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Experiences with satellite phones?
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Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Experiences with satellite phones? on 01/19/2013 12:00:38 MST Print View

I'm considering taking a satellite phone on longer trips to keep my wife happy, and for emergencies.

What are your experiences with satellite phones in the back country?

Could you make and receive calls under most conditions?

Were the voices clear?

Did you have problems with dropped calls?

Did your phone stand up to typical backpacking abuse?

Did carrying a satellite phone keep your loved ones or boss happier with your travels?

Did you use your phone for an emergency?

What else did you use your phone for?

What kind of phone did you carry? In USA, portable sat phones include Globalstar GSP-1600, GSP-1700; Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro; Iridium 9505A, 9555, 9575 Extreme; and Terrestar Genus.

Did you rent or buy? Why?

Please, no flame wars on how sat phones are destroying wilderness values and causing the next zombie apocalypse, etc.


Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

Anyone use these? on 01/19/2013 12:17:39 MST Print View

I was under the impression they were only plot devices in Jurassic Park movies...

I think a SPOT device would be lighter and more efficient for the task of keeping tabs on someone in the wilderness.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: Experiences with satellite phones? on 01/19/2013 12:49:50 MST Print View

Friends have used them on remote rafting trips. The large engineering firm I work for requires their use at remote sites for safety reasons.

They work. But they cost much more per unit, per minute, and are bulkier than cell phones. Prearranged messages help make for clearer communication. SPOT lets you say "OK" much more cheaply and with a far smaller unit, except when it doesn't. Some family members can grasp the concept that good news is good news, bad news is bad news but NO NEWS ISN'T BAD NEWS. Many family members can't grasp that and then SPOT creates more problems than it solves. If a sat phone doesn't connect, the sender knows it. But with SPOT, you're flying blind.

I used SPOT for a few years then went to a PLB because it's more reliable at high latitudes and there's no annual fee. I can't send messages to family, just call out SAR, but that suffices for me. And knowing I can do that satisfies the homefront.

Edited by DavidinKenai on 01/19/2013 12:51:47 MST.

Bradford Rogers
(Mocs123) - MLife

Locale: Southeast Tennessee
Re: Experiences with satellite phones? on 01/19/2013 13:26:26 MST Print View

I rented an Iridium 9555 for a week of mostly off trail travel in Wind River Range last year. It did drop a few calls but I was able to call right back. I didn't receive any calls and only turned it on to call out. I normally don't even carry a cell phone on trips but since I was going to be off trail in a somewhat remote area I thought it would be worth the 9.4oz. I think under that situation it made everyone feel better. I chose it over a Spot because in case of an emergency I could actually tell someone what was wrong. Its hard for SAR groups to know what to do if they have no idea what your needs are.

And like I said I normally don't take any kind of phone on trips nor do I own a gps.

Ken Strayer
(TheRambler) - F
Re: "Experiences with satellite phones?" on 01/19/2013 13:55:10 MST Print View

Satellite phones utilizing the globalstar system are ok. Iridium phones are "better" IMO. IF your going to spend the kind of money to get either, I would go with Iridium.

What's the difference you ask?

Globalstar=Better audio quality,fewer droped calls, but not as reliable in obtaining a signal due to not having anywhere near 100% coverage of the globe at any given time. The coverage changes as the satellites move in the sky, so one day you may have perfect coverage, the next you might not have any.

Iridium=not as good audio quality as globalstar, can be more prone to dropped calls, but has coverage over 100% of the globe. That means anywhere with a clear view of the sky you can get a signal and call out or recieve a call.

I have used iridium phones quite a bit in the Navy, and can say that the audio quality is not that bad most of the time, and it is always understandable just not always crystal clear. If your call drops you just call right back. Dropped calls occur when you transistion to the next sattellite in orbit.

Hope that helps some

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Re: Re: "Experiences with satellite phones?" on 01/19/2013 17:19:52 MST Print View

we have two Isat Pro phones for work and they've worked great in the backcountry (Montana- can't say anywhere else)- they weren't cheap

we don't do much w/ incoming calls (occasionally after we've initiated a call), but have never had a problem acquiring sats or dropped calls- there is a slight hesitation (like talking w/ a radio), but you get used to that quickly

we have a cheap plan, low minutes-set rate- if we go over we pay more, but if we go over it's an emergency anyways :)

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: The Deep Frreze
Re: Re: Re: "Experiences with satellite phones?" on 01/19/2013 17:32:17 MST Print View

I have the same Inmarast phone as Mike, I have only used it to make 3-4 calls in a year or so and its always worked well.

Raymond Estrella
(rayestrella) - MLife

Locale: Northern Minnesota
sat phones on 01/20/2013 07:08:33 MST Print View

Dave and I carried one for a few years so that we could run the company from the field on week+ trips. They work best at high points like passes and such. If you are in canyons you can get signals when the satellite is overhead but they drop quickly as they are moving pretty fast.

It saved our rumps when we were hit by the October 06 (I think) blizzard while on the JMT.

Clarity was good with ours.

Good luck,

Oh yeah, ours was a GlobalStar. We leased a year at a time.

