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Yellowbrick YB3 review

This is a review of (arguably) the best two-way satellite messaging and tracking device on the market: Yellowbrick YB v3.

Yellowbrick YB v3 and Samsung Galaxy Xcover in tent in Reisadalen valley.

Yellowbrick YB v3 and Samsung Galaxy Xcover in a tent in Reisadalen valley.

I’ve written about satellite communication devices earlier covering a bit of tech, the basic options and some messaging devices and later about more messaging devices. And not long ago I shared my experience and a word of warning regarding the SPOT devices. In the review I promised also to tell more about the YB v3. So here we go!

Yellowbrick YB v3

This review is based on my experience with the Yellowbrick Traking’s YB v3 that is the predecessor of the now available updated YB v3 Mk II. The technology and functionality of the devices are basically the same so the remarks here apply also to the YB v3 Mk II.

The latest model: YB v3 MK II.

The latest model: YB v3 MK II. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.


The YB v3 is a two-way communication and tracking device based on satellite technology. The unit uses GPS satellites to locate itself (just like the SPOT) and Iridium Communications satellite network to send and receive data (unlike the SPOT). The latter is a big thing!

Iridium is the only satellite communication company providing true global coverage from Pole to Pole and even under dense vegetation. The Iridium satellite constellation consists of 66 satellites on low Earth orbits covering the whole globe. In addition to communicating with ground stations the satellites can also communicate with each other improving the system even more. This means a device based on the Iridium system (like the Yellowbrick) should work reliably anywhere on the globe (unlike the SPOT).

The system aka how YB v3 works.

The system. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.


The YB v3 is not especially small gadget but still fits in a large pocket and gives a good grip. The new YB v3 MkII measures 144 x 76 x 36mm and weights 305 grams. It’s bigger than SPOT devices but the size means proper big buttons and an OLED screen!

The 26 x 35 mm screen fits four lines of text and enables easy use. You can see the state of the device, browse the menu, send messages, read messages and even write them with a virtual keyboard and the 4-way keys. In addition to the screen there is an indicator light showing green or red light to mark certain things, for example blinking green light means that the device is sending a message.

On the original YB v3 I was testing there were five buttons: 4-way arrow buttons and the Alert button covered with a flap. The updated model has gained a dedicated OK/enter button which is a great improvement. The buttons are big and chunky and easy to use even with gloves (the thumb of mittens works as well) and feel very robust.

The YB v3 in Sarek National Park in March 2012.

The YB v3 on top of my pulka in the Sarek National Park in March 2012.

The name Yellowbrick is actually very fitting: it feels solid and very rugged. Just like a brick. It is tested to meet IP67 (total protection from dust and submersion down to 1m for 30min) and MIL-STD-810G for vibration, shock and shock. The operating temperature is said to be from -30C to +60C (storage -40C to +85C) but I know it has been used in colder temps without any problems.

Inside the device there is Bluetooth, a high quality GPS chip set, Iridium antenna, 9602 Iridium modem and other stuff to keep the device connected. And even a built-in accelerometer! A built-in 5300 mAh LiPo battery keeps the device up and running. A single charge lasts about 2500 transmission meaning that in real life you can get about three weeks of tracking with 15 minutes interval with just one charge. If you use the YB v3 as a standalone device the battery lasts really long. The use of Bluetooth drains the battery faster. And the battery is conveniently charged with standard mini USB (cable provided). The USB port is covered with a sealed screw-on cap.

Functions and features

The YB v3 offers a lot of functions and the final bundle varies depending on which of the four service levels you buy (apparently the device itself is the same for each but the software varies). For typical personal (or small expedition) outdoor’s use I’d recommend the standard version which has the following functions:

Tracking: The device will send you position information automatically at set intervals and the information will be visible online at YBlog (or on Social Hiking). The Tracking is set from the unit so you can start and stop tracking or even change the interval on the go.

Send basic messages:  You can send preset messages (max 250 characters) from the device to preset recipient’s mobile phone and/or e-mail. You can have hundreds of preset messages but you need a computer to change the messages and an internet access to change the recipients. In addition you can use a virtual keyboard to write free text (again max 250 characters) on the device and send it as a basic message if you are lacking a suitable preset message.

Receive basic messages: You can receive messages up to 250 characters to the device. These messages can be sent either from Yellowbrick’s web service or via e-mail (the device has its own e-mail address).

Advanced messaging: Advanced messaging enables connecting the YB v3 to an Android or iOS device over Bluetooth to send and receive messages up to 1000 characters. You can also then choose the recipient’s e-mail address freely. The advanced messaging also includes social media integration making updates over Twitter, Facebook and the like easy.

Alert: While other functions are used thru the menu of the device the Alert is simply launched with a single dedicated button. There is a red button with a protective cover and once you press the button the device will send an Alert message with your location to preset recipients (mobile phone and/or e-mail). The recipients can be different from the ones for the basic messages. By definition the distress message is not transmitted to any authorities.

Features included in each contract level.

Features included in each contract level. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.

