Satellite Phones- What You Should Know

Satellite Phones- What You Should Know

I swear by satellite phones. To be very clear, this post is very “pro” satellite phones. While there are drawbacks, which I will touch on, this will largely be an exploration of what satellite phones are, why they are used, and some things to consider when renting or buying them.

What Are Your Goals?

When it comes to exploring the magical world outside, a wide range of activities can be enjoyed at different levels of expertise. Going to a local campground in your hometown can be just as fun as trekking across a desert or climbing a mountain (and for those who do not enjoy deserts or mountains, the first option is significantly more fun!). I always recommend that any explorer- local or otherwise- consider satellite phones before their trip. I have said this before, but you can be in the middle of a busy city and not have phone service. When I went to university in Ottawa I frequently lost phone service depending where I was (and that was the capital of the entire country). The point I’m trying to make is that even in the height of luxury- inside your house, at a 5-star restaurant, at a shopping mall, etc.- you cannot always be sure you can make a call if you need to. When you go on an adventure, the risks are usually always higher (unless you are my sister. I’ve seen her shop).

I’m asking that while you read this post, you think about where you plan to travel, who you plan to travel with, the time of year, the length of your trip, and what risks you will be assuming. If you are travelling with a pack of Viking warriors who will defend you with their spears or can carry you with a broken foot in their cloaks thousands of kilometres to the nearest town, that’s amazing. I wish you an amazing trip, and please send me pictures. If you are going somewhere more remote, there will not be a lot of other people, or the people you are travelling with are vulnerable and unlikely to be of assistance in an emergency, or there are inherent and unusual risks (like quicksand), please consider bringing a satellite phone. I, for example, am anaphylactic. Why, you may ask, do I bother to leave the house? Not sure, to be honest. But I go on a lot of amazing adventures with my husband Ian (who protects me- the vulnerable) and my mother-in-law Maria, who is so much cooler and more capable than most people I know. They keep me safe. I will write a blog post about travelling with allergies for anyone who shares my challenges or is curious. 

Basically, I would be very sad to hear that you went on an incredible adventure and something bad but avoidable happened which spoiled your trip. It is entirely possible to have an amazing time in the wilderness if you are prepared (see “My First Trip to Algonquin” for an example of not being prepared). Satellite phones can be annoying, expensive, and heavy, but they can save lives. 


The entire point of a satellite phone is the same as the new Starlink internet system- instead of relying on local service towers, you connect directly to a satellite, which is supposed to be more reliable. I won’t pretend they are perfect. They drop calls if you have too much cloud cover, are under trees, or stand too close to a mountain, but you can make calls from anywhere (that has direct access to the sky). When you are in an emergency situation, if your satellite phone comes with a GPS button,  you can click the button to alert the closest search and rescue team that you are in distress, and they use the phone signal to track and locate you (VERY EXPENSIVE if you push this button by mistake. They come with a cover on them, but I would play it safe and not let children be in charge of your phone). Our most recent trip to Nunavut (will post about this soon) was filled with more challenges than anyone expected, and we racked up about $100 worth of overage charges from making phone calls. It was completely worth the cost because without the phone, we probably (definitely) would have died in Nunavut. Honestly, I should write my Akshayuk post after this so you can understand what I’m talking about.

These phones are created to allow users to call for help when they need it, wherever they are in the world. If you are in the forest with a broken leg and no way to get out, that can kill you if left untreated. If someone (like me) goes into anaphylactic shock, even if you have 5 EpiPens, you should probably call for a search and rescue helicopter as soon as it happens as they can take hours to arrive, and if the reaction starts up again after you have used up your Epipen stash, you could be in serious trouble. (Also, Epipens cost about $100 each in Ontario, so the chances of you having several are low). Even something like food poisoning from improperly stored or cooked food can be life-threatening if you run out of potable water and are too weak to search for more. Having a satellite phone greatly increases your chances of success in these scenarios. I challenge you to think about your own worst-case scenarios for your trip and how you plan to overcome them. (Hint: unless you have the aforementioned Vikings in tow, I will wager you will have at least some doubts about your skills. This is where the planning kicks in).

