Best Satellite Messengers and Locator Beacons

The Explorer+ will keep you in touch wherever you take it.
Planning a trip to a remote location and want to be able to contact loved ones or get help in an emergency? We've tested the limited number of personal locator beacons on the market side-by-side to help you pick out the best option for your needs. We used them while hiking in the Sierra Nevada with no cell reception, and compared important features like their messaging functions, signal coverage, and ease of use. Then we compared the various payment plans to try and wade through the price confusion and give you a realistic picture of what it'll cost you for each one. Finally, if you scroll to the bottom we discuss how SAT messengers compare to SAT phones and SAT internet hubs. If you're planning on being in remote ranges for any length of time, have safety concerns, or like the extra security of being able to communicate should cell service be spotty, we've got some great options for you.

Read the full review below >

Test Results and Ratings

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Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:
Chris McNamara
Founder and Editor-in-Chief
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday
April 24, 2018

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Updated April 2018
The personal locator beacon and satellite messenger industries continue to grow, and we've updated our review to bring you the latest information available. SPOT recently updated their pricing structure. They now have a rental plan that costs $75 for three days and $15 each additional day. Unfortunately, they've also added a $15 "Network Maintenance Fee" to their annual plan. Now the SPOT Gen3 and Garmin inReach Explorer+ are roughly the same price for annual tracking, but the inReach Explorer+ has optional 2-way messaging, which is a distinct advantage. We detail the cost-per-day in the review to help you understand how much you'll actually be spending.

Best Overall Messenger


Garmin inReach Explorer+


Weight: 7.5 oz | Battery life: 100 hours
Easy one-handed SOS operation
Awesome two-way messaging
Smartphone interface works well
Pairs automatically on startup
Expensive upfront cost
Largest of the devices we tested
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ was the best messaging device in our test group. It pairs with an app on your phone and can send bulk, pre-programmed messages (so you don't have to type out the same "I'm doing fine" message to each person). We rarely had to wait more than five minutes to acquire a satellite, and it will confirm whether your messages sent or not. While we didn't trigger the SOS button in the field, we liked its design. We also appreciate that the device makes it difficult to accidentally send a signal, but it is not challenging to use it quickly if you ever need to.

The Explorer+ is expensive at the outset, but worth it if you want to send a lot of messages in the field. Garmin's unlimited text messaging plan is more cost-effective than a SAT phone, and the messaging functionality is better as well. You can still send messages from the device if your phone runs out of batteries, and it also has fully featured GPS capabilities and weather forecasting. If you don't need weather reports, a barometer or as much on-device mapping, consider the Garmin inReach SE+, which has the same messaging capabilities but is $50 less.

Read review: Garmin inReach Explorer+

Least Expensive for Shorter Trips


SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger


Best Buy Award

$143.94
at Amazon
See It

Weight: 4 oz | Battery life: 150 hours
Lightweight and compact
Lower upfront cost and rental option
No 2-way messaging
Plans can be more expensive than Garmin
The SPOT Gen3 does not support two-way messaging like the Garmin inReach. However, it's much smaller, lighter, and is much less expensive up-front. It's also much cheaper if you only need a device for a few days a year and don't mind renting it. It has a tracking function that creates shareable maps so that your loved ones can stay updated on your progress, which may be more useful to some if they want to keep people updated without having to really communicate much.

SPOT's satellite coverage is not global yet, and there are a few places where it won't work, like the Arctic and sub-Saharan Africa. If these are your intended destinations, you'll want to consider something else. Even in a designated coverage area, only about 70% of our messages sent, which is much less than the Garmin inReach Explorer+. While the Explorer+ was a better product all-around, we do like the value of renting the Gen3 it if we only need to use it for a few days and don't anticipate doing that more than once a year.

