I’d like to say that I spend my trips sleeping in a deadfall lean-to, eating coyotes and chipmunks I trapped, all while wearing only a loincloth. But I don’t. Reason being that getting blasted on whiskey cocktails and then sleeping on a bed of pine needles sucks. Maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age. Point is, creature comforts are often nice. Necessary, even. To that end, cell phone service is a strong want, if not a mission-critical need sometimes in the backcountry. Its usefulness in an emergency should be obvious, but cell phone service has also made some rather mundane portions of trips a hell of a lot more enjoyable. I like the romanticism of Walden, but being able to fire up a podcast on a four hour stretch between Santa Fe NF and Apache Sitgreaves is pretty damn clutch. So is being able to give your subwoofer a streaming double bass workout while you climb a set of ledges.
Enter the weBoost Drive Sleek, a mobile cell signal booster that’s powered by a standard 12V power outlet. The weBoost boasts up to 32x signal amplification, along with being favored by offroaders and long-distance drivers. I got my hands on one, and started putting it through its paces on our Thanksgiving trip, taking notes on its performance since then on numerous trips and day-to-day drives.
First things first: it’s important to understand what really dictates your signal strength. Ever had three bars and wondered why your call dropped, or that page won’t load? Well, the bars in your phone’s notification bar are arbitrary. They’re a useless GUI function, for all intents and purposes. Cell signal is a function of radio waves, measured in dBm. dBm is the power ratio in decibels of the radio power per one milliwatt. -60 dBm means you could probably hear a rat pissing on cotton on the other end of the line. -110 dBm means your phone is having more trouble landing a connection than the Elephant Man had landing a date. You can check this in your phone’s settings, or install third party software that will put it on your notification bar for easy reference.
I first put the Drive Sleek through its paces on the long stretch of virtual nothingness between Pueblo, CO and the Santa Fe national forest behind Pecos, NM. I streamed some Alice in Chains radio, and played a few podcasts with only one brief stretch of lost signal south of Raton, if memory serves me correctly. It kept the streams coming as we winded up fire roads into the woods without issue. I periodically pulled my phone out of the included cradle (which serves as the boosting dock) and checked the difference in dBm. Working off of its own internal antenna, the Samsung S7 hovered between -90 and -115 dBm for much of the barren highway. Back in the cradle, the signal jumped up to around -65 to -85 for much of the trip. Now radio signal increases logarithmically, so don’t be underwhelmed by these results, as they’re a pretty substantial gain. I haven’t bothered doing the math on whether they get near the 32x claim, but qualitatively, the difference is noticeable. These results were much the same along I-40 heading west into Arizona. I was even able to have a crystal-clear phone call for five minutes or so just across the border near Houck. I did again however, lose signal for a spell between Sanders and Holbrook.
This is where I think it best to put the Sleek’s abilities into perspective: this thing is not a sat phone. If you are surrounded by bluffs and trees in central Utah 60 miles from civilization, do not expect the Drive Sleek to turn nothing into something. It will certainly help increase signal strength and consistency, but it still abides by the laws of physics. In other words, you still need to be somewhere that the antenna can ping off of a tower.
Come January and February of this year, I got to do some more testing with the Sleek in the Four Mile Recreation Area, the rat’s nest of trails near Rampart Road, and in east Utah on Top of the World and Dome Plateau. It regularly factors into my drives along highways 24 and 9 on the way to snowboard at Keystone. In all instances, this little booster has been pretty impressive. When I killed my iPod in Moab this last time out, it was streaming music or bust along the trail on the last day. The weBoost Drive Sleek kept the Soundgarden flowing, which in turn kept me in good spirits. Again, it is not infallible, and in rock valleys and buried in remote trees, there are going to be some hiccups. But if I had to slap a number on it, I’d say the Sleek kept signal strong enough to stream audio for 75% of the time on trail. Perhaps most importanly, even when signal does fall off, the booster allows it to be recovered quicker. This can’t be understated, as a few minutes could make a huge difference in a medical emergency.
Now, I’ve run on long enough already, so let’s wrap up with the peripherals and what could be improved. The Drive Sleek is really a 5-piece kit, with an external antenna, boosting module, cradle, power supply, and vent mount. And this is my only real gripe. By nature, these components will all need to be wired together, which means you can plan on pulling up trim or running line through pillars/body panels to maximize concealability and cleanliness. In the end, you’ll need to figure out how to stash the line from the 12V outlet, as well as the line from the boosting module. This will require some planning. I’d also like to see some additional cradle mounting options in the way of suction cups or something similar, as being confined to the vent isn’t particularly practical when you need to crank the heat. Despite these little complaints, the cradle still makes accommodations for the USB cord on your phone, and since the vent mount and cradle meet magnetically, you can even pull the phone with cradle off to type or read (when the vehicle is stopped, dingus).
On the whole, the weBoost Drive Sleek is a great addition for long-distance or long-duration offroaders and overlanders who want to be able to stream audio, download GPX files mid-trail, make calls, or just post that dope pic for the ‘Gram (‘Gram being their mother’s mother, in this instance). It sits in my rig full time, and is a staple of my gear these days.