Staying in communication while visiting remote parts of the planet is never easy – after all, there is seldom reliable cell phone coverage in the backcountry, and satellite phones can be prohibitively expensive for most travelers. But thankfully there are now some powerful and effective alternatives for those who routinely find themselves in distant corners of the globe and in need of ways to communicate with traveling companions or the outside world. Here are five gadgets that can help make that happen, while keeping you safe at the same time.
Garmin inReach SE+ ($400)
The Garmin inReach SE+ builds on the strengths of its predecessor, and remains one of the best ways to stay in contact while in the backcountry. On its own, the device is a GPS tracking system that can plot detailed routes and share waypoints on a map with friends and family following along back home. It also features built in navigation capabilities and gives the user the ability to transmit an SOS signal, alerting others should they run into trouble while traveling off the grid.
Going beyond that functionality however, the inReach SE+ also has the ability to pair with a smartphone or tablet, giving users the ability to send 160-character text messages to virtually anyone in the world. Throw in unlimited access to topographical maps, as well as NOAA charts on your mobile device, and you end up with a high-tech communications system that you can take with you just about anywhere. (Note: A subscription service from Garmin is required for this device.)
The inReach uses the Iridium communications network, which means it able to obtain coverage pretty much anywhere on Earth, provided it has a clear view of the overhead sky. That same network is used with a number of different satellite phones as well, and is widely considered to be one of the most reliable ways to stay in touch no matter where you go.
SPOT X Satellite Messenger ($250)
Much like the inReach SE, the SPOT X Satellite Messenger is a multi-purpose device that can provide safety and security in the backcountry. The SPOT allows users to transmit their location at predetermined intervals, allowing friends and family to follow along with the adventure while back home. The device can also send an SOS signal should an emergency situation occur, and it can be used to send messages to any phone number or email address on the planet.
The built-in keyboard is surprisingly easy to type on and the SPOT X can even send messages to social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook. An onboard digital compass adds navigational features that weren't present in previous SPOT devices, but this model still doesn't provide full GPS navigational capabilities. That said, it strikes a good balance between affordability, features, and ease of use.
(A subscription service from SPOT is required for this device).
Somewear Global Hotspot ($350
When paired with your smartphone, the Somewear Global Hotspot instantly turns it into a worldwide communication system. The lightweight and small device allows for two-way text messaging and GPS tracking while in the wild. It can also provide weather reports and warnings and serve as an emergency SOS beacon should something go wrong in a remote area.
Built to survive in harsh conditions, the Somewear Global Hotspot is water, shock, and dust resistant. It's battery is capable of sending more than a thousand messages on a single charge and provides tens days of tracking with ten minute intervals. Data plans start as low as $8.33/month, with worldwide coverage in just about every region. This helps to make it one of the more affordable and approachable satellite communicators on the market.
goTenna Mesh ($179 for a pair)
The original goTenna is a great option for travelers who want to use their smartphones to stay in touch with their companions, even when they don't have a cell phone network to rely on. The device allows users to send text messages and GPS coordinates, by creating a personal peer-to-peer network, which comes in particularly handy when traveling abroad. But the goTenna Mesh extends that functionality even further, adding greater range and flexibility.
As its name implies, the goTenna Mesh uses mesh networking, which allows all units within range of one another to create a shared network, even if they aren't communicating with one another. This allows messages to "hop" from one goTenna device to the next, until it finds the intended recipient. In theory, this gives the unit a far greater range, allowing messages to travel for miles without paying for SIM cards or cell service of any kind.
Lighter, smaller, and more powerful than the original, the goTenna Mesh is a great way to stay in touch when traveling in foreign countries where you don't want to spend a lot of money on temporary cell service. The device ships with two units, allowing users to begin communicating immediately. Best of all, no subscription fees are needed and it is incredibly easy to use, with an app for both iOS and Android.
Operating much like the goTenna, the Beartooth is another device that creates its own network, allowing users to stay in communication with one another even in places where mobile phone service is nonexistent. But, where as the goTenna is limited to sending text messages and GPS coordinates, this gadget can also facilitate voice communication too. Voice is limited to a range of about 5 miles while texts can be sent as far away as 10 miles. The device can also be used to recharge your smartphone, and the Beartooth app includes high resolution topographical maps that can display the exact location of everyone within your group. This comes in handy for keeping track of where everyone is located, and makes it simple to find each other in a pinch.
The Beartooth took a bit of time to get through its production challenges, but the device is now available to purchase. It is sold in sets of two to let users start communicating immediately.
The Fogo is a very versatile device. Not only will it allow you to communicate with other members of your group walkie-talkie style, but it also features GPS tracking capabilities, a built-in flashlight, and the ability to recharge other devices as well. It can be programmed to automatically send an alert should you find yourself in trouble in the backcountry, and it pairs with your smartphone for sending text messages while off the grid too. And that wasn't enough, it can also be used as a fitness tracker, navigation device, and can share your location with others. The Fogo sells for $300 and can be purchased directly online.
Sonnet is yet another device that uses mesh networking to facilitate short range communication. Like some of the other gadget sent his list, the Sonnet has the ability to send messages and GPS coordinates even when a cellphone network isn't available. The device sets itself apart from the competition by allowing multimedia messages that include images and audio recordings, while also facilitating walkie-talkie style push to talk communications via a smartphone app too. The device also includes off-line maps and best of all it sells for just $45 per Sonnet device, although you'll need to buy at least two in order to have someone to communicate with.
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