Happy Camper Sat Phones
Credit: SPOT/Iridium

It’s getting easier and easier to stay in touch with friends and family back home while you’re wandering the wilderness. To help keep you safe out there, two of Canada’s top communication companies — Iridium and Globalstar — have released new products. 

Iridium has the Iridium Extreme — an updated satellite phone with a few extra bells and whistles (pictured, top right). It can be used as a standard satellite phone but also sends SMS (text) messages and email from anywhere in the world. That sounds cool. It also claims to be the first satellite phone to combine location awareness and a fully integrated SOS button. The included emergency response service ensures that you have a direct connection to first responders should you ever find yourself in a situation where you need help. Plus, it has an omni-directional antenna design that allows you to connect to the network anywhere there is an open view of the sky — giving flexibility to talk and move freely. 

From my experience using satellite phones on trips, the ability to move more freely while talking is a real bonus. There were countless times in the past when I had to make sure I didn’t move an inch or I’d lose my signal — which is a little stressful if you're doing a live CBC Radio interview. 

It’s also fantastic that you can stay connected to your social networks. Or maybe not. It depends I guess why you’re checking in. Mind you, I just turned 50 years old and remember the days when communicating with the outside world while out on a camping trip was something you’d see on an episode of Star Trek. It is, however, entirely possible to connect your Iridium Extreme phone number to Twitter and tweet directly from your handset. 

The new phone is smaller and tougher — but it also comes with a high price tag. It’s about $1,300 for the complete kit. Mind you, if you know of a store that rents them out, I can see this being a great gadget to have packed away just in case things go wrong out there. 

Globalstar also has something new: the SPOT Gen3 (pictured top left). It has all the same features as the previous two SPOT Personal Locator Beacons. You can send an SOS, ask for general assistance, track your progress, provide a custom message check-in, send an email, update Facebook or Twitter and mark where you are on Google maps. The latest model, however, does have some added bonuses — enough that it convinced me to upgrade to the Gen3 from my Gen2 just last week.

The SPOT Gen3 is smaller, lighter and boasts longer battery life (it runs on four AAA batteries rather than two). It also has a USB port, which is a huge advantage for me. The USB port powers the device but doesn’t charge your batteries. The SPOT Gen3 allows you to use rechargeable batteries — you just have to pop them out of the unit to charge them. I boost my batteries during extended trips with a Goal Zero solar panel. The Gen3 system matches perfectly. I love it. 

It’s the extra features on the Gen3's tracking device that’s reported to be the biggest bonus. It has a motion sensor and only tracks when you are in motion. A vibration sensor tells your SPOT to send track updates when you are moving and to stop when you do. You also don’t have to reset your tracking after 24 hours. I can see this being a battery saver. I never really used the tracking device on my other SPOT devices because I was too paranoid I wouldn’t have enough battery life to send an emergency signal when I needed it. With the Gen3 you set it and forget it. Tracking can be altered to send every 2-1/2 minutes to 60 minutes. 

The biggest advantage of the SPOT is the price. It costs about $170 to buy the device itself, and then another $150 per year to keep it activated. It’s not cheap if you only plan on doing one wilderness trek a year — but it a great purchase if you plan to do more. 

I personally wouldn’t travel out in the woods without a satellite phone or SPOT-type communication device. I may be old-fashioned when it comes to not bothering to send a tweet or text to share my deep feeling of what I’m experiencing while out in the woods, but I’d be a fool not to use a piece of technology that could save my life.