Wireless in the wilderness and why you need to


Satellite phone
Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

If you hunt in the backcountry, odds are that sooner or later you will run into trouble. And when trouble finds you, there is no better or more reliable solution than being prepared. 

So just how can you arm yourself against the unpredictable? Simple — with technology

More specifically: portable, high-tech, electronic communication devices. Effective and relatively efficient, these devices work where cell phones don’t, providing you with a powerful safety net in those dead zones. And with a wide variety of devices on the market, you can choose the one that is best suited to your needs. 

From goHUNT staff, Brady Miller, who spends 150 days in the backcountry every year:
"Carrying a satellite device with you in the backcountry is almost like having a friend by your side if you hunt alone. You never know what you might run into while hunting that could put your life in danger: severe weather, sickness, getting lost, getting attacked by a grizzly bear… the list goes on and on. These devices allow your friends and family to know you are safe, and are very helpful if you run into trouble or need a helping hand packing out a large mule deer that you just harvested 10 miles in the middle of the backcountry. If you typically hunt solo, packing a satellite device is an item that should be high on your need list."

Here is a rundown of the three most popular devices:



PLBs are a quick and easy way to send a distress signal. Photo Credit: ACR Electronics, Inc.

Since hitting the market in 2003, personal locator beacons (PLBs) have saved thousands from life-threatening situations. These satellite-based handheld devices are designed with one primary purpose -- sending out a personalized emergency distress signal. 

PLBs are high-powered, electronic devices that transmit distress signals at 406 MHz, which is an internationally recognized distress frequency, to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system. The COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system is an international program that includes 36 nations. In the United States, the distress frequency is monitored by the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the AFRCC (Air Force Rescue Coordination Center). 

Each PLB is programmed with an individual identifying code known as a Unique Identifying Number (UIN). This 15-digit alpha-numeric code is transmitted in electronic bursts to the satellites, providing such information as your name, address, phone number, as well as any relevant information such as health problems to the search-and-rescue units. 

If your PLB is GPS-compatible, the 406 MHz signal from the satellite can get search and rescuers to within two miles of your location. They will then use a tracking device to hone in on your precise position. If you use a PLB with a GPS interface, the GPS coordinates can be instantly delivered without having to wait for the satellites to determine your position. 


SPOT Satellite Messenger
The peace of mind your family gets when you are able to send messages throughout the hunt that you are safe is worth the extra weight of these devices. Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

Similar to PLBs, satellite messengers are handheld transmitting devices that are useful in backcountry areas where there is no cell phone service. These handy tools allow you to communicate short text messages or send check-in signals and coordinates to friends and loved ones back home, and in the case of an emergency, send calls for help. 

While satellite messengers are useful for the casual foray into the wilderness, you should know that they do not transmit as powerful a signal as PLBs do. Satellite messengers are essentially GPS-based devices that depend on one of two commercial satellite networks (Iridium or Globalstar) as opposed to using the military network of satellites used by PLBs. When you send an emergency 911 signal, the privately run GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center alerts the appropriate agencies of your exact position, then notifies your emergency contact (friends or family) about the receipt of a distress call.

inReach satellite messenger
Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

Satellite messengers usually require a subscription fee, though each manufacturer offers a variety of usage plans. 

Continued below.

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Satellite phone in British Columbia
Satellite phones are great for checking in to home or work while deep in the backcountry. Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

If you’re a casual hunter, chances are your needs will be fulfilled by a standard cell phone. Networks have positioned more towers and coverage is much more complete than it was years ago. But when you find yourself in the backcountry, cell networks are not always as trustworthy as they are in urban areas, and you may find yourself in a dead zone. 

While there are a number of technologies available to help ensure your safety, the satellite phone is the only option that allows two-way voice communication. Of course, this is nothing new. In fact, satellite phones have been around for decades, but advancements in technology and production have made them substantially more affordable and reliable. 

Satellite phones rely on a network of satellites that are either fixed above the Equator (geostationary), or located in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) anywhere from 500 to 1,000 miles above earth. Because they do not rely on local systems, they are unaffected by even the worst disasters. While natural disasters like storms and wildfires can destroy traditional cell towers and eliminate service, satellites work virtually anywhere and anytime.

Popular satellite phone carriers are: Iridium, SPOTGlobalstar. You can also rent satellite phones from Explorer Satellite.

They are also very convenient. While the design may not be as sleek as your everyday smartphone, the device still only weighs a few ounces and is small enough to carry around unencumbered. 

When you hunt in remote situations, though, and are using a satellite phone, you do have some extra items to bring. Always pack an extra battery and maybe even a portable solar charger, like the one from Goal Zero. An emergency evacuation can sometimes be delayed days, or even weeks, due to bad weather. With an extra battery and a solar charger to keep them topped off, you’ll never lose communication with the outside world.

One way to save on battery life is to send text messages instead. People sometimes forget that text messaging is not a smartphone phenomenon; we had that on our “dumb” phones, too, remember? And satellite phones do have that feature, which also will reduce your airtime charges (minutes).

Which brings us to what are perhaps the only two downsides when it comes to satellite phones: speed and cost. Compared to standard cell phones, their data speed is much slower than your basic smartphone. And in order to maintain service, you must either prepay for airtime or sign a monthly service contract. Either way, when you consider the many advantages of a satellite phone, the shortcomings are fairly negligible, especially when you consider the consequences of being lost in a dead zone.


If technology in the wilderness seems counterintuitive to you, think again. By carrying a high-tech communication device along on your next adventure, you are actually enhancing your wilderness experience. Outdoor gear like this puts you and your loved ones at ease, and allows you to truly enjoy your surroundings without having to be apprehensive about the “what ifs”.  And at the end of the day, it’s like the old adage says: it’s better to be safe than sorry. After all, even the most experienced outdoorsman can be faced with life-threatening situations.


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