Editors' note, February 18, 2016: We've updated this review with details about real-world testing of GoTenna's range.
I love to venture into the wilderness to get away from it all, but I hate that once I get away from civilization, the dreaded "No Service" message pops up on my phone. It means that when I'm with a group of friends, there's no way we can stay in touch on a hike and I can't venture off out of fear of getting lost.
GoTenna combats this problem by creating a private wireless network you can use to chat with friends while you're out in the woods, or just in your backyard.
It's a handy system for when you're hiking with friends in a wooded area or during a disaster when wireless networks aren't reliable. For $200, you get two devices, each no larger than a granola bar, that communicate with each other, via a free app on your phone.
What the heck is a GoTenna?
GoTenna is a system that creates a wireless network that lets you send text messages along with your location between phones, when there's no cell phone service to be found. It's like a modern-day walkie-talkie, but for texting and sharing locations. It's not a complete replacement for your regular cell network though, because you can't use it for phone calls or going online -- that means no checking Twitter or Instagram either.
It uses radios to create a local network with a range of up to four miles or more. The radio and antenna is packed into a small, water-resistant and rugged device that can easily clip to your backpack. In our field testing, GoTenna held up well to a rainstorm and water splashes, but they aren't meant to work underwater.
So, why would I need this?
Without a wireless connection, cell phones are often useless in the wilderness, but GoTenna gives you another way to send messages.
You can use it to stay in contact while camping or hiking, to share locations of interesting places you find in the wilderness, or as an emergency device to get help if you get lost or hurt.
How do I use it?
You pull out the antenna to turn on the GoTenna and pair it with your iPhone or Android phone over Bluetooth. You'll need to keep the GoTenna close to your phone at all times, and the colorful strap on the back helps keep it hands-free.
All GoTenna devices can communicate with each other, so you can use them just between you and friend in the woods, or with a large group of people. However, you can only use one phone per GoTenna, so if you have a group of five people, you need five GoTennas.
In order to connect with someone to send private messages through the GoTenna app, you just need their phone number and name. The app also has two group chats, labeled Shouts and Emergency, where you can communicate with anyone else nearby who has a GoTenna device. Shouts is used to send out general messages and share interesting locations, while Emergency is used for emergencies only.
Another crucial part of GoTenna is the downloadable maps available for all seven continents, hundreds of countries and all 50 US states. You'll need to download one to share your location and see other's locations. You can also create pins on the map that you can reference later or send to others.
Why do I need two of these things?
GoTenna cannot communicate with a regular cell phone network, so you can't use it to send usual text messages or use the network it creates to go online. The radios can only communicate with other GoTennas, so you need at least two of them to send messages.