The best satellite messengers give hikers and backpackers the ability to stay on track, stay in touch, and—if worse comes to worst—summon rescue. In this article, we’re going to compare two of the leading satellite messengers on the market, both under the Garmin inReach line: the Garmin Explorer+ and the Mini. We’ll kick off with a more in-depth argument for why you ought to consider carrying a satellite messenger with you out in those splendid wilds, moving on to a discussion of what inReach in general offers, and then break down the nitty-gritty of both of these handheld models.
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The Benefits of a Satellite Messenger
This day and age, there’s no shortage of gadgetry one can tote beyond the trailhead—though, of course, nothing replaces the reliability of a manual compass and a properly scaled topographic map. Whether that invaluable tag team is your primary navigational tool or an in-the-pinch backup system, map and compass should most definitely be in your kit whenever you’re striking off.
From your smartphone alone to personal locator beacons, modern technology has plenty to offer hikers young and old. The Geez happens to think a good satellite messenger is one of the all-out best bangs for your buck when it comes to backcountry convenience and security.
Operating within the Iridium network of low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites that span the entire globe in terms of connectivity, these devices help you stay connected with the outside world even when you’re venturing away from cell-tower coverage—and, as we likely don’t have to tell you, some of the best country to explore lies in the realm of spotty or zilch cell service!
Satellite messengers allow you to send and receive messages as well as alert search-and-rescue personnel to your location and situation in the event you’re injured, ailing, or dangerously turned around. And Garmin’s inReach series, our focus here today, adds plenty of other useful features.
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Garmin inReach Explorer+ vs Mini Satellite Messengers
When it comes to a satellite messenger, it’s hard to beat the power, versatility, and dependability of the Garmin inReach product line. These communicators combine two-way messaging and SOS signaling with GPS functionality, not only allowing you to stay on course out there in the wilds but also to provide real-time updates and location tracking to the home front—and alert authorities in the event you run into trouble, to boot.
You need a clear sightline to the sky to enable the inReach communication with the Iridium satellites, which means you may occasionally run into connectivity issues in deep canyons, for example. But you can usually work your way to a clearer connection without too much trouble.
These inReach messengers give you multiple ways to keep others abreast of your whereabouts and activities: not only by zipping off texts to cell numbers and email addresses (and receiving messages back), but also by turning on tracking mode so that family, friends, and even social media followers can see your position on the map.
A Garmin satellite messenger also covers your back when it comes to medical emergencies and other tricky situations out in remote wilderness locations. It lets you send an SOS alert to the 24/7 International Emergency Response Coordination Center. The rescue team can then interface with you, establish the nature of your issue and pinpoint your exact location. They are able to coordinate with your contacts and local emergency responders alike. The ability to not only notify the SOS center about an emergency but also stay in touch while awaiting help is, in The Geez’s humble opinion, priceless.
After all, justifiable anxieties about injuries, medical problems, or getting hopelessly lost in the wilderness sometimes keep us from pursuing hiking and backpacking adventures. However, these outdoor recreation activities should still be ours to enjoy in our golden years. Some hikers and backpackers have philosophical objections to being able to stay completely connected while out in the wilderness, but as far as we’re concerned, it makes sense to embrace this modern tech: It can, after all, be the difference between life and death—and prevent undue stress on the part of those you care about most back at home.
The free Earthmate app gives you the ability to sync up your inReach with your smartphone or other mobile devices, letting you access maps, charts, and color aerial imagery. And both the inReach messengers we’re profiling here put at your fingertips the convenient cloud-based resources of the Garmin Explore website, where you can configure your settings, arrange preset messages, link social media, and chart out your routes—a one-stop-shop for trip-planning and device management, basically.
If you wish, you can also take advantage of the inReach weather service to receive updated forecasts for your location or anywhere along your planned route on your device.
What we’ve covered above spell out the general features of the Garmin inReach series; we’re about to dig into the specifics of the two particular inReach models we’re profiling. First, though, we ought to summarize how the satellite subscription plans required to use these messengers work. So, without further ado…
Garmin inReach Satellite Messenger Subscriptions
To use the inReach features and tap into that planet-spanning Iridium network, you need an active satellite subscription. Fortunately, Garmin gives you plenty of flexibility in choosing the plan that best meets your needs while not hammering your pocketbook.
