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Alternatives to GoTenna for Off-Grid Communications

Nolan enjoys hiking in the Colorado backcountry when possible to practice drone and landscape photography.

GoTenna, a new way to communicate off the grid.

GoTenna, a new way to communicate off the grid.

Should Survivalists Consider GoTenna for Emergency Use?

A radio-based messaging device called GoTenna has caught the attention of preppers, survivalists, and outdoor adventurers who may need to use off-grid messaging when cell towers and landlines aren't available.

GoTenna is the product of a crowdfunding campaign and is designed to facilitate communication for up to four miles (possibly more in some cases) even when there is no cell phone service. It should also work when cell towers are jammed with too many calls, such as often happens at large outdoor events when too many people are using their phones.

How Does GoTenna Work?

The way that GoTenna works is that each user installs the app on their smartphone, then powers on the antenna transmitter. Messages are sent from the phone to the external GoTenna via Bluetooth. By pairing what is basically a two-watt VHF radio transceiver with your phone, you are able to send location info and text messages independent of Wi-Fi or cellular towers up to a few miles under ideal circumstances.

This sounds like something that preppers or survivalists might find useful when "doomsday" happens and all the cellular towers go dark, but there are some disadvantages to the device that preppers and survivalists may want to consider before forking out $200 for the pair. This article will examine the usefulness of GoTenna for those who venture into the backcountry.

Advantages of GoTenna

For those without any cell phone service, or those wishing to send encrypted messages without going through normal channels, GoTenna can provide reliable two-way messaging and location sharing up to four miles or more.

In some cases, the range of GoTenna can reach much farther, perhaps up to ten miles or more if both users are up at a high vantage point. Some users have reported up to fifty miles, though this kind of range is extraordinary and is not likely to happen very often in the real world.

The fact that it can work up to a few miles under good conditions can make it a reliable communication device for groups of climbers, hikers, and sportsmen, provided that the distance between the two parties does not become that great.

There are better, longer-range outdoor communication devices, such as GMRS radios on the market, however, a younger generation of outdoor adventurers may prefer to text instead of talk on two-way walkie-talkies.

The main advantages of GoTenna can be described as follows:

  • It's able to send encrypted messages between users at events such as concerts, etc.
  • It will work without a cell phone signal or Wi-Fi service.
  • It's able to send out "shouts" to any GoTenna user within range.
  • GoTenna is able to send your location to another user.
  • It's relatively small (8" when extended) and lightweight.
  • GoTenna is free to use and does not cost you any network messaging fees.
  • It's super lightweight and cool-looking.

Disadvantages of GoTenna

GoTenna can be a useful product for those who venture off the grid or for those who may be at events such as concerts where cell phone towers have become overloaded. However, there are some obvious disadvantages to GoTenna:

  • GoTenna is not a mesh network device. Unlike new smartphone phone apps such as FireChat, where the useful range of the network increases with each new user who joins it, GoTenna messages basically only travel from one to the other. More GoTennas in the area does not make the network larger or more robust.
  • GoTenna has a limited range in the backcountry compared to GMRS two-way radios or satellite messengers like the Delorme InReach, which can send a message from anywhere in the world with our without a smartphone-powered on.
  • GoTenna users can only send messages to other GoTenna users, unlike satellite messenger devices.
  • GoTenna has no dedicated SOS or distress call feature. You can send out a "shout" to any nearby owner of a GoTenna who is listening but at this stage of the product's adoption you may not get a response unless you are at a large event such as a concert where there may be several users of the device.
  • In order for communication to take place between persons, both GoTennas must be turned on. The app must also be running in the background and the phone's Bluetooth connection must be turned on. This is a lot of things that all must happen, along with four separate device batteries that must remain charged up for even two people to be able to communicate with one another.
  • Unlike satellite messengers such as the Delorme InReach, with GoTenna if either of your smartphones is dead you cannot send messages to each other. In a two-party group, all four devices (two phones and two GoTennas,) must be working and Bluetooth and the device's app must have not gotten disabled accidentally.
  • GoTenna does not work with all models of smartphones.

GoTenna Alternatives for the Backcountry

If you are looking for a device that you can use at planned outdoor events where everyone is on the same page as far as activating their GoTennas, then it may work really well for you. If on the other hand, you are looking for long-range outdoor communications or a beacon to call for help when off the grid in the great outdoors, then GoTenna is probably not the right device for you.

Delorme InReach

A better alternative would be a Delorme InReach satellite messenger, which can send two-way text messages to phones or other InReach devices anywhere on earth, as well as allow friends and family to know your exact location at all times on Google Maps if you activate the tracking feature.

Satellite messengers, or SOS-Only Devices

Satellite messengers can also send out an SOS call to a response center, have long battery life, are ruggedized for outdoor use, and do not require a smartphone to operate. Another SOS-only device is the personal EPIRB beacon. These are only for sending distress calls, yet they can work almost anywhere on the planet and do not require a subscription, only registration.

GMRS Radios

GMRS radios are fairly powerful two-way radios that can be bought for half the price of a pair of GoTenna's, or around $100 for a pair. Instead of two watts, they transmit at five watts and you may be able to reach other users in your area up to 10 miles or more if at a high elevation with no obstructions.

GMRS radios require a license, which costs $65 for five years. In some areas, you may be able to connect to GMRS repeater towers, which can boost the range between radios up to 100 miles. Note that only a handful of radios on the market are able to access GMRS repeaters and not all repeaters are open for public use.

FireChat, a GoTenna Alternative for the City

There is a relatively new phone app called FireChat that utilizes your smartphone's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities to send messages to other FireChat users without any cell phone network required. While the range between any two phones using Bluetooth alone may only be 70 meters or so, when users are connected to a Wi-Fi network or networks, then the effective range can be quite large.

If you begin to add in other FireChat users, then the mesh network increases in size as messages are passed (eventually) from phone to phone. FireChat can work with our without Wi-Fi service by using Bluetooth alone and queuing messages to bounce between FireChat users when they encounter each other.

To give you an idea of how well FireChat can work, during student protests in Hong Kong this past year, more than a half million users downloaded the app in China. As the mesh network grew with multiple connections and message hand-offs, the demonstrators were able to communicate across an entire city plus greater China and the world using only FireChat. What makes this an interesting alternative to the GoTenna for city use is that it is a free app that does not require external antennas and costs nothing to use.

During the Hong Kong protests, FireChat users were able to communicate over a wide area by creating a mesh network, something GoTenna is so far unable to do.

During the Hong Kong protests, FireChat users were able to communicate over a wide area by creating a mesh network, something GoTenna is so far unable to do.

Final Thoughts

If you are a prepper, survivalist, or serious outdoor adventurer, then you may find better alternatives to GoTenna for rugged, long-range communications. For real off-the-grid messaging it's hard to beat a two-way satellite messenger if you are willing to pay around $240 for the device and a minimum of $12 a month for a basic text messaging and distress calling plan.

On the other hand, for concert-goers or those engaging in planned outdoor activities over a one to four mile area and who only want text messaging and not voice communications, then the GoTenna could be a great choice.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on January 03, 2016:

It is always best to have alternative methods of communication, just in case one is non-function. It is a hefty price tag, though, so it will be interesting to see how well GoTenna does.