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Field Tested: Garmin inReach Explorer+ Satellite Communicator Review

Overview

When you’re off the grid or in the back country having a reliable means of communication is crucial. There are a few options on the market that can achieve this but its hard to decide what features you really need. Are you buying something to casually communicate with family and friends? Or is this primarily for emergency use? The Garmin InReach Explorer+ tries to cover all the bases with a unique set of features that can help with navigation as well as emergency communication. This device is basically a clone of the original Delorme InReach Explorer with some added features. Delorme was aquired by Garmin and since then all InReach devices have become re-branded and given a more “Garmin-like” face lift.



Main Features

  • Two Way Text Message Communication
  • Preloaded Delorme Topographic Maps with Navigation
  • 100% Coverage Iridium Global Satellite Network
  • Pairs with Garmin InReach Mobile App
  • SOS Emergency Communication
  • Built in Altimeter, GPS, Compass, and Barometer Sensors

Hardware Features

Garmin InReach Explorer Plus

At first glance the Garmin InReach Explorer+ has a very similar look to other Garmin devices like the Garmin Oregon, Montana, and eTrex Series. The InReach Explorer+ is made out of a tough polycarbonate plastic with a soft rubber rand wrapping around the perimeter. The front of the device features a 2.31″ LCD screen. While it may not be Iphone worthy, it is usable on a sunny day and very readable. Below the screen are 6 independent function buttons and a 4-way directional pad. The device is roughly 2.7″ x 6.5″ x 1.5″ and weighs in at a somewhat hefty 7.5 ounces. It feels quite durable in the hand! Oddly, this device is larger and heavier then the previous generation Delorme InReach.  Around the back of the device is a raised edge that can be used to secure the included belt clip, and carabiner loop. The top of the device has a raised bump that houses the GPS antenna, and the bottom of the device features a rubber plug that protects the Micro-USB charging port. Around the right hand side of the device is the star of the show, the SOS button. The SOS button of the Garmin InReach Explorer+ is protected by a hard rubber cover that prevents it from being accidentally pressed.  The Garmin InReach Explorer+ is IPX7 water resistant. This means it can withstand some rain, and light splashes. However, this is NOT a WATERPROOF device! Care should be taken when expecting extreme wet conditions like kayaking or swimming.

Overall I’m very pleased with the hardware of the Garmin InReach Explorer+ it feels like a solidly built device that can take a bit of a beating. I’m not concerned when I throw it in my backpack with my climbing gear. My only complaint is that it’s somewhat large and heavy by “ultra light standards”. The weight is somewhat justified when it comes to the feature set though.

The SOS button of the InReach Explorer + is protected by a hard plastic cover.

Battery Life

The battery in the Garmin InReach Explorer+ is non-replaceable and sealed in its housing. It is a rechargeable lithium ion battery that is juiced up from the Micro USB port on the bottom of the device. Garmin advertises up to 100 hours at 10-minute tracking mode (default); up to 75 hours at 10-minute tracking with 1-second logging; up to 30 days at the 30-minute interval power save mode; and up to 3 years when powered off in standby mode. In my experience this thing has VERY good battery life and I have not had issues even in cold weather.


Messaging and Communication

The Included Carabiner makes it easy to clip to your pack.

Lets make one thing clear, messaging on satellite communicators is kind of clunky and slow. Texting isn’t like it is on your IPhone. But, in a pinch it’s perfectly acceptable and usable. This isn’t a problem with the Garmin InReach Explorer+… This is just generally the case with these types of devices. The Garmin InReach Explorer+ allows you to save a contact list. This is a quick way to select who you want to send a message to. You can also manually add a persons phone number or email address who isn’t in your contacts list.

Preset versus Custom Messages

There are two ways to communicate. By using preset messages that don’t count against your monthly subscription, or by writing a custom message. Your subscription to the InReach service will give you an allowance of custom messages… more on that later. Presets are much like the direct competitor SPOT Gen 3 device. Using the Garmin InReach website you type out your preset messages. For Example “I’m Running Late” or “I’m OK, just checking in”. After your presets are saved they can be quickly called up using the lightning bolt hotkey on the Garmin InReach Explorer+ and sent to any one of your contacts. Included with your preset message will be a link to your Mapshare page which will show friends and family where the message was sent from on a global map.

How People Contact You – 2 Way Messaging

Sending messages is pretty straight forward. Receiving messages is a little more complicated. Garmin InReach devices do not have a “static phone number” that friends and family can simply text. Instead a temporary number string is generated every time you send a message. This number stays the same for several days to months, but can ultimately change at any time. This means when you send a message to someone they can respond to the text just like any other conversation and the message is sent back to your InReach device. I really wish each device just got its own number that stayed the same… it would make communication much simpler and allow friends and family to save the InReach as a contact in their phone.

