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Satellite phone suggestions for backcountry

Original Post
Kevin Kent · · Flagstaff, AZ · Joined Aug 2010 · Points: 1,013

Looking for suggestions on a 2-way communicator for use in the deep backcountry. I'm not particularly interested in a pure personal locator beacon (PLB), but want something that can receive and send texts at a minimum(need to be able to receive weather reports) and possibly handle voice calls.

Also looking for a service provider because I understand the Iridium satellite network only sells coverage plans through authorized resellers. 

Thanks in advance

Tim Fry · · Charlotte NC · Joined Jun 2012 · Points: 15

The Garmin Inreach Explorer + is the solution I'm aware of, but I'd also be interested to hear about others on the market that people might have experience with.

Kevin Kent · · Flagstaff, AZ · Joined Aug 2010 · Points: 1,013

Anyone have experience with a sat device that is an actual phone? 

mattm · · TX · Joined Jun 2006 · Points: 1,395

I don't have personal experience with one yet but did some reading on it for future trips. If it's a short term need then renting is the best way to go. Dig around on Overlanding sites and you'll find more info on Sat Phones, inReach SpOT etc.  when I was looking, renting an Iridium phone for a week long remote trip was the way I was leaning.  Mobal rentals was the place I had book marked. 

SeƱor Arroz · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10

I've rented sat phones when I needed to be reachable or to absolutely reach out in remote places. It's pretty economical. Globalcom sat phone rentals was who I used. 

20 kN · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Feb 2009 · Points: 1,348

Kevin Kent wrote:

Anyone have experience with a sat device that is an actual phone? 

Yes, they suck. We use them in the military all the time. The audio quality is absolutely horrible and it's hard to understand anything anyone says on them. Also, calling on the phones can be pretty complicated. We had to enter an access number of sorts, which varied depending on where we were calling from, then we had to dial the standard 001 international access number, then we had to dial the country access code, which also changed depending on who you were calling, then the full phone number. Now, if the user wanted to send a text, then the number changed as Iridium required a different access number for texts than calls…. All in all, the phone number was like 20 numbers long, some of which change depending on factors, and if you got one number wrong it obviously dident work.

Nick Sweeney · · Spokane, WA · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 666

I highly, highly recommend an inreach.  I love mine, very reliable.  I've sent and received many text messages with it, and used it for checking weather as well. It can even post on facebook!

Ross Exler · · New York · Joined May 2009 · Points: 15

I've owned and used the Inmarsat Isatphone Pro and Isatpone Pro 2 for many years and for several hundred minutes on both devices. I highly recommend both - they are not difficult to use and the call quality is very good. They are also exceptionally durable and have excellent battery life and I have never been unable to connect to a satellite quickly, whether in remote North America, South America, or Africa. The problem that you might have with this type of use is that the prepaid minutes expire pretty quickly. They have some subscription based plans that might work for you, but they aren't very economical either. The Garmin inreach looks like a good product for texting, although I'm not sure what the fee structure is like.

The Spot messenger is a good device for what it is. It is of course limited because you can't write new messages in the field or receive any messages. 

Jake wander · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2014 · Points: 180

i will back up the inreach vote (now owned by garmin). very great features if you look into them. ive used mine during many trip to keep in touch with my family, so they wouldnt worry and could track my movements, if they wanted to.

check them out.

climber pat · · Las Cruces, NM · Joined Feb 2006 · Points: 215

I have used globalstar, iridium and inmarsat phones.  I own globalstar and inmarsat phones.  They all work pretty well but have some quirks.   All satellite phones need a clear view of the sky to work.  

Globalstar and Iridium satellites are in LEO orbit which means the satellite you are communicating with will go below the horizon before too long.  Like a cell phone network the phone call is supposed to be handed off to another satellite before the satellite sets.  In practice your call will often be dropped when the satellite sets because something is blocking the view (mountains, buildings...) to the next satellite.    

Inmarsat uses a GEO orbit so the satellite you are communicating is stationary in the sky.  You are more likely to not have your phone call dropped with this configuration.

Globalstar uses regional "ground stations".  The satellite has to see both you and the ground station for a phone call to happen.  That's why globalstar does not work out in the oceans.  Iridium relays the phone call from satellite to satellite until it can be forwarded to the ground station.  So you only need to be visible to the satellite for a phone call to happen.  Inmarsat satellites are stationary with respect to the ground station so, like iridium, you only have to have satellite visibility to make a call.

Globalstar satellites are in an inclined orbit so they do not go over the pole so their service is poor or non-existent near the the poles.  (In addition to the ground station co-visibility issue).

Iridium satellite are in polar orbit so you can make calls from the poles.

Inmarsat satellites are in GEO orbit and do not have visibility to the poles, so you cannot make a call inmarsat call from the poles.

Globalstar call quality is excellent. Iridium and Inmarsat call quality is marginal.  Additionally, Inmarsat has a more significant lag because the call has to go to GEO and back.  This can be annoying for people who respond/talk quickly.

I got a satellite phone after injuring myself solo backpacking 17 miles from the nearest road.  I ended up hobbling out and saw no one for 3 days to ask for help.  I bought a globalstar phone and it worked well enough for my purposes and was extremely cheap.  Globalstar's satellites were dying and they were practically giving it away to keep revenues coming in.  This is the same time they started selling the SPOT device.  SPOT is a one way device because the satellites could receive from the user but not transmit to the user. They have since replaced their satellites and the rates are not so good anymore.

When the globalstar pricing went up I switch to inmarsat because I liked their pricing structure better.  You can buy some prepaid minutes good for a period of time which suits my utilization.

I have thought a lot about how I would use a phone in an emergency.  What I want to do is make a call to organize help.  I need to tell them what help I need.  Am I seriously injured and need a helicopter to take me to a hospital, am I injured and need a horse to ride out, am I just late and need a few more days.  

If I were seriously injured, I might not be able to move.  In that case, if I am using inmarsat I must hope that I am currently in view of a satellite otherwise I cannot make a call.  If I am using globalstar or iridium I just have to wait until I have signal which will most like happen before too long.  If you are deep in a canyon you may have to wait a while until a satellite is overhead.  I have waited hours for Iridium and Globalstar to have a satellite overhead so I could make a quick call.  

Inreach uses the iridium satellites to relay messages.  I have not used one but it seems like a pretty reasonable scheme and I would give it serious consideration if I were in the market today.  SPOT is still a one way messenger and I don't like the idea of only being able to indicate I need rescue but not give details. 

Inmarsat (and probably iridium and globalstar) and do crude text messaging.  It is much easier to make a call and costs about the same.

I am pretty happy with the Inmarsat phone.  The service is cheaper than Iridium and it works well for my needs.  I don't plan on changing anytime soon.  I read news articles indicating SpaceX is working on a global satellite internet service in the next 5 years or so.  At that point I would give serious consideration to their solution.  If my Inmarsat phone were to break I would give the inreach messenger a shot (although the service seems expensive for just text messaging). 

TKeagle · · Eagle, CO · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 73

Inmarsat pro 2!! Get past the unit sticker shock, purchase a year long prepaid card from blue cosmo and stay in touch from anywhere. Texting is cheap and quick calls and a gps based emergency function are priceless.  Did I mention it's not a smartphone so the battery gives you a truly crazy long time between charges - good luck !

Kevin Kent · · Flagstaff, AZ · Joined Aug 2010 · Points: 1,013

Thanks for he solid info everyone, especially climber pat!

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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