The cheapest “Basic” options is missing the Advanced messaging and Bluetooth connectivity so you can save £50 if you don’t need that function. The more advanced “Professional” and “Corporate” options have things like “Advanced Alerting“, encryption, support for multiple units for single account and multi-language support. Features which are not necessary for typical outdoors use. But they are available for little extra if you want to have them.

Interfaces and options

As mentioned above the YB v3 works as a standalone device able to track, send and receive messages. In addition there is an option to connect the YB v3 to a mobile phone or tablet over Bluetooth. This makes reading and especially writing longer messages more enjoyable. The “Yellowbrick Messenger App” is available for both Android and iOS devices. I found the app a little clumsy to use but it does what it needs to do. The app also enables choosing who to send the messages and sending messages directly to linked social medias of choise.

I’ve paired my device with a rugged Samsung Galaxy Xcover phone to tweet and to receive and send longer messages. This has worked fine.

The Yellowbrick is compatible with the still awesome Social Hiking providing a great option for the Yblog service the Yellowbrick offers. The Yblog is an all-in-one service and thus feels little limited compared to the Social Hiking but works as well. And the Yblog is also more than a map and blog as it’s also the online interface for administrating your device(s), contacts, account(s) and messages. It’s not especially sleek but simple and easy to use and gets the things done.


The price of the units is shown above but a word about the running costs here.

The plan is flexible and you basically pay only for use. For each month you use the device you pay a £8 flat fee per month to keep the device active and in addition sending and receiving messages costs credits. One tracking beacon and each 50 characters of send or received text costs 1 credit. You can buy credits in bundles and they don’t expire. The pricing in September 2013 was the following:

Bundle per Credit Bundle Price
50 Credits £ 0.12 £ 6.00
100 Credits £ 0.11 £ 11.00
200 Credits £ 0.10 £ 20.00
500 Credits £ 0.09 £ 45.00
1000 Credits £ 0.08 £ 80.00
2000 Credits £ 0.07 £ 150.00
5000 Credits £ 0.06 £ 300.00

It is definitely not the cheapest option around but you really get bang for the buck. For example for me paying the considerably cheaper price for a SPOT device doesn’t really make any sense as I can’t trust the thing. It would be simply money wasted so I’m quite happy to pay the higher price for a device that works reliably.

The Use

I’ve used the YB for over 40 full days in the outdoors. Use has been on Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, in Southern Finland and in the Northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway. The device has been used in the cold and in the wet, it has taken some hits and it’s share of exposure to the elements. I’ve used all other functions except the advanced alerting functions which I don’t find useful for normal outdoors use. (Except maybe the “Dead man’s switch” type alert with a timer counting down to an automatic alert if not stopped but needing that on an adventure is quite a grim idea, isn’t it?) I’ve even tested the Alert button as it doesn’t alert authorities but you chosen contact(s) instead. And yes, also the Alert worked just fine.

The YB v3 in Sarek National Park in September 2012.

The YB v3 in the Sarek National Park in September 2012.


Yellowbrick’s marketing line for the YB v3 is “Robust, Reliable, and Well Designed” and it seems to be very accurate. It can take a lot of abuse. Temps around -30C, freezing super-cooled rain (that sucks!), sleet, torrential rain… no problem.

The durability is a premiss for the greatest success of the device: It just works! I’ve had the device fail sending a message only one single time and this happened indoors in a hut next to some big hills. And the great thing is that the YB v3 can tell me this: there was a GPS fix but the message didn’t go through and so I was able to open the door, place the device outside and get my message sent. Outdoors the device has been able to transmit every single tracking beacon and message successfully.

To get an idea of the capability of the device compare the Social Hiking maps from two similar packrafting tours to Reisadalen in Northern Norway. The Reisadalen is a deep, steep walled canyon well beyond the Arctic Circle meaning it’s quite challenging environment for getting messages through. On the first map you can see beacons sent with YB v3. These are unfortunately with long interval so they are not very frequent but every single one sent has made it through (as have the tweets send from the app).

Yellowbrick track from a tour in August 2012. Sparse beacons but all made it through.

Yellowbrick track from a tour in August 2012. I used long interval but all beacons made it through.

On the second map there are beacons sent with SPOT 2. Or there should be. There should be plenty of beacons as they are sent with 10 minutes interval but there are only few random ones in the whole Reisadalen section. In addition the map is missing all the beacons from a 6,6km day-trip to Imofossen in the Reisadalen. Not a single beacon from the day trip.

SPOT 2 track from a tour in September 2013. Notice the missing beacons.

SPOT 2 track from a tour in September 2013. Notice the missing beacons.

So, the Yellowbrick just bloody works!

And as a two-way communication device you can also use the Yellowbrick to receive messages (say weather forecast for the summit-bid day) and get to know if your messages and tracking has worked successfully. Both very useful features. You can also see the coordinates from the latest tracking beacon or message sent. This way the device also doubles as a sort of a back-up GPS device.

I was also very pleased with the support from the Yellowbrick team: quick and helpful responses to any situation and also great patience as returning the test device and writing this review took a lot more time than anticipated. Nice guys.


