We’ve all heard the saying, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” Well, having a satellite communicator on you during a trip certainly prepares you for any situation. You no longer need to sacrifice safety to be out of cell-service.
Not only can you send out an SOS in the case of an emergency, but you can send messages to loved ones at home to let them know your location and status.
As a trip leader and guide myself, on multi-day trips we were required to send a preset message to a supervisor back in town whenever we reached our campsite at night and as we left camp in the morning. Sending messages when you get to certain “checkpoints” on your trip helps give those back home a better idea of where you are if something were to go wrong.
Some GPS communicators can work as GPS maps and often have a screen to display the area around you and your location. This feature comes in handy for route-finding or allowing you to divert from your planned course without fear of getting completely lost.
Nowadays, GPS communicators have so many features and can be used in a number of ways depending on your need. Between preloaded Topo maps and weather forecasts these devices can be used alongside intuition to help you make educated decisions while in extreme terrain and situations.
What Makes the Garmin inReach Explorer+ a Good Choice?
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is an excellent choice if you are in the market for a GPS communicator. The inReach Explorer+ includes a number of features that make this device a great all-in-one tool for any expedition. Between navigation and communicating, it’s hard to find anything that comes close.
Maps, Route Plotting & Weather Forecasts
With a device such as Garmin’s inReach Explorer+, you can access Topo maps and weather forecasts. This makes the device useful outside of emergency circumstances. This device in particular allows you to place waypoints along Topo maps to create a route while on your trip. Helpful for route-finding or changing your course if you need to evacuate earlier than planned.
This inReach model features a pressure-based altimeter to give you more information of your whereabouts to aid in decision making.
While in the backcountry, you can request weather information with the device. You will immediately receive a weather update and forecast based on your location or a future location. By looking up a future location, or maybe a possible new location if you need to divert from your path, you can select a waypoint and request weather information for that waypoint (super cool!).
For something like a multi-day backpacking trip, you typically can’t tell whether or not a storm is going to stay or pass quickly. With a forecast, you can decide to stay put an extra day to avoid moving into inclement weather, move location to dodge a storm, or decide to cut a trip short entirely if the weather is just going to get worse.
Online Cloud Storage & Trip Planning
Any Garmin inReach device purchase gives you free access to Garmin’s Explore website or app. The website or app allows you to plan your trip by adding waypoints to your route that you can sync to your inReach device before getting to the trailhead.
By doing this, you can plan ahead where you are going to set up camp each night or any other landmarks and see these waypoints and plotted course on your GPS device.
Through Garmin Explore, you can create or change your preset messages and “quick texts” to better suite each trip. It is important to check your preset messages before a trip to make sure they are consistent with what you will be doing. In the device, the 3 preset messages are only numbered, and it is ideal to remember which message is which.
For example, you don’t want to send “Just left the trailhead,” when it’s 8:00PM and you should be at camp.
Explore is also where you can link any social media accounts and share your live tracking data. The unlimited cloud storage included with Garmin Explore lets you store and easily access all of your trip data.
Two-Way Communication & Live Tracking
Messaging on the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is easy and as Kayli Postolese (@coloradomtnhuntress on Instagram) has said, “You can send messages anywhere…and you receive messages back as quickly as if you were using a[n] actual phone.”
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inReach technology tracks your progress (typically in 10-minute intervals) as you move through the backcountry. You can choose to share your progress online with a “Mapshare” page so followers can view your progress and status as well. Users can embed the “MapShare” page into a webpage such as a blog or post a share-link onto a social media page.
An Unconventional (but Useful) Use for Two-Way Messaging
I occasionally babysit for a couple that goes to concerts at a venue up the Cache La Poudre Canyon in Fort Collins, CO. There is no cell-service at this venue, but the couple has a Garmin inReach device and will send me a text from the device so that I can get a hold of them if anything were to happen while they’re away.
The two-way communication ability on the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is extremely useful. While this example certainly isn’t the most extreme or “outdoorsy” use of the inReach Explorer+, it certainly shows the wide variety of uses for it!
Sometimes, those at home will have to get a hold of you too.
Interactive SOS Messaging
Before, GPS communicator emergency devices have had an SOS trigger that would only tell someone you needed rescuing. With new technology, interactive SOS messaging is becoming the standard.
SOS messages are sent directly to GEOS, a 24/7 global response center with trained professionals that will respond to SOS messages. GEOS staff will obtain as many details as they can about your situation so that EMS resources are well prepared going into your rescue. GEOS will contact your emergency contacts and continue to keep them informed through the entire situation.
