November 9, 2021 Morgan Tilton Gear
Satellite phones provide voice-to-voice communication in the most remote corners of the planet for safety, peace of mind, and emergency response.For adventurers, these utility devices support remote exploration with text and voice services in places where cell phones can’t connect. Satellite phones work anywhere, or almost anywhere, compared to cell phones.
Some explorers choose to travel sans communications, but that’s a rarity these days. In places like Antarctica, leaving a sat phone behind isn’t allowed. No ocean rower or North Pole trekker travels without communications. But you don’t even need to be that far-flung to carry a satellite phone. It’s an important tool for everything from backcountry skiing to a rim-to-rim-to-rim trail run in the Grand Canyon.
“Communications is a critical component to team safety and at the end, being able to talk to the home team and support personnel is essential,” saidPolar Expedition Leader Keith Heger, who is the program director at The Northwest Passage and a lead guide and instructor for PolarExplorers.Ultimately, satellite devices enhance human connection across the entire planet for positive reasons from stress relief to safety.
Communication devices: The best satellite phones
The experts we consulted to narrow down the best satellite phones included Master Polar Guides, program directors of polar and worldwide guiding services, global scientists and researchers, wilderness skills authors and instructors, and expeditionists. Their input is based on decades of experience in the farthest reaches of the planet.
Best For: A worldwideconnection
- Battery Life: 5.5 hours talk time; up to 15.5 hours on standby
- Coverage: Worldwide including North and South Poles
- Pros:100% global coverage, syncs with smartphone, functions in extreme cold
- Cons:Slow data rate, call quality isn’t the highest, pricier service plan
- Sustainability Features:None
One of the best satellite phone manufacturers develops devices that are operable from the earth’s polar regions: Iridium. “If you’re traveling to the ends of the Earth — literally — you only have one option for sat phone coverage and that’s Iridium. Iridium has a number of high-quality phones that tick most of my checkboxes for reliability and ease of use. The Iridium product lineup also offers the most features,” saidAnnie Aggens, director of Polar Expeditions. Aggens is also a Master Polar Guide and co-author of the Encyclopedia of Outdoor and Wilderness Skills.
Aggens explains that the Iridium GO ($700) is the only Iridium device that not only allows voice communication but also lets you send images back home. The model also provides SMS text messaging, GPS and tracking, email, weather forecasts, social media posts, and an emergency SOS button. “The Iridium GO doesn’t look like your standard sat phone,” Aggens said. “You don’t talk into it. Rather, you pair it with your smartphone, which means that it’s relatively intuitive. Importantly, you need to load the required apps to your smartphone before you leave!” The device is compatible with both Apple and Android products.
Aggens regularly uses the Iridium GO in conditions as cold as -40˚. The military-grade device is durable, shock and water resistant, compact, and portable.“No other device can match it’s functionality,” addedEric Lillstrom, Assistant Program Director and Lead Guide at PolarExplorers, which organizes polar expeditions and training programs. “Also, the emergency beacon and tracker features do not require a paired phone to function.”
Lillstrom has used the Iridium GO near the North and South Poles and while crossing Greenland. With it, you can call home with a clear connection from the North and South Poles, he confirmed.Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist whose work takes him around the globe, including to Antarctica, agreed: “Iridium GO, which is a text-based email service, is my favorite option.”
One drawback with the 997-gram Iridium GO is the very slow data rate for uploads and downloads. Sometimes, it’s a sad reminder of the dial-up modems of the 1990s, with their 14.4 kilobit per second connection. It could take hours to download a single news page, so don’t expect to be browsing the Times or Facebook in the tent each evening. Likewise, this option does not upload images or video particularly quickly. It may take hours — but it works.
Some of our expert product testers shared that Iridium’s extensive coverage provides clear, high-quality reception. Other explorers have some reservations about the GO: “The [sound] quality isn’t as good as a dedicated handset. That’s the only real downside for me,” said Lillstrom.Travelers should prepare for a bigger overall investment, too, as coverage costs are not the cheapest on the market. “The Iridium GO will work anywhere in the world,” said Aggens. “But depending on where you’re headed, there might be less expensive options. You pay a little more for global coverage.”
Best For: Extremely durable hand unit
- Battery Life: 4 hours talk time; up to 30 hours on standby
- Coverage: Worldwide including North and South Poles
- Pros:Robust and durable construction, compact and streamline
- Cons:Lower battery life
- Sustainability Features: None
The Iridium 9555 ($989) is an industrial-grade, small handset for calls, SMS, and email. “The tool that I carry on all expeditions is the Iridium 9555 or the older 9505A [which has been discontinued],” said Heger.