There are two kinds of Garmin satellite subscriptions available: Freedom and Annual plans. Freedom Plans are purchased by the month (with a 30-day commitment), so you can activate your subscription for a particular trip or a summer’s worth of exploring, then suspend it when you’re not really going to be hitting the trails for awhile.
If you tend to be more of all-season adventurer, meanwhile, the Annual Plan’s likely for you, as it provides year-round coverage at a lower monthly cost.
Both kinds of plans are available, in turn, at three different levels, from the basic “Safety” through midrange “Recreation” to premium “Expedition.” These levels determine the cost and/or limit of certain device features such as text messages and location requests, plus the device’s tracking interval.
Introducing the Garmin inReach Explorer+
The standard-setting inReach Explorer+ is an amazingly powerful satellite communicator that gives you the complete array of inReach capabilities in a self-contained handheld unit. The color display, which measures 1.4 by 1.9 inches, makes it easy to compose and read messages and study the GPS navigation map. And speaking of, the Explorer+ comes with preloaded DeLorme TOPO maps, giving you readymade wayfinding capabilities on top of the other downloadable maps, charts, and aerial images you can access via the Earthmate app.
Another fine feature of the inReach Explorer+ is its suite of built-in digital navigation tools, which include a compass, a barometric altimeter, and an accelerometer.
This is a rugged gadget up to the rigors of the great outdoors: The Explorer+ is impact-resistant and water-rated to IPX7 (which means it can withstand submersion in up to a meter of water for a half-hour).
Introducing the Garmin inReach Mini
Portable as the Explorer+ is, the Mini—which you can think of as its little brother, essentially—takes things to a whole other level: It concentrates all that inReach functionality into an extremely lightweight palm-sized package. We’re talking a featherweight 3.5 ounces (compared to the 7.5-ounce Explorer+), and mighty space-efficient dimensions of 2.04 by 3.9 inches, with a depth of 1.03 inches.
The catch with the inReach Mini is that you need to sync it with a smartphone to make the fullest use of its features. This is particularly true when it comes to using and displaying navigation maps. And while it’s easy to send off preset messages using the Mini alone, composing on it—though possible—is a bit awkward. Hence, a Bluetooth connection with your smartphone makes typing up texts in the field much easier.
Though it doesn’t boast the colorized map display of the Explorer+, the Mini—which, again, can be readily used for GPS tracking and map navigation using a synced mobile device—can list your coordinates, your direction, and your speed, and you can mark waypoints and navigate to preset ones with it just fine.
And, like the Explorer+, you’ve got the ability to send interactive SOS messages should you need to, plus share your location, receive inReach weather forecasts, and take advantage of the rest of the inReach goodies.
Don’t mistake the Mini’s “mini-ness” for fragility, by the way: Like the Explorer+, this is a durable little machine with the same IPX7 water rating.
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InReach Explorer+ vs. Mini: Our Recommendation
We love both of these devices but particularly recommend the inReach Mini. So long as you’ll be bringing your cellphone along with you, the Mini provides most of the functionality of the Explorer+ without that model’s bulkiness.
Older hikers and backpackers tend to be more concerned than ever about shedding pack weight—hence, why so many of us tend toward the ultralight end of the spectrum. The pintsized, 3.5.-ounce Mini helps keep you on track and connected to those at home with absolutely minimal bulk.
Some complain the side buttons of the Mini are harder to use than the front buttons of the Explorer+. But we haven’t found that to be the case. In our experience, the Mini’s controls are big and easy enough to operate even with gloved fingers.
If you don’t tend to bring your smartphone along with you on hikes or backpacking trips, the Explorer+ is likely to be your first choice for an inReach satellite messenger. That is due to GPS navigation readability on the larger screen. But if you do usually carry your cellphone, and you’re at all worried about keeping your load as light as possible, the Mini really can’t be beaten.