Home / Reader Surveys / Backpacker Use of Satellite Messengers, PLBs, Cell Phones, Radios, and Satellite Phones – Survey Results

Backpacker Use of Satellite Messengers, PLBs, Cell Phones, Radios, and Satellite Phones – Survey Results

Backpacker Electronic Communication Device Preferences - 2016

There was a time not too long ago when the majority of backpackers and hikers didn’t carry their cell phones on trips and the use of satellite communication was beyond the financial reach of most backpackers. Those times have changed and the vast majority of backpackers now carry some form of electronic communication with them on backpacking trips. While network costs still limit the widespread use of satellite communications, satellite text messengers that can send text and email messages to loved ones like the SPOT Gen 3 Satellite Messenger and the Delorme inReach are demonstrably more popular than personal locator beacons that can only signal search and rescue services. Satellite phones and other forms of electronic communication like walkie talkies and the goTenna, which runs over radio waves, are largely unused by backpackers.

Cell phones are ubiquitous

When surveyed (n=542), we found that most 93% of backpackers bring a cell phone with them on backpacking trips, even when they know that they will not have access to voice or text communications en route. This is not that surprising given the wide range of functions and apps available to extend smartphones including GPS mapping and navigation, music playback, book reading, note-taking, and games, which can operate offline and do not rely on cell network or network access.

Pay Phones have become increasingly rare in the USA and worldwide.
Pay Phones have become increasingly rare in the USA and worldwide.

Cell phones are still useful to carry, if not for the backcountry phase of a trip, but for the front country phase, when backpackers begin or end their trip in town. Public pay phones are hard to find in many countries, including the United States, and carrying a cell phone is often the only way to contact shuttle drivers, lodging, friends, and family when you get off-trail.

Emergency communicators explained

SPOT Satellite Messengers, DeLorme InReach devices and Personal Locator Beacons can all be used to summon emergency help from search and rescue services even though the networks they run over are different and they have different capabilities:

  • SPOT Satellite Messengers run over a private satellite network paid for by the device user on a subscription basis. In addition to signaling for emergency assistance, they can send pre-canned text messages to a pre-defined recipient list. These are usually reassurance ‘OK’ messages and include the device users current GPS coordinates.
  • The DeLorme InReach Explorer and the InReach SE also run over a private satellite network. In addition to signaling for emergency assistance, inReach devices can send ad-hoc typed text messages to anyone with a cell phone number or email address, and pre-defined messages and dynamic GPS coordinate to a pre-set list of users very much like a SPOT. The advantage of the DeLorme InReach is that you can have a dialog with your recipient, good for emergency situations to convey first-aid instructions and patient vitals. InReach devices also provide confirmation of message delivery, something the SPOT does not.
  • Personal Locator Beacons, like the ACR ResQlink are much less expensive to operate than the SPOT or DeLorme InReach units because they run over a free international satellite network at 406 MHz that signals local search and rescue services to come to your assistance. PLBs can’t send text messages however and can only send an SOS and GPS coordinate to search and rescue services.

backpacker-satellite-network-device-preference

We found that 17.9% of the backpackers we surveyed carried a SPOT, a DeLorme InReach, or a PLB. DeLorme InReach units were slightly more popular that SPOTs, while PLBs were the least popular of all, probably because they can not send reassurance messages to loved ones, only emergency communications to SAR authorities. In addition, 91.8% of those carrying a SPOT, InReach, or PLB, carry a cell phone, while just 8.2% did not. This isn’t completely surprising however, because cell phones are so ubiquitous and have multiple functions beyond phone calls.

Satellite phone use

We were surprised to see how few backpackers carry satellite phones and believe that the cost of satellite phones and satellite network fees are the chief reasons suppressing use. Satellite text messaging devices like the SPOT and DeLorme’s InReach devices also provide enough functionality at a far lower price, to be acceptable substitutes for two-way voice communications.

