Backcountry travel used to mean you were unreachable for long stretches, unless you happened to carry a bulky, brick-shaped satellite phone along for the ride. But the selection of satellite communication devices has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, with the latest generation of gizmos offering all the bells and whistles of smartphone-enabled apps. Is it time to upgrade your ability to send messages from space? Stay in range and in touch with our selections for the best two-way satellite communicators for paddlers.
4 best two-way satellite communicators for off-grid adventures
1 Garmin inReach Mini 2
$399 | garmin.com
Updated in 2022, the inReach Mini 2 remains a favorite for those looking for robust mapping capabilities, two-way messaging, SOS and weather reports in a compact package. If you go on extended paddling trips, it’s worth upgrading from the Mini to the Mini 2 to benefit from the longer battery life—now lasting for 14 days in the 10-minute tracking mode compared to 90 hours previously—as well as the ability to add more waypoints, courses and activities.
When compared to the competition, the Mini 2 gets bonus points for being a fully standalone device, offering all the same features whether it’s connected to your phone or not. Without a keyboard, writing a custom message on the device can be tedious, but this is less of an issue if you plan to mainly use the three check-in messages and the 20 Quick Text messages for communication—or if you plan to primarily use the device with your phone. Connecting the device to the Explore app on your phone will allow you to take full of advantage of the extensive mapping features, including marking and navigating to waypoints, tracking your progress, backtracking to your starting point, and following preprogrammed routes. And since Garmin uses the powerful Iridium satellite network, the Mini will keep you connected anywhere on Earth.
One drawback—or advantage, depending how you look at it—to the inReach Mini 2 is that your contacts cannot initiate text message conversations with you, they can only reply to messages you’ve sent them. You should also keep in mind the activation fee and monthly and annual tiered plans when pricing out the device.
$199 | zoleo.com
The ZOLEO lets you keep things sweet and simple, offering two-way messaging, SOS and weather reports on even its most basic plan. An optional add-on will give you access to location sharing and tracking capabilities. With no screen on the device, the ZOLEO is meant to be used with your cell phone; we found the ZOLEO app to be the simplest and most intuitive to use out of all the devices.
In the event your phone is out of commission, there are buttons on the device for sending a predefined check-in message and SOS alert. You’ll also get a designated phone number and email address, making it easy for contacts to initiate conversations with you.
One standout feature is that the ZOLEO will attempt to send all messages over Wi-Fi or cellular network first—a boon if you are on one of the lower tier plans with limited messaging. If you are out of range, though, the Iridium satellite network will provide you coverage. An activation fee for the device does apply. You can also suspend your plan when not in use and retain your number and email address for a fee of $4 per month.
3 ACR Bivy Stick
$299 | acrartex.com
ACR is the newest company delving into the two-way satellite communication market. The Bivy Stick is best used when paired with your cell phone, though you can use it as a standalone device to signal SOS, send a preset check-in message and start/stop tracking. All plans come with tracking and you’ll receive a dedicated phone number and email for the device. The Bivy Stick also searches for Wi-Fi or a cell signal before sending via the Iridium satellite network.
Those who love collecting and analyzing their activity data will appreciate the unique features of the Bivy Stick: the ability to label tracked adventures with an activity type and access stats including time, distance, vertical, calories burned, average speed and top speed. You can also search for hiking, paddling, climbing and offroading routes in a given area, making it easy to plan your next adventure.
A deciding factor for those who only need a satellite communicator for a small window of time each year—like, the paddling season—is that the Bivy Stick has no activation or deactivation fees and credits roll over month to month.
4 SPOT X
$249 | findmespot.com
This isn’t the SPOT X you thought you knew. This SPOT X comes with Bluetooth capabilities allowing you to link up to your phone. It’s still a fully standalone device, though, and for many, the SPOT X gets the edge over the competition thanks to its handy QWERTY keyboard that makes writing custom messages that much easier—the tradeoff being that this is the heaviest and largest device on this list. You also get one check-in message and 14 preset messages, all of which you predefine. For some, the lack of weather reports is a deal-breaker.
SPOT is the only device on this list that uses the Globalstar satellite network, providing ample coverage for paddling destinationsin North America, South America and Australia. Check the coverage map for full service details. With the SPOT X you’ll get a dedicated phone number and all plans have tracking included. There is an activation fee and an additional charge if you choose one of the flex plans which only require a one-month subscription.
The latest technology means you get to choose how much you stay in touch with the outside (or, in this case, inside) world. | Feature photo: Mike Hewis