SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction

Part 1 in our 3 part series on two-way satellite communications for lightweight backpacking.

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by Rex Sanders | 2013-03-19 00:00:00-06

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 1
Globalstar phone and Internet coverage map

Introduction

After too much Type 2 and Type 3 fun, my wife wanted me to be able to call 911, and to stay in touch with her when in the backcountry. I had sent satellite phones with scientists to worldwide locations for more than 10 years, and new devices like the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger had just reached the market. So I did some market research to fill my needs. At one point, my wife said something like “maybe other people would want this information.” Little did I know how much work lay ahead.

This article is the first in a three part series on two-way satellite communications for lightweight backpacking. This Part 1 is an introduction; briefly describing alternatives, how satellite systems work, and each of the satellite systems you might consider. Part 2 covers satellite phones, and Part 3 covers satellite text-only devices. All the information in this series comes from vendor web sites and online reviews, except for the “Personal experience” sections.

Why?

Why might you want two-way satellite communications while backpacking? Ignoring serious concerns about self-sufficiency and disconnecting from the grid, the most common reasons seem to be:

  • You want to get help in an emergency.
  • You want to communicate with loved ones; that might be a condition of your trip.
  • You want to communicate with work; again, that might be a condition of your trip.
  • You want to make re-supply changes from the backcountry, including ordering new or replacement equipment.
  • You want near real-time tracking of your position.
  • You want Internet access and can accept significant weight or speed penalties.

Two-way communications with first responders, family, or friends can mean the difference between life and death, between Type 2 fun and an unnecessary rescue, between saving your own life and unnecessarily risking the lives of rescuers.

The August 2011 Outside magazine article Panic Button describes the search and rescue problems with one-way devices like PLBs and SPOT.

Let’s briefly review other technologies you might use for wilderness communications.

Cell phones

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 2
Verizon USA coverage map

Many wilderness areas have little or no cell phone coverage, especially where you are furthest away from civilization. You might want to take a smart phone anyway, see Part 3.

BGAN satellite terminals

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 3
Hughes 9202 BGAN satellite terminal

You may have seen TV journalists sending videos from war zones using portable Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) satellite terminals. The lightest terminals weigh 1-2 kg and cost over $1,000 new, or you can rent one. You must add a phone to make phone calls, and a laptop, tablet, or smart phone for Internet access. Look into these if you really need medium speed Internet access from the backcountry - “up to” 492 kbps - and you are willing to carry the extra weight.

Ham radios

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 4
Yaesu ham radio

Ham radios can be light and cheap, with no service charges, but you must pass an exam to get a special license to use one. The range of small, light ham radios can be very limited. You may not use ham radios for commercial purposes.

PLBs

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 5
ACR ResQLink PLB

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are good for one thing only: rescue in case of dire emergency. On the other hand, PLBs are relatively light, have no monthly cost, you can’t call home or work, and they can’t call you. Recent PLBs send an emergency signal with GPS coordinates through government-operated satellites, and a homing signal to guide rescuers locally. PLBs should be registered periodically with your contact information, to reduce false alarms. Registration is free in USA. Though sometimes used interchangeably, a PLB is different from an EPIRB, and backpackers should not use an EPIRB.

One-way texting by satellite

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 6
SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger

Several devices can be used to send one-way text messages, track your trip, and notify emergency services, including your GPS position. One-way devices are often lighter and cheaper than two-way devices.

Many one-way devices can send only three or four pre-defined messages - no good for “send more Pop-Tarts” unless you anticipated that message. And one-way devices cannot provide feedback, like “Stay put, we can’t rescue you until the storm clears”, or “Are you sure you want forty cases of Pop-Tarts delivered to Idyllwild?”

SENDs versus PLBs

Generically, one-way and two-way satellite texting devices can be Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs), similar to PLBs. PLBs use government satellites, have no recurring fees in USA, and send emergency notices directly to rescue authorities, while SENDs use commercial satellites, with recurring fees, and send emergency notices through commercial monitoring services first.

