Reflections on a year with a Garmin inReach

Last year, as Kyle and I were planning our summer, we decided it was past time for us to get a personal locator beacon (PLB) of some sort. Our hikes and backpacking trips were taking us further and further from roads and, in some cases, even from trails. After research, I settled on the Garmin inReach Explorer+.  This post covers our decision to buy the inReach and what it’s been like to use it for a year.

Why we selected a Garmin inReach

If you have considered a personal locator beacon, you’ll know that one of the distinguishing features of the inReach line is that they use the Iridium network to provide bi-directional text communication. In contrast, SPOT and most other beacons available at the time could send only location and maybe a preset message.

The downside of this two way communication is the cost of a subscription. To be able to use the inReach for messaging or other connectivity, you need to have an active subscription. With one-way PLBs, the purchase price typically includes monitoring for the life of the device.

Kyle and I are both reluctant to add new subscription fees to our budget. However, reading search and rescue reports with both good and bad outcomes convinced us the ongoing costs were worth it. In particular, even when people had one-way PLBs, several of the following could happen:

  • They could trigger the device but have no confirmation that their message was received, and thus be unsure of whether to say put or try to find their way to a road. As a result, rescuers could look in the wrong place if the individuals moved.
  • When someone can only send an SOS or a preset message, sometimes the response is not enough. In reading SAR reports, we read a few cases where an immediate response with the right resources might have had a better outcome, but with only the incomplete information of an SOS signal to go on, the initial response was not what the individuals needed.
  • When someone can only send an SOS or a preset message, sometimes the response is too strong. We read about groups that did the safe thing of letting someone know their plans in advance. They then became delayed due to minor injury or a change in plans, but without a way to communicate that, the person who knew their plans report them overdue and initiated a search a search. We wanted a product that would help avoid the costs and risks associate with an unnecessary search rescue as much as we wanted one that we could use initiate a rescue.

In contrast, with two-way devices that allowed for full text messaging, we read several accounts where the more complete information helped the SAR group respond with the right resources (in some cases, none) at the right time. Lost or injured groups could be given instructions. Worried family members could be assured that things were okay if a group was merely delayed. Friends and family with your inReach information can also request its location, so long as it is on and has signal, which could be key in initiating and directing a rescue (or recovery) if you are overdue but were not able to trigger an SOS.

We decided these advantages were well worth the added cost (about $100 more initial purchase, plus monthly subscription fees) over the one-way PLBs.

Why we selected an inReach Explorer+ 

I chose to buy the inReach Explorer+ (Amazon) over the cheaper inReach SE (Amazon) for its additional memory and pre-loaded map data. At the time I was purchasing, a rare sale brought the Explorer+ down to $400, just $50 more than the SE.

In hindsight, as I’ll note below, I use the inReach almost exclusively with the Earthmate app on my phone. As a result, the built-in maps were probably not worth the cost.

Since we purchased our inReach, Garmin has also released an inReach Mini (Amazon). It is about half the size and weight, but only has about half the battery life (50 hours versus 100 hours) of the inReach Explorer+.  It is also $100 less ($350). If I were purchasing today, it would be a tough choice, but I think we’d still go with the Explorer+.

SPOT has also since released their own two-way communicator, the SPOT X (Amazon). It has cheaper monthly plans and a lower initial purchase price ($250) and comparable subscription plans. The SPOT X runs on the Globalstar network rather than the Iridium network. Globalstar provides less than global coverage, especially for two-way messaging. Given how much we travel, I would not want to worry about whether we have coverage.

Using the inReach Explorer+ 

We’ve never used the inReach in an emergency, and we hope that continues. (For one account, see this post by Mark Griffith) We have, however, found that it integrates well into our safety plans and our day-to-day hiking and backpacking.

Safety

We generally leave plans with family, though this is something we could be better or more reliable at. We complement this with using pre-set messages to check in. As we start, we enable tracking (but don’t send points, since that costs too much) and send a preset message. When we finish the hike or reach camp, we send a message that we are camping or stoping there. We similarly send presets if explore from our camp on a backpacking trip. This gives family peace of mind and somewhere to start looking if we end up overdue. My parents have also commented that they enjoy vicariously following us.

We do wish that Garmin supported more than three presets. Just a few more would allow us to disambiguate whether we are done with a hike or camping. So long as we leave plans, though, family can infer whether we are done or camping according to location and our plan.

Planning

We’ve enjoying having the GPS and syncing features, especially as we start exploring more off-trail routes. We use the Garmin website to import route traces from others or enter waypoints for nice campsites or other destinations. This provides a nice complement and backup to our own map and way finding skills. The web interface is a bit dated, but Garmin has put some decent investments into it over the past few months and we hope for more.

On the trail

In addition to using the preset messages for safety, we’ve found the Garmin to be a convenient hiking companion. This includes following planned routes, discussed above, or for investigating what’s above the next ridge. We’re comfortable with map and compass skills, (usually) have good route-finding intuitions, and still carry paper topo maps. More often than not, though, it’s more convenient to look at a topo map on the phone than on paper. It can be a good sanity check for our route finding. In a few instances, it’s spared us the trouble of heading a direction where we would cliff-out and have to turn back.

We also have used custom messages on a few occasions, such as to let family know our ETA for dinner if a hike has run later than planned. The 10 free messages / month on the safety plan are perfect for this sort of use.

One downside: we’ve found Garmin’s digital maps to be severely out of date in the Pacific Northwest. They still show trails on old routes, even though they have been re-routed a decade or more earlier. They also don’t include some newer trails. Curiously, when we used the digital maps in the Aysén Region of Patagonia, we found they were more up to date and complete than even the maps we could get from the parks. That may just reflect where Garmin is in their map update cycle.

After the trail

For me, one of the biggest practical benefits has been using the GPS traces to tag my photos. Yes, I could do this with a regular GPS device or, at the cost of battery life, an app on my phone. Still, it’s a nice perk to have integrated with the device. When we do off-trail explorations, Kyle has also found it a valuable source of data for the map he keeps of his hikes.

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