Best GPS Satellite Communicators / Buying Guide

ZOLEO Satellite CommunicatorZOLEO Satellite CommunicatorZOLEO Satellite Communicator
Reliable communication when you need it most. (Amazon)

GPS satellite communicators range in capacities, but all offer the ability to track your location so that you can get help when you’re stranded, lost or incapacitated. In addition to a Zoleo review and review of other satellite communicators, you’ll find a guide to help you understand how a GPS satellite locator can help you and how to choose the right one for your journeys.

It’s great to plan for the perfect vacation or weekend getaway to include everything that you want to do. As we all know, life doesn’t go according to plans; if adventuring into the wilderness is your idea of fun, it’s especially important to plan for when things don’t go according to plan. Whether you get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, get lost in the backcountry or sustain an injury while you’re pursuing an adrenaline rush, it’s important to be able to get help when you need it.

What is a GPS satellite communicator?

While there are a range of functionalities relative to satellite communicators, the basic function of a satellite communicator is to provide your location and connect you with search-and-rescue personnel in the event that you need to be rescued. Many other communicators also allow you to send and receive short messages to your various contacts while also receiving updates on weather. Some devices even allow you to connect to the internet and update your social media accounts! In short, a satellite communicator is a basic means of communicating where you are when you aren’t where you want to be.

How are satellite communicators different than cell phone?

Cell phones use cell towers to receive and relay signals (not too surprising). Given the dependence on cell towers, cell phones are dependent on the network in which they are operating for optimal service. Unless you have a satellite phone that operates off of Global Satellite Positioning (GPS) networks, you very well may not receive coverage in remote areas of the world, which is exactly the problem you will want to resolve if you happen to be stranded in such areas.

Satellite communicators operate off of satellite networks, naturally. Given that these satellites are constantly in orbit, as long as you can clearly convey and receive a signal (which usually requires only that you have access to some clear sky overhead), you can connect to the GPS network. Given the increased reliability of satellite networks, having a GPS satellite communicator provides a valuable service when your other devices can’t connect.

How do satellite communicators operate?

There are some different classifications for satellite communicators that influence their functionality. The simplest models are personal locator beacons (PLB). Similar to devices used on boats, a PLB emits an SOS alert when you push a button, allowing you to alert search-and-rescue personnel of your status and positioning. You will not be able to use a PLB for any other types of communication, however.

The next advancement in satellite communicators is the one-way satellite messenger. With these devices, you can send out a specific message to whomever you are trying to communicate. This is advantageous if your content is simply pertaining to less urgent matters such as a delay in arrival rather than if you are lost. Once again, you will not be able to receive any messages.

The two-way messenger allows you to both send and receive messages. These messages can be to your preferred contacts or to search-and-rescue personnel. Some even allow you to receive weather updates or updates on your other accounts. A key element to note with regard to two-way messengers is whether they rely on a phone connection in order to power connectivity. Typically, two-way messenger devices will pair with a cell-phone, however connectivity and reception capabilities may still be limited. Ultimately, with two-way devices, you will need to account for having a charged cell phone available in order to use the device.

9/11 was a horrific act of terrorism which was compounded by the lack of communication systems available during the time. With everyone making phone calls simultaneously it dramatically slowed down cellphone networks.

How are they powered?

Most satellite communicators are powered by rechargeable batteries, generally Lithium ion. Some require traditional AA batteries. Battery life can range from 100-240 hours, which is roughly 4-10 days of constant usage. Depending on your usage and how long you plan on venturing, it’s worthwhile to invest in a backup battery or a solar-powered charger so that you can keep your device ready to serve in the event that your trip isn’t going as planned.

Which satellite networks do satellite communicators use?

There are different types of satellite networks. Low earth orbit networks feature satellites orbiting at an altitude of 1,000 miles or less above the Earth’s surface. Multiple satellites constantly rotating around the Earth provide constant satellite coverage. Geostationary (GEO) networks are positioned at roughly 22,000 miles above the Earth and, given that they rotate at a speed nearly equal to Earth’s orbit, they are generally fixed in position.