 Carrier Pigeons

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 7
Attaching a message to a Signal Corps carrier pigeon, circa 1917-18, from NARA via Wikimedia

Carrier pigeons can be used for communication up to 1,600 km. Pigeons weigh 300 g to 450 g, and need about 50 g per day of feed, plus a cage. You can use a pigeon just once per backpacking trip, making them impractical for lightweight backpacking. Some commercial photographers routinely send 256 GB SD cards with photos and videos by carrier pigeon. A carrier pigeon with a 4 GB memory stick was faster than DSL in a 2009 race in South Africa. For return messages, you must train another set of pigeons to fly to pre-arranged spots along your trip. You can access the Internet over carrier pigeons, using well-defined standards (see RFCs 1149, 2549, and 6214), but you will have problems with high latency, and high packet loss due to hawks and other raptors. I don’t recommend Skyping over this connection.

How two-way satellite systems work

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 8
Iridium phone, satellite, and ground station (not to scale)

Satellite signals must travel in a direct path between your device and a satellite, and between a satellite and a ground station, which is connected to the phone system and the Internet. Satellite signals are even weaker than cell phone signals, blocked by buildings, mountains, canyon walls, trees, and sometimes, heavy rain or snow.

Satellites are expensive: Globalstar, Iridium, and Orbcomm lost many satellites due to launch failures or other problems; the original Iridium system cost an estimated $6 billion; and Globalstar, Iridium, Orbcomm, and Terrestar have gone through bankruptcy. With cell phones covering over 90% of the world’s population, the satellite system market is small. Satellite devices and plans are much more expensive than cell phones, and generally have far fewer features.

Two-way satellite systems have three basic designs:

  • Bent pipe
  • Space network
  • Store and forward

A “bent pipe” satellite immediately retransmits your phone call, text message, or Internet connection, back to a ground station within sight of the satellite. These satellites are relatively simple. Globalstar, Inmarsat, Terrestar, and Thuraya are “bent pipe” systems.

A “space network” system can relay your phone call, text message, and Internet connection between satellites until a ground station is in view. These satellites are much more complex than “bent pipe” satellites, but require fewer ground stations for global coverage. Iridium is the only “space network” system.

In a “store and forward” system, the satellite receives and stores your text message until a ground station is in view, then forwards your message. Messages are delayed for 1 to 100 min each way. You cannot make phone calls or use the Internet over these systems. Orbcomm is a hybrid “bent pipe” and “store and forward” system.

Voice quality and Internet access

The voice quality of most satellite systems is good to just acceptable. Some systems are consistently better than others, though all vary depending on many factors.

Have you ever used dial-up Internet access? That was blazing fast compared to satellite Internet access for lightweight backpackers. You should be rich, extremely patient, and use special setups designed for low speeds and interrupted sessions.

Geostationary Satellites

Commercial communication satellites are placed into two very different kinds of orbits around the Earth: Geostationary orbits (GEO), 35,786 km above the equator, and low earth orbits (LEO), at fixed heights from 772 km to 1,400 km high. If the Earth were the size of an NBA basketball, LEO satellites would be about 4-8 cm away, and GEO satellites would be about 2 m away.

A GEO satellite appears to hover at a fixed position over the equator, more-or-less in the southern sky as viewed from the northern hemisphere. Three GEO satellites can provide virtually worldwide coverage. Each satellite needs just one ground station to connect to the phone system and to the Internet. GEO satellites need large antennas, powerful transmitters, and large solar panels, and they are designed to operate for up to 20 yrs. Satellite TV (e.g. DirecTV, Dish Network), weather forecasting, and missile warning systems use GEO satellites.

What are some of the downsides of GEO satellites?

  • If a mountain or forest blocks that spot in the sky, you can’t contact the satellite. You must move to a better position, which might be difficult depending on terrain and injuries.
  • As you go further north or south of the equator, the satellite appears lower in the sky and is blocked more easily. In Alaska, the satellite might be barely above the true horizon. GEO satellites are unusable above latitude 70 (Arctic and Antarctic areas).
  • GEO satellites are so far away, that the speed of light causes annoying pauses during phone calls.