The Cost

The cost is a significant factor whenever I decide to obtain something. If you are one of those magical people who can buy things without worrying about the numbers on the price tag- I either hope you enjoy hanging out on your private island or that the CRA and your 14 maxed-out credit cards don’t find you wherever you are hiding. It’s funny that those two extremes work on a deserted island, but one scenario would be much more fun.

The cost to buy a satellite phone (just the phone- not the plan to use the phone. Essentially a fancy brick) is usually around $1000 to start and goes up past $4000. Most “mid-range” models are closer to $2000. Iridium is the brand I know and use (with such a hefty price tag, I can’t afford to test any other brands, but there are excellent reviews online, allowing you to compare companies). I want to emphasize that this is the cost for the phone because satellite phones work on a modified “subscription” basis. You contact Iridium to activate your phone, and they will mail you a brand new sim card. This has to be done EVERY time you reactivate your phone when it is not in use. You pay for the “use” (i.e. your phone will connect if you turn it on) on a monthly basis, and this includes a base amount of minutes, with each additional minute costing a fee. As $100/month seems to be the cheapest plan, which consists of TEN minutes of talking (I kid you not), most people cancel their subscription when it is not in use. If you are not spending months in the outdoors (or at least a few weeks every year), it may not make sense to drop so much money on a phone when there are constantly newer models with more features. 

Renting a satellite phone has the advantage of only costing a couple hundred dollars, which is (comparatively) cheaper. You also gain the benefit (if you infrequently go on trips requiring a satellite phone) of always renting the latest model. If you travel frequently, renting can get expensive, and it works out cheaper to buy. Keep in mind that when renting, there are strict timelines that must be followed when returning equipment. If you own the phone you can just cancel your subscription online or via telephone. Renters need the phone to be returned in a specific condition by a specific date or they could incur additional fees. It is also important to remember that the lead time required to rent can be greater than if you own the phone, as it can take  additional time for the phone itself to be mailed to you.

Deciding to rent or buy depends on how often the phone will be used and what is important to you regarding the features. We travel often enough (and share the phone with our family members for their trips) that buying made sense. We had little interest in “new” features unless they dramatically increased the phone’s usability, and our model (a few years old now) still works great.

Pro Tips

I already spoke about the emergency button, usually located on the side of the phone under a protective cap you can swipe off with your thumb. You can also pre-program numbers into your phone before you leave, which is a good idea for two reasons. First, if you lose the piece of paper with your emergency contacts, you are separated from the person carrying the paper, or the ink gets smudged (or you can’t read your own handwriting), then the phone reverts back to a fancy and expensive brick. The second reason is time. The amount of extra time it takes to type in the number adds minutes to an already (likely) tense situation. Keep in mind that you must type in a country code before the phone number in order for the call to work. Here is a website that shows country codes for satellite phones. When you need an emergency service, the stress you will be feeling can increase the chance that you make a mistake in entering the number, adding to the time it takes to place the call.  

It is also recommended that you transport the phone, battery (and extra battery) in a waterproof case. Shopping around for cases is a good idea, as there are many cheaper ones that work just as well as those Iridium sells. You should also always test the phone before you leave so you have time to call customer service if something goes awry. These are the testing instructions taken from the Iridium website.

  1. Go outside to an open area and extend the Iridium antenna to the sky.
  2. Turn on your phone.
  3. Wait for the green LED network indicator.
  4. Dial 00-1-480-752-5105.
  5. Press the green button to start your call.
  6. Listen for the successful call completion message.

Plan Far Ahead

As I said when discussing the phone plans, you need to get a new sim card every time you reactivate your phone plan (unless you are Scrooge McDuck and can afford an extra $100/month for the luxury of not waiting for the sim card to be mailed to you). This is transported to you via ground shipping and can take time. It’s a fine line between ordering it with enough notice that it will get to you at least a couple of days before your trip (in case something goes wrong and you can test it out), but not so far in advance that you have to pay for an extra month if you don’t need to. I recommend looking closely at delivery timelines and giving customer service a call. We call customer service every year, and they are happy to walk you through setup, help you test to see if the phone is working, and use your address to give the best estimate for shipping. 

Most importantly, think about whether you need/want a satellite phone to join you on your next adventure with enough time to complete your research on phones/phone providers you like, models, plans, prices, and shipping times. I wish you all safe and exciting travels!