Not much to say here really.

The original YB v3 had couple of points to improve: A dedicated OK button would’ve made the use a lot easier (especially typing “free text” with the device only) and the free text written with the device was limited to a single line of text and exceeding the limit caused it to crash requiring simple rebooting. Both of these issues have been addressed in the now available YB v3 Mk II: There’s a separate OK button and you can write messages long enough that you’ll get frustrated doing so before you run out of characters. In addition the design of the YB V3 Mk II looks little more sleek and the see-through cover on the Alert-button is also a nice touch.

I also encountered some problems with long (over 250 characters) messages send over the Bluetooth connection and had to send them in 250 character sections but also this is fixed with the new device.

So, the YB v3 MkII seems like quite a perfect device. To have something to whine about, it would be nice to have an option to use AA lithium batteries instead of the built-in battery. I’d still like to have option of using the built-in battery instead as it performs very well but sometimes extra AA batteries would be easier to take along than an USB-compatible power source. I’m not sure if it would be possible to do but still something worth keeping in mind.

What other say

There aren’t many reviews of the YB v3 online. There’s for example this one of a pre-production YB v3 Mk I used on Southern Patagonian Icecap and  this one of the latest YB v 3 Mk II used on a last degree ski expedition to the North Pole. In addition many hardcore expeditions and adventures are using Yellowbrick, for example the Coldest Journey and The Dark Ice Project. So even though the reviews are scarce the track record seems good.


The YB v3 is not especially small or especially cheap but it is robust as a brick and has about all the functions you’d need in recreational outdoor sports or on a more demanding expedition. It’s easy to use and the battery life is good. The pricing is flexible and you basically pay only for what you need and use. In my opinion the YB v3 is (arguably) the best two-way satellite messaging and tracking device on the market.

And in case I forgot to mention: It just works!

Again in Sarek National Park in September 2012.

N checking messages at the Sarek National Park in September 2012.


The YB v3 is available directly from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd. You can order it easily from their website. Prices start from £399 (around 470 EUR or 615 USD). Depending on your needs, I’d advice getting the “Standard” model for general outdoors use. I think that the Bluetooth is worth the extra £50.

For those living down-under the Yellowbrick (and some interesting Rock7 products) are available from G-layer.

– – –

Disclaimer: Yellowbrick Tracking offered me a free unit with free use as a sponsorship arrangement for the Vatnajökull 2012 expedition. After the expedition I continued testing the unit on different trips before returning it back to Yellowbrick Tracking and reviewed it here because I genuinely think it’s a great product.


Social Hiking in the North

Seems that way too many of my posts start with the words ”it’s been silent here lately”. But… Well, it’s the truth. During the last two months I haven’t had motivation for bloggin, instead I’ve been working a bit and foraging quite a lot but haven’t done any hiking or similar outdoor activities (goes hand in hand with the blogging motivation). I’ve also spent quite some time figuring how to spend the next year or so. I had few cool plans and worked hard to carry them out but they got crashed…

But that’s not a reason to be depressed as it also means that I have time to do something else instead… Go hiking! And I guess hiking is also better topic for a blog post than writing about crashed future plans. (Though I might mention them in the future related to other topics.)

So, this post is about the plans and how you can follow things online.

Plans, plans, plans

The plan (named Hiking North) is to do three separate trips in the Northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland:

– Moskkugáisi Traverse: A fast & light style peak bagging and packrafting traverse from Signaldalen (Norway) to Kilpisjärvi (Finland).
– Poroeno-Reisaelva: A packraftring trip including some lakes and sections of Poroeno and Reisaelva rivers from Kilpisjärvi (Finland) to Saraelv (Norway).
– Sarek National Park: A week+ roundtrip hiking in Sarek National Park (Sweden) starting from Suorva.


Pältsan in July 2011.

The first trip, the Moskkugáisi traverse, is named after the highest peak on the route. I’ll be doing the trip with my good friend Tuomas (Who is working at Kilpisjärvi as a Wilderness guide for the autumn). The general plan is to:

– start from the valley of Signaldalen in Norway on Thursday 22.8.
– hike/climb to Bárrás (1419m)
– traverse the mountainous peaks of Pältsan (1442m), Moskkugáisi (1516m) and Juoksavátnjunni (1450m) in Sweden
– camp somewhere near Pältsastugan
– hike to Kummaeno and float it with packrafts to Finland
– hike along the road to Kilpisjärvi for cold beers.

This means some 60+km of hiking with decent elevation gain and about 30km of packrafting and we’ll try to complete it in two days. Have to see how it goes. The route should provide a bit of challenge, great views (weather permitting) and a nice gentle float with occasional sections of class II white water.

I tried to pack light but have to also take the autumn weather and temps into account. And my packraft and paddle are also quite heavy. As is my camera. Full skin-out weight in the start will be around 15 kg. For those interested, a pdf gear list of my planned kit for this trip is available here: Moskkugaisi-Traverse

Poroeno-Reisaelva packrafting

In camp while packrafting the Poroeno in July 2011.

