Long-term review: Garmin inReach Explorer+ || Sat comm + GPS unit 2-in-1

The author at the last trail junction before Milner Pass, the northern terminus of the Pfiffner Traverse, with trusted inReach Explorer+ at the ready.

For different trips, I often wear and carry different gear. But some items are so vital that they end up on every trip — and my Garmin inReach Explorer+ is one of them.

Since its release in early-2017, I have used my inReach Explorer+ on many trips around the globe, including on the southern Appalachian Trail, John Muir Trail, Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, and Kilimanjaro. In most photos from these trips, the inReach is reliably attached to my shoulder strap.

Review: Garmin inReach Explorer+

The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a significant investment: it’s $450 for the device, and service and insurance coverage cost more. But what’s the price of safety and peace of mind? If I got into trouble, the inReach might help me get out. And for my parents, the ability to communicate with me while I’m out on a trip is invaluable.

You might consider the inReach if you:

  • Travel in regions with unreliable cell phone service;
  • Stay connected with with family and loved ones during trips;
  • Can handle the cost to own and operate the device;
  • Utilize electronic navigational resources, such as GPX exports from Caltopo, Gaia, AllTrails, etc.;
  • Regularly need such a device, so that the cost can be justified with high use; and/or,
  • Are responsible for others during backcountry trips, such as guides or expedition leaders.

I purchased the inReach Explorer+ as I was preparing to thru-hike the John Muir Trail with my father. The Explorer+ was unique in the marketplace for offering both:

  • Two-way satellite messaging, and
  • Full GPS functionality.

The more economical inReach SE+ does not display topo maps; the SPOT Gen3 is only a one-way device; and PLB’s do not offer non-emergency messaging.

As a trip leader for Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech, I lead groups into the backcountry nearly every weekend during the school semester. During the summers and school breaks, I always try to find a way to get out on trips as well. So for me, I knew that I would get a lot of use out of the device.

After using the inReach for almost a year and a half now, it is only showing minor signs of wear and tear. Only a few surface scratches on the display, and only a marginal decline in battery life. The messaging, navigation, and tracking features still work like a charm.

The three main selling points for me were:

(a) The ability to communicate back and forth with loved ones and family.

As a college student, my parents still are getting used to the “emptier nest” (as my brother is still at home). Additionally, the two-way communication eased my parents nerves about my venturing off into the wilderness. And, perhaps most significantly for me, my parents insist on it and pay for the subscription.

(b) The ability to upload routes and waypoints.

Topographical maps and a compass are invaluable tools for navigation. But in a modern age of technology, having GPS capabilities makes navigating in the backcountry much easier. Much, much easier. I knew I wanted a GPS device of some kind, as opposed to a smartphone app, as I try to minimize the risk and exposure to my cell phone during trips. The rugged build of the inReach, with its waterproof housing and drop resistance was exactly what I was looking for. Something I could bump and bruise around and not have to worry about.

(c) The ability to initiate SOS.

Safety comes first for me. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. And the same for my parents. I am much more comfortable on backcountry trips knowing that if there is a serious emergency, and I am either by myself or in dire need of assistance, I have the ability to call for it. I know it is not a guarantee of a swift and comfortable rescue, but I at least have the ability to reach someone who can begin to mobilize support.

Key specs

  • Weight: 7.5 oz (confirmed, including the carabiner attachment)
  • Battery Type: Rechargeable Lithium Ion
  • Claimed Battery Life: 100 hours at 10-minute tracking intervals
  • Claimed Location Accuracy: 5 meters
  • Altimeter: Pressure Based
  • More info

Battery

The rechargeable lithium ion battery uses a micro USB cable port, the same as many smartphones and other devices, allowing you to minimize the number of cables you pack.

At 10 minute tracking intervals, I find that it lasts for about five days on a single charge, at 10 hours per day.

I keep the device in my sleeping bag at night to minimize battery loss due to cold, but have found that this is not really necessary in relatively moderate temperatures, due to the device’s robust design. Once the battery percentage gets below 25%, it warns you about saving reserve power for SOS.

Location

The location accuracy of the device depends on cloud cover and other variables, but I have found it to be accurate to within about 25-50 yards, not quite the 5 meter limit as specified by Garmin. I will admit, I have not gone out with a tape measure and measured the disparity to a known landmark, but am speaking from my general experience through thousands of miles of use.

Altimeter

The altimeter readings are surprisingly accurate, I have found to within 50 vertical feet. On top of Kilimanjaro, which stands 19,341’, I had a reading of 19,328’, which is accurate enough.

Functionality: What does the inReach Explorer+ do?

I’ll divide the functionality of the Explorer+ into three categories:

1. Messaging / Social

The Garmin inReach Explorer+ affords backcountry adventurers the ability to stay in touch with loved ones, friends, and even social media. It’s truly revolutionary, as no other product on the market has yet offered this much functionality.

As a two-way satellite messenger, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ allows users to send AND receive text messages to and from:

  • Worldwide phone numbers,
  • Email addresses,
  • Other inReach devices.

Outgoing messages are limited to 160 characters per message (this limit can change depending on the number of recipients in the message; the more recipients, the less characters you get).

