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Satellite Communicators: Your Lifeline in Remote Locations

Many survivalists are all too aware of the limits of cellular reception in wilderness areas. (Frankly, for some of us, that’s half of the fun!) However, the thought of being caught in an emergency situation without the means to communicate for help can be a haunting one.

This is where satellite communicators come in. Where cell towers are not, there is always a satellite overhead ready to receive your message to communicate with the outside world. But how do these strange little devices work, and is it worth picking one up?

We’re here to give you the low down on everything you need to know about satellite communication devices.

View of a communications satellite orbiting the plant. Satellite communicators.

How do Satellite Communicators Work?

Satellite communicators come in a number of different forms with ranging utilities and features. In the most simple terms, these devices enable users to send a signal to overhead satellites which are then forwarded to the intended receiver. This means you can get a message out in even the most remote locations.

Although some satellite communicators allow for cross communication, at the most fundamental level, satellite communicators are utilized to transmit an SOS message to local authorities with approximate location data so that you can be more effectively located by search and rescue teams.

Different Forms of Satellite Communicators

Man holding a Zoleo two-way satellite communicator.
A Zoleo brand two-way satellite communicator.

Personal Locator Beacons

The most fundamental of the group, PLBs are about as simple as it can get. Pull out the antenna, press the button, and help is on the way. Of the available satellite communication devices, PLBs are some of the most reliable with a simple interface and extremely long-lasting batteries.

The primary disadvantage of PLBs being that there is no way to confirm that your message has been received or to share any extra information that may be useful to the proper authorities.

The bright side, however, is that PLBs almost exclusively use government satellites, meaning there are no subscription fees necessary to maintain coverage.

One-Way Communicators

Slightly more advanced than PLBs, one-way communicators allow users to send specific messages out to family, friends, and rescue teams.

While some devices may allow you to type out messages on the spot, a vast majority of one-way communicators will have you pre-select text to communicate with loved ones when in remote locations.

This can offer some extra peace of mind to loved ones wondering how you are doing on some of your more adventurous journeys. We find little messages like: “Made it back to camp!” and “Just reached the summit!!” can go a long way with the folks back home.

Beyond offering more message customization, many one-way communication devices also often offer live GPS tracking for those interested. These extra bells and whistles come at a cost, though, often requiring a monthly subscription for access to the proper satellite networks.

Two-Way Communicators

If you’re looking for the closest thing to having cellular coverage in the backcountry, a two-way communicator may be your cup of tea.

While there are several of these products with built-in displays, allowing you to communicate solely with your satellite communication device, a good number require you to pair your smartphone with the device in order to properly function.

While this may provide some ease of use, it is important to keep in mind that you will now be more reliant on your phone’s battery as opposed to the longer lasting batteries found in these devices. That said, the SOS function will always operate without the use of a cell phone.

Two-way communicators often come equipped with live GPS tracking and are usually the smallest of the satellite communication device family. That stated, they do tend to be the most expensive of these kinds of products, maintaining both the highest sticker and subscription prices.

Our Recommendations

A woman holding up a Garmin satellite communicator.
A Garmin brand satellite communicator.

Two-Way Communicators

Garmin inReach Mini 2

Within the Satellite Communicator space, Garmin has established itself as the leading producer of high-quality communication products. Quite possibly the most highly praised satellite communicator currently on the market, the Garmin inReach Mini 2 covers all of the bases.

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is exceptionally light, easy to use, and boasts exceptional battery life. The device is multifunctional and can be used seamlessly with or without your smartphone, so you aren’t forced to rely on shaky cell phone batteries out in the backcountry.

With location tracking, navigation, and weather forecasting, this little device will be your best friend the next time you find yourself far from civilization.

Garmin inReach Messenger

As the predecessor to the inReach Mini 2, the Garmin inReach Messenger has held up well against the test of time. Usable as both a satellite communicator and a power bank for your phone, the Garmin inReach Messenger is designed to keep you charged up and connected wherever you venture out to.

Though it may not have all of the shiny new features of its successor, the inReach messenger is more affordable and offers many of the same basic functions as the inReach Mini 2. The device can be used without a smartphone, however its smaller screen and clunkier design do make it a bit more complicated to use.

That said, with a charged up cell phone, this product functions exceptionally well on shorter trips like day hikes and overnights at the campground.

ZOLEO Satellite Communicator

Looking for an affordable buy that will get the job done? The ZOLEO satellite communicator includes quite a bit for such a reasonable price.

