Fact: Communication in the wilderness isn’t easy. If you need to make a phone call or send a message, cell phones can be unreliable, at best. At the same time, satellite phones can be pricey and tricky to use. So, which one’s better for hiking? How do you decide between a satellite phone vs cell phone?
In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about phone-based communication in the great outdoors. We’ll do a deep-dive into how satellite phones work and discuss how they’re different from cell phones.
As an added bonus, we’ve also included some top tips for deciding whether satellite phones or cellular phones are right for your hiking needs. That way, you can communicate effectively in an emergency, regardless of where your adventures take you.
What is a Satellite Phone?
First things first, what even is a satellite phone?
As its name suggests, a satellite phone is a type of device that lets you talk with other people through a satellite connection. These phones transmit all of their signals through satellites that orbit the Earth.
There are various satellite phone networks, such as Globalstar, Inmarsat, and Iridium satellite systems, that allow you to have near global coverage. These systems make voice and text communications in remote areas fairly straightforward.
This makes satellite phones fairly popular for personal and business use in places where internet and cell signal is weak or non-existent.
How Do Satellite Phones Work?
To truly understand the benefits of satellite phones in the wilderness, you first need to know how they work.
While the technology behind these devices is fairly complex, the concept is somewhat straightforward. The basic idea is that all satellite phones send signals to the phone’s satellite network.
There are various satellite networks out there, such as Globalstar, Inmarsat, and Iridium, each of which provides slightly different coverage and services. Regardless of the network that one of these phones uses, it will always send signals directly to Low Earth Orbit satellites (known as LEO satellites).
These LEO satellites circle the planet at an average orbit of about 900 miles above the Earth’s service. This orbiting pattern allows them to provide service to satellite phones around the world. When a device sends a signal, it then arrives at an LEO satellite, where the signal is passed on to a gateway or one of a number of land-based centers.
The satellite phone provider then routes your phone call or message to the phone number you called. If the call is successful, you can chat away with your friends and family for as long as you want. Alternatively, you can place an emergency call, just like you would on a cell phone.
How to Use a Satellite Phone
While most of us have used a phone at some point in our lives, relatively few people have ever used a satellite phone.
Thankfully, a satellite phone is relatively easy to use, especially if you’re comfortable with a cell phone. In many ways, a sat phone resembles an older, bulkier portable phone.
Although each satellite phone has its own unique qualities and features, most work in a similar manner. To use a sat phone:
- Move to an open area with a clear view of the sky.
- Press the ON button to power on the device.
- Extend the satellite phone antenna and point it toward the sky.
- Wait for the phone to register with the satellite network.
- Dial the phone number you wish to call. Be sure to include the country code.
- Keep the antenna pointed toward the sky.
- Wait for the signal to connect so your call can begin.
- Enjoy your phone call, but try to keep communications short and clear.
- End the call line, collapse the antenna, and turn off the device to conserve the battery.
Again, there are nuances and special steps you’ll need to take to place a call depending on your specific satellite phone model. Be sure to flip through each page of your device’s user manual before placing your first call. Always test your satellite phone before each trip to ensure that it’s in good working condition.
Satellite Phones Pros & Cons
As is the case with any piece of gear, satellite phones have their pros and cons. Here are some of the key advantages and disadvantages to using this technology on your adventures:
- Global Coverage – Satellite phones can work in all countries around the world.
- Doesn’t Require Cell Towers – Unlike cell phones, satellite-based devices don’t need a cell tower to operate. This makes them useful in remote areas.
- Multiple Service Providers – The popularity of satellite communications in recent years means that there are more orbiting satellite networks than ever. You now have a choice of different service providers, each of which provides unique features for outdoor enthusiasts.
- Can Send Text Messages – While most people use sat phones to place calls, you can usually send texts with them, too.
- Allow For Verbal Communications – When compared to satellite messengers, sat phones provide improved efficiency. This is because they let you have one-to-one phone conversations that limit miscommunication.
- Heavy & Bulky – Most satellite phones are big, bulky, and heavy—especially when compared to modern cell phones.
- Price – A single sat phone can cost you thousands of dollars to purchase. Each call you place or message you send also incurs some hefty costs due to the expense of maintaining a satellite system.
