annual plan. It's by far the best value if you don't need two-way messaging and want an annual plan. However, if you only plan to use your device for one or two months a year, either InReach device is less expensive per year and gives you the two-way messaging.

Read full review SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger

Top Pick For Emergency Use


SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger


Best Buy Award

$129.99
at Amazon
See It

Dual frequency SOS transmission,
COSPAS/SARSAT's reliability and long track record,
No annual fees
Easy one handed (even gloved) operation
No 2-way messaging
If messaging is not important to you, and you just want an emergency signaling device, the **ResQLink is your best option. It's a little expensive up front, but there are no annual fees or plans to subscribe to. It's also much smaller than the Garmin devices. That said, you don't get the piece of mind of being able to confirm, by a message, that someone has received your distress signal.

Read full review ACR ResQlink 406 Personal Locator Beacon

up to 5 products
Score Product Price Our Take
86
Garmin InReach Explorer+ $450
Editors' Choice Award
The best device on the market, but you pay for it. Better than a SAT phone.
84
DeLorme InReach SE Satellite Messenger $400
Same as the Explorer+, but without the preloaded TOPO maps, compass, altimeter, and accelerometer.
70
SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger $150
Best Buy Award
A good value for year-round tracking if you don't need 2-way messaging.
60
ACR ResQlink 406 Personal Locator Beacon $325
Top Pick Award
The best emergency locator beacon in our tests. No 2-way messaging.
15
Apple iPhone Find My Friends $0
Doesn't work out of cell range. Very useful in cell range.

Analysis and Test Results


Before reading further, we encourage you to read our How to Choose a Personal Locator Beacon or Satellite Messenger, which explains the different satellite networks and how they interact with the devices we tested and our How to Best Use Your Activity Tracker and Handheld GPS Article to see how you can get the most out of your device.
We start by asking and answering three key questions:

Will it successfully transmit an SOS when you most need it to? What if you are unconscious?


For SOS functionality, the long track record and dual transmission power together with the COSPAS/SARSAT satellite network make the ACR ResQLink the clear winner, and virtually any PLB will perform better in this capacity than the SEND devices we tested here.

However, there is a possible theoretical advantage for devices that offer tracking (SPOT Gen3 and InReach Devices). In the case of our lead tester, if he's going wingsuit BASE jumping or paragliding, he can initiate tracking before his launch. In the event of a crash in which he loses consciousness, there is still a chance that he can be found without having to press the SOS button. However, there are two major caveats here:
  1. If he crashes in dense trees or a canyon and ends up lying on his device it very likely will not work (based on our testing and many reports from friends and user reviews). The device manufacturers are serious when they say "Give clear view to the sky" in the manual of each device. Even a small amount of backpack material or light forest coverage can prevent a successful GPS coordinate lock.
  1. In this case, someone else must immediately recognize that you're in trouble and then get the coordinates from your shared map page and organize the rescue. This will likely take time, but it may make body recoveries easier.

Is it easy to use? Can anyone pick it up and use it if needed?


Of all of the devices, the ACR has the clearest and simplest instructions for initiating an SOS. The SPOT Gen3 comes in second place here for simplicity, but the InReach has the most thorough instruction label on the device. The SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger has no instructions on the device (you would have to print instructions and keep them with the device).

Screen shot of locating someone using the InReach. The message bubbles are when we sent a location when we got to camp. The connected dots are when the tracking feature is turned on.
Screen shot of locating someone using the InReach. The message bubbles are when we sent a location when we got to camp. The connected dots are when the tracking feature is turned on.

How Good is The Messaging?


If messaging is the most important feature for you, the Garmin InReach is by far the winner and beats the SPOT Gen3 by a large margin. If you want the ability to send one simple pre-defined check-in message with no guarantee the person got the message, then the SPOT Gen3 gets the job done. For tracking, all three of the above devices functioned reasonably well, with the InReach slightly ahead.

So let's look at some real world needs and situations
  • Ability to track a family member on a backpacking trip: both Inreach and SPOT work about the same. However, if you're using the SPOT incorrectly or there is some other technical issue, the person following you has no way to check in if they see you stop moving on the map
  • You're backpacking buddy badly sprains his leg five miles from the trailhead and can't walk out — This is where the InReach shines. You could notify friends of the injury and coordinate the proper level assistance from Search and Rescue. With the SPOT, you could only signal an emergency and would not know if a rescue was coming or if you requested "too much of a rescue." For example, your SOS distress signal could be interpreted needing a helicopter which might leave you with a $100,000 bill when all you needed was a basic splint and a few people and a wheeled litter to help you out.
  • Your car breaks down on a remote road out of cell phone range — like the above situation, you only have two options with the SPOT: call a rescue or, set a preset message to say "Car broke down — need help." Again, since there is no way to confirm someone got your message with the SPOT, you would anxiously wait a while and hope. With the InReach, you would be able to communicate and arrange the appropriate amount of assistance. SPOT offers a S.O.V. (Save Our Vehicle) program that you can add that starts at $30 per year.

In summary, the InReach bills itself as a "2-way satellite communicator" and it lives up to its title. You can indeed communicate via satellites and it also, on the side, has as SOS feature. The SPOT is more of an all or nothing device: either people are watching you, you can engage in simple one-way communication, or you are calling in a rescue.