Low Earth Orbit Satellites

You need 44 to 66 LEO satellites, plus spares, to provide full-time coverage worldwide. LEO satellites are launched into many different orbits 772 km to 1,400 km high, crisscrossing the sky. Each satellite circles the Earth in about 100 min. Any satellite is visible 9 min at a time on average, even less with local obstructions, so longer connections require hand-offs from one satellite to another. “Bent pipe” systems using LEO satellites require dozens of ground stations to provide nearly worldwide coverage - your device must be within about 5,000 km of a ground station. “Space network” and “store and forward” systems can use just one ground station, but usually have several. LEO satellites have smaller antennas, lower power transmitters, and smaller solar panels than GEO satellites. LEO satellites don’t last long due to atmospheric drag - sometimes less than 10 yrs. The International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, and Google Earth photo satellites are in LEO orbits.

What are some of the downsides of LEO satellites?

  • You need an unobstructed view of most of the sky to contact a satellite, and to keep the connection running for more than a few minutes.
  • A LEO system with missing or malfunctioning satellites suffers from constantly shifting coverage gaps, with much higher rates of dropped calls or missed messages.

Theoretical coverage versus Service

Theoretically, each satellite system can cover the entire Earth, or a major portion of the Earth. In practice, satellite systems restrict coverage for technical, economic, or legal reasons. Most satellites use “spot beams” to focus power on limited areas, and they can determine your position close enough to allow or deny service as desired. Iridium and Globalstar do not work in several countries for legal reasons. Terrestar could cover most of North and South America, but limits coverage to most of the United States. Be sure to check the latest coverage maps and local laws before you choose a device, or take a device into a new area.

Factors affecting signal strength

A weak satellite signal will degrade phone call voice quality, reduce data speeds, or stop connections entirely. Some of the factors that affect signal strength are:

  • Obstructions: Satellite signals can’t go around or through obstacles like mountains, canyon walls, trees, and buildings. You should be OK inside a tent or under a tarp - but if you are having trouble, move outside. Human bodies are very good at blocking most satellite signals; satellite phone antennas should be above your head, and tracking devices should be placed on top of your pack.
  • Operating frequency: Lower frequency signals penetrate leaves and branches better, but require larger antennas. Most systems operate at 1.5 GHz to 2.5 GHz, except Orbcomm at 137 MHz to 150 MHz.
  • Distance: GEO satellites are much farther away than LEO satellites. A LEO satellite near the horizon is about 2,500 km farther away than one directly overhead.
  • Elevation above horizon: If a satellite is low on the horizon, the signal must punch through about 10 times more atmosphere. LEO satellites can be low on the horizon for one pass, high overhead on the next.
  • Satellite speed: Satellites zipping by in LEO orbits require more power and special processing at both ends to compensate for the Doppler effect. All satellite systems have this problem if you are moving faster than hiking speeds. Some devices won’t work well in a car at highway speeds.
  • Effective satellite power: Effective power is a combination of satellite signal power and satellite antenna design. Most satellites use spot beams that concentrate power on a smaller patch of Earth.
  • Device power: Most handheld devices transmit about 1 watt of radio power (not much) – to a satellite 772 to 40,479 km away. Battery life, health-and-safety regulations, and other regulations, limit device power.
  • Device antenna design: Bigger antennas generally provide a stronger signal, but big antennas are not practical for handheld devices.
  • Device antenna orientation: All devices show dramatic changes in signal strength and quality with small changes in antenna orientation. Sometimes a step or two, or a slight twist, makes all the difference - we see that with cell phones, too. Most antennas are designed to point straight into the sky; some don’t work at all if horizontal.

You can avoid obstructions and orient your antenna correctly; all the other factors are determined by your device, satellite system, time, and location.

