Wilderness travelers like hikers and backpackers (but not excluding other forms of backcountry travel) carry high-tech electronic communication devices for a variety of reasons:
Other functions will likely emerge as the technology becomes more sophisticated.
Even though there is competition among manufacturers in the wilderness communications field, many offer unique services and quite different approaches to how they deliver these services. Instead of cataloging all of the different manufacturers and their different approaches, this article attempts to provide an overview of this complicated scene. (I researched and wrote this overview as an aid to my own decision making process.) It also should help the reader in comparing the different devices. With these purposes in mind, the next section provides a list of characteristics (generally without mentioning brands and models) of currently available high-tech wilderness communication devices. A list of manufacturers and links to their websites will be provided at the end of this article.
High-Tech Wilderness Communication Devices Differentiated
Small, portable, lightweight communicators vs. larger units
The main focus of this article is lightweight, portable communicators (maximum weight of a pound but usually eight ounces or less) that hikers and backpackers will consider carrying into wilderness areas. Outside the scope of this article are heavier and bulkier units used by search and rescue organizations (on foot, in vehicles, in planes), those used by governmental agencies that manage wilderness areas and those used in other forms of recreation besides hiking and backpacking (boating, rally races, kayaking, canoeing, snowmobiling) where weight and bulk are less of a consideration.
Emergency (SOS) locator beacons vs. multiple-function devices
What is the purpose of carrying communication devices into the wilderness—to communicate emergencies or other functions? Deciding on one’s purposes is a major decision factor in buying a communication device. Complicating the decision is that most multiple function units not only cost and weigh more, but compromise the emergency functionality in various ways (e.g., antennas, battery power, transmitting power and frequency). Another negative is that the emergency part of the multiple function units do not have the homing beacon function (121 MHz frequency) that is contained in dual frequency (both 406 MHz and 121 MHz) emergency locator beacons.
Single vs. paired units
Emergency (SOS) communicators are often paired with smart phones or GPS navigation units for additional functionality. In a different kind of pairing, avalanche beacons and other similar tracking devices (e.g., TracMe, Ortovox or 121 MHz “man-overboard” locators) require the transmitter of the party in distress to be paired to a specialized receiver carried by the rescuing party in the field. Generally, the emergency (SOS) function works even if the paired unit is missing or non-functional. Pairing adds weight, cost and complexity to the communicators.
One-way vs. two-way communications
Most emergency personal locator beacons and multiple communication function units communicate only one way: from the unit in the field to a satellite or other type of receiver. Consequently, there is no indication on the unit in the field that sent messages are being received. Satellite and cellular phones and amateur “HAM” radios obviously involve two-way voice communications. Some newer generation devices (that are not cell or satellite phones) now have the ability to transmit and receive real time text messages through a satellite system when one is out of cell tower range.
Government vs. commercial rescue coordination
Traditionally, emergency locator beacons communicated through a system of government (public, taxpayer) satellites for rescue coordination. Units with more functionality commonly depend upon commercial (private for profit) firms that provide security and emergency coordination, at least in the initial phases. Commercial emergency coordination centers usually contact the appropriate governmental agencies when they learn of an emergency. Depending on the nature of the emergency, commercial coordination centers also have the capacity to contact private security firms that will send their own teams into the field.
Digital Readouts vs. LED Lights
All units that are the subject of this article have LED lights to provide some indication that the unit is functioning or not. There is a lot of variation in the LED signals provided; some require a cheat sheet to remember what the lights all mean. Ideally, there is a digital viewing screen that will provide essential information including battery levels, GPS coordinates, whether the SOS was received, etc. This digital viewing feature usually costs extra.
Subscription vs. non-subscription services
Early communicators (e.g., PLBs) provided free (i.e., taxpayer funded) emergency communication service, the only cost being obtaining the unit itself. Newer units have come on the market that provide a range of services by subscription (fee for service). These services include tracking, text messaging, voice messaging and other smart phone capabilities—in addition to emergency SOS services. All satellite and cellular phone based units involve fees of some sort.
Most units have a built in GPS function that will communicate coordinates to rescue agencies when an SOS is sent. Units paired with smart phones or GPS navigation units will provide a readout of GPS coordinates in the field (so the user knows where they are). Some units with viewing screens provide a readout of coordinates only when they have successfully communicated an emergency (i.e., they are not available for navigation). More units will provide full service GPS navigation functions as the technology progresses.