Inmarsat is a GEO network that is popular given its global reach, though coverage is limited near the poles (sorry aspiring polar explorers).  Depending on the service you choose, you can receive voice and data coverage. Ligado is considered one of the pioneers of future satellite technology and can integrate with land-based communication networks. It works best with push-to-talk devices. Iridium is one of the most popular satellite networks as it operates the largest commercial communications satellite network. Iridium offers voice and digital operation capabilities. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite network that is used by federal and civilian entities and which serves as another means of transmitting and receiving information, particularly regarding navigation. Another emerging satellite network that is increasing its operability is the Galileo network, which is a featured network for some device providers such as Garmin.

While each satellite network is considered to have its merits, Iridium is often the preferred network for satellite communication devices given its range of applications regarding data transmission and communication and that it offers worldwide coverage without any coverage gaps. If you’re looking on traveling to remote parts of the world and don’t want to worry about whether your device will work or not, an Iridium compatible device is a sound option.

Internet coverage and natural disasters

As many have unfortunately experienced during a natural disaster, internet coverage does not always prevail. Various routes of damage include flooding or damage to cell towers that interrupts cable and data transmission. In other regions, earthquakes, fires and hurricanes can pose similar damaging possibilities to cell and wi-fi infrastructure. Given that having internet access can prove a vital lifeline to coordinate rescue efforts in the case of a natural disaster, being without phone or internet access can be not only unpleasant but life-threatening.

If you live in a disaster prone area, investing in a satellite communicator can help you to keep your connectivity when your local infrastructure is down. Given that satellite coverage is universal if you use the appropriate network, and many devices also connect to wi-fi and cell networks when in range, having a satellite communicator proves a reliable backup in the event that your local network is down. The main caveats are that satellite communicators vary with regard to data transmission and receiving. Likewise, if you happen to still be in the path of the storm and without clear skies, your data transmission may be slowed. Ultimately, satellite communicators are just that: communicators in the event of an emergency. You won’t be able to rely on them as internet hotspots or for any significant downloading. Better to hope and pray that the internet comes back on soon if that’s the case.

Which satellite communicator to choose?

Whether you’re shopping for a simple life-saving device or in the market for something that can give you a more reliable means of communication when you’re in the backcountry, there are a variety of criteria that you want to keep in mind so you can choose the best device. Considerations such as cost, network expenses, network reliability, durability, and operating capacities are some of the many features and attributes that you should consider when choosing the best satellite communicator.

Zoleo Review : Best GPS Satellite Communicator

Where the Spot X is a sound value purchase, and Garmin offers exceptional navigational satellite communicators, the Zoleo satellite communicator is a new arrival that offers an exceptional range of features in an affordable satellite communicator. Zoleo uses cell towers and wi-fi when it is within a network and uses the popular Iridium network for reliable satellite coverage when you are out of network range. Like other devices, you can link your device with the free app downloaded to your smartphone, but one of the great benefits is that you can send and receive messages up to 950 characters as well as emails, allowing much greater range of communication.

The device comes with a variety of features that include standalone safety features such as an SOS alerting button with 24/7 monitoring and response (which also allows you to cancel false alarms) and a check in to inform your contacts that you are okay. These services are also phone compatible, which allows you a greater degree of versatility when handling any messaging and disaster management.  When you purchase a Zoleo satellite communicator, you receive a dedicated SMS number and email address so that you can be reached anywhere, anytime.

The Zoleo includes a rechargeable battery that lasts 200 hours and it takes two hours to recharge. It is relatively small compared to other satellite communicators, weighing 5.3 ounces and measuring 3.6 x 2.6 x 1.1”. It is shock resistant, waterproof and operates and stores in temperatures from -4 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit. It comes with a 2-year, limited warranty to cover any unexpected malfunctions and there is a 24/7 support service to help you navigate the activation process and any features that you would like to utilize. You can purchase additional features such as a cradle kit for easy access on a belt or strap and a universal mount kit to attach to a windshield; like other satellite communicators, it comes with a lanyard and carabiner for easy access and storage while you are traveling.

After a $30 activation fee, the Zoleo satellite communicator can be used with three different plans. They range from $20/month for 25 satellite messages and unlimited cellular messages, $35/month for 250 satellite messages and unlimited messaging and for $50/month with unlimited satellite and cellular messages. It is worth noting that if you suspend the plan during period where you are not using it, it costs $4/ month. Further, given that messaging requires using your phone, you will need a reliable means of charging your phone while you are out and about. That being noted, if you like the convenience of using your phone to message and relay information while you are enjoying your journeys, then the Zoleo satellite communicator is a great investment at under $200.

