Whether it be in the wilderness or at a crowded event, there is nothing more frustrating for many people than the dreaded no signal icon or "message not sent" being displayed on their smartphone display. GoTenna is a pen-sized Bluetooth device that is designed to keep your group connected to each other, even when there's no network around. We tried out a pair deep in the southern Rocky Mountains to see how they performed.
Think of GoTenna as a device and app pairing that turns your smartphone into a walkie talkie, but for texting instead of voice; so, really it's more like a walkie textie, you might say. GoTenna essentially creates a wireless connection between anyone else with a GoTenna in range, so you can send texts and share GPS locations with a specific individual, or just give a "shout" out to anyone else who might have a GoTenna in the area.
It's basically designed for times when you would otherwise require a two-way radio or similar walkie talkie setup to communicate, but without the need to carry around a bulky radio and with the added bonuses of end-to-end encryption and being able to share geolocation data, which is particularly handy in outdoor and emergency uses.
Whether or not trading talking for texting as the primary medium of getting a message across is an improvement or a sacrifice likely depends on your situation and generation. Plenty of 2-way radios don't exactly do a great job of delivering crystal clear audio, but tapping out a message on your smartphone isn't always convenient in an environment that could be cold, wet or otherwise precarious.
We found GoTenna to be highly reliable in the backcountry areas of the southern Rockies in Colorado and New Mexico, including areas where cell networks are strong, spotty and nonexistent. Using a pair of GoTennas, one connected at different times to either a Samsung Galaxy Phone or an iPhone and the other connected to a Nexus 5X Android phone, we were able to keep in touch, even when separated by more than two miles (3.2 km) with multiple peaks and valleys in between.
There was something a little magical about being able to send texts with no signal and receiving location data that shows up on a nice set of offline maps in the GoTenna app. The experience isn't much different from regular texting or a group messaging app like Slack, except of course that the whole thing is off-the-grid and only works within the GoTenna's range, which is roughly a mile (1.6 km) in urban areas and up to four miles (6.4 km) in rural areas. Naturally, there are other factors that affect the range, like elevation and terrain.
The only time we had a hard time with GoTenna was when we attempted to communicate between vehicles driving at highway speed. None of our messages went through at all, even though the two cars we were attempting to message back and forth from were within a half-mile (800 m) of each other.
Each GoTenna measures roughly 5.8 in x 1 in x 0.5 in (147.3 mm x 25.4 mm x 12.7 mm) and when in use, an antenna must be extended from one end, increasing the length by 2.2 in (55.8 mm). It comes with a handy button-snap loop at one end, which allows it to be fastened to the outside of your backpack or belt loop, where it will get better range than if it's buried at the bottom of a bag.
GoTenna connects to a mobile device using Bluetooth Low-Energy, meaning it needs to remain within about 20 feet (6 m) of the device to work. The GoTenna app is available free for Android or iOS. When you type a text or ask the app to share your phone's location (which it can roughly ascertain even when your GPS is not actively communicating with a satellite), it is sent between the GoTenna(s) within range via long-range radio waves (151-154 MHz). It's really rather old technology married with the new digital mobile world.
You can send texts up to 160 characters, location information and even emojis, but there is no support for voice or images. GoTenna says it decided to limit communication to these modes to be able to keep the devices smaller, lighter, less expensive and extend battery life. Each GoTenna is charged via a regular USB charger and included cords, which are customized just a bit in that the male end of the cord is longer than most USBs to get at the port on each GoTenna, which is inset more than most USB micro ports. As a result, you may have a hard time getting one of the other USB cables in your life to work, so you don't want to lose them.
GoTenna lasts as much as 20 hours or more per charge on standby mode and we had no problems with it dying on us. You're probably much more likely to have problems with your phone's battery giving out first. It's also water- and dust-resistant and weighs just 1.8 oz (52 g).
In the backcountry, we tend to feel like the simplest solutions are often the best. GoTenna isn't a simpler solution than a walkie-talkie because it requires at least four devices (the GoTennas and attached smartphones) functioning properly for the system to work. However, the location sharing ability GoTenna brings probably makes it worth throwing in your pack in addition to a radio, especially since it weighs almost nothing.
Other potential use cases, like one-to-one encrypted communication in any environment, also make it worth considering if you have a need for that sort of thing.
A pair of GoTennas can be ordered online for $199.
The company video below demonstrates the GoTenna.
Product page: GoTenna