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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In an urban environment, the company says you can get about a mile of distance between GoTennas. Out in the wilderness, with fewer obstructions, you can communicate up to four miles away -- or even farther in wide open areas.
During testing, I could easily send messages through several floors in a big office building and out in a city park with about a mile between me and my testing partner. In denser urban areas, the GoTenna started having trouble sending messages when I was just shy of half a mile away from my friend. Then we tested the GoTenna along the Pacific coastline on a 9-mile stretch between the two antennas and we couldn't send messages over that distance. In a forested, mountainous area with 7 miles between me and my testing partner, we were able to get messages through to each other either.
For comparison, we tested GoTenna along with a set of two-way radios from Motorola that claim to have up to a 23-mile range. They outlasted the GoTenna in urban tests, though interference from other walkie-talkies in the area forced us to keep changing channels to talk. In the same forested area we tested the GoTenna, the walkie-talkies could not communicate with each other over seven miles.
Sharing my location with fellow GoTenna testers was easy, too, and fairly accurate. My friend and I tested this by sending locations to each other and confirming that we were exactly where GoTenna said we were. Occasionally, it took up to 30 seconds for my GoTenna to connect to my phone, but otherwise, I didn't have issues connecting and using it. The app lets you know when the device disconnects and I never had problems with it disconnecting unexpectedly.
The system is sold as a pair for $199. You can get it in two strap color options; orange and purple, and blue and green. The four-pack family option with all colors costs $389. The GoTenna apps are available for free on iOS and Android. Currently, you can only purchase the system on GoTenna's website.
That price is steep compared with that of most two-way radios, which have fewer features than GoTenna (including GPS), but often retail for less than $100. One big advantage walkie-talkies have over GoTenna is that most are powered by disposable batteries that you can easily swap out when they die. GoTenna has a 20-plus hour battery life and needs a USB device or outlet adapter for charging, so it's not ideal for multiday excursions into the wilderness where you have no place to recharge.
Still, GoTenna has its perks, which make it worth the price for frequent hikers and campers. The devices are smaller than walkie-talkies, and with 20-plus hours of battery life should get you through the better part of a full day of use. You can share your location with GoTenna's GPS features, which you cannot do with cheaper tw0-way radios. They work with both Android phones and iOS devices. Because GoTenna relies on text messages, it can be easier to communicate. Texts can be read at any time, and it's often easier to get a message across than through a two-way radio transmission.
While it's designed for outdoor adventures, GoTenna is also useful in other situations, such as outdoor festivals, concerts and sporting events, when there's a lot of people gathered in one place and cell service is spotty. It could also be extremely helpful during emergencies, like an earthquake or tornado, when wireless networks can get overloaded from too many people trying to use them at the same time.
The answer to that question really depends on your needs. For frequent campers and hikers, tw0-way radios are still a better deal and more reliable means of communication. As I mentioned above, you can score a four pack of basic walkie-talkies for half the cost of the GoTenna two pack. Plus, you can easily swap out the batteries in most walkie-talkies during a lengthy camping or backpacking trip.
On the flip side, if you're willing to spend the extra money, GoTenna is an excellent system for sending your GPS location and is much more portable than a walkie-talkie. Furthermore, when you're at a loud concert where a two-radio voice transmission can be tough to hear, GoTenna helps you get your message across more clearly via a text.