Review : ACR ResQLink 400

If you’re just looking for a simple, effective and reliable PLB in the event of encountering the unanticipated, the ResQLink 400 has a proven track record as an effective search-and-rescue aid. The ResQLink 400 offers a simple, easy-to-use design for signalling distress; simply extend the antennae and press the on/off button to activate the device and it will begin transmitting via the GPS and Galileo neworks. In addition to its simple design, this device includes a strobe light to aid in detection and clear LED lights to allow users to know when the device is activated and working properly.

In addition to being simple to operate, the ResQLink 400 is made to weather the storm. It is waterproof to 5 meters of 1 hour of submersion, can endure temperatures from -22 F to 158 F and is buoyant. Measuring 4.5 x 2 x 1.5” and weighing approximately 5.5 ounces, it is a very portable satellite communication device. Given its 24 hours of operational life once charged and its 5 year battery life, if you’re stuck at sea, this device will at least provide some relief that help is being reached.

While there is no registration fee nor subscription necessary to use the ResQLink 400, the product must be properly registered before using. Once registered, your registration is valid for 2 years and must be renewed for continued usage. If you accidentally activate this device and you are not in distress, then you need to call the appropriate search-and-rescue agency to alert them of the false alarm. In this regard, the device needs a phone or some sort of radio access in order to address any mishaps. If you’re a mariner who often ventures into rougher waters, or any type of adventurer that wants a reliable means of summoning help in the event of disaster, the ResQLink 400 is a sound investment for $325.

Review : Spot X

If you’re looking for more than just a search-and-rescue alert system, the Spot X offers a variety of features that will help you whether you’re trying to navigate rough terrain or get yourself out of a rough spot. The Spot X is a two-way satellite communicator that offers messaging and can be used as a stand alone device or synced with your phone via its Bluetooth connection. When you use the SOS feature to alert search-and-rescue personnel, you can engage in back-and-forth messaging as well as send and receive confirmation messaging while you await being rescued. If you are using the device as a regular messaging apparatus, you can do so with any cell phone number or email address.

Among the many distinguishing features the Spot X offers are multiple tracking intervals for those who are keeping tabs on your whereabouts. Tracking can be set to 2.5, 5, 10, 30 or 60 minutes depending on the level of accuracy you wish to convey; if you simply just want to let your loved ones know that you arrived safely, the check-in feature will send them a message informing them of your arrival. The device also includes a built in compass to aid in navigation. If you’re looking for more sophisticated navigational aids, you can include Spot mapping in your registration as well as connect with the Spot X app in order to share your routes with friends, save favorite locations along your journey and receive notifications if you go off route.

The Spot X is slightly larger than some other satellite communicators, measuring 6.5 x 3.9 x .94” and weighing 7 ounces. It is dust, impact and waterproof up to 3 meters for 1 hour of submersion. The rechargeable battery lasts 240 hours in 10 minute tracking mode, which is a solid chunk of time relative to other satellite communicators. This device does require a $20 activation fee and you can choose from different annual contract plans. The annual contract plans feature a basic plan that costs $12/month with 20 custom messages, advanced that costs $20/month with 100 custom messages and unlimited that costs $30/month. There are also flex plans that cost slightly more for those who want only 30 days of coverage. For a device with a renowned reputation for reliable coverage, the Spot X is a great value purchase at $199.

Review : Garmin inReach Mini

            When it comes to satellite communicators, Garmin is a pioneer relative to its device and feature design. If you’re looking for a premium satellite communicator, the Garmin inReach mini offers all-around effectiveness when used in remote settings. The inReach uses the Iridium network to transmit messages, SOS alerts and all tracking features. You can also send messages to and receive messages from other Garmin devices, such as watches, without a cell phone. The Garmin inReach features weather forecasting tailored to your present or future destinations and free access to the Garmin explore website for trip planning, preset message creation and device setting management. Other features include the Earthmate app that allows you complete GPS navigation, public map access and trip planning without requiring cell service and the Garmin Pilot app that allows you to send and receive text messages from the cockpit, a valuable resource for those in the flying world.