Message Confirmation

This is an often overlooked feature but one that might be the most important in my opinion. The Garmin InReach Explorer+ actually tells you when a message has been successfully sent! Previously, I owned a SPOT Gen 3 device. I had issues with this device because I never knew when a message was sent. It basically would just flash for an hour with no indication of what the status was. The Garmin InReach Explorer+ has a visual confirmation which is super comforting!



Garmin MapShare Web Interface

The Mapshare website is a place friends and family can go to locate you, track your progress, or message you. From the Garmin InReach website you can generate a unique link that can be shared on social media, or via email. When your followers click this link they will be presented with a global map and a handful of options. If your InReach Explorer+ is in “tracking” mode a breadcrumb trail will be shown on the map that indicates how far you’ve gone and your current location. By clicking “locate me” it will trigger the Garmin InReach Explorer to GPS ping and update its location in real time. And finally you can send text messages to the InReach user from here. All of these features can be turned off or on from the settings panel on the Garmin Website.


SOS and Emergency Communication

SOS Mode can easily be cancelled if accidentally pressed.

By flipping open the plastic “SOS” cover and pressing the SOS button you engage the Emergency Communication mode of the Garmin InReach Explorer+. The device will count down from 10 giving you an opportunity to cancel the SOS in the event that this was an accident. After the count-down your GPS position will be transferred to a 24/7 operated emergency global dispatch service. The nice thing about having a screen and keypad is that the dispatch service will be able to communicate with you during the search and rescue.



GPS Tracking

Garmin InReach Explorer + GPS Tracking Options

The Garmin InReach Explorer+ also has the added benefit of GPS tracking. The Inreach Explorer+ allows you to track, and share your GPS track so friends and family can follow you along your route. The device itself is capable of tracking at 1 second intervals and recording your location internally to a GPX file. However, your friends and family won’t see this kind of resolution on the web interface. The device will transmit your location at 10 minute intervals by default, or 2 minute intervals if you pay for the upgraded subscription.

In practice I’ve found the tracking and sharing functions kind of lackluster, it’s not quite the same interface Garmin provides with its “Garmin Connect Livetrack” which shows a detailed track, your pace, and timing. Instead the InReach interface just shows a series of pings and what time they occurred. This is perfectly fine for friends and family to watch your progress but not that great if you’re tracking a race or timed event.

The other benefit to the tracking functionality is that you can take the raw GPX file from the device and upload it into Garmin Connect or Strava to view an activity on a map in detail. This can be handy for long events or mult-day treks.


Garmin InReach Web Portal

Preset Message Configuration Screen

The Garmin InReach website will allow you to manage your contacts, pre-set messages, and your monthly subscription plan. This is also where you go to download the firmware update tool and configure your MapShare page settings. It’s all fairly well laid out and intuitive but does feel a little dated and disconnected from the rest of Garmin’s product line.  I really wish some of this functionality was handled within Garmin Connect’s web interface like my Garmin Fenix 5 watch. It’s pretty obvious that Garmin did little more than just re-branding the Delorme website. I hope this gets updated in the future!



Maps and Navigation – Creating a Route

Clicking my way through a route.

The route creator tool in the InReach web portal allows you to create point-to-point routes that will be sync’d with your device to navigate. This is EXTREMELY BASIC navigation. This tool does not “auto-route”, meaning you cannot click the start of a trailhead, and the summit of a mountain and let the software calculate the route for you. This simply doesn’t work like that despite the maps appearing to be route capable. Basically you need to draw a series of line segments that follow the route which is kind of clunky and time consuming. My Garmin Fenix 5x watch has more powerful routing and navigation and its a fraction of the size! That said, the maps are very detailed and when viewed on the InReach screen device itself can be super helpful for bushwhacking or navigating around obstacles. The maps that come pre-loaded on the Garmin InReach Explorer + are 1:24K scale which means they are super detailed. If you find that you want to change maps you can do that as well by uploading them to the device via USB cable. Following a route on the device is also very basic and only points you in the right direction similar to a compass bearing.

Full color Topographic maps can be viewed directly on the device in great detail.

My conclusion to the mapping capabilities of the Garmin InReach Explorer + : It’s a nice backup if you’re in a pinch and have no other way to navigate. But I wouldn’t use it as my primary means of navigation. Realistically, this feature comes at a minor cost increase so it’s better to have than not. However, I wish Garmin would implement a similar route tool like Garmin Connect’s course maker… after all this is the same company!


Garmin Earthmate Mobile Application

Screens within the Earthmate Mobile App

The Earthmate companion app to the Garmin InReach Explorer + is quite powerful. After pairing your Garmin InReach with your cell phone via Bluetooth you have the following features and options to utilize:

  • Map – Download and browse full features topographic maps for offline use. No cell or data connection necessary with excellent detail.
  • Messaging – Send and receive messages using the InReach satellite communicator. The beauty about this is you can utilize the easy typing keyboard of your phone rather than type the message on the InReach’s difficult to use keyboard.
  • Tracking – Start and stop your GPS track, or share on social media.
  • Waypoints – Browse saved waypoints.
  • Routes – Browse your saved routes.
  • Compass – A basic compass interface.
  • Weather – Download an “off the grid” weather forecast of the area you’re in.
  • SOS Trigger – Trigger an SOS Emergency event from your phone instead of on the InReach device itself.