Read review SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger

Top Pick For Emergency Use


ACR ResQlink 406 Personal Locator Beacon


ACR ResQlink 406 personal locator beacon
Top Pick Award

$244.00
at Amazon
See It

Weight: 5.4 oz | Battery life: 30 hours
Dual frequency SOS transmission
COSPAS/SARSAT is very reliable
No annual fees
Easy to operated one-handed (even while wearing gloves)
Lacks 2-way messaging
If messaging is not important to you, and you're looking for an emergency signaling device only, the ResQLink is your best option. It's a little expensive up front, but there are no annual fees or subscription plans required. It's also much smaller than the Garmin devices. It broadcasts the emergency signal on two frequencies (406 MHz / 121.5 MHz) with 5 Watts of transmitting power. (The Explorer+ is 1.6 Watts and the SPOT Gen3 only 0.4 Watts).

The powerful transmission gets sent out on the military's reliable COSPAS/SARSAT network, but you don't get the piece of mind of being able to confirm, by a message, that someone has received your distress signal. The ResQLink is a great option for purely SOS functions, but we do see more value in the Explorer+'s messaging and GPS capabilities, which make it a more useful product overall, as you'll (hopefully) rarely use the SOS feature.

Read review ACR ResQlink 406 Personal Locator Beacon

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Score Product Price Our Take
86
$450
Editors' Choice Award
The best device on the market, but you pay for it. Better than a SAT phone.
60
$325
Top Pick Award
The best emergency locator beacon in our tests. No 2-way messaging.
59
$150
Best Buy Award
A good value for year-round tracking if you don't need 2-way messaging.
15
$0
A great way to keep track of family members and friends if they are in cell range.

Analysis and Test Results


If you're new to the satellite messenger/locator beacon world, we have some great resources here for you at OutdoorGearLab. Please check out 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. If you decide you don't need an emergency alert device, and just need some help navigating or tracking your activity, we also have a How to Best Use Your Activity Tracker and Handheld GPS Article.

Value


Personal Locator Beacons and Sat Messengers are expensive. But, if one of these devices saves your life one day, you'll be glad for every penny you spent. Unfortunately, it's hard to directly compare the pricing of the different devices, as they combine an initial cost with a yearly subscription (except for the ACR ResQlink 406). The Explorer+ has the most expensive ($450) sticker price. It's $300 more than the SPOT Gen3, but their subscriptions rates are similar, and the Explorer+ has way more functionality. Perhaps the most "value" based option now is to rent the SPOT Gen3 if you'll only need an SOS beacon for 3-5 days once every few years ($75 for 3 days).

We dive deep into this discussion in the Comparing Plans section below.

This one small device can deliver big peace of mind.
This one small device can deliver big peace of mind.

Performance Comparison


After testing the different options extensively side-by-side, we considered their various functions in the following categories: their emergency message capabilities, any non-emergency messaging functions, their signal coverage, ease of use, and portability. Below we'll go through some of the different test metrics, in particular, the messaging and emergency functions, and explain how the different options performed in each one.

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 biking, he initiates tracking before descending. 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.

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 severely 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.

Reception: Experience in the field: SPOT Gen3 vs. Garmin 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 common 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 particular 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: inReach Now Cheaper in Most Scenarios


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 make 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 $400 compared to the SPOT's $165 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

Some Typical Scenarios and How Much Plans Cost


Unlimited Tracking Per Year
SPOT: $165
inReach: $169 ($144 in monthly fees + $25 activation)

Tracking for One Week
SPOT: $165 (unless you rent the Spot, in which case it's $75 for 1st 3 days and $15 each additiona day)
inReach: $40: $15 + $25 annual fee

Unlimited Messaging for One Week
SPOT: $165 (unless you rent the Spot, in which case it's $75 for 1st 3 days and $15 each additional day)
inReach: $90: $65 + $25 annual fee

If you need the device for more than one week a year, the inReach becomes drastically less expensive than the SPOT.

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 drastically more costly.
From left to right: iSavi Internet Hub  inReach Explorer+ and Globarstar Satellite Phone
From left to right: iSavi Internet Hub, inReach Explorer+ 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 $1200. 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 websites leave us concerned about the ease of use, connectivity issues, and data speeds. Compare that to the inReach which has relatively minor connectivity problems 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 backcountry, 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).

With SAT phones, you get what you pay for: the more expensive messengers 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.

Conclusion


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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Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.

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