Who doesn’t like wheeling? We always say that a bad day wheeling is better than a good day at the office. But, a bad day wheeling usually means you either broke the Jeep, got it stuck, or got lost. Even if you go wheeling with your buddies it is possible to become separated from the pack. And what happens when that happens? Well, unless you’ve got some kind of communications or satellite device with you, you got a long walk ahead. And if you are lost, unless you are a maestro with a map and compass, you might be up the proverbial creek.
Look, we smash on electronic stuff all the time, and after this story we will again so don’t worry about that. In the meantime, we’ll put all the juvenile name-calling aside for a minute to help you guys wade through the huge selection of often mind-numbing electronic devices that might just one day save your bacon if you do have a bad day of wheeling. In this installment we talk about satellite communication. Tune in the next time for ground-based communications.
When it comes to GPS units you are going to have to make a choice. Which is more important to you: on-road or off-road navigation? There were “crossover” GPS units on the market a few years ago, and we are lobbying the manufacturers to build them again, but the bottom line is they didn’t sell too well. So, for the Jeep guy who drives his Jeep to the trail, over the trail, and back home again, either two units will be needed, or compromises will need to be made.
GPS units are, unfortunately, like any other technology in that what you buy this year will be obsolete next year. Every year bigger screens and faster processors make their way to the marketplace for less money than the year before. That said, we’ve been using both styles of GPS units for years and can give you some key items to look for in each. Whether you are looking at an on- or off-road unit, buying from a major manufacturer is always a good idea. The map data is constantly updated and there are always updates available for purchase which is important to keep up-to-date with new construction, minor streets that might have been missed, and rural areas.
For on-road GPS units, get the biggest screen you can afford. Manufacturers include Magellan, Tom-Tom, Garmin, and others. Google maps on smart phones is a great tool, but is not reliable in areas with poor cell coverage. Get a unit that comes with the map for your country pre-loaded on the unit so that even in mountainous terrain you can still find where you are going.
Also make sure that the favorites saved on the unit can be taken off of it, just in case you upgrade or get another unit. With some GPS units it is possible to go into the file system through your computer and copy the “favorites” folder. Some units you will need to write down the GPS location of your favorites to manually transfer them. Some units don’t offer either possibility which means when the unit dies, or you upgrade, all your favorites are gone. A lot of the newer units offer an optional “real-time” traffic coverage that we find isn’t nearly as “real-time” as needed, and often redirects us when not needed or doesn’t redirect us when needed. In general, save your cash on the traffic option.
Some on-road navigation units won’t let you navigate to an off-road destination at all. When you are purchasing, take a pre-determined GPS coordinate for an off-road favorite and plug it into the unit. If it just comes up with an error, and you want to use it off-road, go for a different manufacturer. If it does let you input it, off-road navigation with on-road units can be annoying at best. They will always try to send you back to the nearest road. It is possible to find and save off-road favorites, but to get to them you will need to zoom out, and follow the proverbial needle in the haystack, often resulting in a spiraling into the location.
Off-road units are great tools to have out on the trail. Like the on-road units it is a good idea to buy from a major manufacturer. Garmin, Magellan, Lowrance, and DeLorme all manufacture GPS units intended for hikers and backpackers which can be used in a Jeep in a pinch. Garmin and Lowrance both manufacture larger-screened units primarily marketed to boaters but can be loaded with maps for off-road use as well.
Things to look for include a screen big enough for you to see, the ability to import tracks and bookmarks so that you can share with friends, and dust and water resistance for you open-topped Jeepers. A lot of them won’t come with maps pre-loaded but come with a trial period that has access to the company’s maps. Pay attention to what the map subscription is going to cost you down the road, if it is going to cost you anything. That’s where the companies make the most money. Most of these units will also allow you to import other things such as finer topographical maps and satellite imagery which can be very useful when wheeling.
It used to be that only the super-rich could bounce signals off of satellites to communicate with the outside world, but that just isn’t true anymore. While we still don’t condone going out into the middle of nowhere on your own, taking one of these devices along with you makes it much more safe.
The SPOT personal tracker started this new trend with a simple four-button unit that could go days on a charge. It allows you to send pre-coded messages such as, “I’m OK,” or “I’ve arrived at my destination,” also with clickable links so they can see exactly where you are on a map. It also allows for friends and family to track you from anywhere they have an internet connection. But the biggest thing about it, and why we think it’s a great tool for the person who travels alone, is that it offers an SOS feature. If pressed, it sends a message to GEOS, the global emergency response center, every five minutes with your GPS location. GEOS will then inform the appropriate local authorities. From there, SPOT has expanded with a satellite GPS messenger, SPOT communicator which works with a DeLorme GPS, SPOT connect, and SPOT hug, many of which allow you to customize the messages you send before they are sent.
Speaking of DeLorme, that company has also gotten onto the satellite communication bandwagon with its InReach unit. Like the SPOT communicator, it also works with a DeLorme PN-60 but there is also a unit available that will pair with Android devices and iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch now available. For those of you not in the continental US, it might be good to know that the InReach works off the Iridium network which has no dark spots in satellite coverage anywhere in the world. Like the SPOT it is possible to send messages, tracking, and SOS messages. However, delivery confirmation is available for both messages and SOS messages.
Either system works very well, but both require a subscription. The SPOT subscription is fairly straightforward at either $99.99 per year or $149.99 per year depending on what unit you pick and how much you plan on using it. The DeLorme subscription is more expensive and again, depends on how much you intend to use it. This ranges from $9.95 per month to $64.95 per month with the difference primarily being how many free messages you can send per month and how much additional messages will cost.
Satellite phones used to be only available to military personnel and slowly trickled into the hands of the uber-rich. When satellite phones first hit the market, the price was $1,300 for a phone and $7.00 per minute of air time. While still more expensive than a cell phone plan, the price is now much more reasonable, and as you well know, there are many places we take our Jeeps that cell phones just don’t work.
The satellite phone industry has two major players: Globalstar and Iridium. Iridium boasts planetary coverage with its 66 satellites while Globalstar only covers most populated continents. A call made from an Iridium phone goes up to the satellite and from there might either bounce from satellite to satellite before finding its way to a ground station or might just go up to the satellite and back down to a ground station. A call made from a Globalstar phone only goes up to an orbiting satellite and then back to a ground station. Globalstar features clearer calls and better data speeds than Iridium. But, because Globalstar doesn’t bounce from satellite to satellite, sometimes calls take a while to make until a satellite is in view of both your phone and a ground station.
Now, let’s talk prices, they might not be as bad as you think. A Globalstar GPS-1700 phone can be had for $499.99 and monthly service with unlimited airtime minutes is just $39.99. However, to get into an Iridium 9555 phone will run around $1,000.00 with monthly service $37.95 per month with no included minutes. You can also get prepaid cards of fixed value if you are only planning on using the phone for emergencies or rent them for a week from anywhere from $29.95 per week to $79.95 per week.