During my recent WFR training, we (much to my pleasant surprise) did a quick overview of the communication technology needed for guiding, SAR, or even personal use.
Though I can, and have, rant against the cultural expectations of connectivity, there is no doubt that connectivity is here to stay. And an expected tool for any guide or SAR personnel. And some type of communication is often demanded by loved ones when you venture into the wild spaces.
But despite all the reviews of Garmin inReach, SPOTs, PLBs, cell phone carriers, etc., I rarely noticed a concise overview of the technology *types* available in an easily understood manner. Back in my IT days, we’d call this type of document “vendor-neutral” in terms of the overview.
I tend to discuss overall types as the individual models or technology might change, gear types rarely do. I think there is value in the differences in puffy varieties vs. specific puffy reviews, for example. If you know what the differences between a winter weight puffy vs. a three-season puffy, you can make more sense of the many articles out there (mine included.) Ditto for stoves, sleeping pads, ground cloths, etc.
So, here’s my general look at the overall communication types vs. individual reviews. I won’t review SPOT vs. inReach, nor will I suggest a specific radio or mobile device. Google is your friend if you are looking at more in-depth reviews. I suggest you look over other reviews before making a purchase.
As always, these opinions are mine and not necessarily fact. But I think the article should serve as a good overview of your needs.
Note: I am just going to cover the more popular or established technologies. Something such as ham radio has adherents, but that is not a widespread technology overall (for example). I’m also looking at communication technology from a backpacking or hiking standpoint vs. a basecamp or vehicle-based form of outdoor recreation or operations. On foot will have more limitations.
- Mobile Device (Cell Phone)
In 2019, very few people choose not to carry a mobile device. Even non-smart phone users tend to take a basic “flip phone.”
As such, it is the device almost everyone has for communication technology for a semi-front country or even some backcountry situations.
The costs vary for the phone themselves, along with the data plan. But if you have connectivity, a mobile device works as a good solution for those needing to communicate with people.
The downside? You need cellular connectivity to well…to have connectivity.
Mobile technology works best with “line of sight“; meaning you tend to get better reception on ridgelines vs. valleys or canyon bottoms. Any data (email, Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, etc.) needs a 4G signal or a robust 3G signal. Voice calls need a bit less of a good connection; SMS messaging can often get through when even voice calls fail. As a side note, mobile devices can increasingly work well with commercial options such as SPOT or the inReach via blue-tooth technology. See below for more information on this aspect of communication.
As with any technology, you need to keep the electronics charged. An Anker box or similar makes for a portable, light, and inexpensive solution to keep your mobile device charged in the backcountry.
Best for – Useful for those in a front country area such a local park or open space or perhaps need to check in once in a while (“I’ll be late for dinner”, “I made it to town.” ) or emergency use when you can absolutely, positively can guarantee coverage. Otherwise, a mobile device is best used as an adjunct to other communication methods esp for emergency use.
- Two-way radio (Walkie Talkies)
Long popular with backcountry rangers, guides, and SAR personnel, two-way radios work best for shorter distances among a small group. You can extend the range of two-way radios via repeaters. As with cellular technology, a two-way radio is line of sight dependent.
Two-way radios are often finicky to use as some organizations treat the equipment better than others, or there might be obstacles (such as mountains) blocking the signal at times. Still, for quick communications over a small distance between a group, they end up being a useful technology. The radios typically do not cost that much overall for non-government agency use.
A two-way radio needs to be charged up and does not charge up as quickly in the field versus other communications technology. Responsible people will carry an extra battery for their two-way radio “just in case.”
The two-way radio works best as perhaps a primary form of communication between groups vs. needing to contact family back home or for emergency calls to another organization.
Best for – Communication between groups over a short-range distance. Guides talking to each other about their sub-groups status or calling into base camp for communication are two immediate uses that come to mind. Probably of less use for private purposes in 2019 vs. even a decade ago because of mobile device technology or other commercial solutions.
- Satellite Phones
Satellite phones generally work via geostationary or low-earth orbit satellites. Due to satellite technology, they work just about anywhere on Earth.
The prices vary from a fairly affordable $200 up to, or over, $1000. The most significant cost, however, is the data plan. A 300-minute plan can easily cost $700 or more.
The satellite phone may work well with the initial connection, but the window for use can be as low as ~2 minutes or less due to the satellite connection. And the quality of call often sounds like something from a World War Two movie when they use a radio. Luckily, modern sat phones use USB technology for charging; no need to carry yet another proprietary battery for charging.
Though expensive, you can rent a phone if you see the need for one in the short term and not long term use.
Best for – When you need absolute connectivity for emergency purposes. In 2019, commercial enterprises will more likely use satellite phones than private end users.
- Two-Way Satellite Messengers (e.g., SPOT or inReach)
In 2019, for personal use and even some government and commercial use, two-way satellite messengers make for an increasingly popular option. The cost of the individual devices are getting less expensive; they are getting lighter; they boast increased reliability, and (crucially) the data plans are coming down in price.
Think of this type of device as a two-way text messenger coupled with GPS tracking abilities for the people back home. And these devices contact a satellite network for SOS purposes. Rather than use the clunky old-school style form of texting, you generally can slave the messenger to your smartphone with blue tooth technology. Meaning the texting and other features are easy to use vs. using the clunky native interface found on these devices.
Though generally reliable, this technology can have quirks though those quirks are becoming less and less noticeable as the technology matures. As with most modern electronics, the devices charge via USB.