Walkie talkies and portable ham radios

Walkie talkie and portable ham radio use is similarly low. Walkie talkies are rarely used by solo hikers and primarily used in group settings to maintain group cohesion. Ham radio use on backpacking trips is limited to ham radio hobbyists (those crazy people who haul radio antennas up mountains on pack goats.)

goTenna

None of the respondents in our survey (n = 542) use a goTenna. What is a goTenna? It’s a device that turns your cell phone into a text messenger using radio waves, so you can communicate with people nearby when you don’t have cell phone service. REI is pushing it for outdoor recreation use, although it’s probably more useful for communicating with your friends at outdoor music festivals. Here’s a link to the goTenna FAQ for more information if you’re interested in learning more.

About this Survey

This survey was conducted on the SectionHiker.com website which has over 300,000 unique readers per month, so a large pool of potential respondents. Readers were incented to participate in the survey in exchange for a chance to win a raffle for a piece of backpacking gear.

While we’re confident that the results are fairly representative of the general backpacking population based on the size of the survey results where n=542 people, we can’t claim that the results are statistically significant.

There are also a number of ways in which the results could be biased including: backpackers who read SectionHiker.com might not be representative of all backpackers, backpacker who read Internet content might not be representative of all backpackers, backpackers who respond to raffle incentives might not be representative of all backpackers, our methods for recording responses might have been unconsciously biased, and so on.

The author is an expert in statistical analysis, survey, and experimental design and is sensitive to these issues. However, given the size of the respondent pool and the very strong consensus among user responses, we believe that the survey results published here will be useful to backpackers who are interested in learning about the electronic communication and messaging devices carried by backpackers  and what their peers use.

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44 comments

  1. I like the idea of the GoTenna. The only problem I have with it is that it requires everyone else to have one. The product itself seems great. I like what it does and it looks light enough. But until it becomes more popular (at least amongst the people I hike with), I wouldn’t bother getting one.

  2. Is that phone booth outside the Stratton Motel in Maine?

  3. PLBs may be less popular than SPOT devices, but PLBs have a stronger distress signal, more satellites run by several COSPAT/SARSAT signatory nations that detect it (vs. just a few private satellites for SPOT), and the national SAR system (USAF and USCG) monitoring and responding to it 24 x 7 x 365. PLBs also don’t require subscription service like SPOT devices do, just a free registration on the U.S. NOAA SARSAT national database so searchers know who owns the PLB and who to contact for next of kin. PLBs don’t offer text messaging, but are a better solution for “serious” excursions, particularly solo ones in real/dangerous wilderness. SPOT devices may be an acceptable choice when a hiker is more interested in messaging and safety is not as much of a concern. Have seen a few occasions where non-detection, or delays in detection, of SPOT devices occurred for people in distress.

    • A lot of people say that a PLB is “better” for a “serious expedition”, but I am not sure. Suppose that I was doing some 10-day solo thing in middle of no-where Alaska…

      With an InReach, I can ping someone as many times as I want and they can follow the trip. If I stop pinging, my last know location is easily determined and a SAR can start from there. Or I can call for help.

      With a PLB, I either need to signal for help or the SAR won’t start until I am overdue and then they won’t have any idea where to start the search.

      Note: the InReach has not had the reliability issues that Spots have had, i.e. you know if your message went through and if it didn’t, you can send it again.

      Reading this sounds like I work for the company, but I don’t :)

      • Most PLBs now have GPS and send coordinates, so location is less of an issue.

        As for tracking on any device, it is a battery suck. I never use it and it usually costs a LOT extra.

        The bigger issue with PLBs is that they only pinpoint your location to within 100 meters. That’s a large amount above treeline in winter or in open ocean and stormy seas.

      • A private satellite may or may not be in view when you need it… you have a lot better chance with the far more robust COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system. I’ve been a SAR mission coordinator for close to 20 years, been involved with thousands of cases, and when I hike solo, I take a PLB every time, if that tells you anything.

