Travelling remotely: Do I need a Satellite Phone or Tracker or Messenger or PLB?

by Peter Davidson on Feb 02, 2024

When we head out to remote locations the pressure is on to take advantage of the latest technology that will help keep you safe. The challenge now is what should I take and how much should I spend. There is so much to choose from and the decisions start to get complicated. If you are young or the bread winner of the family, extra concern is raised by family members. Suggestions are made, Mum wants you to take a tracker. Sick relatives may require a phone number to call if situations decline. Dad, or granddad will say “We never needed that is my day, and I survived....”
YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook all have an opinion of what you “must have”

At and we have been recommending equipment for remote travels for over 20 years. In the late 90’s PLBs (EPIRBs) were your only option, and they cost nearly $2,000.
While new devices have entered the market, recent years have seen minimal innovation. We have felt that many products have been designed as answers looking for problems, designed by the marketing strategies.  My favourite marketing brain fade is the big red button with SOS written on it. This is seen on Satellite phones such as the Iridium 9575 and the Inmarsat Isatphone2 and also on most of Messenger devices. They are sold as your instant panic button to someone who can save you. The reality is you are just sending an SMS to a company in the USA who will call AMSA and tell them someone has a problem. A Red Button on a Satellite phone, think about it, the button sends an SMS to a preset number. To be successful the phone needs to be fully operational and connected to the satellite. Why would you not just make a phone call! It does not make sense.

So rather than look at all the answers to your remote travel safety and let just ask ourselves the questions.

  1. What can I afford?
  2. How often do I do this, would it be better to buy or hire?
  3. What is the bare minimum I need?
  4. Do I need two way communication?
  5. Do my family want full time tracking or can I get away with calling each night.

Let’s look at some answers to the question, but first a summary of what is available. We will just look at two levels of communication, saving your life or getting you out of non-fatal trouble. If you need more than that then the choice is easy, it's a Satphone and a PLB. We will cover data/emails etc another time.

This is the bare minimum and ticks all the boxes. It is a single use device that you use if you are going to die. It has a sealed battery with expected life of approximately 7 years. There are no on-going fees. The device signal strength is substantially higher than all other products and will work everywhere on the planet. * One of our PLBs saved a Norwegian guy 200mtrs down a gorge in the NT.... Fact: No other device would have pushed a signal out of that environment. It is a globally certified product. It is a reliable one way distress call proven over decades of use and have saved many many lives on Land and at Sea. AMSA's Rescue Coordination Centre deals with approximately 8000 incidents a year. The PLB alert goes direct to AMSA.
Average cost $350 with no more to pay.
Downside: none, it is a must have. If you want two way communication then buy or rent a satellite phone or messenger.

Most of the tracking devices are also two way messenger capable. There are many different providers and way too many models and options to choose from.
Almost all use the Iridium Satellite constellation for messages and the GPS Satellites for position. They do their job well, they are popular and relatively easy to use. The popular models are Inreach and Garmin. SPOT in much cheaper and uses the GlobalStar network.
Average cost $250 to $600 with monthly call plans between $40 to $60
Downside: Low signal compared to a PLB. Consumer replaceable batteries that may be flat when you really need. The better models are a similar price to a Satellite phone in both cost and call plan.

Messenger devices are getting more popular over the last 10 years, Zoleo is the market leader. With the devices patching into your mobile phone to use the keyboard functions. The system is well designed, simple and quick, providing you don’t drop your mobile or let it go flat, then it is pretty much useless. The messengers are a little cheaper than the trackers mainly due to not having to pay for the tracking point infrastructure. They work well but have the same downside as the Trackers in emergency situations (ie they just send SMS which is not as reliable as the dedicated PLB signal). In both cases I would take a PLB as the primary call for help. Average cost low $300’s. Call plans between $20 to $60 per month.

Downside: Many of the devices require you to have a smart phone connected via Bluetooth to type the messages. Have you ever tried to use your smartphone standing in the rain or under a shower or while wearing gloves, you may want to think twice about this as an emergency option.

Satellite phone.
Satphones are like 1990's mobile phone, you can talk and send text (with the Alpha numeric keyboard). There are just three companies that service Australia, Inmarsat and Thuraya, with the stationary satellites over PNG (Inmarsat) and Sumatra (Thuraya), both need line of sight to the satellite to work. Iridium with the orbiting constellation has been operating for decades, it also needs line of sight. The Iridium system is designed for a 360 degree view and will drop out in hilly country as the satellite drops behind a hill.

All three are robust and reliable. Thuraya is the best bang for bucks but will be a little more of a challenge in Tassie and Vic High Country. I have used it in both areas you just need to be high. Inmarsat in my view is the best. The PNG location gives excellent high coverage everywhere including Tasmania and South-west WA. The upside, the Thuraya is under $1,000 to buy and only $16.50 per month for the call plan compared to over $50 for the Inmarsat and Iridium. Satellite phones will manage data, we will cover this another day, or call for a chat.

Downside: $900 to $2500 to buy and $17 to $60 per month to run.

Editors Travel Choice, when travelling:
PLB (is a must have),
Inmarsat Satellite Phone
Defibrillator for the older energetic ones.


*We welcome your feedback. Rgds peter 0488 011 203