Keeping You Connected & Informed About Your Rescue: A Real-Life Example
Two-way SOS messaging will also keep the user informed if any obstacles impede rescue missions. Such was the case for Jamie Junker and his friends.
While on a trip to summit three major peaks near Alberta, Canada, a blizzard surprised the party in the middle of the night. They had dug a snow-cave to bivy in that collapsed due to the new snow and moisture. By daylight, assessing the situation became possible and Junker was able to realize just how serious the situation was. One of the party members was showing early signs of hypothermia and Junker decided to send out an SOS signal with his inReach Explorer+.
GEOS connected Junker with the search and rescue staff at Parks Canada to best coordinate a rescue mission. Weather continued to foil helicopter and snowmobile rescue attempts made by Parks Canada, but Junker was in constant communication with them throughout the search and rescue issues.
With the two-way communication capability of the inReach device, search and rescue was able to ask the group if they had skis and were able to safely ski out. For Junker, having the GPS map available made it possible for him and his group to retrace their tracks in the ongoing blizzard. The live tracking inReach feature allowed Parks Canada to keep constant track of the groups progress as they continued to check in via messages.
The group safely made it to the trailhead and was greeted by Parks Canada and medical staff.
“Once you carry a device like the [inReach] you’ll wonder why and how you did without it before.”
…Says Junker after the incident.
You can read more about this story and other “Saved by Garmin” stories HERE.
Brody Leven’s Take on the Garmin inReach Explorer+
I was given the opportunity to reach out to Brody Leven, a popular and sponsored skier, “bikepacker,” rock climber, and prominent outdoor advocate. Leven is sponsored by Garmin, but as an Instagram follower of Brody, I’ve noticed he only raves about gear when he truly believes it deserves to be raved about.
Brody typically uses his Garmin GPS communicator for ski mountaineering expeditions, and any time he might lose service. By “anytime [he] might lose service,” he really means all the time he leaves for a trip, and brings it along on all his extended van road trips.
I asked Brody, “why is it important to you to have a GPS communicator with two-messaging and live tracking?” He replied…
“Live weather forecasting, communication, navigation, and tracking are all features that elevate my safety and the safety of my partners and potential rescuers in the backcountry.”
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His answer brings up another benefit of interactive SOS messaging featured on inReach devices; GEOS’s trained staff will try to get as much information as possible to appropriately prepare a rescue mission instead of forcing rescuers to go in blind and potentially lead to further incidents.
“On expeditions, I have typical text conversations with my girlfriend… from anywhere in the world.”
Pro Tip from Brody: “I connect it (the Garmin inReach Explorer+) to my Garmin watch if it’s in my backpack so I can trigger an SOS from it, and to my Garmin Overlander in my van for the same reason.” Just another example of how many ways you can take advantage of the Bluetooth capabilities of the Garmin inReach communicators. See what else Brody is up to on his website: brodyleven.com
Specs on the inReach Explorer+
- Interactive and unlimited SOS messaging
- Two-way text messaging
- Unlimited Preset Messages
- Preloaded Delorme Topo Maps
- Garmin Earthmate App lets you pair the device with a mobile smartphone to access more maps and aerial imagery
- Lithium Ion rechargeable battery lasts up to 100 hours (with 10-minute interval tracking), or up to 30 days in power saving mode
- Visual Color Display 1.4 x 1.9 inches
- Weight: 7.5 ounces
- 5-meter location accuracy
- Pressure-Based Altimeter
- Includes USB cable and carabiner clip
- Weather forecast available
Garmin inReach Activation & Setup
Just as you pay for your smart phone to access cell towers, the Garmin inReach devices require a subscription to access the Iridium satellite service. Garmin offers many plans, giving you the most flexibility and freedom while always giving you peace of mind.
To activate your device, simply go to Garmin’s website. You will be prompted to set up your plan when activating your device. For about the same price as a Netflix subscription, you can have all the basic protection of the inReach Explorer+.
It is important to know that any inReach device will NOT be able to send out SOS messages without an active subscription.
Here is a list of the features that can be accessed with an Iridium satellite subscription:
- Interactive SOS messaging (always unlimited)
- Two-way text messages
- Preset Messages (always unlimited)
- Tracking intervals
- Location pings
- Basic weather messages
- Premium weather
- Premium marine weather
The “Safety” plan is just $14.95 (with a monthly contract, $11.95 with annual contract), and provides unlimited SOS messaging, unlimited preset one-way texts, and 10 two-way text messages. Other features like Tracking Points and Location Pings are still accessible with a small fee of $0.10.
