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Personal technology has come a long way in recent years. The advent of the smartphone era has put a great deal of computing power right in the palm of our hand, and given us the ability to communicate in ways that would have seemed impossible even a decade ago. But even with these advances, there are still places we visit that are so far off the grid that using a cell phone remains wishful thinking. Until recently, that left us with unreliable walkie-talkies, or costly satellite phones for staying in touch while on the go. But a new product called goTenna is looking to revolutionize the way we communicate in the backcountry, and it is doing so in an easy, more reliable, and affordable way.

The concept behind goTenna is a simple one. The device allows you to create your very own portable cell data network that lets you communicate with friends and family who are nearby via text messages. As the name implies, the goTenna is a small antenna that you attach to yourself, a backpack, or even a tent. When turned on, it can then connect to other goTenna devices that are within range, and send messages to other users via a special app developed for use specifically with the product. That app is available for both iPhone and Android, making cross-platform messaging a breeze.

Before we go too far into what the goTenna can do, lets be clear about one thing. All communication is strictly between connected goTenna units, and nothing else. There is no data link to a satellite, and you won’t be able to send a tweet or update your Facebook status from the summit of Everest for instance. These small antennas are designed for personal communications only, which still makes them highly valuable when traveling through remote areas.

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To set up the goTenna you must first pair your smartphone with your personal antenna using Bluetoot wireless connectivity, and download the goTenna app to your device. Once it is installed, you’re pretty much ready to go, although for it to work properly there must be another goTenna device within range that can receive the messages that you are sending out. On its own, the goTenna doesn’t let you do much of anything, but when there are other antennas within your vicinity, you begin to create a network that allows one-on-one messaging and group chats with friends. There is even a “shout” feature that will send your message to any other goTenna within range, whether you know the person using it or not.

The app has a few other handy tricks up its sleeve as well. In addition to messaging, it can also send GPS coordinates to other users, and even show your exact location by dropping a pin on a map. Detailed downloadable maps can be loaded onto your phone ahead of time and stored for use offline. That way, even without a data connection, you’ll still be able to use the feature effectively. Being able to see where your friends are at any given time will help you to find one another in the wilderness, and could potentially help locate someone who is lost or injured.

The exact range of the goTenna varies depending on a number of factors in the environment that surrounds you. In a busy urban setting for example, you may only be able to send messages up to a mile away thanks to all of the other radio signals that are bouncing through the atmosphere. But in the backcountry, that range can easily increase to 4 miles due to the lack of clutter on the radio frequencies, although terrain can still impact the distance. And if you climb to higher elevations, it could be possible to transmit messages as far as 7 miles or more, which is pretty impressive considering the size and weight of the device.

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The goTenna comes equipped with a built-in rechargeable battery that is good for about 20 hours of stand-by, during which the antenna is listening, but not sending or receiving messages. If you use the device to communicate, it becomes more active, which brings the battery life down some in the process. In my testing of the product, I saw significant reduction of battery life when actively using the device, but not in a way that it became worrisome. I still managed to work with the goTenna for the better part of a day without running into problems, and much like your smartphone, you’re probably going to recharge it overnight anyway.

While personally putting the device through its paces I found the goTenna to work pretty much exactly as advertised. It was incredibly easy to set-up and get working, and in the field it transmitted messages between devices quickly and seamlessly. The Bluetooth connection had no impact on the battery life my iPhone at all, and I gained the ability to communicate with my partner on the trail, even when a cell network wasn’t available.

When compared to other forms of backcountry communication, the goTenna is much less expensive than buying and using a satellite phone. Two goTennas will set you back $199, which seems like quite a bargain for those who frequent remote places. The device even has some benefits over using walkie-talkies as well, giving you the ability to “ping” the person you’re messaging to see if they are online, which makes it  much easier to know whether or not they recieved your message. When broadcasting using a walkie-talkie you simply send out your call, and hope for the best.

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On top of that, the ability to share GPS coordinates for your location could truly be a lifesaver. Thats a feature that isn’t duplicated by most other devices, and could truly be a game changer in terms of backcountry safety.

The goTenna is shipping its first round of products right now, with the promise to get all preorders to your doorstep before Christmas Eve. If you’re looking for a great last minute gift for the outdoor enthusiast on your list, this would certainly fit the bill, and goTenna has been kind enough to give us a discount code to save $15 on all orders. Just input “GEARINSTITUTE” at checkout to apply the savings. You’ll also want to be sure to select 2-day shipping in order to get it to your place in time for the holiday.

Not only is the goTenna a great way to stay connected in the backcountry, it makes travel through those remote places safer too. Find out more at goTenna.com.

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