Review: Satellite Messengers From SPOT and DeLorme

When you’re out adventuring beyond the reach of cellphone towers — at sea, in the jungle, on the glacier — it’s reassuring to think there’s somebody back home who knows exactly where you are.

But in order to pass along your whereabouts to friends, family, and fellow travelers (or even search-and-rescue teams) while you’re deep in the wilderness, you’ll need a satellite messenger. The popularity of these devices has exploded over the last few years. They’re very simple — from just about anywhere on Earth, you can press a button and send an “OK” message along with your coordinates to anybody who wants to track you. Pair a satellite messenger with a smartphone via Bluetooth and you can add some additional stuff like short, Twitter-style messages or map data. (If you’re wondering how these differ from Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), REI has a pretty good summary.)

Some of the most popular satellite messengers are made by SPOT. But now, the company is seeing some competition from DeLorme’s new InReach device. Both are small, about the size of a GPS unit. In fact, they are GPS units, but they’ll only pass along your location to the folks back home. Neither unit has a screen, so they can’t tell you where you are while you’re in the field.

What they can do is collect your pings and plot your route and latest locations on a map that’s accessible via the internet, and send an “OK” message of some sort. Anyone following your adventures can keep an eye on you using these two data streams. Both devices also have SOS buttons to send your coordinates to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center to evacuate you or a member of your party in the event of an emergency.

While they’re similar in basic functionality, there are some nuanced differences between the two, and which one you should buy depends on your budget, your messaging needs, and where your adventures are taking you.

I’ve used previous SPOT devices for the past few years on mountaineering expeditions and river trips in the Alaskan Arctic. I hadn’t yet tested SPOT’s newest device, called Connect, or the DeLorme InReach, but I got the opportunity to test both of them side-by-side on a recent trip to Peru. I used both devices to send “OK” updates as we moved between Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu and the rural community where we were building a classroom with an amazing organization called Peru’s Challenge.

DeLorme InReach

The InReach ($249, plus $10- to $50-per-month service plan) stands out for two reasons. First, it truly has total global coverage, thanks to the Iridium Satellite network it uses. Second, after you send a message, your contacts can reply and send a message back to you. To get the two-way messaging like this, you need to pair the InReach with your smartphone (via Bluetooth) and load up DeLorme’s free Earthmate app. This is necessary because the InReach doesn’t have a keyboard or a screen. However, the unit will work without a phone, and it has a bit more utility than SPOT’s device. With a few simple function buttons like “TRACK,” “MESSAGE” (which sends one of three pre-defined messages) and “SOS,” you’re not left totally in the dark when your phone dies.

I didn’t have time to configure the InReach before heading to Peru, but that didn’t really matter. The Earthmate app (which works on both iOS and Android) pulled phone numbers and e-mail addresses directly from my phone’s contacts list. The major downfall here is that the characters you use to address your message are subtracted from your 150-character limit. This isn’t good for sending group messages. Also, if you want to update your Twitter or Facebook feeds, you have to send separate messages for each of those. The monthly allotment is 10 messages on the cheapest service plan ($10 per month), so these limitations will quickly eat through your limit and subject you to overage charges.

The Earthmate app also works as a very simple GPS locating app. DeLorme offers free topographic map downloads of whatever regions you’re navigating. Beyond that, the only other info you’ll get from the app are your coordinates, altitude, heading and speed. This is a shame because DeLorme makes traditional GPS units, and the company’s knowledge runs deeper than this — though it’s probably just avoiding cannibalizing GPS sales. If you want more sophisticated data like average speed, altitude gained, altitude lost, time spent traveling, go to waypoint, and so on, you’ll need to download a separate app. (I recommend ViewRanger.)

Finally, relative to the SPOT Connect, the InReach unit is heavy, bulky and power-hungry. With a boxy and wide shape, it won’t conveniently fit into the top pocket (the “brain”) of a backpack. It does come with a belt clip and a lanyard, so you can strap it to the outside of your pack where it will get a clear satellite signal. But that’s not always the best place for it while you’re walking through airports, cities, and otherwise getting to the places you’re actually going to need it.

get-gadget Total global coverage. Does 2-way messaging. More functionality as a stand-alone device.

TIRED Costly, both the initial outlay and the service plans. Bulky and heavy. Not practical for group messaging. Power intensive — pack extra batteries.

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