Devices locked to one system

Satellite phones and text-only devices are locked to one satellite system by patents, technology, and physics. For example, you cannot switch an Iridium phone to call using Globalstar satellites. When you buy a device, you are locked into one system, with very limited choices on plans and prices. Choose wisely.

Satellite Systems

Globalstar

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 9

Globalstar covers most of the world with phone, text, and low-speed Internet services, using 48 “bent pipe” satellites in LEO orbits 1,400 km high. Several phones use Globalstar, but Globalstar is better known for providing service to SPOT devices.

Some Globalstar satellites have problems affecting phone calls, two-way text, and Internet services, resulting in spotty coverage and dropped connections. Globalstar provides a web site that predicts coverage times for any location. You should prepare tables of locations and times just before heading into the backcountry; predictions go out only 3-4 days.

Predictions for my home town from calltimes.globalstar.com over a 3.75 day period in January 2013 showed 148 interruptions, 84% time coverage, 1 min to 107 min coverage windows, and 30 min average coverage window.

In February 2013, Globalstar launched the last six replacement satellites needed to fix these problems. Globalstar expects to put these satellites into service by summer of 2013. Check www.globalstar.com for the latest news.

One-way messages from SPOT devices are not affected by these problems.

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 10
Globalstar phone and Internet coverage map

Inmarsat

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 11

Inmarsat covers most of the world between latitudes 70 S and 70 N, with phone, text, and Internet services, using three “bent pipe” satellites in GEO orbits. Inmarsat works with just one handheld satellite phone - the IsatPhone Pro. Inmarsat does not support any text-only devices. Inmarsat also supports BGAN terminals.

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 12
Inmarsat coverage map

Iridium

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 13

Iridium covers virtually the entire world, with phone, text, and Internet services, using 66 “space network” satellites in LEO orbits 780 km high. Iridium works with several handheld satellite phones and text-only devices. The US Department of Defense is a major user of Iridium, owning and operating their own ground station in Hawaii. Iridium is prohibited by US laws from operating in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Sudan.

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 14
Iridium coverage map

Orbcomm

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 15

Orbcomm covers selected areas of the world for short message service only, primarily for tracking trucks, ships, and shipping containers. Orbcomm has 29 hybrid “bent pipe” and “store and forward” satellites in LEO orbits 774 km high; 29 satellites are not enough for full-time coverage. Recent Orbcomm devices switch between satellite service and cell phone service automatically. No currently manufactured Orbcomm devices are suitable for lightweight backpacking, though the Magellan GSC-100 was an interesting early device still available on the used market (see Part 3).

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 16
Orbcomm coverage map

Terrestar

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 17

Terrestar covers most of USA except parts of Alaska, with phone, text, and Internet services, using one “bent pipe” satellite in GEO orbit. Terrestar works with just one satellite phone - the Terrestar Genus. Terrestar does not support any text-only devices. Terrestar service is supplied by a combination of DISH Network and AT&T, so you can switch a Terrestar Genus phone between satellite service and AT&T cell phone service.

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 18
TerreStar coverage map

Thuraya

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 19

Thuraya covers Europe, most of Asia, most of Africa, and Australia with phone, text, and Internet services, using two “bent pipe” satellites in GEO orbits. Thuraya has a variety of small, light phones, and good airtime prices - useful if you are traveling in their coverage area. Thuraya also supports a BGAN-like satellite terminal.

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction  - 20
Thuraya coverage map

Important Satellite System Features

  Orbit Type Phone Text Internet speed USA coverage
Globalstar LEO Bent Pipe Yes Yes (1) 9.6 kbps 48 states, most of Alaska
Inmarsat GEO Bent Pipe Yes Yes 2.4 kbps 49 states, southern Alaska
Iridium LEO Space Network Yes Yes 2.4 kbps 100%
Orbcomm LEO Hybrid (2) No Yes None Patchy
Terrestar GEO Bent Pipe Yes Yes Unknown (3) 49 states, most of Alaska
Thuraya GEO Bent pipe Yes Yes 160 kbps down, 30 kbps up None
  1. Globalstar phones can receive 35-character text messages, but not send them. SPOT devices can send text messages, but not receive them.
  2. Orbcomm satellites “store and forward” short 200-character messages, and use “bent pipe” for longer 2000-character messages.
  3. I cannot find Terrestar Internet speed on any official Terrestar web site, including terrestar.com, dish.com, att.com or amazon.com. Unconfirmed reports list speeds as either 64 kbps, or 160 kbps down, 30 kbps up.

