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Published Aug 31, 2022 2:24 PM

When you make frequent trips to the backcountry, staying in touch with civilization is important, and for most people, this means using some sort of satellite communication device. Civilian commercial satellite communication devices come in two broad categories: satellite phones, which enable voice and data transmission; and satellite messengers, which provide two-way data (only) transmission either as a stand-alone device or paired with a smartphone. 

Regarding satellite communicators, everything is a tradeoff in terms of size, capability, weight (batteries are heavy), display interface, cost (in terms of the unit and service plan), and intuitiveness of the device. Earlier this year, we reviewed the best satellite personal locator beacons and messaging devices, and this review will expand our search to include voice-capable devices. So if you frequently travel beyond the range of your smartphone, read on to find out the best satellite communication device for you.

Best Premium Satellite Phone

The Iridium Extreme is one of the very best ruggedized satellite phones on the market. It is an upgrade to the Iridium 9555 with the addition of Mil-Spec ruggedness, the addition of an SOS button, and the ability to track and share your GPS location. Running on the 66-satellite Iridium constellation, it has access to true global coverage. The Iridium 9575 is fairly easy to use and connects quickly (in most circumstances) with the satellite network. Keep in mind that you’ll need a clear, unobstructed line of sight between the phone and the connecting satellite. The unit features a large backlit daylight readable display, an extendable antenna, and a familiar phone keypad. Making calls is a snap and very intuitive. Sending texts is another matter, because you’ll feel like you stepped into a time machine and were handed an early 2000s cell phone — so get ready to press a lot of keys multiple times to get the letters you need. It’s super clunky to text. For receiving calls and texts, the unit must be on and pointed to the sky.

The Iridium 9555 comes with an enhanced battery that provides four hours of talk time or 30 hours of standby mode before it needs recharging. It also supports location-based services like GPS, online tracking, and Google mapping. Note: The device itself does not navigate. The unit is weather-resistant to IP65 and MIL-STD 810F ratings. The internal memory supports 100 phonebook contacts, and the one-touch SOS button plugs you directly into the GEOS 24/7 emergency response center. This device is ideal for people who absolutely must have voice communications in the backcountry, but it also comes with a hefty unit cost of $1,350 and an expensive service plan starting at $50 per month.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 5.5 x 2.3 x 1 inches
  • Weight: 8.7 ounces
  • Battery life: 4 hours talk, 30 hours standby
  • Satellite network: Iridium
  • Two-way text capable: Yes
  • Voice capable: Yes
  • Navigation: Supports GPS and Google mapping
  • Emergency SOS: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This ruggedized intuitive satellite phone provides reliable off-grid connectivity in every corner of the globe and has the highest water-/dust-proof rating on the market.
PROS

Reliable voice communication

True global coverage

Enhanced battery

Programmable one-touch SOS

Access to 24/7 emergency assistance

Large display

CONS

Expensive unit cost

Expensive service plan

Bulky

Best Overall Satellite Communicator & Navigator

When in the backcountry, it’s essential to know where you are and where you want to navigate. It’s also essential to be able to communicate with people back home — out of convenience or in an emergency. Rather than carrying a GPS receiver and a satellite communication device, Garmin combined both functions into one with the inReach Explorer+. This rugged, waterproof hand-held satellite communicator features a one-push SOS button that will connect you with a real human being at the 24/7/365 GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center. While it does have GPS navigation, know that this is first and foremost a communication device and there are better GPS units on the market.

The inReach Explorer+ has the ability to set up preloaded messages so you can send them with a click. It’s worth preloading messages before your trip because composing texts with Explorer+ is really clunky and slow since it doesn’t have a dedicated keyboard. You can pair Explorer+ with your smartphone via a Garmin app that makes composing texts much easier. If you decide to bring both devices on your trek, plan for additional battery recharging needs. You can also get weather reports and GPS track and share your location with your family and friends. Pairing the device with your smartphone lets you download maps, NOAA charts, color imagery, and more. The inReach Explorer+ comes preloaded with DeLorme Topo maps with onscreen GPS routing. The Explorer+ also has a digital compass, barometric altimeter, and accelerometer. If you’re not interested in the preloaded maps, you can opt for the inReach SE+ for about $50 less. Regardless of the model you choose, you’ll also need to sign up for a satellite airtime plan which starts at $14.95 per month.