There are three more plans with varying unlimited or increasing amounts of messages provided. In order from lowest-highest: Safety, Recreation, Expedition, and Extreme.
“Extreme” comes with unlimited everything aside from Premium Weather and Premium Marine Weather updates. It is also the only plan with two-minute interval tracking instead of 10-minute intervals. This plan may only be catered for users like guides or sponsored athletes that are in “extreme” conditions often.
No Plan is Truly Limited
A great advantage of having a Garmin satellite subscription is that with any plan, you will always still have access to all features on the Garmin inReach Explorer+. Even with the lowest plan, “Safety,” you still have access to Basic Weather texts, Premium Weather/Marine Weather updates with a small charge when you need them, and you can add text messages for $0.50 each. The additional charges you use will simply be added on to your monthly bill.
All plans can be paired with a smart phone device – the subscription choice does not limit the Earthmate app access.
Monthly vs. Yearly Contract
As well as choosing which plan is best for you, you also have the choice between a month-to-month plan or signing on to an annual contract.
Pros & Cons of a Monthly, “Freedom” Plan:
- Can cancel plan seasonally (pay when you need it).
- Can easily upgrade or downgrade plan.
- Can suspend plan for 1 month at a time without charge.
- Ultimately costs more per month.
- Can only access Iridium satellite during months you are paying.
- Subject to $24.95 annual fee.
Pros & Cons of a Yearly Contract:
- Device is always ready to go/Year-round peace of mind.
- Cheaper per month & still billed monthly.
- Can easily upgrade or downgrade plan.
- Subject to $19.95 activation fee.
- Can be a waste if you don’t go on a trip once a month.
- Not great for seasonal use.
Depending on your needs, one might be better than the other. If you are a seasonal-recreator, the month-to-month plan might be best for you. And if you need year-round coverage, the annual contract will surely have you covered!
As far as choosing your specific service-plan, that also depends on your needs. However, Garmin has made it very easy to upgrade or downgrade your plan at anytime in your monthly or yearly plans. So, feel free to test out a couple different options and see what works best for you! In the yearly contract, you can even upgrade (or downgrade) seasonally based on your usage.
Other Garmin inReach Devices
There are a few other devices in Garmin’s inReach line that continue to cater to everyone’s specific needs.
The GPSMAP 86sci, and GPSMAP 86i, for example, are made for marine travel specifically. While the other inReach devices will still cover you while at sea, these models include access to NOAA charts and more information relevant to seafaring.
The inReach SE+ is the little brother of the Explorer+. The two devices have the same messaging and communication capabilities. The differences lie within GPS navigating. The Explorer+ is packed with en route guidance, preloaded Topo mapping and waypoint placements. A digital compass, pressure-based altimeter, and interval tracking further help users find their bearings with the Explorer+.
The SE+ has basic GPS ability to drop waypoints, mark locations, track your progress, or follow a breadcrumb path back to the trailhead. Even this GPS mapping combined with the incredible two-way messaging capabilities of inReach, still makes this a high-tech device and very handy tool in any outdoor excursion.
Think of the inReach Mini as the “ultralight” GPS communicator. Weighing in at a whopping 3.5 ounces and built to take a beating, simply slip this little guy into an exterior pocket or clip to an accessory loop on your pack.
The Mini can connect via Bluetooth to your mobile device or other Garmin devices so you can remotely control and access the satellite service. When using a connected smartphone with the Earthmate app, you can access the inReach features so that you can send texts using your phone through Iridium’s satellite service.
Since the device is so small, sending messages on it can take quite a number of keystrokes, so the ability to use a smart phone adds some convenience!
The Mini continues to impress as it has the same Live Tracking abilities as its larger companions. Your progress will be constantly uploaded so those back home can have peace of mind and enjoy watching your progress.
You can still access GPS maps and weather forecasts with the Mini and view them on your connected smartphone device with the Earthmate App.
Some may not like that bringing another device is preferred when using the Mini, but, most of us still bring our phones with us for the purpose of taking pictures.
Garmin inReach Explorer+ Vs. Spot X
Sending & Receiving Messages
The Spot X is the newest device from Spot that features 2-way messaging. The Spot X looks very similar to a BlackBerry cell phone, since it has a keyboard and similar center arrow-pad. While having a keyboard makes it appear to be easier to send messages with, the keyboard buttons are very small and difficult to use.
The Garmin inReach Explorer does not have a keyboard, but you can use the buttons to move around an on-screen keyboard, or you can connect the Garmin device to a smartphone with the Earthmate app and send satellite messages from your phone.
