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.
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.
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.)
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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