inReach Explorer+ field test

“Handheld Satellite Communicator and GPS Navigation with 100% global Iridium satellite coverage!” That’s how Garmin advertises their inReach Explorer+. When you first start to do longer excursions in the backcountry, good map skills and carrying a charged phone is on top of everyone’s list. But when you start going into very remote terrain or when you are guiding people hours away from the nearest road or phone signal, you want to minimize any possible obstacle to knowing exactly where you are – and you want to maximize your ability to communicate quickly, clearly and with precision.

We’ve had excellent GPS devices for quite a while now, but I’ve often found myself struggling to communicate from areas without phone signal. Satellite phones are expensive to use, bulky to pack and when you’re calling someone that isn’t used to talking with a 2 second delay, you end up with magnificent chaos. Sometimes you want to communicate with people sitting at a computer, or you want people to be able to track your progress from their screens without having to actively send them messages. When the time finally comes, where someone breaks a leg and you need to stay with the incapacitated victim while sending the group ahead with a prepared message to save them all from getting caught in a lightning storm – true story – you’ll wish you had an inReach.

The first time I heard about the inReach was during a class on emergency procedures as part of a winter trekking course. The instructor showed us several devices, like the well known SPOT, and compared their advantages/disadvantages. He was lyrical about the inReach and recommended us to get one. A few days later Garmin emailed me to ask if I’d like to test one and as I was about to head out into the Alps, I gladly took the offer.

Let’s take a look at how Garmin describes their device before I tell you how I experienced it

  • Send and receive text messages while beyond mobile phone range
  • Trigger an interactive SOS message to GEOS, the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center
  • Track and share your location with family and friends
  • Pair with mobile devices using the free Earthmate app for access to downloadable maps, colour aerial imagery and more
  • inReach Explorer+ device adds preloaded DeLorme® TOPO maps with onscreen GPS routing plus built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer

1. Sending text messages and emails from anywhere

Using the worldwide coverage of the Iridium satellite network, they let you exchange text messages with mobile phone numbers or email addresses while using GPS to share your location. You can also post to social media or even communicate inReach-to-inReach. To make it cheap and easy they allow you to set up 3 preset messages using their online portal so you can quickly send these  to your contacts of choice. These messages can be sent to multiple contacts in one go. People will recieve your messages in the form of an sms and/or an email where they will get a link to see your exact location and to a form where you can reply to the sender.

Typing custom messages on the device is cumbersome (think oldschool texting), but you can couple the device to your smartphone via Bluetooth using their app called Earthmate. Earthmate also allows you to manage your presets, plan routes etc…

2. Tracking & battery life

Tracking is the second feature I like a lot. You can choose at which interval your location will be pinged back to the online platform where people can follow where you are, and depending on the interval of those pings, your battery life will be drastically longer or shorter. If you enable 10 minute tracking your battery should last around 100 hours or roughly 3 days. If you change that to 30 minute tracking, theoretically your battery should last up to almost 30 days!

Battery life is very good, but since sending/recieving is such a high power activity, you can’t really run this off AA’s. The internal battery can be charged via USB using for example a battery pack or a solar panel, but it would have been nice if we were able to just carry a spare battery.

3. SOS!

You can initiate an emergency call through the menu or through the shielded button on the side of the device. When you activate, your distress call goes through to GEOS, a leading company in emergency response solutions. They will text you and coördinate the appropriate emergency services to come to your aid. Needless to say, your exact location will be known to whoever is sent to come to your aid.

4. GPS, altimeter and compass

The device comes with a fairly detailed preloaded map (depending on your area), a 3-axial compass and an altimeter. You can make routes, waypoints etc… but to keep a long story short, I have to say that the GPS functionality is very modest when you’re used to working with good modern units such as the GPSmap64. Personally, I found the difference in usability and quality big enough to still want to carry my GPSmap64.

5. Weather reports

You have the ability to request a basic or a detailed weather forecast which gives you pretty detailed information. Sadly, when I compared the forecasts I recieved on the device with the forecasts from Meteo France (I was in the Souther French Alps) and the actual weather we observed… the forecasts were utterly useless. Maybe this is better in other parts of the world, but this put me off more than enough to never want to rely on it, let alone pay for it.

6. Subscription plans

Being a two-way communication device, there’s a cost connected to using the satellite system. You can choose from a wide range of subscription plans so you can tailor the amount you are willing to spend to what you think you’ll want to use in the field.

You can find detailed information on the different plans in your local currency here:

https://explore.garmin.com/en-US/inreach/content/docs/inreach-consumer-subscription-plan-emea.pdf

Conclusion

After using the inReach in the field for a week, I was very happy with the ability to send text messages to preset phone numbers and emails. It’s a great comfort to know that these people can then see the exact location you sent the message from and that they can easily reply from the comfort of their computers. From my experience, I rarely ever actually NEED to make a voice call, so text messages suffice the majority of the time. I mainly used this function to get daily detailed avalanche and weather reports from trusted contacts. In contrast, I would never rely on the weather forecasts that can be requested from the device. As for GPS navigation, I’ll still stick with my GPSmap64. As far as I’m concerned, I’d be very happy to simply have a device with the messaging and tracking function.

If you’re an individual going on a long and remote expedition, the inReach is one of your best options right now. Renting one is probably your best choice. For outdoor clubs or guiding companies, this is a must have item to stay in touch with your people in the field.

 

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