      • wsp_scott, PLBs are useless for the extremely remote areas (outside contiguous US for example). You can press the PLB all day you want in remote Alaska or on the North Pole, but nobody will come. PLBs are for sort-of-remote areas, within easy reach of civilisation, and that’s where you want them, as that’s the areas where people die.

      • For some reason, there is not a link to reply to Phil, so I will reply to myself.

        My point was that a PLB only sends information IF the user pushes a button/asks for help. If I get in trouble crossing a river and can’t push a button, then a PLB is useless. If I have been pushing a button on a somewhat regular basis (maybe each night and morning), then SAR knows where to start looking for me.

        I don’t use tracking with the Inreach, but I do make a point of sending an OK in the AM/PM and a couple times in between, that way there is a bit of a breadcrumb trail to find me remains when I get ate by a bear :)

        Don’t know if you have ever seen this, but I found it really interesting when thinking about Inreach vs. Spot vs. PLB

        http://blog.oplopanax.ca/2011/08/personal-locator-beacons-from-the-rescuer%E2%80%99s-perspective/

      • I limit the comment nesting so it’s still readable on mobile devices.

  4. Recently got an inReach, been very satisfied with the tracking and texting functions. I can leave my phone in the car now, as well as not worry that my family will worry b/c I couldn’t get service to text them. The places I go, I don’t see a PLB or sat phone as a necessary investment.

  5. I puchased an inReach Explorer for a remote kayak trip and it allows 3 preset messages at a reduced rate, if I recall correctly, and 2 way text messaging at a per message rate on the cheaper monthly plans. I set up one preset to receive a weather forecast for my location, one to tell the wives we’d be at the takeout tomorrow unless I sent the same message the following morning. Of course, I forgot it in the RV when I left for the put in.

    I did use it a couple weeks later when my daughter, grandkids and I got stranded on a mountain peak and required rescue. The 2 way texting was very useful in communicating our needs.

    DeLorme’s Freedom plan is a monthly one that can be activated and stopped for only those months it’s needed

  6. So, my PLB (ResQlink) *can* send ok text and email messages. THey cannot send you anything back however. I wasnt aware of this ability when I bought it. Its an add-on service that I got for free for a year after I bought it.

  7. Sourdough has had thousands of rescues, if I understand correctly. We’re they with a PBL only? Did any of the rescues include SPOT or DeLorme? Does anyone know of failures for any of these? To clarify, has there been known instances when rescue was requested and the device failed? Which device and under what circumstances?

    • To further that train of though – what happens if you are someplace remote – will SAR always be dispatched. What if there isn’t a SAR unit nearby?

      • I certainly can’t speak for every SAR jurisdiction in every country, but in general with the IAMSAR signatory nations, if a distress beacon alert is received, a SAR unit will be dispatched. Often times, the SAR unit will not be “nearby” — a relative term — sometimes, for example, it may take a fixed-wing SAR aircraft (like a C-130) hours to reach the last known position (LKP) of a person in distress and commence a search. Whether there is a helicopter, vehicle, boat or ground crew to make the rescue will depend totally on where this takes place. In general, continental US, especially anywhere near a coast, has pretty good SAR coverage. Gets spottier in the Arctic, remote inland areas, etc., where the only game in town may be a Civil Air Patrol light aircraft or state police helicopter, etc.

        But one other thing to note with PLBs is that a number of SAR aircraft can use direction-finding electronics to home in on the 406 MHz PLB signal, from over 100 miles away in many cases. That is a huge advantage to SAR personnel, SPOT device, not so much. The 121.5 MHz homing signal can also be used by ground crews such as Civil Air Patrol, but the range is much smaller, just a few miles.