Out of the box, there is a slight learning curve to the device, but it’s not too hard to figure out. The Explorer+ comes with a USB cable, a carabiner clip, and instructions. A backpack tether, flotation lanyard, and belt clip are available for an additional cost. If you don’t care about the navigation features, the much smaller inReach Mini2 might be a better option for $150 less. The Explorer+ is a great device for people who want an all-in-one SOS, satellite text, and navigation device.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 2.7 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches
  • Weight: 7.5 ounces
  • Battery life: Up to 100 hours at 10-minute GPS tracking
  • Satellite network: Iridium
  • Two-way text capable: Yes
  • Voice capable: No
  • Navigation: GPS with preloaded 1:24,000 topo maps
  • Emergency SOS: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This device has the best-integrated navigation and satellite text communication system of the lot — saving weight and adding excellent connectivity to any backcountry adventure.
PROS

Intuitive to use

Reliable two-way text messaging

Uses Iridium network, more satellites to connect to

Good smartphone app

CONS

Expensive

Bulkier than others

Best Value Two-way Satellite Text Messenger

I absolutely loved the Somewear Labs Global Hotspot for its ease of use and its ability to connect quickly with the Iridium network. Out of the box, all I had to do was quickly create an account via its website, download an app to my smartphone, and I was in business. Within a few minutes, I was locked on to the satellite network and sharing texts with my father-in-law. What it lacks in on-device capability, the Global Hotspot makes up for in a simple-to-use app and overall affordability.

Onboard the device itself is a one-touch SOS button with LED indicators confirming the SOS was sent and another confirming the SOS was received. All SOS calls go to the 24/7 monitored GEOS emergency response center. When paired with a smartphone via the Somewear Labs app, the device really shines with a clean text function, real-time location sharing, and on-demand real-time weather reporting. The battery will support more than 1,000 messages per charge and last 10 days when set on 10-minute interval tracking.

It also ranks among the very toughest and weather-resistant devices — complete with a MIL-STD 810 rating. It’s built for all seasons and will withstand -4F to 140F temperatures, and the GPS tracking is accurate up to 2.5 meters. If you drop it in the water, don’t fret. It floats and is water-resistant up to two meters for 30 minutes. Recharging is easy via the Micro USB charging cord (included). The unit costs less than $300 and the service plans start at about $9 per month. This device is ideal for budget-minded explorers who want reliable two-way texting and a clean user interface.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 3 x 3.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Weight: 4 ounces
  • Battery life: 10 days at 10-minute tracking
  • Satellite network: Iridium
  • Two-way text capable: Yes, with smartphone
  • Voice capable: No
  • Navigation: No, tracking with smartphone
  • Emergency SOS: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This tough little pocket-sized device transforms your smartphone into a two-way satellite text machine complete with real-time position GPS tracking and one-touch SOS capability.
PROS

Super simple to use

One-touch SOS

True global coverage

Affordable

Low-cost service plan

CONS

Needs to pair with a smartphone for full functionality

No pre-set messaging function

Honorable Mention Satellite Phone

The Inmarsat IsatPhone2 costs less than half of the Iridium Extreme, has double the battery life, but also weighs about twice as much. Of note, Inmarsat provides reliable satellite communication service, but it also has fewer satellites placed much higher in orbit than Iridium. What does this mean for you? It may be harder for you to acquire line of sight with a satellite in more vertical terrain or under significant tree canopy. The IsatPhone2 provides dependable connectivity and high-quality voice transmission, all packaged into a rugged exterior. It’s designed to withstand -5F to 132F temperatures and is dust-, splash-, and shock-resistant to IP65 and IK04 ratings.

The phone is easy to use and comes with a clear quickstart guide. The IsatPhone2 supports voice, text, and email messaging. Like the Iridium Extreme, voice is much easier and intuitive to use than text, which is super clunky using the phone keys and old-school T9 method. I like the tracking feature which allows you to send your GPS location to friends and family. For an additional $20 fee, you can enable automatic tracking. Perhaps the best feature of this phone is the extended battery life — 8 hours in talk mode and 160 hours on standby. You pay for that capability with additional weight.

At 11.2 ounces, I wouldn’t want to take this brick backpacking. It’s Bluetooth-enabled for hands-free use, and the SOS feature is connected to the GEOS 24/7 emergency center. The phone costs about $750 and service plans start around $45 per month. This phone is a great option for budget-conscious users who absolutely must have voice connectivity.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 6.7 x 3 x 1.4 inches
  • Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Battery life: 8 hours of talking, up to 160 hours in standby mode
  • Satellite network: INMARSAT
  • Two-way text capable: Yes
  • Voice capable: Yes
  • Navigation: GPS tracking
  • Emergency SOS: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This rugged, easy to use, and reliable satellite phone provides near world-wide coverage, intuitive user interface, and has the longest battery life of the lot.
PROS

Fast satellite network registration

Voicemail, text, and email capable

Location services and GPS tracking

Rugged

Global SOS assistance

Easy to use

CONS

Satellite coverage not as complete as Iridium

Expensive

Best Value Satellite Phone

While Globalstar no longer holds inventory of new GSP-1700 phones, they do continue to sell certified pre-owned models for less than $300. The GSP-1700 is fairly small and sleek as satphones go, and it’s fairly packable. It features super clear CDMA digital voice quality and fast data rates of up to 28 KB/s.