Iridium LEO satellites are only 2,000km above — nearly 50,000km closer than Inmarsat satellites — which is why their service is often has the clearest reception.“Redundancy is the name of the game. The Iridium GO is a great complement to a handheld unit,” added Heger.
The Iridium 9555 has an internally stowed antenna, integrated speakerphone, and an intuitive interface. At 266gm, it’s lightweight and has a mini-USB data port. The device also delivers excellent sound quality. Sometimes a call drops if a particular satellite slips out of line of sight, but the call reestablishes shortly as another satellite becomes accessible.
Fun fact: For several years, Iridium 9555 satellite phones were donated to Alaska’s annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for checkpoint volunteers to monitor the event.
Best For:Extremelyrobustbattery life
- Battery Life: 8 hours talk time; up to 160 hours on standby
- Coverage: Most everywhere except the North and South Poles
- Pros:Weather-resistant, user-friendly, extensive battery life, economic price
- Cons:Not super compact
- Sustainability Features:None
The Inmarsat IsatPhone 2 ($569) can send SMS texts, short emails, and has an SOS button. Most impressive, the 318gm device has one of the strongest batteries, with 8 hours of talk time. Though the Inmarsat satellite network doesn’t cover the polar regions, it works almost everywhere else, from the Americas to the Himalaya. The sound is clear, too.
The weather-resistant unit has a large display and an ergonomic interface. When we consider satellite phone costs, this unit is on the lower end. Plus, Inmarsat phones and minimum monthly call plans are cheaper than those of Iridium. There are no roaming charges.
Another major benefit is that IsatPhone 2 customers can access the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) and worldwide emergency service free of cost. Users in trouble simply press a dedicated assistance button on the device. GEOS provides 24/7 SOS monitoring and emergency dispatch with responders worldwide. The average response time from receiving a call to connecting with an emergency responder is 11 minutes.
Tradeoffs: It’s not the most streamlined device, and there’s a slight delay during correspondence.
Best For: Budget travelers
- Battery Life: 4 hours talk time; up to 36 hours on standby
- Coverage: Australia; North, South, Central America; Europe; and Southeast Asia with the exception of some countries
- Pros:Fast data speed, clear, crisp sound
- Cons:Lacks global connectivity, talk time is not the most powerful
- Sustainability Features:Pre-owned, refurbished phones available
The GSP-1700($500) handheld portable satellite phone provides 4 hours of talk time for a tight price. At 9.6 kilobits per second (kbps), the data speed is quick. Our testers found that the quality of sound matched, and sometimes exceeded, the sound provided by Iridium devices. The 198gram unit measures 5.6cm by 13.5cm by 3.8cm.
This device works best for users based in North America, where a signal is fairly ubiquitous. Furthermore, North American patrons may roam without additional costs throughout most of the Americas, Europe, and part of Southwest Asia.
Travelers should closely consider the coverage network before purchase. We found that if you plan to explore Asia, Africa, Central or South America, you could have more consistent support with a device from Iridium or Inmarsat. Regardless, we sometimes needed to wait for the satellite to come into range in order to connect the GSP-1700.
Bonus for North American customers: Globalstar uses a U.S.-based phone help line free of charge.
Best For:Travelers outside of the Americas
- Battery Life: 6 hours talk time; up to 80 hours on standby
- Coverage: Australia, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia with the exception of some countries
- Pros:Economic handset and monthly coverage plan
- Cons:The maximum volume is not super loud, only compatible with the Thuraya XT-LITE hands-free earphones
- Sustainability Features: None
The 186gm Thuraya XT-LITE Satellite Phone ($569) allows phone calls and SMS messages. The antenna collapses for easy storage. There is also GPS waypoint navigation. Another convenient feature is that you can easily send your geolocation to four contacts via text message.
The interface is relatively easy to use, and there are a dozen languages from which to choose. This battery life is one of the most competitive we’ve found, following second to the 160 hours on standby of theInmarsat IsatPhone 2. Other features of the device include alarms, call logs, an address book, stopwatch, calculator, calendar, speed dialing, and world time.
Coverage-wise, Thuraya’s satellite network blankets two-thirds of the globe, depends on stationary satellites and works fairly fast. If the Thuraya XT-LITE headset (sold separately) is used and the phone remains stable, the connection typically stays strong. In contrast, the Inmarsat and Iridium connections are based on moving satellites, so calls are more likely to drop.
The range does not include North, Central, or South America nor the polar regions. Thuraya also provides comparatively economic, prepaid coverage plans. And outside callers can dial and connect with the assigned satphone number at no charge.