- Unreliable Connection – Even if your device shows 5 bars of service, your sat phone will likely drop a call every once in a while. Satellite calls can be useful, but they can also be very unreliable.
- Old-School Texting – Most satellite phones have a standard, old-school T9 keyboard. This makes texting a tedious and often frustrating process.
What is a Cell Phone?
Since many people now carry and use a cell phone in their day-to-day lives, we won’t spend too much time reviewing what they are. But it’s important to clarify precisely what’s different about cellular phones so we can understand what makes them unique from satellite phones.
Basically, a cell phone is a type of mobile communication device that lets you place calls to people all over the world or access data using a wireless cellular radio system. Most cell phones can now also access the internet using a WiFi connection.
This makes them different from old-school landlines, which had to be connected to telephone lines that ran through the ground or above our heads on the street in order to place calls.
How Do Cell Phones Work?
When you try calling someone on a cell phone, your call’s signal is bounced to the closest cell tower to your location. The signal then bounces between towers in different locations until your call makes it to the person you’re trying to speak to.
Back in the day, your cell phone would only work if your phone company had towers in your area. These days, most companies have arrangements to share towers so that you get better cell signal around the world.
Of course, your calling ability can be limited based on the mobile phone network that you use, even in fairly urban areas. This is particularly true if you’re traveling internationally as your cellular network might not have service or data coverage in certain countries.
Do note that your cell phone will not have any coverage and will not be able to place any voice calls or send text messages if you are in a remote location with no nearby cell towers. Your device could search for service to connect to for hours in a mountainous region without ever picking up reliable coverage.
Cell Phones Pros & Cons
Like satellite phones, cell phones have their pros and cons. Here are some of the key benefits and drawbacks to using a cell phone for communications in the great outdoors:
- Relatively Affordable DevPhoneice Price – While there are some pricey models out there, cell phones are fairly affordable when compared to satellite phones. Some cellular companies even offer you access to free phones when you sign a multi-year service contract.
- Low-Cost Service – Of course, you can get an expensive phone plan if you want unlimited data and internet usage with certain providers. But, cell phones are generally much more affordable per line than sat phones. Voice calls and text messages are usually unlimited, too.
- Internet Compatibility – Unless you purposefully buy a simple model, most cell phones allow you to access the internet using cellular data. This means you can access your email, surf the web, check the weather, or post on Instagram while outside.
- GPS Functionality – Although you shouldn’t rely solely on a cell phone for navigation, most models now come with GPS technology. This can provide limited navigation assistance for you on the trail.
- Easy Texting – These days, most mobile phones have full QWERTY keyboards, which make texting and sending messages way faster.
- Compact & Lightweight – Most mobile phones are meant to be as light and portable as possible, which is ideal when you’re trying to cut your pack weight on the trail.
- Limited Functionality in Remote Terrain – Cell phones need to connect to a tower in order to place calls, access data, or send messages. This makes them somewhat useless when you’re too far from a tower to get service.
- International Limitations – With the exception of some global phone plans, most cell phones won’t be able to place calls or access data anywhere on Earth. Technically, you can place calls on international networks when traveling overseas, but the price of roaming data and international calls can be sky-high.
Sat Phone vs. Cell Phone: How to Choose
Now that you know the difference between a cell phone and a satellite phone, it’s time to determine which one is right for you. To help you out, we’ve created a list of the most important things to consider when figuring out which communication system is best for your adventures.
The very first thing to consider when deciding between a satellite phone and a cellular one is what you intend to use it for.
If you’re looking to mostly send texts or check your email, a cell phone is your go-to choice. On the other hand, if you want to place calls for personal or emergency purposes and you have minimal need for internet data, a sat phone on the Iridium or Globalstar networks will likely be the better option.
At the end of the day, understanding precisely what you want to use a piece of gear, like a phone, for will help you find the right option for your needs.
In addition to your intended use, you also need to understand where you want to use your phone before you can decide which model is best for you.
For example, if you mostly adventure in your local area or within your home country, the global communications systems offered by Globalstar and Iridium satellite networks are just an unnecessary cost. However, if calling your friends, family, and emergency personnel from anywhere in the world is important to you, a sat phone might be what you need.