The device is usable with or without a smartphone and does not include an on-screen interface. You won’t find yourself missing the screen, however, as ZOLEO’s 5 button interface is easy to learn and simple to use.

Like some of the more expensive options available, this device offers unlimited location tracking as well as weather forecasting. Though it is a bit bulkier than other devices, the ZOLEO does what it does exceptionally well and is great bang for your buck.

One-Way Communicators

Spot Gen4

While some folks prefer to have all of the little bells and whistles that a device has to offer, others want something reliable, straightforward, and as simple as possible. As the market has become saturated with two-way communicators, one-way communicators have seemingly become a thing of the past.

Nevertheless, the SPOT Gen4 seems to hold up as a more affordable and more streamlined option in the satellite communicator market. The device itself does not offer an on-screen display or options to connect to a cellular device.

The idea of the Spot Gen4 is to communicate nothing more than the absolute necessities with simple, pre-made check-in messages, location tracking, and an SOS button. If you’re looking for the most straightforward, cheapest possible option, the Spot Gen4 is your buy.

Personal Locator Beacon

ACR ResQLink 400

The PLB is as sturdy and straightforward as it can possibly get. One button. One Function. Keeping you safe.

Unlike other satellite communicators, PLBs don’t require any network subscriptions as they connect directly to government satellite networks. This means your PLB purchase will be the last you need to make! Activate your device, throw it in your backpack, and you’re good to go!

The ACR ResQlink 400 offers a whopping 24 hours of battery life. Meaning that if you get caught somewhere, you can transmit your location to rescue services non-stop for a whole day.

As an added bonus, this resilient little device is completely waterproof. So no stress if you’re portaging and somehow drop your gear in the water. Your lifeline will survive along with you.


Man holding a personal locator beacon device.

Are there any disadvantages to Satellite Communicators?

While satellite communicators are a useful bit of kit to have along in the wilderness, they do have a few flaws.

For one, finding a reliable communicator below $150 dollars can be quite the challenge. And even though they are sturdy and built to last, they are not indestructible. So be careful where you place your communicator in your backpack or pockets!

Depending on the model you decide to buy, some communicators can get a bit heavy and burdensome. Having to connect your phone and carry around a little hunk of space machinery with you can be a hassle.

Also important to mention is that most communicators require a subscription to have access to the necessary satellite network your product is built for. Don’t worry, though. These subscriptions don’t often cost over $10-$15 monthly and can be canceled for the months you aren’t using your device.

How do I know which satellite network to connect to?

There are several satellite networks available to users. That said, satellite communicators are often only built to work with a single network, meaning that picking and choosing networks after you purchase your satellite communicator is not an option.

Before your purchase, check out which network your communicator is capable of connecting to. All of the products above – with the exception of the Spot Gen4 – connect to the Iridium Satellite network. This network is generally considered to have the most widespread and reliable coverage of the networks available.

Other common networks you will run into include: Globalstar, Inmarsat, and Echostar. All of which have pretty solid coverage as well.

When in doubt of whether a message has been properly sent or not, wait a few minutes or move locations and try again. Remember satellites are often in orbit, so if one is not available when you intend to send a message, another one is likely on the way!

Do all two-way communicators require a phone?

No! But they do work quite a bit better with them.

A phone will have no impact on whether your satellite communicator gets proper connectivity to a satellite network, but it does provide ease of use. While many two-way communicators do offer the option of pre-assigning pre-written messages to certain buttons on the device itself, having a phone with your communicator will grant you the freedom to communicate whatever you want over your device.

Wrapping Up Satellite Communicators

A camper in a remote location using a satellite communicator device.

Whether you’re hiking deep in the backcountry, spending the week portaging, or climbing your way to the summit, safety should always be priority number one. That cellphone in your pocket may get you where you need to be in the big city, but overreliance on cellular devices can become dangerous when it comes to taking on more remote adventures.

Satellite communicators can bridge the gap that cellphones can’t. These clever little devices can offer your loved ones peace of mind while you’re out exploring with a quick message home or even live location updates.

Most importantly, though, a satellite communicator can offer you some peace of mind in case you get caught in a sticky situation. Remember the cardinal rule of outdoor exploration: Safety first!

Want more tips on how to effectively communicate with your satellite communicator in an emergency situation? Check out our article Ensuring Clear Communication in an Emergency: A Survival Essential.