Best For:Backup satellite communicator
- Battery Life: 100 hours in 10-minute tracking mode; 30 days in 30-minute interval power save mode
- Coverage: Worldwide via the Iridium satellite network
- Pros:Simple, tough
- Cons:Lacks voice-to-voice capability, not a touch screen
- Sustainability Features:Garmin does notuse plastic clamshell or blister packs
Unlike satellite phones, which allow voice-to-voice communication, handheld satellite communicators only offer two-way text messages. Some adventurers choose to carry two communication devices for redundancy, and many complement their satphone with the Garmin inReach Explorer+ ($450). Plus, many satellite phones don’t include tracking features, high-quality maps, or GPS navigation tools, which are included in satellite communicators.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ can send and receive text messages to any cell phone number, email address, or to other inReach devices (that have a satellite subscription). This handheld delivers all sorts of other useful tools for expeditions, too, from pre-loaded topo maps to a digital compass, barometric altimeter, and accelerometer. The tracking data is within 5 metres.
“The Garmin inReach is simple and durable,” said Heger. The device gives two-way text messaging via the Iridium network (which has global coverage). The 213gm unit includes an SOS button, tracking, and geolocation sharing: Waypoints are sent to a web-based portal at specific time intervals. The SOS can activate a search and rescue monitoring center any day and hour of the year via globalGEOS Emergency Response Coordination. The inReach also can access downloadable maps and a digital compass.
How to Choose a Satellite Phone
The best satellite phone is one that has coverage in the location of intended use. Secondly, the best satellite phones have good battery life, are durable, and easy to use. All the satellite phones in this guide are among the best choices available. When in doubt, consider the following features:
SMS and phone calls
Short Message Service (SMS) allows texts up to 160 characters without pictures or videos and is enough for brief updates with support teams back home. But a satellite phone call allows better discussion about complex issues, or just to connect emotionally with family, especially after tough days.
Satellite phone technology works by line of sight. Only the Iridium satellite phone network offers complete global coverage, including in the polar realms. The Iridium system connects with 66 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
All of the other satellite systems have equatorial orbits. As a result, they sit below the horizon in the polar regions and a signal cannot be detected. Technically, they stop working around 80˚ latitude, but even many hundreds of kilometres before that, the signal is often cranky, because hills or other features obstruct the low-in-the-sky satellites.
That said, in addition to Iridium, two other leading providers in the satellite phone market include Inmarsat and Globalstar. Globalstar’s 48 LEO satellites have excellent, reliable coverage but not 100 percent worldwide connectivity. Inmarsat depends on four satellites that hold a geosynchronous orbit at a height of 51,000km above the equator. The robust network covers 90% of the globe and connections are clear and solid within those areas. The only regions lacking Inmarsat coverage are the two polar regions.
As long as you’re not in such a narrow valley that the phone can’t “see” the satellites, you’ll get a signal. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko
You need a clear line of sight to the satellites — no mountains or other obstructions can be in the way. Meanwhile, you can use any satellite phone in mid-latitudes, as long as you’re not at the bottom of a narrow canyon or in a thick jungle. The phone always needs to see the satellite to catch the signal.
Sat phones do work inside tents.
A satellite phone range is limited only by the satellite system it taps into. Be sure to examine closely where you plan to travel and each satellite phone’s coverage area, to ensure that it matches your needs.
Thuraya’s service range includes most of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Inmarsat’s range is nearly the entire world except for the polar regions. Globalstar covers Australia, the majority of the Americas, Europe, and a segment of Southeast Asia. Only Iridium has full global coverage.
Iridium makes satellite phones that work absolutely everywhere, including the polar regions. Each phone provider’s coverage area is based on the satellite locations within its network. That said, a satellite phone functions via line of sight. If a traveler is at the bottom of a deep canyon, it is possible that no system will work.
Most brand new satellite phones generally cost between $249 and $1,500. Most of the satellite phones in this guide are between $500 and $600. The cost of a service plan is additional.
Each satellite phone manufacturer provides a unique service plan with tiered prices for travelers. Service plans are usually billed by the month or year with additional surcharges for each additional minute. Otherwise, customers can buy a prepaid SIM card with a specific number of minutes that typically expire within a certain time. Also, some companies have roaming charges while others waive roaming fees. Read more about the range of service plans below:
Iridium service plan
- Monthly plans, 10-minute minimum ($55)
- Annual plans, 150-minute minimum ($700)
- Prepaid SIM cards, 75-minute minimum ($159; valid one month)
- Regional prepaid service, 200-minute minimum ($225-$279)
Globalstar service plan
Inmarsat service plan
- Monthly plans, 10-minute minimum ($40)
- Annual plans, 180-minute minimum ($490)
- Prepaid service, 100-unit minimum ($129)
Thuraya service plan
- Monthly plans: 144 kbps ($2,750) or 444 kbps ($3,750); $50 activation fee
- Prepaid service, 32 MB minimum ($184)
The cost of using a satellite phone depends on the type of data plan a traveler chooses. Iridium offers a range of monthly plans with a minimum of 10 minutes ($54.99) with additional minutes for $1.49 per minute. Their menu’s 1,000-minute maximum ($929.99) charges $1.10 per each additional minute. The company also offers annual service plans and prepaid SIM cards ranging from 75 minutes ($159; valid one month) to 5,000 minutes ($3,899; valid 24 months). Their regional prepaid options range from 200 minutes ($225) to 500 minutes ($461) and are valid for 6 to 12 months.