DeLorme InReach Explorer

Garmin Buys DeLorme: Differences between the Garmin InReach and DeLorme Inreach


Differences
  • Garmin version has a much larger screen — 1.75" x 1.5" vs. 1.4" x 1.2"
  • Delorme power button is easy to accidentally press — must press another button to turn on, this makes it mostly safe from accidentally being turned on
  • Same on-screen menu, Delorme has a social media button instead of a weather button
  • No weather forecast on Delorme
  • Garmin inReach Explorer+ can get a 3-day weather forecast that is updated via GPS location

Similarities
  • both use the same app
  • both should be supported for many years to come
  • both use the same operating system
  • both acquire satellites and send messages at the same rates

Experience in the field: SPOT Gen3 vs. InReach


We used the SPOT Gen3 side-by-side with the Garmin InReach throughout the test, recording the time needed for standalone messages to be received by contacts and confirmed as sent. The InReach messages were received faster than the SPOT messages about 60 percent of the time, with the InReach messages either confirmed as failed or received within 20 minutes almost every time. The SPOT messages at times confirmed as failed only 45 minutes after the send attempt, and were sometimes received more than two hours after the initial send. Testing these two devices side-by-side in stand-alone mode is the "apples to apples" test, but it's only fair to mention that the InReach, when paired with a smartphone, allows the user to watch the progress of the message send on the phone with a clear visual confirmation of it being sent successfully or not. This is a lot nicer than trying to decipher the blinking lights on the SPOT, wondering if the message was sent or not. Since the chief feature of the SPOT is its ability to send messages to your contacts, and the InReach performs message sending so much better, the InReach is quite clearly a superior device for this purpose.

Example of the InReach messaging when paired with a smart phone.
Example of the InReach messaging when paired with a smart phone.

A popular anecdote illustrating a drawback of any satellite messenger device which performs with less than 100 percent consistency is that if your contacts are expecting to receive "okay" messages from you, then not receiving them is almost a guaranteed source of stress. If your family or significant other is expecting to receive "okay" messages at a certain frequency, and then they do not, it could cause them to raise the alarm unnecessarily. Indeed, there are many reported cases of this documented by rescue services and many stories of a messaging device causing, instead of alleviating, stress for people who are tracking the progress of the user.

If you are using a device to reassure your contacts that you are okay on an hourly/daily basis, then be sure that everyone fully understands the limitations of the device and establish a clear understanding of what it could mean if the messages are not received.

Comparing Plans


It used to be the SPOT had a much less expensive data plan. However, InReach now has a Freedom plan that does not require an annual subscription (SPOT requires a 12-month commitment). For people who only do a few trips a year out of cell service, you save money with the InReach plans, even with unlimited texting at the $65 level. Over a few years, it could be cheaper to own the InReach despite it costing $300 compared to the SPOT's $150 price tag. It all depends on which service plan you choose so every situation is different.

inreach service plan
inreach service plan
Spot 3 service plan
Spot 3 service plan

See the SPOT Service Plans
See the Garmin inReach Service Plans

How Does the InReach Compare to Satellite Phones and Satellite Internet Hubs?


In brief: The InReach is a bargain and much more reliable. Satellite phones are much more expensive than satellite messengers and satellite internet hubs are insanely more expensive.
From left to right: iSavi Internet Hub  inReach SE and Globarstar Satellite Phone
From left to right: iSavi Internet Hub, inReach SE and Globarstar Satellite Phone

Satellite Internet Hubs — These claim to offer a wifi hotspot anywhere and the ability to check your email, run apps, and send texts. A popular model is the iSavi IsatHub that retails for $1350. Expensive, but nothing compared to the insanely expensive data plans: it costs $600 for 100MB of data (most cell phone plans cost $1 for 100MB). A less expensive option is the Iridium GO! for $799. But again, the minutes are expensive: a prepaid card for 500 voice minutes and 3000 text messages is $725. We have not tested either unit, but the user reviews on numerous web sites leave us concerned about the ease of use, connectivity issues and data speeds. Compare that to the InReach which has relatively minor connectivity issues and gives you unlimited text messaging for $60 a month. We want an affordable and reliable way to browse the web by satellite when deep in the back county, but we just are not there yet.

Satellite Phones — prices and performance vary widely:
  • It's about $300 and $0.60 a minute for a phone on the GlobalStar network (same network the SPOT uses).
  • It's about $700 and $1.00 a minute for a phone on the Inmarsat network.
  • It's about $1,000 and $2.00 a minute for a phone on the Iridium network (same network the InReach uses).

Conclusion


You get what you pay for: the more expensive phones on the Iridium network have fewer connectivity issues and greater coverage. But even the Iridium network can be spotty. Be ready to wait a few minutes for a connection and don't be surprised if calls drop. The beauty of a satellite messenger like the InReach is that you compose and send your message and then forget about it. The message sends immediately or within a few minutes when it connects to satellites. With a SAT phone on the other hand, you have to sit there and stare at the screen, sometimes for 10+ minutes, and wait for connectivity, then quickly place the call and hope you don't get dropped.

In our experience, a good satellite messenger is dramatically less expensive, and less frustrating to use than a SAT phone or a SAT internet hub. We hope we have been able to help you decide if you need a personal locator beacon or satellite device and if so, which model is best for you. However, if you're still undecided, consider reading over our buying advice for additional guidelines on choosing a model that's best for you.

Chris McNamara
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