Edited by rayestrella on 01/20/2013 07:09:51 MST.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Re: Experiences with satellite phones? on 01/20/2013 07:13:43 MST Print View

I have taken a sat. phone on two long, solo trips in Alaska.

I have been able to call out every time except for once. The only incoming calls was when someone was going to immediately call back, and they worked. Sometimes I have to try a second or third time or move a short distance. I use an Iridium which has much more dependable world-wide coverage than others. That might not be a factor if you will using it exclusively in the continental US. I own an old school 9505 which I bought several years ago for a summer long trip.

The voices were clear enough. Not like a land line. Calls were often dropped, but they worked.

My phone has held up, but I treat it like it won't hold up! I carry it a lightweight dry box, always. Didn't need it for any emergency. I mainly carried it so the folks at home wouldn't worry while I was out of touch for months. And yes, it definitely was useful for their peace of mind. Since I had the phone, I'd call or text updates to be transcribed to my journal.

I bought a phone because of the length of the trip and knowing I'd use it again.

Good comments from other responders on this thread, also.

Edited by Colter on 01/20/2013 07:14:29 MST.

sean neves
(Seanneves) - M

Locale: City of Salt
Rent, rent, rent... on 01/20/2013 22:25:39 MST Print View

For the age of satellite parity is soon upon us. I can't help but believe better products and way more flexible pricing is around the corner. The much-maligned Globalstar just posted its first profits in 5 years. They have a new constellation of 24 new satellites, 18 of which have been deployed and the rest come this year.

Iridium has dominated since Globalstar's constellation failed. That is about to change and I know that they are working on a new fleet of devices as well. I am not saying this because I favor Globalstar at all, just saying that they are a very big player and they are coming back online soon and it will affect the market soon.

I have rented the following devices in the last year:

Globalstar GSP-1700. Not extensive wilderness use but was able to maintain a 7 minute call from the Green River underneath Flaming Gorge before losing it. Fix time was a surprising two minutes. Weighs 7 oz (the lightest satphone available in America I believe).

Iridium 9555. I was able to get a fix in three minutes at the confluence of Bullet and Kane Gulch in Grand Gulch, 1400 feet deep in the canyon. A five minute call with no interruption. Further down the canyon towards Collins Gulch, it took 5 minutes to get a fix. Clear as a bell with about a 4 minute call window then a disconnect. Pretty sure that was a function of the geography. I had very low expectations of reception down in a canyon that deep. Iridium has 66 satellites in low orbit at about 465 miles. Weighs 9.5 oz.

Inmarsat Isatphone Pro: A little funky as you have to gameplan the location of one of their satellites, which you can do with an on-screen satellite location guide that helps you point your antenna. Once I got a fix, in the same canyon as above, I had a great 10 minute, clear conversation without interruption. I think it was because one of the satellites that they have was almost directly above me. They have only three satellites and they are geostationary, as in they "stand still", but they are at over 22,000 miles up! This should also theoretically help signal penetration in deep topography. Useless at the poles (sorry Alaska!).Interesting tech and one to watch. About 10 oz.

I have also tried two of the newer generation 2-way text beacon/tracking devices: the Delorme Inreach and Briartek/Cerberus Cerberlink. In my opinion, these devices main attraction is the SOS functionality as I don't use the real-time tracking functionality at all. They both use bluetooth to connect to your smart phone and you use an app to construct messages and stuff. Of the two, I like the Briartek unit as it seemed to be less buggy once set up, the bluetooth connection was rock-solid and the unit itself is really bomb-proof. Customer service was EXCELLENT with them as well, which I cannot say about Delorme. As in: within three minutes I was talking directly to the president, who also heads up product development, about some of my concerns and questions. Awesome.

I brought the Cerberlink on a 125-mile 12 day walk through the Wind Rivers in August of last year. One of the main attractions is that they have an in-house rental program of $65 for two weeks including 20 160-character messages. Additional messages are 75 cents but be careful. People can send you messages via email and if you don't inform your chosen contacts to abridge their signatures, you can dispose of your included messages fast (I am in the real estate business and everybody has lengthy non-disclosure tags in their signatures). I ran a test transmission and chewed up 7 of my included messages when one of my contacts responded with a massive email signature. This was when I called customer support and was patched directly to the president (see above). They also let you include RSS feeds in the field (weather, politics, sports, ack!) which you have to be careful with too. One severe weather alert I received was almost 1800 characters. It would be nice if they allowed you to limit the amount of characters receivable via RSS on your profile page. You can create any custom RSS feed you want.

My main complaint with these new-generation text devices is that they weigh as much as a sat phone (both around 8 oz.) and it takes forever to compose, send/receive and verify transmission. You can send canned messages if you like, and they do have some stand-alone functionality, but in the time it takes to pull it out, pair it and send and verify a 160-character message, you could have had 2000-character equivalent conversation in real-time on a phone for roughly the same cost.

The Iridium Extreme is the first device (to my knowledge) that combines the functionality of the Delorme/Spot/Ceberlink devices with a ruggedized phone, but it is really expensive, so I'll stick to renting until form factor, functionality and pricing parity come into play in the next few years.

