Types of SOS Devices: Satellite Messengers and Personal Locator Beacons
People often ask me about emergency communication devices so I thought I’d share a bit about the types of SOS devices, their pros and cons, and the limitations of each.
Emergency satellite devices have revolutionized the way we stay connected in critical situations. They have helped thousands of people get the help they need when it would have otherwise been impossible to communicate. Having a way to communicate in case of emergency has also helped some people overcome their fears of exploring and opened up more access to the outdoors.
On the other hand, these devices have also given people a false sense of confidence. Making them try more risky behavior in remote situations under the false pretense that they can get ready access to help. I have spent over 10 years on professional SAR teams, along with many years as a volunteer SAR member. I think it’s paramount that people understand that even an SOS call for help does not guarantee a rescue. Many other factors must work out for SAR teams, helicopters, and other emergency aid to arrive in a timeframe that is actually helpful.
Types of Emergency Devices
When it comes to emergency satellite devices for outdoor recreation and safety, there are a few popular options available on the market. Let’s compare two commonly used devices: Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and Satellite Messengers.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)
Function: PLBs are distress beacons that transmit a signal on designated emergency frequencies to alert search and rescue teams of your location in case of an emergency. They are typically used for life-threatening situations.
Coverage: PLBs use the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system, which provides global coverage, including remote areas where cell phone signals may not reach.
Activation: PLBs require manual activation by the user. Once activated, the distress signal is transmitted to the satellites.
Features: PLBs are relatively simple devices, primarily focused on emergency communication. They don’t typically offer additional messaging or tracking capabilities.
Battery Life: PLBs have long battery life, often lasting several years. They usually rely on non-rechargeable batteries.
Cost: Typically, PLBs are less expensive than a satellite messenger, and do not require a monthly subscription.
Function: Satellite messengers, such as the Garmin inReach or SPOT devices, provide two-way communication capabilities via satellite networks. They allow users to send and receive messages, share location information, and request non-emergency assistance in addition to sending emergency distress signals.
Coverage: Satellite messengers also utilize satellite networks for global coverage. However, the quality and coverage may vary depending on the specific device and satellite network used.
Activation: Satellite messengers can be manually activated like PLBs, but they also provide the option for two-way communication, allowing users to interact with search and rescue teams, family, and friends.
Features: Satellite messengers offer additional features like text messaging, tracking, and sometimes weather updates. They are more versatile than PLBs and provide both emergency and non-emergency communication.
Battery Life: Battery life for satellite messengers varies depending on usage. Some devices offer rechargeable batteries, while others use replaceable or rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
Cost: Satellite Messengers are typically more expensive than a PLB, and may require a monthly subscription starting around $15.
Which SOS Device Should I Choose?
When deciding between these devices, consider your specific needs, budget, and the level of communication you require during outdoor activities. If you primarily seek a straightforward emergency beacon, a PLB may be sufficient. However, if you want the ability to communicate with others and share non-emergency information, a satellite messenger could be a better choice. Researching specific models, comparing prices, and reading user reviews can further assist you in making an informed decision based on your individual requirements. Here is my breakdown of some of the most common devices and their pros and cons.
SPOT devices, offered by Globalstar, have gained significant popularity for their simplicity and reliable emergency communication capabilities. They offer 2-way emergency messaging, check-in and tracking, and non-emergency communications
Pros: The Spot X is one of the cheapest satellite messengers on the market, and offers monthly and annual plans that are cheaper than some competitors. The built-in keyboard can make messaging directly from the device easier.
Cons: You cannot pause the subscription service, so you may pay for the service when you don’t need it. The keyboard makes navigation difficult.
Garmin’s inReach series is another popular choice for outdoor enthusiasts. These devices employ the Iridium satellite network, ensuring better global coverage and reliable communication. Critical features of inReach devices include two-way communication, SOS function, real-time tracking, weather forecasts, and non-emergency messaging:
Pros: Garmin offers a Flex Subscription plan, allowing you to start and stop its services in 30-day increments. The inreach mini is super light with great battery life. Devices can now sync to your phone with an app. This makes messaging super easy and convenient.
Cons: If you don’t sync your phone custom messages can be difficult to write. The plans are expensive, and the screen is small.
Note: I use a inReach mini while in Antarctica to stay in touch with loved ones at home.
This lightweight, simple device is a PLB that offers a single SOS activation that transmits a powerful distress signal that’s received by a global system of satellites. Hopefully, The satellite system relays your SOS to a network of response agencies, which ultimately results in your plea for assistance reaching a local search and rescue organization.
Pros: Less expensive to buy than a satellite messenger, and does not require a subscription. Has a lifespan for 7 years.
Cons: Is only good for 1 SOS signal. There is no way to know if your SOS signal went through to the proper organizations, as there is no 2-way messaging. You cannot give any details of the situation or rescue needs.
While the satellite communication feature introduced with select iPhone models holds promise for emergency communication in remote areas, its specific capabilities and limitations still need to be discovered. If you prioritize seamless integration and simplicity, Apple’s satellite communication feature may be worth exploring.
Pros: No need for an external device or subscription, just use your phone for similar services.
Cons: Fewer tracking capabilities, with an emphasis on emergency messaging only. Shorter battery life and more limited coverage than external devices.
Note: Your phone is likely also being used as your camera, navigation tool etc. All of these demands will drain the battery quicker and runs the risk of creating a weak link in trip tools.
Other Notable Options
Bivy Stick offers a compact and lightweight emergency satellite communicator that pairs with your smartphone. It uses the Iridium satellite network and provides two-way messaging, SOS functionality, and weather updates.
ZOLEO combines cellular and satellite networks to ensure reliable communication. It offers global coverage, two-way messaging, check-in messages, and an SOS button. ZOLEO also includes a dedicated app for easy usage.
Somewear Global Hotspot
The Somewear Global Hotspot is a versatile device that connects with your smartphone via Bluetooth. It offers two-way messaging, weather forecasts, tracking, and SOS capabilities.
Emergency satellite devices have revolutionized outdoor safety and communication. While SPOT and inReach are popular choices, there are several other options available, each with its unique features. Whether you prioritize simplicity, two-way communication, or additional functionalities like weather updates, there is an emergency satellite device to suit your needs. Before embarking on your next adventure, consider having the peace of mind that comes with reliable emergency communication.
At the same time, remember that having an SOS device does not always buy you more time, and rescue may still be a long time out (or not at all). Equip yourself with the knowledge, skills, and equipment to self-rescue whenever possible, and stay within your skill level in the outdoors.