The second trip is a packrafting trip with my girlfriend N. The plan is to:

– start from Kilpisjärvi probably on Sunday 26.8.
– hike along the Kalottireitti (Nordkalottleden) trail to Meekojärvi
– packraft the lakes to Poroeno river
– packraft along the Poroeno to the Norwegian border
– hike from ??? to Reisadalen
– packraft the Reisaelva as far as we can

We’ve planned it as a six-day trip with roughly 60:40 ratio of hiking and packrafting. Hiking along the trail is very easy but when in Norway we’ll hike completely off-trail in remote wild area but the terrain should be quite easy. The Poroeno section will have some challenging class IV rapids that we will portage as N doesn’t have any white water experience. But she’s a quick learner and we can probably get away with only few portages as the water level should be low. The lower part of Reisaelva that we’ll packraft should be easy, wide river with decent flow so there shouldn’t be any problems. The highlights of the trip will include the Meeko valley, the incredibly beautiful Reisadalen valley, covering some terrain completely new to me and hopefully some good packrafting.

For this trip I’ll be taking a bit more gear than for the Moskkugáisi Traverse bringing the full skin-out weight in the start to 20 kg mark. The core of the kit will remain about the same but if you’re interested in the details, take a look at the gear list: Poroeno-Reisaelva

Sarek National Park

Sarek in March 2010.

The third trip will be again with N. We will head to Sarek National Park in Sweden for a week+ roundtrip. The only solid plan we have is to start from Suorva dam on the North-East border of the National Park and do a roundtrip in the central part of the park. We will be packing food for about nine days and will be taking crampons for glacier travel but probably no packrafts. If weather permits we will try to bag some peaks and enjoy the views but time will tell how it goes…

Sarek is awesome in winter and should be equally awesome also in autumn. There are high alpine peaks, glaciers, big beautiful valleys, rich wildlife (including lynx, wolf, wolverine and bear!) and so on but very few visitors and no trails in the central parts of the park. Sounds great!

Again most of the kit for the Sarek trip will be the same but there are few minor adjustments and I’ll change the packrafting kit for crampons and hiking poles. And again, here’s a gear list for the details: Sarek-National-Park

Following the trips

As most of the trips will take place far away from cell phone reception I will be using a Yellowbrick satellite messaging device so I can share my position, progress and other information.

The Yellowbrick is state-of-the-art piece of kit that I’m testing for them and I will be using it at least to:
– send tracking signal every now and then so you can follow me on my YBlog page http://my.yb.tl/Vatnajokull2012
(The url is a relic from the ski expedition across Vatnajökull glacier earlier this year.)
– send tweets if there is something cool to share or the plans change
– maybe send a blog post or two from the wild using Yellowbrick App on my Samsung Galaxy Xcover

The coolest thing is that Yellowbrick is compatible with Social Hiking! I’ve just started using the Social Hiking service and I’m still only learning but it enables creating interactive maps showing my progress and the related (social) media. During the trips it will mostly mean plotting my tweets and blog posts on the map with my route. After the trips I’ll be also adding pics and maybe some other media too…

You can see all my maps on the Social Hiking site: http://www.shareyouradventure.com/user/maps/korpijaakko

In addition I’m planning also writing a short post to my blog after each trip.

Enjoy the rest of the summer! I’m quite sure I will…

– – –

And a little reminder: Remember also to enjoy the free berries, mushrooms and other delicacies of the season! At least in Finland there’s plenty of ripe blueberries, lingon berries are soon ripe and there’s a lot of delicious mushrooms. And according to Joe’s post, it’s the same thing in Norway.

Satellite communiation: Follow-up 1

Not so long ago I wrote a post about different satellite communication devices available for outdoors use. And as many of the devices were brand new for the market there wasn’t too much user experiences available by the time. This is a follow-up and addition to the original post introducing some new satellite communication tools and listing few links to first-hand experience posts of some devices. As the short-burst-data technology (Iridium 9602 SBD satellite modem) behind these devices is quite new, there is a lot of things happening and devices coming up. I’ll keep following the market and post follow-ups when interesting things emerge. For the basic background information, please check the original post.

More satellite messaging & tracking devices

BriarTek Cerberlink

Picture stolen from the Cerberus website.

Essentially Cerberus Cerberlink is a satellite messaging device very similar to Delorme InReach and Yellowbrick YB3 devices:

– Cerberlink uses Iridium network.
– It has a GPS positioning system enabling tracking.
– It works as a two-way communication device, as a standalone unit sending pre-programmed messages or paired with a smart phone it can send 160 character messages and receive messages up to 1600 characters.
– And of course it can be used to send a distress message.

Another interesting thing is that in addition to being Android compatible (via Bluetooth as the other devices) the Cerberlink is also iPhone compatible (unlike the Delorme InReach) and Blackberry compatible (unlike Inreach or Yellowbrick YB3). The Cerbertouch app is also available as a standalone app working on the phone GPS and using GSM network. And there is also an open API for all you nerds out there to make it better.