Recommended systems for satellite phone or text

The performance of any satellite system is strongly dependent on the devices you use, how you use them, and where you use them. Reviews really compare devices and use cases, not systems. Still, we can compare satellite systems based on design, operations, and available devices.

So in my not-so-humble opinion …

Best: Iridium

  • Iridium’s “space network” design and continuous, nearly global coverage, is more comprehensive and reliable than all other systems.

OK: Inmarsat, Terrestar

  • Inmarsat and Terrestar use GEO satellites, so you must have an unobstructed view of specific satellite locations to use them. Inmarsat provides coverage over most of the Earth; Terrestar is limited to most of USA, but you can switch between satellite and AT&T cell phone systems.

Marginal: Globalstar

  • Until Globalstar replaces all their malfunctioning satellites, phone coverage is intermittent and difficult to predict in the backcountry. One-way messages from SPOT devices are not affected by these problems. Globalstar could rate “OK” after satellite replacement scheduled for summer 2013.

Non-players: Orbcomm, Thuraya

  • Thuraya doesn’t cover USA (rates “OK” in coverage area), and Orbcomm doesn’t support any devices suitable for lightweight backpacking.

Recommendations for satellite Internet access

OK: Terrestar

  • Terrestar might have the fastest handheld satellite Internet access in USA - only in USA and if you can see the satellite. If you have AT&T cell coverage, you have 3G Internet access speeds, too.

Marginal: Inmarsat, Iridium

  • You can access the Internet at very low speed over an Inmarsat or Iridium phone. Don’t try to do it yourself with a direct connection. Get an Iridium AxcessPoint Wi-Fi hotspot, or a Humanedgetech.com expedition package. See Part 2 for details.

Alternative: BGAN terminal with Wi-Fi Internet device

  • BGAN terminals provide medium-speed Internet access, but weigh 1-2 kg plus Internet access device. Some BGAN terminals include Wi-Fi, and will work with most smart phones, tablets, and laptops.

Not recommended: Globalstar

  • Until Globalstar replaces all their malfunctioning satellites, Internet connections are intermittent and subject to unexpected drops. After satellite replacement scheduled for summer 2013, Globalstar could rise to “Marginal.”

Non-players: Orbcomm, Thuraya

  • Thuraya doesn’t cover USA (rates “OK” in coverage area), and Orbcomm doesn’t support Internet access.

Next up - Part 2: Satellite Phones for Backpacking


About the author

Rex Sanders has been backpacking off and on since the 1960s, and guiding whitewater rafts since 1987. In his day job, he supplied globetrotting scientists with Globalstar and Iridium phones from 2000-2011. But he never got to go on those adventures. He does not own any of these devices, and does not have any relationship with the companies mentioned here.


Citation

"SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction ," by Rex Sanders. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/satellite_communications_sotmr_part1.html, 2013-03-19 00:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction


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Maia
(maia) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction on 03/19/2013 16:49:12 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction on 03/19/2013 17:19:58 MDT Print View

Very interesting, looking forward to part 2 and 3

I'de like to be able to send and receive text messages

My cell phone rarely works in the wilderness, but occasionally it surprises me where it works

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: A very flat place (Grrrrrrrr)
Re: SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction on 03/19/2013 17:20:05 MDT Print View

Its good to see these series of articles.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction on 03/19/2013 17:22:19 MDT Print View

What is type 2 & 3 fun? Is there type 1 fun a what is it?

