5 Reasons Everyone Should Own A Satellite Messenger Device
Cell phone service in the United States is taken for granted. However, 90% of the world's surface still lacks reliable cell phone coverage. It's in these types of areas that backcountry users commonly find themselves. Whether you are on a routine afternoon hunting trip or a month long expedition through the Yukon, having a satellite messenger device in your pack can pay huge dividends. Here are our top five reasons for carrying one.
Duh, that's a no brainer right? I routinely carry my Garmin inReach when I am on week-long forays in the backcountry, but what about those shorter, routine trips that seem relatively safe?
Longtime friend Jim Weber was rifle hunting in the fall of 2018 near his home in Helena, Montana. He was out solo in a region that he was very familiar with. Late in the day, he shot a spike bull elk. After quartering the bull, he hung it in a tree and began to walk out in the dark. Jim was picking his way through the trees on a steep side hill that was covered with about an inch of snow.
Jim recalls the incident, stating "I'm not sure what happened other than my left foot slipped. I think the weight of my pack kind of gave me a shove and my right boot caught on a rock. Happened in one second, I never did go all the way down. The bones breaking sounded like a gun going off and I just stood there trying to figure out what the sound was. Then I looked down at my foot and it was almost sideways."
Jim had broken his ankle in several places. Since he was in cell service, he checked his phone only to find the battery was dead. However, for the last seven years he had been carrying a SPOT device. Jim sent off an SOS message and started a fire to stay warm in the 15 degree night. After several hours, Jim's family and the local Search and Rescue Team located him and carried him off the mountain to a waiting ambulance. The next morning Jim went into surgery and had a metal plate and ten screws put into his ankle.
If Jim hadn't been carrying the device, he likely would have sat on that hill overnight and into the next day before someone found him. Carrying a messenger device seems like the thing to do on a long backcountry trip, but Jim proved they are useful even when you are trekking across familiar country in cell service not that far from home. Even if you are with friends, having a messenger device can pay off. Not every emergency is something you can handle with the people and supplies available at hand.
Peace of Mind
Satellite devices provide peace of mind for both the user and the party receiving updates from the backcountry user. Users can have full confidence that if something goes awry or medical issues suddenly arise, they can still get help. The messages also allow the receiving party to see on a map exactly where you are. For the user, satellite messengers also allow for flexibility. If you arrive at the trailhead only to find it closed or you decide to change your route midway through the trip, no problem! Just tell your family about the change of plans. Battery life on new devices also allow for peace of mind, as you can go 30+ days without a recharge if you are limiting your usage.
A few years ago I was on a solo September backpacking trip at 10,000 feet in Wyoming. I knew that a big weather system was blowing in but I wasn't sure what day it would hit. Since I was ten miles back on an off-trail route and nobody was around, I was a little nervous about the weather forecast. The weather held the first and second days, and I happily caught golden trout and enjoyed the solitude. On the third day, I returned to camp and sent my wife a quick message to let my her know I was OK. My wife replied that a winter storm watch was in effect and the storm was supposed to hit the region at 8pm that night. After I got the message, I packed up camp and scrambled through the boulder field off-trail portion of my route. I covered a few miles and dropped 1,000 feet of elevation. As the sun was setting I set up my camp near the trail in a hail storm. The following morning I hiked though sleet over a pass. The sleet turned to snow and I had a very wet trip out to the truck. However, if I hadn't received the message from my wife, I would have had to traverse the steep off trail section in slippery sleet and wet snow conditions. Being able to access weather information on a satellite device (or having someone text you the info) can help keep you comfortable and safe as the weather changes unexpectedly.
Satellite phones used to be the only option when you wanted to communicate outside of cell range. However, satellite phones were (and still are!) quite expensive, starting at $1,000 for a basic unit plus the cost of a service plan. However, a top of the line messenger device such as the Garmin inReach Mini can be found for around $350. Based on our own personal use and the reviews of others, we strongly recommend the Garmin inReach series. They have a proven track record and the plans are flexible and inexpensive. Plus, they have a decent phone mapping app that allows you to navigate with your phone, as well as use the phone interface to send text messages. Read more about the inReach Mini over on the Backpacking Light website, where they did an extremely thorough in-depth review.
If you don't need GPS or texting features, check out Personal Locator Beacons like the ACR Electronics ResQLink+. PLBs that works off of COSPAS-SARSAT (network used by commercial vessels and aircraft) are extremely reliable, don't require a plan, and have a very long battery life (around 5-7 years!). They are also very compact and lightweight, weighing in around 5oz.
Cell coverage only covers 10% of the earth's surface some of the time (who hasn't had spotty coverage in your own house?). However, at any time there are always at least two or three satellites overhead. That means that no matter where you are, odds are you will be able to get a signal with your messenger device to send and receive messages or send out an SOS.
These are just a few of the reasons why a satellite messenger device should always be in your pack. How do you use your device in the backcountry? What's your go-to device? Weigh in with a comment, we want to hear from you!
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