a man and boy get their canoe unstuck in the boundary waters

How to be Reachable in the BWCA (Without Cell Phone Coverage)

After a careful look at ATT, T-Mobile, and Verizon cell coverage maps around the Boundary Waters, it’s safe to say that finding a cellular signal is unlikely and shouldn’t be a major part of your emergency planning. Speaking from experience, don’t count on being able to live-tweet your BWCA adventure. But does that mean you have to be completely cut off from help in the event of an emergency? Not necessarily.

There are a few ways to ensure that you could contact someone (or at least communicate your exact whereabouts) while in the remote wilderness of the Boundary Waters.

Satellite-enabled devices

Unless you bring a messenger pigeon along on your canoe trip, a satellite-enabled device is your ticket to being reachable in the Boundary Waters.

Because satellites are far higher than cellular towers and constantly orbiting the planet, satellite-enabled devices can get signals where cellular carriers cannot—including the Boundary Waters. That said, even these devices are not perfect: the signal can be spotty and the devices themselves can be quite pricey.

There are three main categories for satellite-enabled devices (listed in order of least expensive to most):

  1. Personal Location Beacons (PLB)
  2. Satellite Messengers
  3. Satellite Phones

Personal Location Beacons in the BWCA

A PLB is a popular option for transmitting a distress call with your whereabouts in the Boundary Waters in the event of an emergency. A PLB is the least expensive option with the most basic features: all it does is send an SOS message to rescue agencies with your location. You can think of it as a parachute—you don’t use it unless you need it.

Why you might choose a PLB

  • Works in remote areas all around the world
  • The battery lasts for years (replacing the battery requires you to send it in)
  • No subscription fees
  • Tends to have a stronger signal than a satellite messenger

Why you might not choose a PLB

  • Can’t cancel an SOS call—so only use it in true emergencies requiring evacuation
  • You need to be able to communicate with someone at home

Satellite Messengers in the BWCA

Sattelite messengers are the next step up from a PLB. These devices can also send an SOS distress signal, but also offer a wide range of other communication options. For instance, do you want one-way messaging or two-way?

A one-way satellite messenger can send some pre-set messages to a family member with a single button. The messages are SOS, OK (for regular check-ins), and an option to create a custom message.

A two-way satellite messenger gives the ability to text back-and-forth with any cell number or email address. This is a particularly helpful option if needing to communicate specifics with a rescue crew – or to just hear from loved ones back home.

All satellite messengers require a subscription plan. With SPOT (a popular brand), these start at around $15/month for a seasonal plan up to 20 custom messages per month.

Why you might choose a satellite messenger

  • Works in remote areas all around the world, though coverage may vary by brand
  • Batteries can be recharged
  • In addition to SOS signals, you can also send (and possibly receive) non-emergency messages from home
  • Some messenger devices allow for two-way texting with rescuers after an SOS call. This also allows you to cancel an SOS call.

Why you might not choose a satellite messenger

  • Requires a subscription plan with the satellite company (fees vary widely but in the ballpark of $200-$300 per year)
  • A good signal can sometimes be elusive, requiring an unobstructed view of the sky (shouldn’t be an issue if you paddle out to the middle of a lake)
  • If you need the ability to have a conversation over the phone
  • If you don’t need the ability to send messages

Satellite Phones in the BWCA

Sattelite phones are the cream of the crop when it comes communication in the Boundary Waters. It’s the option that will feel most natural to us constantly-connected city folk. There are so many stories of paddlers who either missed something significant back home because they were unreachable or needed to talk through a complex problem with someone while out in the Boundary Waters. For these people, a satellite phone has become a non-negotiable item to pack.

Why you might choose a satellite phone

  • Need the ability to have voice calls with someone outside the wilderness
  • Batteries can be recharged

Why you might not choose a satellite phone

  • Most expensive option at around $1,000+ for the device plus 10-minute-per-month plans starting at $60/month.
  • Don’t need the ability to have live voice calls

Rent a satellite-enabled device for the BWCA

Some outfitters offer rentals on personal location beacons or messenger devices. If an outfitter doesn’t offer those, try a Google search for online companies that will rent one to you.

You can rent a satellite phone from GlobalCom for $25.99-$59.99 per week. Perfect for a Boundary Waters trip, if you require the added security.

Traditional wilderness communication methods

If you find yourself in a spot without a satellite-enabled device and need help, well, not all is lost. People have been encountering emergencies in the BWCA long before satellite phones. Some secondary methods of getting attention in the Boundary Waters include:

  • Blowing a whistle
  • Yelling
  • Send off an emergency flare
  • Start a fire
  • Send someone from your group to find help
  • Use a mirror to try to signal other campers or canoes for help

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to work with other parties to set up a rescue scenario. Perhaps someone will have a satellite device.


Things happen in the Boundary Waters. Things happen at home while you’re in the Boundary Waters, too. In order to be reachable in an emergency, it’s important to have reliable options besides a cell phone to call for help. Satellite-enabled devices are the best-in-class for wilderness safety communication. A 2-way satellite messenger seems like the best option to me.

Stay safe out there!