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: A very flat place (Grrrrrrrr)
Re: Re: SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction on 03/19/2013 17:25:29 MDT Print View

Hi Nick,

Here is a good example for Mountaineer Kelly Cordes.

Type I Fun – true fun, enjoyable while it’s happening. Good food, good sex, 5.8 hand cracks, sport climbing, powder skiing. Margaritas.


Type II Fun – fun only in retrospect, hateful while it’s happening. Things like working out ‘till you puke, and usually ice and alpine climbing. After climbing the West Face Couloir on Huntington, Scotty and I both swore that we hated alpine climbing. The final 1,000′ was horrific – swimming up sugar snow that collapsed beneath us, roped together without protection – and took nearly as long as the initial 3,000′ from camp. On the summit, Scotty turned to me and said, in complete seriousness, “I want my mom so bad right now.” By the time we reached Talkeetna our talk of Huntington turned to, “Ya know, that wasn’t so bad. What should we try next time?”


Type III Fun – not fun at all, not even in retrospect. As in, “What the hell was I thinking? If I ever even consider doing that again, somebody slap some sense into me.” The final 1,000′ of Huntington, when I stop and think about it…but, then again, a friend climbed it the next year and had perfect conditions.

I guess you never really know what sort of fun you’re getting yourself into once you leave the couch, which is fine, because it doesn’t always have to be “fun” to be fun.

Maybe the whole goal, the path of the enlightened, is to turn Type III situations into Type I fun. Right. Anybody had any luck with that?

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re: Re: SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction on 03/19/2013 17:31:01 MDT Print View

Okay, where did the concept of type 1, 2, and 3 fun come from?

and if it's not fun at all, even in retrospective, why is it called fun?

us old guys are always amazed by the viral nature of this modern world

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: A very flat place (Grrrrrrrr)
Re: Re: Re: Re: SOTMR: Two-way Satellite Communications for Backpacking: Part 1 - Introduction on 03/19/2013 17:38:22 MDT Print View

I dunno where it came from, I have heard it a couple of times over the years.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Fun Scale on 03/19/2013 17:46:59 MDT Print View

http://kellycordes.wordpress.com/2009/11/02/the-fun-scale/

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: A very flat place (Grrrrrrrr)
Re: Fun Scale on 03/19/2013 18:22:27 MDT Print View

That's where I pulled it form, I mean I have heard it before that.

Derrick White
(miku) - MLife

Locale: Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada
Two way texting - InReach on 03/20/2013 02:16:58 MDT Print View

I am surprised you didn't mention the InReach device which offers two way texting and SOS features. It can also link to a smartphone or GPS via bluetooth. Great device.

Ian B.
(IDBLOOM) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Global Travel on 03/20/2013 06:47:54 MDT Print View

Just an FYI for global travelers.

I travel overseas quite a bit and have considered buying a satellite phone until I traveled to India. They were really concerned about cell phones in general and wanted to know if I was going to leave one in India. They also were very concerned to know if I was carrying a satellite phone.

I didn't want to prolong that conversation any more than I had to so I didn't ask the obvious question of "If I did would I have to give it up?" The thought of forfeiting a $1000 phone was a little unnerving.

This is the only country which has ever asked me these questions but it's something to be aware of.

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Re: Two way texting - InReach on 03/20/2013 08:54:50 MDT Print View

DeLorme InReach devices will be covered in Part 3.

-- Rex

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Re: Global Travel on 03/20/2013 09:12:40 MDT Print View

Ian,

At least they asked you in advance! You could have been thrown in jail for bringing an unlicensed satellite device into India, like the unfortunate Andy Pag:

http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2010-03-21/jaipur/28138818_1_andy-pag-biofuel-driven-bus-telegraph-act-and-section

A few other countries have strict laws about satellite devices, including China and Burma (Myanmar).

Hence the advice in the article:

"Be sure to check the latest coverage maps and local laws before you choose a device, or take a device into a new area."

