Thursday, January 21, 2016

Gear Review: goTenna Personal Communications System

One of the biggest challenges we face while traveling in the backcountry is how to stay in touch with our companions in a place that has unreliable or completely nonexistent cell service. But a new product called the goTenna is looking to change that by giving us the tools we need to create our own personal cell data network that can facilitate messaging between mobile device.

In its purest form, the goTenna is a small, lightweight, portable antenna that connects to your smartphone or tablet (iOS or Android) via Bluetooth technology. Once paired with a mobile device, the goTenna then uses its own custom app to send text messages to other goTenna users who are either in your personal address book, or with the option to broadcast to any other goTenna devices that are within range. It is a simple and elegant solution that actually works quite well in the field.

Paring your smartphone or tablet with the goTenna is a simple affair. Modern Bluetooth connectivity is very easy to use, and it only takes a few seconds to get the two devices communicating with one another. After that, you simply hang the goTenna from your belt or backpack, or perhaps on the exterior of a tent, so that it can start sending and receiving messages.

The goTenna is powered by its own built-in, rechargeable lithium-ion battery. When in use, the device can stay in stand-by mode for approximately 20 hours. Stand-by mode means that it is listening for incoming messages, but isn't sending any out. Once you start communicating with it, the battery life does go down, but not at such a rate that I ever felt like it would run out of juice before the end of the day. Like you're smartphone, you will need to charge it each night however, which means on longer trips you'll need a portable battery pack or solar charger to keep it working.


Many backpackers and campers use two-way radios to stay in contact with one another in remote places, and obviously those devices have their advantages too. But the goTenna has a couple of nice options that help set it apart from those communications systems. For example, when you send a message to someone else using a goTenna you'll also receive a return receipt that lets you know that it was delivered. That way you can be sure that your companion is within range, and has gotten the note that you sent them.

Speaking of range, the powerful little antenna can broadcast to other devices over a surprisingly long distance, although it does have some limitations. In a city, where radio waves can cause interference, the range is limited to about 1 mile (1.6 km), although that can vary depending on your location. In the backcountry, that range extends to 4 miles (6.4 km), and possibly further depending on elevation and obstructions. Generally speaking that should allow you to stay in contact with traveling companions provided you don't wander too far apart.

The goTenna has another trick up its sleeve that could come in handy in the backcountry as well. The device can also share your location, providing others with your GPS coordinates. The goTenna app even has downloadable maps that can display that position, making it easier for you to find the other members of your party in a pinch.

It is important to point out that if you are completely off the grid, and without cell service, the goTenna won't provide the ability to make voice calls or pull data from a satellite or any other source. It is strictly used for direct communication with other goTenna devices, in a sense creating a personal network for you and your friends, as well as anyone else who might be in range. But if you can accept that limitation of the device, and realize that it is actually an affordable method for staying in contact in remote places, you'll find the system works quite well.

The device is built to be rugged enough to withstand the challenges of adventure travel, although as with most electronics some care is needed in handling it. The units themselves are lightweight, but durable, with solid protection from the elements. Having tested the goTenna myself, I'd be more worried about the survival of my iPhone in the backcountry than I would this product.

The goTenna is sold in pairs and is currently available for $199. Out of the box you have everything you need to get it up and working, including two charging cables. In terms of simple and effective communications solutions, they don't come any better than this.

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