The device is on the same line with the Delorme InReach: It weights 186  grams and fulfills the IP67 standards (i.e. is shock and waterproof). The recommended operation temperature is from -20C up to +55C. The device has a build-in 2000 mAh Li-Po battery that gives 60 days of standby time and 5-6 days of on-time. This is probably enough for most users and there are some smart battery saving functions. And, of course, it can be recharged on the field.

The messages are transmitted trough Cerbercenter webservice and it also supports social media connection. The Cerbercenter can also send user alert messages about bad weather or geopolitical conflicts on the area. Also distress messages are transmitted to chosen emergency contacts via Cerbercenter that can provide concierge service but they also clearly and honestly state that “we are not a Rescue Coordination Center (RCC)” and “The Cerberus system is not designed to take the place of a PLB or EPIRB..

The Cerberlink is not especially cheap with one-year plan costing 499 USD (383 EUR) for the device and additional 32,95 USD (23,30 EUR) every month. This includes 60 messages per month and unlimited tracking. The rental plans are quite competitive costing 64,95 USD (50 EUR) for two weeks (20 messages) or 89,95 USD (69,10 EUR) for four weeks (40 messages). The Cerberlink seems to be only available online through the company itself.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, works as stand-alone or with smart phone (Android, Blackberry and iPhone),  rugged enough, global coverage, the smart phone app also available as stand alone

E-Track Epsilon

Picture stolen from the E-Track website.

The E-Track Epsilon is more targeted for the company and government segments like the Solara in the original post. The features interesting for an outdoor enthusiast would be the already familiar:

– Global coverage of Iridium network
– GPS positioning and tracking
– Two-way communication with predefined or free messages
– Distress message

The E-Track is a stand-alone unit only, so no need or possibility to use a smart phone with it. Though I think that writing a long free message with a virtual keyboard operating with four arrow keys does suck… Luckily you can save 10 predefined messages in addition to 20 outgoing and 20 incoming messages. The tracking function can send the position of the device with intervals reaching from every second to every 18,2 hours (yes, very interesting interval) and it can start automatically when the device is moved. The Epsilon can also send messages with preprogrammed times and dates which might be useful for some.

The E-Track Epsilon is quite heavy weighting 310 grams. It meets the IP67 standards and can operate in temperatures ranging from -40C to +85C which is very good temperature range. The Epsilon uses three AA batteries (anything from Lithium and Alkalines to rechargeables). Nice thing is that is had an embedded battery charger so you don’t need an additional charger for the batteries on longer trips. E-Track offers a Cartoweb software for managing Epsilon devices and for example it enables remote controlling of the units which probably isn’t much use for an outdoor recreationalist.

I didn’t find any prices for the device or plans but I guess it is expensive being targeted for the company and government users.

See also the incredibly small 60 gram E-Track Sigma. If all you need is satellite tracking and a way to shout “Help!” this might be your choise, at least if you like cracking grams. 😉

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, stand-alone unit, global coverage, some smart autonomous functions, probably expensive, not for regular outdoor recreationalist

Geopro SHOUT Nano

Picture stolen from the Geopro website.

Geopro’s SHOUT Nano is another satellite messaging device targeted to the company and government segments and thus not that much in the interests of an outdoor people. It has the typical features:

– Iridium network
– GPS positioning and tracking
– Two-way communication with predefined or free messages
– Emergency message

Just like the E-Track the SHOUT Nano is a stand-alone unit only. It has a dedicated covered Emergency button and the emergency use in general seems to be well thought. The other features are quite typical and seem to be designed towards business and government use. The device weights 185 grams including a built-in field rechargeable 1920 mAh Li-ion battery. The temperature range is from -40C to +85C but the device is not IP67 certified or similarly rugged.

The traffic from Shout Nano is transmitted via  Geopro’s own network (advertised to be very secure and very reliable) and the business oriented user interface and management tool is Geopro’s own web application with a monthly fee of 17.50 USD (13 EUR).

The Geopro SHOUT Nano costs around 850 USD (650 EUR) so it’s not cheap. There is a heavier IP66 certified device Geopro Messenger available for 700 USD (535 EUR). The Geopro devices are available from few retailers. There is a 50 USD (38 EUR) software license and the monthly fee for each device is 17.50 USD (13 EUR). In addition the messages (outgoing and incoming) cost from 0,20 to 0,06 USD (0,15-0,05 EUR) depending on the bundle. Not that cheap.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, stand-alone unit, global coverage, expensive, not for regular outdoor recreationalist

User experience

Satellite messaging devices have many applications and naturally first user experiences usually come from the user groups that have the money for new toys… In this case it seems to be the boating and yachting segment. Thanks to the rich people with their big boats, there are some good reviews and first looks about some of the devices I’ve covered in this or in the original post:

Panbo The Marine Electronics blog has a nice two part review of the Delorme InReach. There are also some related comments with testing and some spotted problems (mainly with receiving messages). But there is also information that Delorme is actively working on the software and constantly making it better. Here is the first part of the review about the device itself and here is the second part about the web interface.