-- Rex

Eric Blumensaadt
(Danepacker) - MLife

Locale: Mojave Desert
Spot Messenger on 03/20/2013 11:54:30 MDT Print View

Is the Spot Messenger (black SPOT, W/ Bluetooth for yer cell phone texts) a "bentpipe" or sat network setup?

Seems the SPOT Messenger and yer cell phone gives the best combo for sending short texts. This way you can specify exactly your situation, location and needs W/O a "911" call for the calvalry.

Madeleine Landis
(yurtie) - MLife

Locale: Central Oregon
Thank you, very informative! on 03/20/2013 12:03:04 MDT Print View

We have hiked with a 75 year old friend who uses a SPOT for tracking and sending an "ok" to his wife from remote areas ( across the state of CA thru desert regions) and SEKI) It worked most of the time pretty well but only keeps records for ten days (so someone else has to capture the screen shots of the route) We do not own one and have very mixed feelings about such devices in the wilderness. We like to do ten day mostly off trail backpack trips in the Sierra and have had only one emergency in 35+ years on a Sierra Cub outing. The leader, our older friend, had to hike out 20 miles over a big E side pass, get a helicopter for a HAPE victim, which we got him out successfully on, then he hiked back in. It saved the man but pretty exhausting for the leader). My husband is a very fit 71 and I am 57, small & fairly fit and also do ten day solos. For me, ANY extra weight for a device must be reliable and worth carrying around just in case something really bad happens. I would only want a device for rescue and possibly weather reports. Just curious, does anyone have any experience or thoughts on how to get a wx report, ie on a small ipod thru radio or noaa radio or ??? Thanks. I look forward to the next installments.

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Re: Spot Messenger on 03/20/2013 12:06:55 MDT Print View

Eric,

All SPOT devices use the Globalstar satellite system, which is a "bent pipe" system.

SPOT devices can send text messages, but can not receive text messages, so they are not "two-way" devices. This article series does not describe SPOT devices in any detail.

-- Rex

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: A very flat place (Grrrrrrrr)
Re: Re: Spot Messenger on 03/20/2013 13:01:40 MDT Print View

Rex,

It will be interesting to hear your take on the Isat phone pro as I have one for about 2 years, its a bit heavy so just got a Res Q link for UL trips.

Michael Fisher
(mfisher) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Avian bandwidth on 03/20/2013 13:12:12 MDT Print View

Good one for including the carrier pigeon as a communication device. This brought to mind a quote I'd heard before: "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway." That was from Andrew Tanenbaum. While totally off-topic for backpacking, it does bring to mind the importance of thinking outside the box. What other methods could be used for backcountry communication? Messages left in known areas that will be checked by someone at a specific, for example?

Ian B.
(IDBLOOM) - MLife

Locale: PNW
India on 03/20/2013 13:12:34 MDT Print View

Thanks for sharing that article Rex. Seems extreme but their country so their rules. I've been all over the world but before this trip it never occurred to me that it might be a problem.

Peter Vickerson
(mtbarney) - M

Locale: Australia
Satellite phones on 03/20/2013 17:43:24 MDT Print View

I live in Australia and have used an Immarsat phone for hiking in Australia and New Zealand. I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion that Iridium had much better coverage. I went to the Sat Phone shop to buy an iridium phone but the owner talked me out of it. He said that that in theory iridium had better coverage but in practice Immarsat gave more reliable coverage with little dropping out. He sold both types and in fact the Immarsat was way cheaper with a flat rate of $100 for 100 minutes prepaid and two years to use it in !
Australia is a vast empty continent with lots of areas of no cell phone coverage. Exploration companies use satellite phones and most go for Immarsat.
I have used the Immarsat in very mountainous areas of New Zealand without a problem. I have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence of iridium not working very well in deep valleys.
The Immarsat is also a lot cheaper to buy and call .

In fact, I'm thinking of buying a second one for my wife, just in case we get separated in white out conditions. The phones will also give you your exact position.

Just my two cents worth.