Help! Emergency Communication and GPS Tracking on the Trail

Help! Emergency Communication and GPS Tracking on the Trail

by Stephan Edwards

Often, as darkness falls at some remote campsite, and the last of the dying embers of my campfire fade, I find myself looking skyward. Among the planets, stars, and if I’m lucky, shooting stars, sometimes I see the telltale track of a satellite zipping through the darkness.

They’re easy to spot these days - the  
Union of Concerned Scientists estimates there are nearly 3,000 functioning satellites orbiting our planet, and over twice that number of dead, dying, or disabled satellites flying through the ether in low-earth orbit. Satellites serve many functions, but some of the oldest and most important satellite networks up there in space are of particular interest to travelers down here on earth. In recent years, satellite-based navigation, tracking, and communication have become indispensable elements of the overlander’s communications strategy. 

More often than not our overland journeys take us beyond the reach of cell phone signals, and far from civilization in general. For many of us, that’s exactly why we set out to explore in the first place - to unplug from our constantly connected society, the unceasing bombardment of notifications, Tweets, emails, texts, and calls. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I finally see the “No Service” message on my phone as I drive deep into a desert or up the side of a remote mountain. In some ways, crossing that threshold marks the start of a real adventure. 

However, just because we drive beyond the conventional web of communication technologies, doesn’t mean we should abandon our connection to the outside world entirely. Those satellites orbiting 12,000 miles over our heads might just save your trip, or a life.

Let’s take a look at some of the satellite-based tracking and communications technologies that can operate both as an everyday communication tool, and as a lifeline in the event of an emergency. We’ll shine a spotlight on the SPOT X and SPOT Gen 4 satellite communicators, surprisingly affordable peace of mind.

GPS and Communication Satellites - Two Different Networks

Launched in 1978, and reaching its full array of 24 satellites in 1993, the US military developed the Navstar Global Positioning System as a highly accurate and reliable tool for guiding missiles, weapons targeting, and general navigation. In the 1980s, the system was made available to civilians worldwide, albeit at a lower level of precision than the military had. GPS signals can now identify your location within a few yards, given ideal conditions for receiving those signals. 

Over time, the system has become more and more accurate, and GPS receivers more and more common. Today, nearly every smartphone has a GPS receiver and data processor, and most tablets as well. Smartphone and tablet navigation apps, such as MapsMe, Google Maps, and OsmAndMaps, as well as stand-alone navigation devices, such as Garmin’s Overlander, use GPS navigation data to tell you where you are and where you’re headed.

We can use GPS signals to navigate in real time, and some devices, like SPOT’s Gen 4 can log, store, and share a track of your progress. One important thing to remember about GPS is that for the most part it’s a one-way street - our devices receive signals from GPS satellites, but don’t talk back. In addition to the original Navstar network, other nations have launched their own GPS systems in recent years, including Russia’s GLONASS, the European Union’s Galileo, and China’s Beidou.

Communication satellite networks are a different animal altogether. Generally operated by private enterprise, rather than governments, satellite communication is not free to the general public. Two-way communication through these networks can be via text or voice, and it requires a specific kind of device to access, either a dedicated satellite phone or technology that’s embedded in hardware like SPOT’s SPOT X

For access to communication satellites the user will also need a yearly subscription, and sometimes for voice devices, the annual purchase of minutes (like we used to do on our cell phones!). Iridium, Globalstar, and Inmarsat are three of the most common networks available, and they all have different global coverage areas. Like with GPS, satellite communication is dependent on the availability and strength of the signal coming from the satellite itself.

What’s In It For The Overlander?

Satellite-based tracking and communication offer several important and useful tools for the overland traveler.

First, GPS navigation, which we will tackle in depth in a future article, pinpoints your exact location pretty much anywhere on the globe. Beyond letting you know where you are, this data can also serve as an emergency beacon, should you need it. SPOT’s SPOT Gen 4 and SPOT X both include an SOS function. With the press of a button, it connects you instantly to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, and provides your GPS coordinates and information to local response teams - for example, contacting 911 responders in North America and 112 responders in Europe. 

Activating the SOS function will immediately request rescue assistance, and guide first responders directly to your location. There are, of course, some serious considerations to take into account in using this feature. You will need to be within the scope of the GEOS Emergency network, and you need to be committed to being rescued. Once you activate the SOS, there’s no going back. It’s not a two-way communication tool, and rescue efforts can be extremely expensive - a cost you may have to shoulder out of pocket. SPOT offersGEOS membership for an additional cost to your annual service agreement. Itincludes reimbursement of up to $100,000 in search and rescue (SAR) expenses – and will even coordinate a private SAR contractor if needed to get you to safety.

While both the SPOT X and the SPOT Gen 4 feature the SOS function, the SPOT X goes one step further. It also offers two-way messaging via text through satellite communication. This can be used as a tool for transmitting more detailed information to first responders in emergency situations, or even just as a “check-in” with friends and family back home. It connects via Bluetooth to your smartphone and the SPOT app for ease of use, or you can use the text function via the SPOT X’s built-in QWERTY keyboard.

The flexibility of two-way communication is a boon for managing emergency events that perhaps don’t require a full-scale search and rescue response, but could benefit from a direct line to the outside world. Keeping nervous family members apprised of your progress through the backcountry can calm everyone’s nerves. Texts are generally limited to 160 characters.

A related function of both the SPOT X and the Gen 4 is the real-time tracking tool. Motion activated, this feature beams a regularly updated map of your travels to the SPOT web app, which can be accessed by up to ten contacts of your choice. You can even set a regular static message that drops into your contacts’ email inbox, and lets them know you’re ok. The track of your progress is also downloadable, data you can use later for keeping a record of your adventures. 

A larger step toward more comprehensive satellite communication is the satellite phone. Often costing upwards of $1000 or more, the sat phone requires a yearly subscription and the purchase of minutes. It works just like a regular mobile phone, only tapping into satellite signals instead of a cell network. Overlanders who are managing a large expedition with multiple team members and vehicles may benefit most from this technology. Sometimes, in case of an emergency, speaking directly to a human being is the best way to communicate the exact nature of the problem, and the help you need. 

Personally, I've been using a SPOT Gen 3 for a few years now to track my progress on long trips, keep a regular line of communication open to my family, and layer on that extra level of help should I need it. It's proven to be rugged, fool-proof, and dead reliable.

Overlander is proud to offer SPOT’s cutting edge satellite communication and tracking technology for your peace of mind while out on the trail. You can learn more about these compact, rugged, and advanced devices here.

Have you ever used the SOS button on an overland adventure? How do you employ GPS data and navigation to track your journeys? Share with the community in the comments below.

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