The GSP-1700 will also support email and text. The antenna on this device is better integrated than many other models and neatly tucks out of the way. Like the Iridium and Inmarsat phones, the GSP-1700 works easily in voice mode, but struggles in text mode, since the interface is the old-school telephone keypad T9 format. Dialing 911 on this phone connects you directly to the GEOS 24/7 emergency response center.

The rest of the phone functions are pretty basic — offering a mailbox for voice and text messages, a 99-entry address book, and a call history log. The display is adequate but smaller than its competitors, but it is backlit with a four-line, 12-character LCD screen. It displays volume, signal, and battery strength indicators and also features a lumniated keypad. Like other cell phone service plans, the monthly cost is expensive, starting at $99 per month, but the unit cost is about 1/4th of the Iridium Extreme. This may be a good option for budget-minded individuals who have a need for basic satellite voice communication.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 5.3 x 2 x 1.4 inches
  • Weight: 7.1 ounces
  • Battery life: 4 hours of talking, up to 36 hours in standby mode
  • Satellite network: Globalstar
  • Two way text capable: Yes
  • Voice capable: Yes
  • Navigation: No
  • Emergency SOS: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • While Globalstar is no longer holding inventory of new models, you can still find these certified pre-owned satellite phones for $299.99 — a real bargain.
PROS

Near global coverage Low unit cost

GPS location services

Easy-access short messaging and voicemail

99-entry internal address book

CONS

Satellite coverage not as complete as Iridium

Expensive service plan

Best Satellite Smartphone

While very expensive, the Thuraya X5 Touch represents the next leap in satellite phone technology. Unlike its clunkier old-school competitors, this is the first phone to run on the Google Android OS.

It features a large 5.2-inch HD screen made of tough Gorilla glass that works when wet or when you’re wearing gloves. It’s also fully ruggedized to IP67 and MIL 810 standards. It’s fully dust- and water-protected, and tested to withstand shock, vibration, and extreme temperatures.

The X5 will run in satellite and GSM mode seamlessly over Thuraya’s L-band satellite network and 2G, 3G, 4G, and LTE networks. It has two nano SIM card slots, as well. The X5 Touch also has advanced navigation and tracking over the GPS, BeiDou, and Glonass systems. You can send location updates on pre-set time intervals, distance traveled, or when moving inside or outside a pre-set geofence. It also offers decent battery life at 11 hours of talk time or 100 hours of standby mode between charges.

Like the Iridium Extreme, the X5 has a dedicated SOS button for when the shit hits the fan. Even when the phone is switched off, all you have to do is press and hold the SOS button for three seconds to activate help. The X5 also features front and rear cameras so you can take and send photos and videos. The phone’s memory is expandable via a Micro-SD slot up to 32GB. Be sure to check the coverage area — Thuraya primarily supports Asia, Europe, most of Africa and Australia, and doesn’t cover North or South America. While this phone isn’t for all users and is super expensive, it does represent the next leap in satellite phone technology. I expect to see other phone manufacturers follow Thuraya’s lead in the future.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 5.7 x 3 x 1 inches
  • Weight: 9.2 ounces
  • Battery life: 11 hours of talking, up to 100 hours in standby mode
  • Satellite network: Thuraya (does not service North or South America)
  • Two-way text capable: Yes
  • Voice capable: Yes
  • Navigation: Yes
  • Emergency SOS: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This next generation model is the world’s first Android satellite phone. It’s not cheap, but it is smart, reliable, and offers capabilities well beyond Iridium or Inmarsat phones.
PROS

Runs on Android OS

5.2-inch full HD touchscreen

Supports Gmail, Google Maps, Chrome, and more

Fully ruggedized

Good battery life

CONS

Thuraya does not cover North or South America

Expensive

Best Stand-Alone Two-Way Satellite Messenger

Many two-way satellite text devices require pairing with a smartphone to be fully functional. This places additional charging requirements and additional weight to backcountry adventures. What I love about the Globalstar SpotX is that it truly is a fully stand-alone unit with a super ergonomic user interface.

The integrated keyboard makes composing and sending texts a snap, and it also features a large LCD display. The face of the unit features an integrated one-touch SOS button and the device has the ability to store up to 14 pre-programed messages for select-and-send one-touch use, which is super convenient. The check-in feature allows you to quickly alert friends that you’re OK and you can share geo locations on a 2.5-, 5-, 10-, 30-, or 60-minute interval. The large antenna adds to the bulk of the device, so it’s not the most pocketable of satellite text messengers on the market.

