One of the big reasons people head into the wild is to forcibly disconnect.
Getting far enough from cell towers is the excuse some of us need to just turn off our now-useless phones and escape the constant need for communication and connection. And while we don’t need to give that up, having some level of communication in the backcountry can be handy in more ways than one. In an emergency, it might be our only way of getting help. On certain trips, you might want a way to talk between group members — and ideally something a little more reliable than shouting to the next ridge.
And even without LTE service, there are plenty of ways to stay connected, both to the outside world and to the other members of your isolated adventure. Outdoor-specific technologies like satellite communicators, ruggedized or long-range radios, or mesh-style radio texting devices can all increase your margin for safety and make life a little easier when you’re off the grid, without the grid itself.
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The cheap walkie-talkies you had as a kid were great for playing tag in the backyard, but they weren’t designed to withstand the rigors of a real adventure. Rocky Talkies (get it?) are built with a shatterproof LED screen, IP56 waterproofing (meaning splashes of rain or snow won’t harm them), a burly carabiner clip and leash, and a lithium-ion battery that can power the radio for days even in -20°F temps. What’s not different: They all transmit at the legal limit—2 watts—so don’t expect better range than most other walkie talkies.
Backcountry Access specializes in gear for snowy environments which means their radios have some unique features setting them up for use by backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, and snowboarders. The Link separates the microphone and speaker into a separate (cable-connected) unit allowing you to stash the body of the radio in your jacket or pack and just put the speaker/mic on your shoulder, keeping the important bits warm and protected. The built-in battery charges by USB and both parts of each radio are waterproofed enough to handle snow.
Snap a goTenna to your pack and pair it to your phone and you can instantly text with other Mesh users within range of its radio signal. But goTenna has a bigger goal: A network of mesh users that allows you to “hop” your messages across other units to your final destination, even if it’s too far away to talk directly. Places like Mammoth Mountain in California are covered in Mesh relays, allowing you to message friends on the other side of the mountain, without cell service.
Satellite phones have been a fixture of big expeditions for years, but Garmin’s inReach Mini is small, inexpensive, and usable enough that it’s become a standard piece of safety gear for everyone from day hikers to Appalachian Trail hikers. With a subscription, you can use it to text family members and let them know you’re OK, call for help if your car gets stuck, or hit “SOS” for support in a true emergency. You can do it all from the tiny device (handy if your phone dies), or pair it to your phone to make typing longer messages a little easier.
Similar to the inReach, the Bivystick uses satellites to send text messages, call for help, check in with friends and family and more after you pair the device to your phone (you can hit SOS but not text from the device itself). But the accompanying app is also a database of hikes, bike trails, climbing routes, and more, plus you can track your adventures within the app, upload photos, and share what you’re doing with other users.