One problem with remote hikes in New Mexico is the frequent lack of cell phone service. In an emergency, someone may need to hike out, then drive, just to call 911. If you’re hiking alone, an immobilizing injury could be a death sentence. When a pay raise allowed a one-time splurge, I purchased a satellite messenger.
First I looked at the SPOT 3 messenger. It works as an SOS device but you can also send preset non-emergency messages to family and friends. Those folks can also track your movements. It’s the cheapest unit among those mentioned here ($150 at REI) but requires a subscription fee. I passed over this device because some users have reported problems getting their messages through—a concern if you ever need to send an SOS. Since not all satellite systems are created equal, the problem may have to do with the satellite system used by the device.
Next I looked at the ACR ResQLink personal locator beacon ($269 at REI). This device sends out an SOS and guides rescuers to your location. It emits a powerful signal, uses a reliable satellite system, and requires no subscription. If my only need was a device to summon rescuers, the ResQLink would have been my choice. It doesn’t serve as a personal messenger, however, so there’s no way to fine-tune a distress call. For example, you can’t inform rescuers whether there are injuries involved. Also, you can’t use it to let people track your movements, or to inform them that you’re delayed but otherwise okay.
In the end I opted for the Delorme InReach SE, which is the most expensive device of the three ($300 at REI) and also requires a subscription. The SOS function is simple: slide the SOS button lock and press the red SOS button for three seconds. Which means that if you’re the one conked on the head, someone who doesn’t know the device can summon a rescue. Of course, I hope to never use that red button. The InReach SE comes with multiple non-emergency bells and whistles, but I use just two: tracking and two-way messaging.
When the tracking is on, the unit transmits your location at a preset time interval. The data go to an online map you can share with others, so they can see your progress (or perhaps more important, any lack of progress). Because it’s a two-way system, the InReach knows whether the locations have been successfully uploaded to a satellite. Just remember to turn on the tracking option each time you start a hike. Below you can see part of the tracking map from my most recent hike.
The strength of the Inreach SE is its ability to send and receive text messages. The one time I forgot to turn on the tracking option, my wife texted me with a reminder! While back at home you can compose three preset messages to send quite easily, plus additional preset messages/responses that take slightly more effort but can be directed, as needed, to specific individuals. Finally, you can compose new text messages while hiking. If you create a Bluetooth link between the Inreach SE and your cell phone, you can use your phone as a keyboard for messages. You can also use our Inreach SE-cell phone combination in place of a regular GPS unit, not that I’m interested in that option.
Like the ResQLink, the Inreach uses one of the satellite systems with allegedly better coverage. Even so, I’ve noticed that in narrow canyons, message can be delayed. No satellite unit is going to work if the patch of sky above you doesn't include the right satellite, so in an emergency you may need to improve your view of the sky.
Some people have problems setting up the Inreach SE. I fully sympathize; it got frustrating at times. For me the trick was to do what the millennials do: try different approaches until one works. Once the Inreach SE is working, it uses a rechargeable internal battery with a claimed use life of about 100 hours. You can extend battery life by increasing the interval between track points and, of course, by turning it off.
Which unit is the right one for you? Depends on your budget and your goals. Any of these units is way, way better than hiking without a satellite messenger, if you habitually wind up in places with no other people and no cell coverage.