Introduction

This gear guide summarizes the category of satellite messaging-centric devices, i.e., devices that focus on satellite messaging as its primary, rather than secondary, function. This is in contrast to navigation-centric devices (which usually offer integrated mapping on the device), such as the Garmin inReach Explorer or Garmin GPSMap.

Updates

  • May 24, 2024 – updated specifications to reflect new model availability and product updates; updated some conclusions based on our additional long-term testing and performance comparisons; added four messengers to our “Do Not Buy” list.

Context: types of satellite messengers

1-way vs. 2-way messengers. Satellite messengers are categorized in many different ways. The most common is to characterize them as either 1-way or 2-way messengers. A 1-way messenger can send messages out but cannot receive messages. The SPOT Gen4 is a typical example.

Standalone vs. paired messengers.¬†Standalone messengers provide basic messaging functionality, including the ability to send a preset check-in message or initiate an SOS response. However, pairing the messenger to a smartphone (and the messenger’s companion app) is the only way to access a messenger’s full capabilities. The Garmin inReach Mini 2¬†is a typical example of a standalone messenger, but pairing it with a smartphone and the Garmin Explore app provides easier access to messaging features and more robust mapping. On the other hand, the Zoleo Satellite Communicator and Somewear Global Hotspot provide minimal functionality as standalone devices and require pairing to their companion apps to use them productively as messaging devices. The Garmin inReach Messenger falls in between these two extremes.

Highly Recommended
Garmin inReach Mini 2

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 offers the most performance (tracking, navigation, and messaging) in the smallest size of any satellite messenger on the market. It's our recommendation when you want to have the insurance of a standalone device if you don't want to use your smartphone or your smartphone fails in the backcountry.

WEIGHT: 3.5 oz (100 g)
WHAT'S UNIQUE:
  • unlike most messengers, the inReach Mini 2 functions well as a standalone device
  • compact form factor
  • longer battery life & better screen in v2
MAIN ISSUES:
  • truncated messaging - long messages get split up into multiple messages
  • assigned phone number changes periodically
See it at REI See it at Garage Grown Gear

Messaging vs. tracking, mapping, and navigation. All messengers can send messages, but only 2-way messengers can receive them. Some messengers provide the mapping and navigation features of standalone GPS devices or apps. Also, the tracking and location-sharing features available in satellite messengers vary widely.

Comparison: inReach vs. Zoleo vs. SPOT vs. Somewear messengers

The two most popular messaging devices in the Backpacking Light Community other than the Garmin inReach Mini 2 are the Garmin inReach Messenger and the Zoleo Satellite Communicator. Both have their strengths and limitations, and are worth comparing:

Highly Recommended
Recommended
WEIGHT:
4.0 oz (113 g)
WEIGHT:
5.3 oz (150 g)
Description:

Lighter and smaller than a Zoleo and a more pocketable form factor than a inReach Mini 2, the Garmin inReach Messenger boasts a very long battery life, reverse charging, and a display that doesn't require a smartphone for monitoring weather, incoming messages, and more.

Description:

Requires a smartphone to get the most out of it, but arguably offers the best service package of all messengers, including more usable test modes and access to non-emergency medical assistance. Other benefits include an assigned (fixed) messaging number and long-form messages that don't get truncated.

WHAT'S UNIQUE:
  • long battery life
  • buttons and mini-display provides access to all functions without a smartphone
  • smart watch integration
  • mapping/navigation features accessible with a smartphone
WHAT'S UNIQUE:
  • a unique SMS number is assigned to the device
  • long messages are not truncated and split up
  • no-cost professional medical assistance is available for non-emergency situations
  • seamless messaging across cellular and satellite networks
MAIN ISSUES:
  • long messages are truncated and split into multiple messages
MAIN ISSUES:
  • limited access to functions without a smartphone
  • somewhat bulkier and heavier
  • limited mapping/nav features
Highly Recommended
WEIGHT:
4.0 oz (113 g)
Description:

Lighter and smaller than a Zoleo and a more pocketable form factor than a inReach Mini 2, the Garmin inReach Messenger boasts a very long battery life, reverse charging, and a display that doesn't require a smartphone for monitoring weather, incoming messages, and more.