Since these devices are relatively low cost and easy to use overall, there is a temptation to use the tools or the services indiscriminately vs. other technology used by more experienced outdoor users
Best for – Individual use for GPS tracking, simple two-way text communication, or SOS emergencies. Excellent adjunct for government or commercial use when paired with a radio or sat phone.
- Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a one-way SOS device that works on government satellite networks (vs. the commercial systems of other devices). These devices are incredibly reliable, not overly expensive, almost foolproof, tend to have a stronger signal sent out vs. alternatives, work nearly everywhere, and does not require a subscription fee.
You buy it once, register it, and not have to worry about any further payments for the use of the device itself. The battery also lasts up to five years; you can leave it in your pack and almost forget about it. A significant advantage of a PLB battery, in addition to the long battery life, is that a PLB works down to -20F and will transmit up to twenty-four hours in these adverse conditions. Of course, you do have to send in the unit to replace the battery at some point.
As you can probably tell, the major downside of the PLB is the limited features. You can’t confirm if anyone received or processed your SOS. Note you can’t cancel an SOS call, either. Also, there is no tracking ability for end-users vs. govt use nor two-way communications. But if you want the absolute best “Hail Mary pass” in an emergency for rescue purposes, get a PLB esp if you don’t need or want the two-way communications.
Best for – Those who want absolute reliable SOS calls and one you can “set and forget.” Not as useful, in my opinion, for commercial use due to the lack of two-way communication unless environmental considerations are a crucial point.
- Legacy Technology
The term “legacy technology” in tech-speak means older technology that may not be as feature-rich, supported, reliable, or useful as current technology.
For communication devices, it would mean older SPOTs that are not as useful as current SPOT devices and less reliability, inReach devices with known issues that trigger at unfortunate times, sat phones not rechargeable via USB, etc.
Older devices aren’t necessarily terrible and can be less expensive than the current tools. However, you need to be aware of the limitations of what using this device might mean or if any issues caused the device replacement in the first place. With technology, you also have to inquire if the company even supports the device currently or in the near future. The Gen 1 SPOTs are over a decade old, for example. And the “new” Gen 3 SPOTs are circa 2013 technology, can’t be recharged via USB, and are of limited functionality vs. the newer and more useful SPOT satellite messengers.
Unless you can purchase the legacy technology for an excellent price, and aware of the caveats associated with the older technology, you’ll want to consider purchasing the newer tech. New tech tends to be superior to the previous iterations esp when it comes to communication devices. And, very important with any technology, should continue to be supported at least in the next 3-5 years.
- Future Technology?
Predicting future technology can always be problematic. I have a computer in my pocket that allows video calls to my niece, sending photos to thousands of people, and allows me to look up information almost instantaneously. And as recently as 2010, hardly anyone had this type of device. Now it is the norm. Amazing!
What I can say is that the technology will get less expensive, more powerful, longer laster battery life, and probably lighter in the long run.
In 2019, two forms of rapidly maturing technology might make some, or all, types of the above communication technology devices obsolete to a certain degree.
- 5G coverage will mean faster connectivity with mobile devices and a more robust data capacity
- Low Earth orbit satellite technology will make 24/7 internet communication possible all over the globe and in all places. Both Amazon ,Tesla, and others have plans for their versions of these networks.
As of now, there is no widespread 5G coverage. And slow, clunky, and expensive describes satellite internet accurately in the fall of 2019. But I remember both dial-up internet and the early days of commercial broadband. And here we are.
Once the technology matures, becomes standardized, and affordable, backcountry communication technology will look different than it does now. Both on a technical level and a cultural level. But that’s another discussion. 🙂
As with any technology, you need to test and verify your technology before going into the field. And, just as important, set the expectations for the people back home. All technology can fail. Lack of communication does not necessarily mean an emergency. Have appropriate communication protocols in place and follow appropriately before you deem an emergency in your family or organization. Topics I discussed before. And don’t forget an Anker box or similar to keep the majority of your technology charged up. If you take a two-way radio, pack an extra battery.
Finally, be respectful of others when using technology in the field. The bathroom principle might apply best: Do it discreetly, in private, and where you won’t offend other people.
Communication tech is part of the outdoor person’s kit in the 21st century on some level for most. What works best for you depends on your needs, role, and expectations.
In my opinion, I think the following works for most people:
Personal use? A mobile device paired with a two-way satellite messenger works to give you essential communication, tracking for people back home, and SOS capabilities in emergencies.
In semi-front country areas, areas with consistent cellular coverage, or don’t want to talk until you get in town, you might be able to get away with just a mobile device esp if you do not need or want connectivity 100% of the time.
Commercial use such as backcountry guiding? Reliable communication is paramount. A satphone, though expensive, ends up as a necessary business expense. Two-way radios between groups over shorter distances could prove to be useful as I found out at times. The sat messenger/mobile device combo also works well for routine check-ins and quick messaging if set up correctly.
SAR or govt roles? I have no direct experience with these roles. But people familiar with these agencies’ protocols told me their equipment fits the model above in many cases, too. Last summer, I saw an Alberta conservation officer with a SPOT in his truck, for example.
Only need or want a “Hail Mary Pass” or absolute reliability regardless of the situation? A PLB will be the most reliable option overall if with the limitations discussed earlier
Go forth, be safe, and communicate reliably and ethically!
And try not to let the communication override your purpose for being out there in the first place.