If you are looking for a good rental company that carries most of this stuff, Skycall Satellite here in Salt Lake is excellent. Russ, the owner, comped me a week-long use of the Inmarsat unit because he had no in-field feedback on it yet. Very flexible and knowledgeable and fairly priced.

Edited by Seanneves on 01/20/2013 22:29:21 MST.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Rent, rent, rent... on 01/20/2013 22:39:59 MST Print View

Very interesting, Sean.


John Abela
(JohnAbela) - MLife

Re: Experiences with satellite phones? on 01/21/2013 11:18:15 MST Print View

Hey Rex,

I have a bit of experience with Sat phones in the deep woods and canyons up here in Northern California.

I would shy away from the Globalstar network as their total coverage time per 24 hours has been greatly reduced for us here in the Western hemisphere. They still have a few birds up there but not enough for 24/h coverage last I checked.

I think the Iridium 9555 is probably the best option out there right now. It has dropped in price a bit (thanks to the Iridium Extreme, which I personally love) and it is very easy to rent for a week, a month, or multiple months.

Absolutely recommend you rent one for a week and give it a try. Most places will charge you around 100 bucks for a week. In the large scope of the costs of a trip, that is nothing, so invest the money in renting the 9555 for a week, playing with it, trying it out, seeing if it works for you.

If you do find that you like it, either rent it for your trip - or consider buying it if you plan on hiking for more than 120 days a year - which seems to be the point where buying it makes more sense than renting it.

If you are going to buy, consider investing the extra couple hundred bucks and pick up the Extreme. A few grams heavier, but oh so much more durable and it seems to be slightly better at gps acquisition.

My electronics of choice these days are:

Garmin GPSMAP 62S (290g)
Iridium Extreme (247g)
ACR ResQLink 406 PLB (130g)

This might add 586 grams (20.67 ounces / 1.291 pounds) of weight to my TPW, but my life is worth 1.2 pounds when I am out in some of the most remote places in the country.


Nathan Hays

Locale: San Francisco
trackers/texters on 01/21/2013 11:28:59 MST Print View

I own an inreach and found it to be a great balance between emergency only (PLB) and phone conversation. To David's point about misinterpreted texts (or lack thereof) I don't recommend SPOT even though it is lighter. Off trail last summer I had sent a text: "H. is puking, will advise if any changes". That set off palpitations at home until we had a clarifying text-a-text. The Park Service really liked that we had comms. The general ability to communicate changes in plans is really helpful to coordinate.

I like texts/tracking because it still has something primitive about it while I still can keep the home office happy. But if you actually need a conversation, there's no replacement for a satphone.

sean neves
(Seanneves) - M

Locale: City of Salt
Re: Re: Experiences with satellite phones? on 01/21/2013 11:38:51 MST Print View


I would love to hear any feedback you have on the Iridium Extreme. Very intriguing device.

Kevin Burton
(burtonator) - F

Locale: norcal
SPOT on 01/21/2013 17:39:55 MST Print View

I did some research on this a while back and came to the conclusion that the SPOT device is what one should use.

One of the models even lets you sent basic messages (but not sure which one).

You really don't need voice capability. That's overkill.

Just being able to relay your position and simple messages is all that is required.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: SPOT on 01/21/2013 18:10:53 MST Print View

The basic problem with Spot is that it is one-way only, and the user has no way to know whether the message got out to the satellite. If you were using a geosychronous satellite, it would be only slightly different. But with a LEO satellite constellation, they are coming and going overhead so fast that you don't know much about the message status. As you get into difficult terrain with overhead canopy, this only gets worse. Unfortunately, that may be where you need communications the most.


Mike R
(redpoint) - F

Locale: British Columbia
good idea for longer trips ... on 01/22/2013 11:46:47 MST Print View

I don't have any direct experience with them, but I have two friends that were able to save lives b/c they had a sat phone [both situations were pretty heavy]. If you're a long way from roads/trails or doing a trip with higher risks, it's a good thing to have. I live in a mountainous area and cell phones are completely useless 99.9% of the time - dead weight as far as I'm concerned.

sean neves
(Seanneves) - M

Locale: City of Salt
Just a heads up on Globalstar.. on 02/04/2013 13:11:04 MST Print View

They have their final launch of the second generation satellites tomorrow morning. Good thing for the market:

Edited by Seanneves on 02/04/2013 13:11:52 MST.

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Re: Just a heads up on Globalstar.. on 02/04/2013 14:34:00 MST Print View

Takes 1-3 months after launch before all the new satellites are fully armed and operational.

Matthew Hoskin

Locale: Kanangra-Boyd NP
Sat Phones on 02/04/2013 21:50:15 MST Print View

I spent 10+ years living in the high Arctic where there was no cell reception in most towns at that stage. I used both Globalstar and Iridium phones extensively and by far Iridium was the better product. I'm also fairly sure ( I haven't checked recently )that Iridium has more satellites in low earth orbit and therefore have a better global reception.
I ended up buying an Iridium as had nothing but problems with Globalstar.

Edited by mattgugel on 02/04/2013 21:51:21 MST.