Unsurprisingly, the Garmin inReach mini is very portable, weighing 3.5 ounces and measuring 4 x 2 x 1”. It is impact resistant and waterproof up to 1 meter and 30 minutes of immersion. One of the detractions is that the battery life is somewhat limited, lasting only 90 hours in 10 minute tracking mode and 24 days in power save mode. Garmin offers different subscription plans that include the Safety plan that offers 10 messages with unlimited preset messages for $11.95/month, Recreation that offers 40 text messages for $24.95/month and Expedition which offers unlimited text messages for $49.95/ month; Freedom plans increase the costs but are only purchased for a 30-day timeline, offering flexibility if you only need the device for a short trip.

If you’re looking for a renowned satellite communication device that offers expansive and comprehensive navigational and trip-planning capabilities to make your trip enjoyable and to avoid hazards (or navigate them properly if you do encounter them), then the Garmin inReach mini proves a worthwhile choice for under $350.

Review : Garmin GPSMAP 64sx

Another premier model from Garmin, the Garmin GP SMAP 64csx allows excellent functionality within its GPS capacities. The GP SMAP expands the navigational capacities of the inReach mini, as it comes preloaded with TopoActive maps that allow you to identify streets and trails as well as natural features, international boundaries, shops and restaurants. Further, it provides quick and precise position updates given its multiple global navigation support system (using GPS, GLONASS and Galileo satellite networks), giving you a location in environments where GPS alone does not. It is also capable of integrating with BirdsEye satellite imagery, pending your subscription, allowing you access to satellite images that you can integrate into your maps. You can also transfer your maps and routes to other compatible Garmin devices and connect to other Garmin devices for temperature and heart rate monitoring.

The GP SMAP is another easy to use device. You can wirelessly receive emails, texts and alerts from a paired phone, and it features a 8-megapixel autofocus camera that is automatically geotagged with the location where it was taken for enhanced navigation. It is slightly larger than other models, weighing 7.7 ounces and measuring 2.4 x 6.3 x 1.4”. The biggest drawback is that it has a very limited battery life, providing only 16 hours of operation; its requirement of 2 AA batteries limits functionality if you are trying to avoid carrying batteries. Likewise, it does not provide SOS features, so if you are planning on venturing into risk territory, this may not be the device for you. However, if you are looking to improve your navigational experience that you can share with others, especially if you are looking for a portable device for traveling, hiking or hunting, the GP SMAP is a great choice for $349.

Review : Garmin inReach Explorer+

The Garmin inReach Explorer+ continues the prestigious trend of Garmin satellite communication devices. It uses the Iridium satellite network, which, as noted, is considered one of the most reliable satellite networks worldwide. It features a tracking function that allows others to follow your progress using the MapShare portal. This device is also compatible with the Earthmate app, Garmin Explore and inReach weather forecasting, features that you can sync with your smartphone.  One of the distinguishing features of appropriate Garmin products is that SOS alerts are sent to the Garmin International Emergency Response coordination center that connects over 205 countries; SOS alerts track your device and stay in touch until help arrives.

In addition to basic grid navigation and progress tracking, the inReach Explorer+ provides TOPO mapping and waypoint routings as well as a digital compass and barometric altimeter. The rechargeable battery offers slightly longer battery life than other Garmin products with 100 hours usability in 10-minute tracking mode, 30 days in the 30 minute-interval power save mode and 3 years of battery storage when powered off. An added feature of the inReach Explorer+ is that it offers support for the aviation-related search and rescue services such as the Adverse condition alerting service, making it another valuable asset for those who dabble in airborne exploration. It is impact and water resistant to one meter for 30 minutes. The subscription is the same as the inReach mini.

This is another larger device, measuring 2.7” x 6.5” x 1.5” and weighing 7.5 ounces. However, if you are looking for premier navigational and tracking tools for land, air and sea, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is the satellite communicator for you at $449.

Choosing the right satellite communicator for you

Whether you wish to implement the phone-compatible features and versatile offerings of the Zoleo satellite communicator, explore the tracking and navigational features offered by the Spot X and Garmin products or keep your device simple as the ACR ResQLink, there is a satellite communicator that will help to keep you safe so you can enjoy your trip. There’s a lot to learn about satellite communicators and knowing what functions, performance capabilities and price range is for you will help you to narrow your selection. We hope this Zoleo review and satellite communicator review has given you a better understanding of which devices can help you stay safe and enjoy your ventures into the unknown.

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