Messages can be sent from the Explorer+ in two ways:

1. Through the device

To be perfectly honest, sending messages from the Garmin inReach Explorer+ device is a time consuming process. First, select pre-loaded contacts or enter a phone number / email address.

Next, begin to type your message. Slowly . . . very slowly, using the arrows on the keypad to tick over to desired characters. There is an autocorrect menu which will save commonly used words (only a small convenience). You will notice as you type that there is a character counter in the bottom left corner that will notify you how many characters (of the max 160) you have left.

Finally, send it! You will be notified that your message was sent by either (or both) a sound and a crossed icon that will appear next to the message (if the message is in the progress of sending you will see a spinwheel).

The “virtual keyboard” on the inReach device is tedious. Thankfully, messages can be sent more efficiently through the Earthmate app.

2. Through the Earthmate app

Garmin has developed a smartphone compatible app interface called Garmin EarthMate, which makes sending messages through the inReach Explorer+ MUCH easier than the traditional method, to say the least. The app connects to the device using Bluetooth, which limits the battery life of your phone and the inReach Explorer+ slightly (more on this later).

First, you must turn on the inReach Explorer+ ‘s bluetooth compatibility, which is accessed through the “Settings” menu.

Next, you must connect your phone to the inReach Explorer+ by pairing them through Bluetooth (similar to many wireless devices and multimedia systems in modern cars).

Once connected, the EarthMate app wields its powers, allowing users to send messages through the device, analyze tracking statistics (if the Tracking function has been turned on), and other functions.

To send a message through the EarthMate app, click on the “Message” icon and then on the notepad icon in the top right corner. The menu that follows will look similar to the interface for sending a text message from your phone. You can then type in a number manually, or select from your contacts list on your phone.

The greatest benefit to the EarthMate app is the ease in typing a message from your phone keyboard, as opposed to the painfully slow process of ticking off characters using the keypad on the Garmin inReach Explorer+ . Since the connectivity is Bluetooth, your phone and the inReach Explorer+ have a range of around 25-50 feet (which I can attest to, it may be larger than this).

Screenshot of of the Earthmate app.

Receiving Messages on the inReach Explorer+

As the title “two-way” satellite messenger implies, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ also affords users the ability to receive messages from worldwide phone numbers and email addresses. Incoming messages are limited to the same 160 character. Longer messages come through in separate segments. NOTE: I have noticed sometimes that the messages can come in out of order.

Users can customize the tone that is played by the device when a message is received. Users can also opt to mute the sounds completely, or choose the option of “Ring Until Read,” which will send the device into a loud panic until the user reads the message.

A fun note on messages: if you receive a message from another Garmin inReach device, you can see the location from where that message was sent.

What does it look like on the “other side”?

You’ve now seen what messages look like from the device, but what do your loved ones and friends see when THEY receive messages from you?

Messages can be received by text message, as the photo above displays, or by email, as the photo below displays.

Recipients can respond to text messages from the inReach just like a normal phone conversation, simply replying to the number as normal. To reply to an email message from the inReach, recipients must follow the link appended in the email to respond.

You can choose if you want your latitude and longitude coordinates to be embedded in the messages you send out in the Garmin Portal.

Garmin MapShare

By registering your Garmin inReach Explorer+ device, you receive the option of creating a Garmin MapShare page. This page allows others to view your location, track your progress, and send messages to your device.

As an example, see my Garmin MapShare page.

When uploading waypoints, routes, and sending messages, you will be given the option of having them appear on the MapShare page. For messages, you will need to click on the capital M icon on the sidebar of the message screen; for waypoints and routes, you will need to click on the same capital M icon in the Garmin portal.

You can also customize the text that appears at the top of the MapShare page, as I have on my page.

The MapShare page is a fun and interactive way for loved ones to keep up with your adventures. The page will update your location as frequently as you set the tracking points to be sent, which can range from “Continuous” to “2 hours.” I know for a fact that my mother has spent countless clicks on my MapShare page, refreshing and refreshing as I made my way across various terrain.

Social Media Connectivity

You can even post to your own Facebook and Twitter page through the Garmin inReach Explorer+ (I will admit I have not used this function). In the Garmin portal there is an option for you to connect your Facebook and Twitter pages. Once connected, when sending messages you can select the Facebook or Twitter icon on the sidebar for the messages to post to your page.

Service Plans

Just like your regular cell or home phone, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ requires a service plan to send/receive messages. You can add this cost to the pricetag of the device itself. Rather than me explain the different plans, view them at Garmin’s website.

Navigation

When in the field, I use the inReach Explorer+ as a navigational tool, capitalizing on its GPS features.

The inReach will display your location as a triangular cursor. As you turn the device, the cursor’s pointer will move in concert with the antenna, allowing you to take rough line of sight bearings towards landmarks.

You will notice in the bottom left hand of the screen there is a map scale. At intervals lesser than or equal to 0.2 miles, the topographic layer will display forested areas with a green color, and areas without tree cover with a gray background. Imported GPX courses, routes, and waypoints will be displayed on the map screen as well, allowing you to evaluate your position in relation to your pre-selected landmarks.