Now there are also some real user experiences about Yellowbrick YB3 from a Patagonia icecap expedition. This is very much worth reading. But it’s also worth taking into account that the review is (apparently) of a pre-production model as most of the suggested “future enhancements” are now available as standard features.

– – –

In addition to these reviews and user experience reports there might be more already and certainly there will be more. And probably there will be even more similar devices available in future. So if you’re interested in one or the other of these devices, stay alert and see how they work in real life. And I wouldn’t mind you posting links or your own experiences about satellite communication devices!

Satellite communication!

Lately I’ve spent quite a lot of time trying to get a hold of all the different satellite communication options available for outdoor adventurers and I though it would be nice to share my findings with you. This is a sort of state of the market report limited to the devices that may interest outdoor adventurers. The post is not based on my personal experience with all these devices and technologies but mostly on information from the manufacturers or from secondary sources.

As the technology is new and experiences on these devices are just starting to accumulate I will be writing updates to this post in the future.

– The first update Satellite communication: Follow-up 1 with three new devices and couple of hands-on review links is online.

Basics of communication satellite networks

Somewhere there in the night sky is a big bunch of communication satellites...

Satellite phones, messaging devices and modems work with the same principle than your typical cellphone but instead of base station masts the signals are transmitted via specialized communication satellites. And just like there are different cellphone networks by different operators there are also different satellite networks with differing covera. These can be divided into two main types of networks:

Some satellites are geosynchronous (GEO) i.e. they appear stationary when observed from the surface of the Earth. This means that each satellite covers a fixed area and to make contact trough the satellite you must have somewhat unobscured line-of-sight from your communication device to the satellite. The advantage of a GEO satellite network is that they can reach near global coverage with only a few satellites meaning that they are relatively cheap to build. In addition these satellites can offer relatively high band widths for data services. The disadvantage is naturally encapsulated in the word near meaning that these systems don’t have a true global coverage and even some local obstacles like dense vegetation, buildings or hills can prevent the use of a such network. Maybe the most well-known networks using GEO satellites are the ones by Inmarsat (11 satellites covering everything between latitudes -82 to +82 but not the polar regions) and Thuraya (three satellites, see coverage). Inmarsat is widely used in ships and aircrafts but nowadays offers also handsets for consumers. Thuraya offers compact cell phone like handsets that are for example widely used by climbers in Himalaya region.

Then there are Low-Earth-Orbiting (LEO) satellites. These satellites orbit the Earth on relatively low orbits (around 1000km or so while  GEO satellites are about 35000km away) and on high-speed. This means that a contact from communication device to a certain satellite exists only for some minutes and several satellites are needed to keep up an continuous coverage. This enables true global coverage with not much problems caused by local obstacles but it requires a lot of satellites and is thus very expensive to set up. There are only two commercial communication systems based on LEO satellites and both went bankrupt while launching but are now operational. The systems are Globalstar and Iridium. Globalstar network uses 52 satellites but the coverage is limited because the satellites also need a line-of-sight to a ground station to transmit the signal. In addition Globalstar doesn’t cover the polar regions. Iridium network consists of 66 satellites and offers the only commercial true global coverage from pole to pole.

Satellite phones

Satellite phones are starting to become everyday tools of outdoor adventurers. They are more of a rule than exception on travels to distant places and things like the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic require the participants to carry a sat phone as a safety device. I won’t go into details of different satellite phone models and their use in this post but I think that they are worth a few words.

When there is coverage (see the chapter above for differences in satellite network coverages) sat phones work much like your cell phone: you can make calls, receive calls and often also send and receive short messages. Some models also enable sending and receiving e-mail and even surfing the web (with a low-speed though). The voice quality is likely a bit worse than on your cell phone and the use might be a bit more complicated but not much. Sat phones can also be used as modems for laptops and tablets to send and receive e-mail or update expedition websites (but for example with Iridium phone the data rate is around 2,4 kbit/s so you can forget uploading HD video on the go or watching Youtube in the tent…)

Janne trying to get a laptop & Iririum 9555 combination working at Helsinki-Vantaa airport before leaving to Svalbard.

The basic problem with sat phones is that they are expensive and often even more expensive to use. You can get an old used model for a few hundred euros/dollars but many new phones cost well over 1000 euros/dollars and for casual use it’s almost always best idea to rent one.

And as said, using the phone is often even more expensive than buying one. For example the monthly fee of a post-paid Iridium plan is around 50USD  and a 500 minutes pre-paid voucher, good for one year, costs around 650 USD. Thuraya and Inmarsat offer cheaper options for those who don’t need the global coverage of Iridium network. Thuraya sat phones can be even used with Finnish Elisa GSM Sim-card. Used this way the price per minute is quite high but fixed monthly costs can be really low and with some phone models you can also use the cheaper GSM network when available. Another problem with sat phones is that they require quite a lot of power if used to send regular updates. This means that spare batteries, solar panels, chargers or similar heavyish things soon enter the scene on longer trips.

Getting power for sat phone, laptop and bunch of other gadgets in Svalbard.