WHAT'S UNIQUE:
  • long battery life
  • buttons and mini-display provides access to all functions without a smartphone
  • smart watch integration
  • mapping/navigation features accessible with a smartphone
MAIN ISSUES:
  • long messages are truncated and split into multiple messages
Recommended
WEIGHT:
5.3 oz (150 g)
Description:

Requires a smartphone to get the most out of it, but arguably offers the best service package of all messengers, including more usable test modes and access to non-emergency medical assistance. Other benefits include an assigned (fixed) messaging number and long-form messages that don't get truncated.

WHAT'S UNIQUE:
  • a unique SMS number is assigned to the device
  • long messages are not truncated and split up
  • no-cost professional medical assistance is available for non-emergency situations
  • seamless messaging across cellular and satellite networks
MAIN ISSUES:
  • limited access to functions without a smartphone
  • somewhat bulkier and heavier
  • limited mapping/nav features

The following table compares the Garmin inReach Messenger (the newest device) to the Zoleo Satellite Communicator, SPOT Gen4, SPOT X, ACR Bivy Stick, Garmin inReach Mini 2, Somewear Global Hotspot, and the Motorola Defy. This collection of messengers spans the range of both 1- and 2-way satellite messengers that offer different capabilities with messaging, tracking, mapping, and navigation – and their functionality when paired with a smartphone or not.

Scroll to the right to view all columns of this table.

Garmin inReach Mini 2Garmin inReach MessengerZoleo Satellite CommunicatorSPOT Gen4SPOT XACR Bivy StickSomewear Global HotspotMotorola Defy Satellite LInk
battery life (active tracking at 10-15 minute intervals, 8 hr/day)10-14 days20-30 days6-8 days20-40 days8-15 days3-5 days7-10 days4 days
battery typerechargeable lithiumrechargeable lithiumrechargeable lithium4xAAArechargeable lithiumrechargeable lithiumrechargeable lithiumrechargeable lithium
interfaceUSB-CUSB-CMicro USBMicro USBMicro USBUSB-CMicro USBUSB-C
reverse chargingnoyesnononononono
messaging2-way2-way2-way1-way2-way2-way2-way2-way
group message conversationsnoyesnononononono
send check-in messages from device*yesyesyesyesyesyesnoyes
send custom messages from device*yesyesnonoyesnonono
send custom messages from app*yesyesyesnoyesyesyesyes
activate SOS from deviceyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
seamless messaging (network-independent)**yesyesyesn/anoyesyesyes
trackingyesyeslimited (Location Share+)yesyesyesyesnot yet
start/stop from deviceyesyesyesyesyesyesnon/a
track retraceyes (TracBack)yes (TracBack)nononononono
satellite networkIridiumIridiumIridiumGlobalstarGlobalstarIridiumIridiumInmarsat
SOS monitoringIERCCIERCCIERCCIERCCIERCCGlobal RescueIERCCFocusPoint
plan costs$15 - $65$15 - $65$20 - $56$12 - $15$12 - $30$20 - $70$8 - $50$5 - $30
weather forecasting (integrated)***yesyesyesnonoyesyesno
view forecast on device***yesyesnononononono
mapping/navigation on deviceyesnononolimitednonono
mapping/navigation in appyesnonolimitedlimitedlimitedlimitedno
visual displayyesyesnonoyesnonono
show incoming messages?yesyesnonoyesnonono
smart watch integrationyesyeslimitednonononono
waterproofing****IPX7IPX7IPX8IPX8IPX7IPX7IPX8MIL-STD-810H
user rating @ REI4.2 / 5.0n/a4.2 / 5.02.9 / 5.03.0 / 5.0n/an/a3.3 / 5.0
companion appGarmin Explore & Garmin MessengerGarmin MessengerZoleoThe Spot AppThe Spot App, Spot X BluetoothBivySomewearBullitt Satellite Messenger
App Store rating3.9 / 5.0n/a4.1 / 5.02.1 / 5.03.0 / 5.03.6 / 5.04.2 / 5.02.6 / 5.0
dimensions3.9 x 2.0 x 1.0 inches3.1 x 2.5 inches3.6 x 2.6 x 1.1 inches3.5 x 2.7 x 0.9 inches7.5 x 5.8 x 2.0 inches4.5 x 1.9 x 0.8 inches3.0 x 3.6 x 0.8 inches3.4 x 2.5 x 0.5 inches
weight3.5 ounces4.0 ounces5.3 ounces5.0 ounces7.0 oz3.4 ounces4.0 ounces2.5 ounces
msrp$400$300$200$150$250$250$280$150

