Satellite communication tools are a big investment. The devices cost hundreds of dollars and require subscription plans that come with startup costs and monthly fees. They’re a good option if you’re heading into the backcountry, where cell service is nonexistent, but the cost of a contract—and the logistics of remembering when to activate and deactivate it for specific trips—is enough to turn many away. And for those who venture off the grid only occasionally, it may simply not be worth the expense. A startup called Bivy wants to fix that.
Bivy launched two years with a flagship guide app similar to All Trails for hiking and Mountain Project for climbing. Unlike those apps, however, Bivy isn’t single-sport focused. Pins on the map can represent everything from climbing crags to backcountry ski routes to river put-ins, with detailed course descriptions and information on mileage and elevation gain. Users can filter by activity and even by style (say, if you want to find a chute to ski, a crack to climb, or a waterfall to hike to), track their travels, and share their location with friends—at least when in range of a cell tower.
Now founder Vance Cook is using Kickstarter to launch a satellite communication tool that will allow users to continue using the app to stay in contact with friends and family when cell signals fade. Shipping in September, the Bivy Stick ($300) works like many other sat comm tools (think Garmin’s InReach), using the Iridium network to send messages, receive weather updates, and call for rescue via an SOS button. However, the Stick itself doesn’t have a keypad, screen, or physical SOS button. Instead, it uses Bluetooth to to put those functions on your smartphone’s screen.
The Bivy Stick comes just months after rollout of a similar device, called the Somewear, created by a group of Silicon Valley developers. Like the Bivy Stick, the Somewear acts as a conduit between your phone and the Iridium network, enabling you to send messages and SOS signals from the backcountry.
What’s different about the Bivy Stick? It entails no startup cost, contract, or monthly fee. Instead you buy credits. One credit equals one action (a text, a weather update, a two-hour period of location tracking). The base emergency package—ten credits—costs $18, and users pay extra for additional credits. Instead of purchasing a month’s worth of data you may never use, you can get just enough for a few days. The only caveat: the credits expire after 30 days, unless you pay a small fee to roll them over.
In many cases, the monthly plans offered by Garmin will be cheaper than Bivy’s credit system. Garmin’s cheapest plan is $15 per month (plus a onetime $25 activation fee) for ten custom messages, unlimited preset messages, and ten-cent location pings, and it can be suspended when the device isn’t in use. But the Bivy Stick is cheaper than most of its competitors: $130 more expensive than the Spot Gen3 ($170), but $50 cheaper than the Garmin InReach Mini ($350) and $150 cheaper than the Somewear Global Hot Spot ($450).
With comparatively low entry costs and a relatively high level of user-friendliness, the Bivy Stick may be ideal for weekend warriors and dollar-conscious athletes who need to send only a single message or location ping and are turned off by the hassle of frequently activating and suspending a subscription plan—in other words, the very people who might otherwise never invest in a sat comm device.
Of course, there’s a drawback to a sat comm device that works through your smartphone: cell batteries die. Bivy addresses this by equipping the Stick with a 6,000 mAh battery that the company claims can keep a cell phone set to airplane mode charged for three days. The device is 1 by 2 by 5.8 inches, like a larger version of the Goal Zero Flip 10 charger, and could easily take the place of the power pack you already carry in your pack.
We’ll be getting our hands on a test model soon and look forward to putting it through its paces.