Over the past two decades, advances in technology have revolutionized the world of hunting. From ultralight technical gear to sophisticated smartphone map applications, hunters are going farther into the backcountry and with more confidence than ever.
While we all enjoy the opportunities these advances offer us, they can also get us into trouble if we’re not careful. At the end of the day, accidents happen and Mother Nature doesn’t care about your fancy new jacket or your $1,000-dollar phone. Solid cell service and quality big game hunting rarely overlap, especially when you’re down in a canyon or in an especially remote neck of the woods. One misstep or stroke of bad luck and you’re in a world of hurt.
When we talked with veteran pros from our local search and rescue unit, they were adamant that carrying a satellite communicator is one of the most important things you can do to stay safe in the mountains. Most search and rescue teams require staff and volunteers to carry a satellite messenger in the field. The devices are also a huge benefit to search and rescue team operations because they drastically reduce the time it takes to find a missing person if that person is carrying a satellite device in tracking mode.
If you spend any amount of time in rugged and remote areas — and especially if you’re a backcountry hunter — you should be carrying one of these devices. Sure they’re not cheap, but what monetary value would you put on your life? What value would you put on your family’s peace of mind knowing where you are and that you’re safe?
There are a ton of products on the market, but for the purposes of this blog, we’re focusing on the two that are the most popular with the MTNTOUGH community for the devices’ capabilities and size: the Garmin inReach Mini and the ZOLEO Satellite Communicator. Note: Garmin released the inReach Mini 2 in 2022, but we used the original model here as a closer price-point comparison with the ZOLEO.
Regardless of which product you choose, the take-away is to invest in a satellite communicator, know how to use it, and carry it with you. Whether you’re texting your family to give them your status and location or you’re sending a potentially life-saving S.O.S. in the event of an emergency, these sweet little gadgets are priceless pieces of gear for your backcountry kit.
Garmin inReach Mini
The Garmin inReach Series has been the standard-bearer in the satellite communicator world since these devices came on the market in 2016. As technology advanced at lightning-quick speed, the inReach line got more capable and smaller in size, attracting the attention of every ounce-counting backcountry fanatic.
Enter the inReach Mini. At a mere 3.5 ounces, this device opens up a world of possibilities for communicating, navigating, and accessing important data like weather when you’re off the grid. It allows you to send and receive messages anywhere on the planet (both on the device or on your phone through the Earthmate app), track and share your location, access weather data, and instantly send an SOS anywhere on the globe with the press of a button.
The inReach Mini requires a subscription to access the Iridium satellite network and to send/receive messages. Plans start at $14.95/month and can be paused and resumed on a monthly basis. Annual plans are also available. On the upside, those subscriptions allow you to also access weather on the device AND you do not necessarily need your smartphone to send a message. Although using the device interface to send a message is clunky, it’s doable and gives an added level of insurance in case your battery dies or you accidentally drop your phone into the creek or off a cliff. By recording preset messages ahead of time, you can easily access and send those messages along with your location through a few clicks of a button directly on the device. All messages must be 160 characters or less.
Purchasing a subscription requires you to download Garmin’s Earthmate app. The app itself is free, easily syncs with your inReach device, and then offers a much more user-friendly interface for messaging, tracking, and accessing weather via your smartphone.
Weather data includes general conditions, temperature, cloud coverage, precipitation percentage, wind direction and speed, barometric pressure, heat index, and humidity. Basic weather reports cost 1 text message each on your subscription, and you can also get “Premium Weather” and “Premium Marine Weather” plans that cost $1 per report.
The inReach Mini has tracking and waypoint capabilities. Tracking not only gives you an idea of where you are and what routes you took; it can also be shared with the folks back in civilization who can watch your location status. And if you slip on a wet rock and break your ankle, search and rescue will know exactly where you are after you message for help. It’s important to note that tracking mode will increase the drain on the device’s battery, and recording/sending track points counts against your subscription plan.
Garmin also offers a full line of other inReach products, and the Mini is compatible with the majority of their GPS devices and watches.
inReach Mini Specs:
- Price: $349
- Weight: 3.5oz
- Size: 2.04” x 3.90” x 1.03”
- Battery Type: Rechargeable internal lithium-ion
- Battery Life: According to Garmin, the inReach Mini is capable of “up to 90 hours’ use at the default 10-minute tracking mode and up to 24 days in power saving mode.”
- Water/Dust Resistance: IPX7 (Can be submerged up to 1 meter in water for 30 minutes. No information available for dust protection.)
ZOLEO Satellite Communicator
ZOLEO is newer to the scene, but their flagship product has been a huge success and continues to grow in popularity for its affordability, straightforward interface, battery life, messaging capabilities, and durability.
Like the inReach Mini, the ZOLEO operates on the Iridium satellite network, meaning you can send and receive messages or data from anywhere on the globe. Messaging and weather data require a subscription and can be operated through the free ZOLEO app. Plans start at $20/month. Messages sent through the ZOLEO app must be under 160 characters for SMS (text), 200 for email, and 1,047 to other users on the ZOLEO app.
The ZOLEO comes with a dedicated SMS number and email you can easily share with your contacts. It can also transmit messages via cellular and Wi-Fi networks when available. The check-in button is another clever feature and allows you to send a message to preset contacts to let them know you’re safe — and can also share your location — all with the press of one button. The downside of this design is that you cannot type directly on the ZOLEO, so if something happens to your phone you’re limited to the standalone check-in and SOS buttons.
ZOLEO offers robust weather data through Dark Sky™ forecasts. Accessible weather data includes current conditions (current and apparent temperature), wind speed, wind bearing, visibility, and UV index. Hourly forecasts are available for 44 hours (provided for the next 14 hours in 2-hour increments, and for the next 30 hours in 6-hour increments) for current conditions, temperature, wind speed, wind bearing, expected precipitation, and type of precipitation. Daily forecasts offer data for 5 days on conditions, temperature (daily high/low), sunrise, sunset, expected precipitation, and type of precipitation.
While the ZOLEO might not have the full suite of capabilities and device compatibility that the inReach does, it more than makes up for it in giving you all the important ones in a bombproof, affordable package.
ZOLEO Satellite Communicator Specs:
- Price: $199
- Weight: 5.3oz
- Size: 3.58” x 2.6” x 1.06”
- Battery Type: Rechargeable internal Lithium Ion
- Battery Life: According to ZOLEO, their satellite communicator is capable of “200+ hours.”
- Water/Dust Resistance: IP68 (Can be submerged in water up to 1.5 meters deep for 30 minutes. Dust-tight.)