* For this comparison, we define a “check-in” message as a preset¬†message that can be sent to a group of contacts you specify and a “custom” message that can be specified on the device to say whatever you want it to say (via a physical or online keyboard). Some devices offer the ability to send more than one type of preset message (e.g., the Spot Gen4¬†calls these two message types check-in¬†and custom¬†messages, but neither are customizable without configuring them via a live internet connection).

** Seamless messaging refers to a device’s ability to maintain message conversations in one place (i.e., inside the device app on your smartphone) across cellular, WiFi, and satellite networks.

*** Some devices (e.g., Garmin inReach Mini 2) offer integrated (built-in) weather forecast requests and display on the device and in-app. Other devices (e.g., Spot X) do not, but third-party services may be used to deliver text-based weather forecasts via satellite messaging features).

**** IPX7 – Can withstand incidental exposure to water up to 1 meter for up to 30 minutes. IPX8 – can withstand continuous immersion of water exceeding 1 meter in depth (devices are usually hermetically sealed).

Highlights: Satellite Messengers

  1. Garmin inReach Mini 2 Satellite Messenger at REI

    The Garmin inReach Mini 2 offers the most performance (tracking, navigation, and messaging) in the smallest size of any satellite messenger on the market. It's our recommendation when you want to have the insurance of a standalone device if you don't want to use your smartphone or your smartphone fails in the backcountry.

    See it at REI See it at Garage Grown Gear
  2. Garmin inReach Messenger

    Lighter and smaller than a Zoleo and a more pocketable form factor than a inReach Mini 2, the Garmin inReach Messenger boasts a very long battery life, reverse charging, and a display that doesn't require a smartphone for monitoring weather, incoming messages, and more.

    See it at REI See it at Garage Grown Gear
  3. Zoleo Satellite Communicator

    Requires a smartphone to get the most out of it, but arguably offers the best service package of all messengers, including more usable test modes and access to non-emergency medical assistance. Other benefits include an assigned (fixed) messaging number and long-form messages that don't get truncated.

    See it at REI See it at Garage Grown Gear
  4. SPOT Gen4

    Not as feature-rich as other messengers, but the Spot Gen4 offers a very long battery life and is the only messenger that uses replaceable/disposable batteries (Lithium AAA).

    See it at REI See it at SPOT
  5. Spot X

    The only messenger with a built-in Blackberry-style QWERTY keyboard, the Spot X is one of the few messengers that's (supposed to be) easy to message without a smartphone. However, keyboard response times are slow, and customer support at the parent company is notoriously difficult to work and slow to respond for plan changes, cancellations, or technical support.

    See it at REI See it at SPOT
  6. ACR Electronics Bivy Stick

    Small, light, simple, rugged, and durable. Needs a smartphone to access messaging features. A somewhat expensive device for what you get in the context of the rest of the market today, but durability is its strong suit.

    See it at ACR
  7. Somewear Global Hotspot

    The Somewear Global Hotspot is a relatively expensive device but offers a cheap base plan. Requires a smartphone to access messaging features.

    See it at Somewear Labs

Do Not Buy (Updated May 24, 2024): At this time, we can no longer recommend the ACR Bivy Stick or Somewear Global Hotspot for general backpacking use (although we acknowledge there maybe be narrow use cases for each). In addition, SPOT has never addressed the hardware (button delay) issues associated with the SPOT X and continues a years-long pattern of unresolved, poor customer support. In spite of the latter, the Spot Gen4 remains on our list because of its reliability and more modern hardware and software integration – but buyer be warned if customer support is needed. Finally, because of delays and other issues delaying the deployment of the Bullitt network, we can’t recommend the Motorola Defy right now – it’s coverage is limited to CONUS (no Alaska still) and its reception in canyons and under tree cover is extremely poor when compared to both Iridium and Globalstar. These recommendations may change as the market evolves.

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DISCLOSURE (Updated April 9, 2024)

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