    • Sourdough also needs to read into the Iridium satellite system. There is an Iridium satellite within view of basically every point on earth between 80S and 80N or there will be in the next couple of minutes. Thanks by the way for the SAR service, I hope to never need it and don’t plan on it being there, but I am glad that people do SAR.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iridium_satellite_constellation

      In the SAR link I posted above (http://blog.oplopanax.ca/2011/08/personal-locator-beacons-from-the-rescuer%E2%80%99s-perspective/), 2-way communication (something that is impossible with a PLB) would have been very useful.

      I’m not knocking COPAS, but the automatic response that it is “better” or “safer” or “more powerful” is not necessarily true in all circumstances. And I question the idea that you have to be close to civilization for a PLB to be useful. For example, there are lots of stories of PLBs saving sailors in the middle of the Pacific.

    • No, most of the cases I’ve been involved with had no beacon or SPOT involved at all. For those cases that did involve a beacon, most were EPIRBs, then ELTs, then PLBs, then SPOT devices in that order. It is just rare to have the 406 MHz SARSAT system not work as designed if it’s used correctly (the old 121.5 MHz was another story)… nearly every problem I’ve seen with it was human error on the part of the person holding the beacon (false activation, failure to register or update the registry information, disposing of them in dumpsters with batteries still in them, etc.). For a real case of distress, when they are activated and registered properly it is rare for it not to alert SAR authorities — there are redundancies and cross-checks built into the system. And 100 meter accuracy is plenty sufficient for rescue by SAR professionals, especially on open ocean. For SPOT devices, on the other hand, the providers handling them are not SAR services, they are a commercial third party that may or may not get it right. I’ve seen instances where the SPOT alert notification was delayed to SAR services and a few where they were not forwarded to SAR services at all. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for SPOT devices, just didn’t want anyone to read this article and think there’s no reason to consider a PLB. Airplanes, ships, boats, etc., carry 406 MHz SARSAT devices for good reason.

  8. I have a friend who is a SAR member. She said she will come and get me. I say that tongue in cheek. The mind set I have is its my responsibility to get myself out. However, there are situations where that may not be possible. I don’t believe I could hike out with a broken femur. I don’t know if SAR is always dispatched.

  9. Loved the video link in the ham radio comment. Steve, ham radio call letter WG0AT uses the same radio I do when I go on long hikes and bike rides. Regardless of where I am, I can always communicate with someone, no cell tower needed. It is comforting to know that in a real emergency I can make contact.

    The nice thing about the Morse code radio is that I can be in my tent talking with people and nobody is aware. With the headphones and “talking” with my hand on the code key, there is no noise to distract others that camp around me.

    I just finished a 2400 mile bicycle ride and carried a somewhat larger radio that I use with a computer to communicate using digital modes that look something like an Internet chat, only over the radio. That too is silent. Sadly, I had a bad crash in Minnesota and didn’t make it to Massachusetts, but will finish next summer. See XCBikeTrip.com for more on that.

    Thanks for including ham radio in the survey. My ham radio call is K1YPP, hope to hear you out there.

  10. As a backcountry amateur radio operator, I have to point out a real problem with it. Using it requires a fair amount of skill, even if just to set up an antenna and choose the right frequency for the location and time of day.

    How does that work when the operator is injured and another member of the group needs to call for help?

    The same thing can be true of other devices. Do they need to be paired to a phone? Do other people in the group know your phone password?

    A satellite phone is the only device we can trust people to use without training. You do need the right emergency phone number for where you are, but that can be written on a bit of tape on the phone.

    I broke this down in more detail in a post five years ago. I really need to update that with the new devices.

    https://observer.wunderwood.org/2011/10/12/emergency-communication-in-the-wilderness/

  11. When people plan for emergency communication, they almost always focus on incidents that require rescue or professional evacuation. But those are fairly rare compared to incidents where communication would make the trip more safe. It might make self-evac easier, it might be checking on the weather.

    Here are some non-rescue incidents that have happened on my trips or friends trips.