Subscription Cost and Plans

InReach Plans as of June 2018

Here’s the catch… well not really. This is a satellite communication device, which inherently means you’ll need to pay for a monthly plan. These plans vary from $11.95 to $99 per month depending on how many features you want. Honestly, these prices aren’t too outlandish. If you want the bare minimum  plan and intend to use this as an “only for emergencies” type of device you can get away paying under $15 a month for the peace of mind. However, if you are thru-hiking or intend to be communicating a lot and sharing your location regularly while off the grid the more expensive plans may make more sense. I personally use the “recreation” plan which is a decent balance of cost/features and gives me just enough messaging to get by.


Pricing and Availability

The Garmin InReach Explorer + retails for $449 but is currently on sale for $379. The “non-mapping” version called the Garmin InReach SE+ retails for $399 and is currently on sale for $349. For $30 more you can get the maping and navigation functionality… That’s a no-brainer in my opinion!


Garmin InReach Explorer + Conclusion

The Garmin InReach Explorer + offers basic trip statistics during tracking.

This is a solid device for those looking for a means of communicating with friends and family while off the grid. I’ve found the messaging to be very reliable despite being somewhat slow which is to be expected from a satellite communication network. While the mapping and navigation functions are very limited, they could be very valuable in a pinch if you had no other way to find a trail. On top of that, the mapping adds such a minor cost increase… why not have it? Having SOS, and giving my wife a means of communicating with me when I’m in the back country buys me a lot of freedom. The subscription is a small price to pay for the peace of mind!

I think my major complaint is that the InReach ecosystem is so disconnected from the rest of the Garmin product line. I wish Garmin would integrate the InReach functionality into the Garmin Connect experience. From an end users perspective it would make this whole process a lot more streamlined. I would also like to be able to somehow connect my Garmin GPS watch to the Garmin InReach network to use  its “Garmin Connect live track” function while off the grid!

On top of that, some minor upgrades to the Navigation functions like adding route-able maps would be huge in my opinion. If the device could calculate routes it would be a much more powerful device that could compete with other handhelds on the market.



Alternative Devices

Older Delorme InReach Explorer (Left) versus Garmin InReach Explorer + (Right)

There are a few other devices on the market that may fit your needs if you think that the Garmin InReach Explorer+ has too many bells and whistles for your use.

SPOT Gen 3 ($149) – The SPOT Gen 3 is a basic device that runs on double A batteries. It has no screen, no mobile app, and limited functionality. However, it still allows you to send preset messages and share your location along with SOS functions. The monthly subscription is a couple of bucks cheaper and the device itself can commonly be found on sale for under $100. If you don’t need navigation or maps, and don’t mind the lack of an onboard LCD screen and the ability to type out custom messages then this may be a good fit for you.

SPOT X ($249) – The Spot X is new to the block and features a full keyboard and LCD screen for 2-way messaging. This device is pretty compelling! However, I haven’t had a chance to play with one yet. It has all the functionality of the SPOT Gen 3 with the added bonus of a screen and keyboard for custom messaging. This may be one of the most direct competitors to the Garmin InReach devices. However, it does not feature any mapping or navigation functions. The plans are slightly less expensive but the entry level plan doesn’t feature as many messages or functions as the Garmin plans do. I’ll be curious to see how this device works in real life.

The Original Delorme InReach ($199 Discontinued) –  This device was manufactured by Delorme prior to Garmin aquiring the company. The good news is that it’s still fully compatible with the Garmin InReach network. The Delorme InReach features 99% of what the newer Garmin devices offer. There are no built in maps, but still some basic navigation functions. The Delorme InReach works with Garmin’s Earthmate mobile app and allows you to pair your phone unlocking offline maps and messaging. This is a great option for those who like the Garmin InReach feature set but don’t need topographic maps and want to save a few bucks. Even discontinued these can be purchased new from multiple sources but not for long!

ACR ElectronicsResQLink+($269) – The ACR ResQLink is a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) which means it has NO other function than to be an EMERGENCY ONLY DEVICE. The ResQLink’s only job is to be a last option in a time of life or death. It has no communication features, no tracking functions, no LCD screen or navigation. Once it’s triggered a search and rescue effort will begin and there’s no turning back. The device itself is not cheap, however these devices do not need a monthly subscription. It’s a one time expense until you need to get your battery services which lasts for 5 years out of the box! This is a great option for people who only need an emergency device.

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