Text messaging vs. voice communications
Many of the units that are the subject of this article allow limited texting. Some allow only preprogrammed (canned) text messages; others allow you to compose text messages. Text messaging is a preferred option when using a cell phone because text messages require less drain on the battery and are more likely to be received by a cell tower than voice messages.
Many of the units have other functions that might be of interest while in the wilderness: reading books, listening to music or the radio, keeping a journal, playing games, watching movies or videos, using nature apps like flower, tree and bird identification.
Which of the above device characteristics are most important? Which are of little importance? What of importance have I missed in the above list? I hope this overview will assist in answering these questions.
What the Future Holds For Wilderness Communication Devices
This is a high-tech game and the future is hard to predict. The above list is not exhaustive and innovative companies will add to features and options over time. As with computer technology, it is generally a losing proposition to wait for the next “new and improved” model. But buying last year’s model can often be done at quite a savings.
I do predict that as these devices become more functional and integrated, there will be some shakeout and standardization. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be too long before one device will do most everything desired by wilderness travelers: GPS based navigation with preloaded maps, cell phone, satellite phone, WiFi internet receiver, computerized tablet with preloaded music and other media, camera, stop watch, emergency locator beacon.
Search and Rescue (SAR) Perspectives on Wilderness Communication
From a search and rescue (SAR) standpoint, it is location, location, location! Personal locator beacons provide location information when the operator sends a distress message. An SOS signal coming from a locator beacon is recognized by SAR as a true emergency and they will usually act immediately. By law, SAR is required to find and turn off any personal locator beacon (PLB) once activated. Cell and satellite phones rely on the operator knowing where they are in the backcountry. An experienced SAR person puts it this way:
A PLB or SAT tracker makes SAR easier by locating the victim for us. We risk much less by not having to do as much grid searching in unknown territory, very often in the wrong area. PLBs can remove as much as 80% of the time we spend looking. That means an 80% risk reduction for us. I like those figures.
—“klock” moderator on the Trail Space backcountry Internet forum
Communication devices transmitting in a “tracking” mode are potentially useful for locating individuals in trouble since they regularly update the last known location without the user doing anything (i.e., someone will eventually notice a lack of movement as a sign of trouble). The question here is the probability of someone running into trouble with no opportunity to send an SOS.
The downside of all PLB locator units is that they do not tell SAR the exact nature of the emergency or provide other vital information. With cell or satellite phone contact, it is possible to give medical advice, weather forecasts or other useful information. Sometimes it turns out that there is no real emergency and the calling party can be advised against doing something rash, something which could itself cause an emergency.
A major problem with all communication devices used in wilderness areas is that I know of no serious attempts to gather reliability data on negative experiences. In other words, under what conditions did these devices not work in an emergency? There are ample statistics and anecdotes about successful use of these devices (especially from those making a profit from their sale), but this is only half of the story.
Currently the most dependable purely emergency communicator for hikers in mountainous or heavily forested regions is the dual frequency PLB, based on the GEOSAR and LEOSAR government satellite and rescue coordination systems. Many serious hikers seem to have a high risk tolerance and have chosen not to carry devices with a 911 SOS function, a decision that most SAR personnel would likely disagree with.
See the following article on this website for in-depth information regarding emergency communications for hikers: Emergency Communication Devices.
Author’s Priorities Regarding Wilderness Communication
I generally do not go into the wilderness with the idea of taking my high-tech toys with me. Nor do I have any need or desire to communicate with the outside world except in emergencies. However, I often carry a lightweight device to play my favorite music. Sometimes I carry a camera. Regarding emergency locator beacons, simplicity, light weight and dependability are my priorities. With these criteria in mind, here are my preferences for wilderness communication devices (listed in order of priority).
At this writing, no one unit that I am aware of will satisfy all of the above criteria.
Major Players in the High-Tech Wilderness Communication Device Market (for more information click on underlined label for each company's website)
A. Personal Locator Beacons
B. Satellite Phones
Iridium Satellite Phone
C. Multiple-Function Devices Featuring One-Way Communication
D. Multiple-Function Devices Featuring Two-Way Communication
Cerebrus CereLink two-way satellite link (uses special smart phone app)