Globalstar has two monthly service plans for 50 minutes ($65) or unlimited ($80) and two annual plans: 600 minutes ($780) and unlimited ($960). With a different price structure, Inmarsat provides a variety of monthly plans ($40-$400) that range from 10 minutes to unlimited (this last is for U.S.-based customers only). The company’s 180-to-1200-minute annual plans range from $490 to $1,079. An alternative option is to purchase prepaid service ($129-$3,600) that is valid for 3 to 12 months.
Thuraya offers two monthly plans with different data speeds — 144 kbps or 444 kbps — for $2,750 or $3,750 per month plus a $50 activation fee. (Note: The monthly setup has a two-month minimum). Otherwise, customers can purchase a prepaid plan ($184-$2,700). Overall, when you consider the high expense of international roaming charges for cell phones, the investment of a satellite phone is not exorbitant.
Photo: National Geographic Explorer Isai Madriz and Iridium
Most satellite phones resemble early cell phones — big but not unwieldy. Their streamlining and durable materials make them very packable. Furthermore, most weigh between 190 and 1,000gm, which is not much considering that they are a piece of safety equipment.
The most important aspect of portability is to check with your intended international countries of travel regarding required satellite permits or regulations. Also, most devices are water-resistant and can survive an accidental submersion but are not waterproof, so they should be transported in a protected, dry bag.
Some of these satellite have components of sustainable design while others have none. For the longevity of the planet and human exploration, it’s essential for brands worldwide to prioritize high-level product design that also pushes the needle forward on environmentally-friendly materials, sourcing, manufacturing, and shipping solutions that are less toxic for people and the earth.
A few sustainable design features in these devices include the ability to purchase pre-owned and refurbished phones, and a commitment to notuse plastic clamshell or blister packs for shipments.
The satellite phones in our guide have rechargeable batteries, which each provide 4 to 8 hours of talk time and 15.5 to 160 hours of standby time. Adventurers on long expeditions bring more than one battery and some way to recharge them, such as a solar panel.
Satellite phones: Subpar features
Likewise, here are the satellite device details that may or may not serve you on a remote or international expedition — it depends on the specific location and environment. Regardless of the GPS coordinates, take note:
Countries with satellite phone restrictions
Around the globe, certain countries have restrictions on satellite phone devices or completely forbid them. Check the satellite phone regulations or required permits in your country of travel. It would be a bummer to have your satellite device confiscated or to receive a fine — or worse, be arrested or jailed. For instance, Iridium and Thuraya satellite phones are illegal in India, and phone registration is required in Russia. Other countries where restrictions exist include Myanmar, Chad, China, Cuba, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, and Sudan.
Rules in Russia
Non-Russian visitors need to register their satellite phone to use their SIM card in Russian territory for up to six months. Unregistered SIM cards can be blocked from the Iridium network. The rules apply to Inmarsat devices, too. Be sure to check with your unit’s manufacturer regarding registration requirements in your country of travel.
Compared to your everyday cell phone, a satellite phone sometimes has a lower sound quality. As you and the other person talk, it’s also common to experience a delay, which is also known as latency.
Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue makes a satellite phone call inside a Labrador bush tent. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko
Battery life in cold environments
Cold is not ideal for satellite phone operation. Some travelers warm up the batteries in an inside pocket before using them. “As with any device, the battery will get sucked dry if you use it when it’s cold,” says Aggens.
Turn on your satellite phone outside and with a clear, direct view of the sky. Once the phone has connected to a satellite, it is ready for calls. Large cliffs, mountains, canyons, or buildings can obstruct the satellite signal.
If you’re traveling on a long, remote expedition, it’s a good idea to bring extra batteries. In general, make sure you have the necessary adapters for your device’s wall charger to recharge in various locations worldwide. If you won’t have access to electricity, solar power can recharge satellite phone batteries.
One of our old satellite phones died following a too-long post-expedition shower in a motel room. The humidity penetrated the works and fried it. You’ve been forewarned.