While the SpotX doesn’t have true global coverage like the Iridium network, it will be sufficient for most users’ needs — with coverage of all of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, and portions of South America, Africa, and Asia. Another chief user complaint is the long send time. It can take up to five minutes to send a text message, so don’t expect normal cell phone texting performance. This device is best for users who desire a traditional QWERTY keyboard and don’t care about carrying a larger and somewhat bulkier satellite communicator.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 6.5 x 3 x 1 inches
  • Weight: 7 ounces
  • Battery life: Up to 10 days with 10-minute tracking
  • Satellite network: Globalstar
  • Two-way text capable: Yes
  • Voice capable: No
  • Navigation: No
  • Emergency SOS: Yes
Why It Made The Cut
  • This capable satellite messenger has an integrated keyboard, offers the easiest text-typing experience, and doesn’t require pairing with a smartphone to be fully functional.
PROS

Great user interface

Stand-alone two-way texting

Location tracking

Dedicated U.S. phone number

Check-in functionality

CONS

Slow message send time

Bulky

Things to consider before buying a satellite communicator

Voice capability

The very first question you should ask yourself when considering buying a satellite communication device is whether you absolutely need voice capability. The cost difference between text-only and voice units is about $1,000. For most users, two-way text is enough. And with the decreasing costs of satellite communicators and service plans, there is little excuse not to carry one during your off-grid backcountry travels. These devices can literally be the difference between life and death in a backcountry emergency. 

Stand-alone

The next question you’ll want to ask is whether you want to bring one or two devices with you for full functionality, as many devices require smartphone integration. If you are moving via vehicle, this is hardly a consideration, but if you are backpacking your gear, every ounce counts. Stand-alone devices have less power recharging requirements, so you’ll have to carry fewer power bricks or solar panels. 

Coverage

Not all satellite providers have the same coverage areas. Iridium, with its 66-satellite constellation, is the only company that provides true global coverage. Inmarsat has three satellites in higher orbit but has significant gaps at the poles. Thuraya only covers Europe, most of Africa, and most of Asia. And SPOT covers most land masses but has gaps in the oceans. So check to see that the manufacturer and service provider cover the areas you need.

One-touch SOS

I consider this to be a critical feature on satellite communication devices. If you find yourself in a real emergency, you want a simple way to communicate your distress to a real human sitting in a response center that’s manned 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. Look for models that have this potentially life-saving feature. 

FAQs about satellite communicators

Q: Can you text via satellite? 

A: Yes, most devices now support this capability with varying degrees of ease. I find that traditional satellite phones are super clunky to text on because they use the old T9 interface and you have to push single buttons multiple times to select the right letter. Satellite text messengers that link to your smartphone tend to have the best user interface.

Q: Do I need a satellite communicator for hiking? 

A: If you are doing local day hikes, probably not. If you are venturing into the backcountry out of cell phone service range, it’s a really good idea to bring one along. The farther out you go, the further you are from help, and the more self-reliant you must be. A satellite communication device provides a much-needed safety margin. 

Q: What does a satellite communicator do? 

A: Essentially, a satellite communicator enables you to communicate with other ground stations by sending an electronic signal to a satellite in orbit and back down to another point on Earth. Depending on the device, this can be done in voice-only, voice and text, or text-only modes. Text-only devices tend to cost much less for the base unit and service plan.

Final thoughts

While there are many fine satellite communication systems on the market, for voice transmission, I prefer the Iridium Extreme due to its fast and reliable connectivity and true global coverage. For me, the cost is prohibitive. I don’t really want to talk to people when I’m in the backcountry. I prefer to text them on my own time, which is why I really like the Somewear Labs Global Hotspot, which essentially turns my iPhone into a two-way satellite messenger with GPS position tracking and weather reports. The Somewear Labs hotspot is also a much more cost-effective solution in terms of unit price and service plans. 

Methodology 

All the satellite communicators in this review were selected based on personal ownership, hands-on inspection, and thoroughly reviewing manufacturers’ specifications. We take our time to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of each item, and also check out the reviews of other experts just to make sure we’re not missing anything. For this review, we considered more than a dozen makes and models. We parsed between systems that prioritized voice and those which were text-only models, and tried to provide solid representatives of each category. I based my criteria on my own experiences using outdoor gear in the field for more than 35 years. 

After gathering enough high-performing products for a best-of article, I racked and stacked each based on their attributes, design, and performance. My bias is towards the lightest, best-functioning, and lowest-cost solutions available. We don’t torture test gear here at Task & Purpose — we test within normal usage limits. When gear does fail or break, we contact the manufacturer to see if and how it stands by its products. I also take a look at how easy the gear is to maintain or repair in the field — the simpler, the better.