I’ve used Iridium sat phones and plan to do so also in the future when the situation requires taking one with me. But often satellite phones are unnecessarily expensive for casual outdoor adventurer and a cheaper and simpler device would be sufficient. Luckily, there is an increasing amount of other satellite based options available.

In Finland satellitephones are available for example from Hansa Baltic and Savantum (a terrible website but a lot of good stuff).

Satellite messaging & tracking devices

SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger

Picture stolen from the SPOT website.

SPOT is probably the first relatively cheap satellite messenger targeted for outdoor adventurers. The latest version is called SPOT 2 (a.k.a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger) and it is upgraded from the original SPOT (a.k.a SPOT Personal Tracker) device but the two are about the same. SPOT uses Globalstar satellite network meaning that it doesn’t have a true global coverage which starts to show already on the Northern parts of Scandinavia. Another limitation is that the SPOT is only capable of one-way messaging: When you push the button, the device does what it can meaning that it shouts the pre-programmed message out real load and hopes that a satellite pickes up the message. But there is no way knowing if the message went through or not (despite SPOTs marketing material suggesting something else).

SPOT 2 is the lightest of the devices listed here and weights 147 g. It works with 3 AAA batteries and I’ve seen the original SPOT working for at least two weeks in Nordic winter conditions with a single set of batteries. SPOT has a build-in GPS so the device should always know it’s location and send this information with every message. If there is no GPS fix, only SOS message is send. SPOT 2 can send four different pre-programmed messages: OK, custom message, Help and SOS. All the messages are transmitted into pre-chosen e-mails or cell phones. In addition the SOS message is transmitted to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center which then should alert local authorities and rescuers. In addition SPOT can send tracking messages every 10  minutes if the feature is activated.

RRP for SPOT 2 is 179 EUR and one-year plans cost 99 EUR per year including an unlimited amount of messages. This makes SPOT probably the cheapest satellite messaging device.

I’ve seen SPOT working very well on the fells of Sarek National Park in Northern Sweden (around 8 messages per day for two weeks, every message went through) but I’ve also seen it fail miserably in Southern Finland (maybe only every third tracking message came through). I’ve also read about SPOT saving lives but I’ve also read about serious problems with the device and even more problems with SPOT’s customer service. Whether you’d trust the SPOT or not is up to you.

SPOT track from a ski trip in Sarek National Park in March 2010.

There is also a device called SPOT Connect (made by Delorme, by the way) that enables sending 41 character messages from a smart phone via Globalstar satellites. It costs 199 euros and the plans cost the same 99 euros per year. But if you are interested in this kind of product, check the Delorme InReach below.

In Finland SPOT is available from some outdoor shops and online for example from Marinea. And you can also rent one for example from Savantum or from Vaiska.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, preset messages, 1-way, cheap, not global coverage, possibly unreliable

Delorme InReach

Picture stolen from the InReach website.

Delorme InReach is the new kid in the block. As a stand-alone unit it is very similar to SPOT (Remember Delorme making the SPOT Connect devices?) but on the other hand, it’s something completely different. The main differences are:

– InReach uses Iridium satellites enabling a true global coverage.
– InReach is a two-way device, meaning that the user gets confirmation whether message went through or not.
– InReach can pair with Android smart phone (or Delorme Pw-60n GPS device) via Bluetooth thus enabling sending and receiving 160 character messages via the Iridium satellite network to any e-mail address, cell phone or other InReach device in the world.

The InReach is quite rugged (i.e. shock proof, dust proof and water proof at least down to 1 meter for 30 minutes). It is a bit chunkier than SPOT 2 weighting nearly 200 g but it also floats. The InReach works with two AA lithium batteries which I prefer over the AAA batteries. Also the InReach has a build-in GPS and it includes location data to every message. As a stand-alone device it can send pre-programmed text messages and a SOS message that is transmitted into GEOS International Emergency Response Center – just like with the SPOT messenger. But with InReach the user gets to know if the messages went through and get confirmation that GEOS has notified the SOS message. InReach is also capable of tracking with an interval ranging from 10 minutes up to 4 hours. And the best part is that with the help of Android smart phone (or Delorme Pw-60n GPS device) you can use the InReach to send and receive text messages just like using your cell phone but without the limitations of cell phone coverage. This enables also chatting with the GEOS in case of an emergency.

The regular price for InReach is 249 USD (185 EUR) and there are three different plans available starting from 9,95 USD (7,40 EUR) per month. The minimum contract is for one year but during the time you can change from plan to another (though downgrading into cheaper plan costs extra). Sending emergency messages is free as is tracking on the two more expensive plans. The price for each send or received message varies from 1,50 USD to 0,25 USD depending on the plan.

The InReach was just launched few weeks ago so there are no real user experiences yet but I bet there is a lot of reviews and “first looks” writings coming up.

At the moment the InReach is not available in Finland but there is a bunch of resellers shipping worldwide.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, works as stand-alone or with Android smart phone, cheapish, rugged enough, global coverage

Yellowbrick YB3

Picture stolen from the YellowBrick website.