The inReach device will notify you when a message is actually delivered! The Spot X does not give you a notification; it will only show you if the message is pending, and then the “pending” bar will disappear, leaving you unsure if the message did end up going through. Since you receive confirmation when a message goes through, you will also notice if a message is having difficulty sending. Thus, telling you that you should try finding a better location to send the message.
Garmin inReach devices will you give you a notification when you receive a message as well. The Spot X is hard to tell if you have received a message unless you are staring at the message screen.
The Garmin inReach Explorer is significantly more expensive than the Spot X, but considering all the inReach device includes, that is to be expected. The Spot X is comparably very affordable as a two-way communicator, but it does not have on-screen GPS mapping capabilities like the inReach devices.
The inReach subscription plans are more expensive than those for the Spot X, but again, Garmin offers more freedom in choices and the ability to suspend a subscription. Spot X plans do include more two-way messages for less.
In a video comparing the two devices, a popular Youtube Channel known as WheelSpin Productions discusses the price difference between the two. While saying the Spot X subscription is about $15 cheaper for unlimited two-way messages, he goes on to say…
“…the reality is you’re not going to send messages all the time back and forth when this is your only keyboard and when it takes about 2.5 minutes to get a message out, 2.5 minutes to get -and this is best case scenario- to get a message back. It just doesn’t work out that way.”
The Spot satellite coverage is significantly less than Garmin’s Iridium satellite system, and finding service to send messages can be a challenge in some areas. The Spot’s coverage does not cover a large part of Africa. Garmin’s coverage is world-wide. Garmin inReach devices utilize 66 Satellites worldwide, while Spot reaches 24 satellites.
So, you are ultimately paying for better and faster coverage as well as the additional GPS mapping features of the Garmin inReach devices.
Mapping & Route Planning
With as much as you can share your location with social media and loved ones or others back home, you cannot see your location on a topographic map on the Spot X.
Garmin inReach’s ability to be used as a map and route-finder, altimeter, compass, and weather forecaster makes this single device an ideal tool for any type of trip. With the Earthmate app, you can download more maps or charts of an area for free (when in service) to view on your smartphone while in the backcountry.
Since you can pre-plot routes in Garmin’s Explore website and app and upload these trip plans into your Garmin device, your trip is mapped out and available to view on-screen at any time during your adventure. Making this the true Swiss knife of GPS communicators.
Other Spot Devices
Before the Spot X, no device by Spot had two-way communication ability, only one-way messaging. Some of these devices can only send preset messages as well. That being said, the Spot devices will definitely get the job done as far as communication goes. Navigation abilities are the only drawback to Spot devices.
There is a Spot Connect device that is made to solely be used with Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone so you can send satellite messages from your phone, similar to how the Garmin inReach devices connect through the Earthmate app. The Spot Connect does not have a screen or other capabilities other than connecting to a smartphone through Bluetooth. With relying entirely on a smartphone as your communicator, unless you keep your phone off the majority of your trip, most smartphone batteries will not last several days.
I am personally sad to see the Spot Satellite GPS Messenger is no longer manufactured by Spot. This is a great, basic, line of communication to send messages and location pings to those back home to let them know you are okay, or if you are in trouble. This device was once the basic and affordable “first” GPS communicator for many individuals (myself included). The device is still supported by Spot, so if you can find a hand-me-down, snag it while you can!
Where to Buy/Rent
Outside of the Garmin website itself, the inReach Explorer+ can be purchased from a variety of online stores such as TheGPSStore.com, Best Buy, Amazon, and the inReach SE+ can even be found at Costco. You can find the Garmin inReach Explorer+ at stores such as Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, and REI.
Going in store can provide you with a larger comparison of devices and expert advice and experience from staff members.
(Your best bet is to check the price on Amazon if you are considering a purchase)
With any large purchase of outdoor gear, it is best to do as much research as we can and compare several devices on the market to convince ourselves to spend the money on it. With companies like Outdoor Equipment Rentals (OER), we can rent gear and just test it out ourselves!
The rental price for the inReach Explorer+ includes the most basic “Safety” satellite subscription plan so no need to worry about subscribing to something you will only have for a few days. You also have the choice to upgrade plans if you’d like.
Teton Backcountry Rentals is an easy site to use and offers the Explorer+ rental at an affordable rate.
Other websites like OutdoorsGeek.com, and LowerGear.com also offer rental options for other models like the SE+ and Mini.
Stay safe and have fun out there with the peace of mind the Garmin inReach Explorer+ provides!
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Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.