Weight & Packed Size
The weight and packed size of a piece of gear is an important consideration for many outdoor expeditions.
Hikers, backpackers, mountaineers, and other similar ground-based travelers often need to keep their gear weight and bulk to an absolute minimum. This can make carrying a heavy and bulky satellite phone a pain, particularly when your pack is already full of other gear.
In fact, a single satellite phone can weigh up to about 11 oz (316 g) and be the size of a cordless phone. Handsets of this size can be impractical for mountain travel.
On the other hand, sailors, kayakers, and others who have a bit more flexibility when it comes to the weight and bulk of their gear prefer the global services and convenience that a satellite phone can provide.
Ultimately, it all depends on your personal adventure style and how much weight you’re willing to carry around.
If texting is more your style, you’ll need to look for a phone that can support your messaging needs.
Most satellite phones can handle basic texting, but the process is slow and tedious. On the other hand, texting from a regular cell phone is something that many of us are already comfortable with. Therefore, if you’re happier with text messages rather than voice messages, a cell phone is likely your best option.
Do note that there are now plenty of different messaging devices out there, like the Garmin InReach, that work off of satellites. These are a nice alternative to traditional sat phones for people who don’t need voice calling capabilities but that want to send messages from anywhere on Earth.
Unless you happen to be working with an unlimited budget, the cost is always going to be an issue when you buy gear.
In many ways, it’s difficult to compare the costs of satellite and cell phones. There are dozens of models of each phone type available, each with its own purchase price (usually $500 to $1000+). Further complicating matters is the fact that each satellite phone company and each cellular provider charges different rates for their services.
However, as a general rule, satellite phones are more expensive than their cellular counterparts. Since most of us already have a cell phone, getting a sat phone is an added (and expensive) expense. Sat phone services on the Iridium and Globalstar networks can also run you hundreds of dollars a month per line or at least $0.99 per minute. That’s a lot of money!
Although there are cell phone providers in pretty much every country around the world, satellite phones are banned in some areas. The reasons for these bans vary, though restrictions usually stem from a government’s desire to have more control over the communications of its citizens.
However, do note that some countries solely ban the import and use of a foreign satellite phone. For example, Chinese law requires that each satellite phone be registered with the government. So, you might be able to rent one in the country, but you can’t bring one with you when you travel.
Security & Privacy
Every single electronic item that connects to a network runs a risk of security and privacy issues. Satellites and cell phones are no exception. As such, anyone using one of these items needs to be aware of the potential for someone else to intercept their communications.
Most hackers don’t have the skill or resources to hack satellites, but governments and other large agencies can sometimes track your movements and calls through a satellite phone. Cell phones are a bit more accessible to hackers, especially if you’re connected to a WiFi network.
Sat Phone vs Cell Phone FAQ
Here are our answers to some of your most commonly asked questions about mobile communication in the mountains:
Satellite phones are better than cell phones in many remote areas, but they have their limitations. A satellite phone is an expensive thing to use and most models are quite heavy and bulky. Cell phones are more affordable, but they don’t have as wide of a service network.
Theoretically, satellite phones work everywhere on Earth. However, they only work when you have a clear view overhead. As such, they usually don’t work in dense forests, steep canyons, or near tall buildings.
A cell phone on its own can’t connect to Low Earth Orbiting satellites. However, you can pair a cell phone with satellite calling and messaging devices so you can access satellite communication networks.
Satellite phones are not illegal everywhere. But there are a few countries where they are banned for civilian use. For example, it is effectively illegal to use a sat phone in India, Chad, Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Turkmenistan.
Sat Phone vs. Cell Phone: The Verdict
At the end of the day, neither a cell phone nor a sat phone is always going to be the better choice.
Global travelers that need to be able to communicate with others in remote environments will often find that sat phones are the best option, even if their services are fairly expensive. Alternatively, people who primarily venture out on shorter trips in less remote locales might prefer the affordability and messaging abilities of a cell phone.
But, what’s important here is that you get the right gear for your needs. Whether that’s a phone that works via satellites or one that uses cell towers, we hope this article made it possible for you to select the perfect phone for your next adventure. See you on the trail!