YellowBrick is better known as a tracking device for yachts but is has also been used for example in Antarctica. I recall for example Finnish Teemu Lakkasuo (solo attempt to South Pole) having problems with his early YellowBrick unit in 2008 but apparently the problems have been solved and the model has been totally updated – and it looks very, very promising indeed! The YellowBrick is maybe a bit more serious communication device better suited for long trips in remote places than for the casual weekend stroll in the hills but you can decide that yourself.

The New YellowBrick YB3 uses the Iridium network delivering a global coverage and has a build-in GPS, just like the InReach above. The device weights 305 grams and is shock, dust and waterproof (IP67). The YellowBrick has a build-in rechargeable battery that last for 68 days if sending a tracking message every hour and if sending a message only once a day it can last up to whopping 389 days!In addition to tracking it can do a hell lot more. There is a small display and few buttons on the device itself to send preset messaged (you can make a lot of these). Pairing the YB3 with Android smart phone or iPhone via Bluetooth enables sending and receiving customized messages up to 1000 characters. And the device has also a dedicated alert button (hidden under the black cover on top of the unit) for emergencies.

It seems that there is only one YB3 device but it is available in four different variations each having a bit differing features enabled by different software. The price of a single unit ranges from 399 GBP to 599 GBP (466-699 EUR). The monthly fee for a single account is 8 GBP (9,30 EUR) and you have to pay only for the months when you actually use the device. The monthly fee doesn’t include any messages or data traffic. These are paid  with credits bought independently. One tracking message costs 1 credit and as does every 50 characters of text. The price per credit hovers around 0,10 GBP (0,12 EUR) depending on the bundle.

Like the InReach the Yellowbrick YB3 has just been released (in November 23rd 2011) and there is not too much real-life information about the device but for example Sarah Outen seems to be using the YB3 on her long way from London to London and I bet the YB3 will be soon seen on polar regions as well.

The YB3 is available at least directly from the company website.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, works as stand-alone or with Android smart phone or iPhone, rugged enough, very good battery life, global coverage

Solara (Fieldtracker 2000 and 2100)

Picture stolen from the Solara website.

The Solara Fieldtrackers are quite similar to the YellowBrick YB3 above but they seem to be even more serious pieces of kit – at least judging by specs and price. It is listed here mostly as a curiosity and because I see it possibly as the best available technology in satellite messengers (be it just compactible with Bluetooth devices…)

Also the Solara uses Iridium satellite network enabling global coverage and has a build-in GPS for positioning.The Fieltracker 2100 weights 500 or 400 grams depending on the battery. It starts to be quite a heavy piece of kit but it is also even more rugged than the devices listed above (i.e. it’s very much shock, vibration, dust, water, coldness and altitude proof). Both Fieldtrackers have a build-in rechargeable battery. They also have a build-in keypad and display (that works at least down to -42C!) making them stand-alone devices. The Fieldtrackers have a tracking and emergency message functions and they are also capable of sending and receiving text messages. Messages can be either preset or can be typed with the build-in keypad.

Solara Fieldtrackers are not cheap. They cost around 1500 USD (1120 EUR), activating the unit costs 60 USD, monthly fee is 50 USD (minimum 2,5 months) and includes 1200 messages and basic tracking. Extra messages are available for 4 USD per 100 messages.

Solara Fieldtrackers have been used on polar regions and other foreign areas and seem to be favored by scientific programs and similar government users.

The Solara Fieldtrackers are available from a bunch of resellers.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, stand-alone unit, expensive, very rugged, global coverage

PLBs i.e. Distress Beacons

The very small picture stolen from the McMurdo website.

Strictly speaking distress beacons are not satellite communication devices as they can only do one thing: Send an emergency signal when you activate them. But that is something these devices do very well. They are build solely to inform the authorities and rescuers that you are in trouble and to make finding you easier. They send signal on 406MHz frequency that is then picked up by a Cospas-Sarsat network (a specialized network for Search & Rescue use consisting of GEO and LEO satellites and other terminals). In addition some beacons can transmit your location with the help of build-in GPS and they also send locationing signal on 121,5MHz frequency.

If you need only a safety device to help you to get you out from a trouble and have no need for additional communication, a PLB might just be what you are looking for. Typically the weight of such device is around 150-200 grams and they work with internal battery that is good for 5 years or so and has to be then changed by authorized professional.

In Finland PLBs (McMurdo brand in this case) are available for example from Marinea.  The beacons need to be registered and in addition to the initial purchase cost owning one in Finland costs about 20 EUR per year.

Summary: GPS in some models, good (the best?) way to alert help, 1-way emergency messaging, reasonable price on the long run, global coverage


As a summary I might say that there are a lot of options for satellite based communication/messaging and there are probably more to come. Most outdoor aficionados don’t need any of these and one should never rely one’s life on an electronic device. But they might be highly useful in many situations and sometimes even save your life.

Do you have experience with any of these satellite messaging devices? Or maybe with something else? If so, please share your insight with me and other readers and leave a comment!