You can estimate distance to certain landmarks on the screen by moving the mouse cursor using the keypad. In the top right corner the display will read the straight line distance to the location. You can also view the elevation of the specified location by clicking on the check button on the device.

I do not advocate for the inReach Explorer+ to replace a printed topographical map and a compass as a navigational tool. I feel that understanding how to navigate using non-electronics is a survival skill, if nothing else. But I will admit, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ interface does make it very easy to navigate through terrain. I have found myself needing to dig into my backpack less and less for maps as I become more and more comfortable using its navigational interface.

Uploading Routes and Waypoints

The Garmin inReach Explorer+ has 2 GB of internal memory dedicated for uploading routes and waypoints as GPX files. I normally create my routes and waypoints in Caltopo, and then export them as GPX files.

The Garmin portal allows you to upload GPX files in two different data types: (1) as “Tracks” and (2) as “Routes.” Tracks allow you a greater degree of accuracy, as they can “preserve up to 10,000 data points from the line.” Routes, on the other hand, “will be reduced to 200 data points, which may result in a line that is more coarse than the original.”

I personally upload my GPX files as Routes, and accept the coarser detail, only because uploading the GPX file as a Track will not distinguish it from the tracking points you have created in the field. I like to be able to see the difference between the route I planned and the route I actually tracked afterwards.

Map Layers

The Garmin inReach Explorer+ comes pre-loaded with a 1:24,000 scale topographic layer of North America (formerly known as DeLorme TOPO). However, you can get access to more layers and maps through the Garmin Portal.

Your subscription to the inReach service plan will gain you access to all the topographic layers. If you wish to have hunting layers (for which I cannot claim any experience), you must pay for an additional subscription to Garmin Earthmate Hunt for $39.95/year.

International layers include OpenStreetMap and Digital Atlas of the Earth. Unfortunately, you are not able to upload your own layers to the inReach, nor are you able to purchase additional layers through the inReach portal.

SOS / Emergency

I get asked the question all the time: “So. . . what happens when you press THE button??”

One of the cornerstone features of the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is the SOS capabilities it facilitates initiating rescue. Unfortunately, I have had the experience of initiating a helicopter rescue for someone using the inReach, but I am pleased to be able to say that having the inReach Explorer+ made for a swift and safe evacuation.

The Mystery Behind the Button

There are actually two ways of initiating rescue using the Garmin inReach Explorer+ : one, of course, is by pressing the SOS button. The second is by selecting the SOS icon on the home screen display.

The “button” is actually housed under the SOS flap, so as to prevent accidental pressing. Once the button is pressed, a 5 second countdown will begin, during which you can cancel the SOS call if accidental.

Once the SOS has been initiated, a signal (with your GPS location) will be sent to Garmin’s emergency center: the GEOS Emergency Rescue Coordination Center. An operator will send you a message asking for a response as to your condition. If you do not respond, the operator will then contact your listed emergency contacts on your inReach account.

The back and forth communication ability with the GEOS Alliance operator is critical in an emergency situation, in my opinion. When my group had to initiate a helicopter rescue, we were able to communicate the condition of our injured expedition member with the operator, who was then able to properly allocate rescue resources.

An Important Question: Am I Covered?

“So. . . how much does pressing the SOS button cost?” Well, that depends, on a lot of factors.

Factor #1: Your insurance coverage through GEOS Alliance. When you register your inReach device, you will notice that you have ranging options of search and rescue insurance coverage. They are arranged through the GEOS Alliance, and range in price point.

For more information on various insurance plans, see GEOS Alliance’s description.

Factor #2: Your location in the world. Some countries have government funded search and rescue, such as New Zealand. It is very useful to research regulations on search and rescue before you travel abroad, so you can understand the financial implications of initiating a rescue, should it become necessary.

Front Panel Display

You can have the front panel of the inReach display important emergency information, such as an emergency contact phone number or known allergy, similar to a RoadID.

The original DeLorme inReach SE, newer inReach Explorer+, newest inReach Mini, and the SPOT X.

Alternatives: The Competition

There are some alternative options to the inReach Explorer+ on the market now. I will only briefly mention them, as I do not have experience using them, but feel it is useful to know that they are out there.

Garmin inReach Explorer+ vs Garmin inReach Mini

The inReach Mini has been out for a full summer season now, and there is understandable excitement about its smaller size and lighter weight. But it’s still pricey, at $350 MSRP. And still requires the same subscription fees through Garmin that the normal inReach Explorer+ does.

Garmin inReach Explorer+ vs SpotX

The inReach stole significant market share from the SPOT Gen3, which was a one-way satellite messenger. In May SPOT released the SPOT X, a two-way satellite messenger that appears to be a direct competitor to the inReach Explorer+. At $250 MSRP, it’s sticker price is less than that of the Garmin inReach Explorer+. Similar to the Garmin inReach Explorer+ , the SPOT X requires a subscription fee, which can vary, just like with the inReach service plans.

Questions about the inReach Explorer+ or have an experience with it? Please leave a comment.


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