    * Reporting a wildfire
    * Cutting a trip short because of illness (early pickup at trailhead)
    * Cutting a trip short because a crew member lost a boot in a river crossing
    * Evaluating an evacuation because of a hernia (my dad self-reduced it after talking with a ranger and continued the trek)
    * Self-evacuation to a different trailhead (considered, didn’t do)
    * Self-evacuation of part of a crew due to altitude sickness
    * Walking out a crew member because of a death in the family
    * Pickup driver hours late because a logging truck slid half off the road and blocked it
    * Car keys lost in the snow

    Those all get better with two-way communication. None of them need a SAR activation. A PLB is useless for this sort of thing.

    • Walter,
      That is a very good list of hiking events that benefit from a cell phone.
      A PLB is intended for a rescue event only and uses technology that is required on boats (maritime EPIRBs – Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon) and in planes (ELTs – Emergency Locator Transmitters).
      In my option, the commercial devices SPOT and INREACH overlap, but do not match, the capabilities of the cell phone and the PLB combination.
      A typical cellphone provider has less satellite coverage than the SPOT/INREACH but the cell phone is a much better two way communication device.
      The governmental satellite and SAR infrastructure associated with the PLB is much more robust than the SPOT/INREACH commerial infastructure but I haven’t read any reports that the commercial infrastructure is inadequate. Part of the PLB appeal is its image as the gold standard for a rescue event.
      I chose a PLB years ago when the SPOT first came out and was widely reported to have adequate to marginal operation in the forests of New England. I believe the commercial devices have improved their performance significantly since than.

  12. The perfect device would be the “GoSat” which does not exist at this time. It would use the concept of the GoTenna but have the functionality of an InReach. In other words, the bulk of the functionality would be in the smart phone and minimal hardware(sat transceiver, antenna) would connect to it. It would be much cheaper than an InReach due to the decreased hardware and the features would be limited only by the smartphone app. I have seen other devices go this route and decrease the cost by 20 times. That would put a “GoSat” in the range of $30!

  13. Very insightful survey and the commentary in responses was very useful. I have been struggling with this choice, and it brings good clarity to the factors to consider. Thanks.

    Sourdough’s explanation of PBL’s was news to me on the value it brings to SAR, even with limitations on 2-way communications. My conclusion, PBL’s seem to have greatest advantage and be most appropriate for truly remote areas or lesser-developed countries internationally.

    Walter’s list on “non” emergency situations was practical and compelling. As a Scouter, I relate to almost all of those, but was leaving that out of my decision criteria.

    For an “older” hiker planning on a PCT trip in 2018, I have been reluctant to simply rely on the Cell option. The benefit in care for 2-way communication related to triage, status, in a wilderness situation has materially more value that the simple SOS/Call for Help. The convenience of Cell, especially with the newer GPS functions and maps is considerable.

    Does anyone think I would be wrong to conclude that for a “older” hiker planning a 6-month PCT trek, the Cell + Delorme provides best general flexibility in North America, and added resiliency with a minimal weight penalty?

  14. I recently was on a rafting trip in Utah and one of the board members of GoTenna was on it too. He set up a small network, which actually worked well when we tried to contact a party that had hiked up to the mesa and was taking longer to return than we expected.

  15. I would definitely buy and use the Delorme InReach as it seems amazing for long hikes and family communication not to mention an SOS button for emergencies. And yet the monthly plans are a bit extreme in cost! Bring down the price! Or Garmin step up and improve those handhelds to match the InReach.. they did buy out the company so hopes are that Garmin will combine technology. : )

  16. Lucky for me , my partner has the tech to cover all.
    I am a cell user, old school :)

  17. Has anyone heard about the ACR SARLink?

    https://www.acrartex.com/products/catalog/personal-locator-beacons/sarlink/#sthash.HYHWRwKx.dpbs

    I bet if/when that gets FCC approval and is available to the public it will take a big bite out of DeLorme’s business (if it’s competitively priced).

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