The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a combination GPS tracker, navigation tool, 2-way satellite messenger and SOS device which gives you the ability to send and receive email messages and SMS messages via satellite, even when you are out of range of cell phone towers and wireless networks. It’s a big step up from the SPOT Gen 3 Satellite Messenger which lacks the two-way ad hoc text messaging, message confirmation, and navigation capabilities of the Garmin inReach Explorer+ Satellite Communicator.
I know this firsthand. After using a SPOT for 8 years, I’ve switched to a Garmin inReach Explorer+. The inReach Explorer+ isn’t perfect, but it’s vastly superior to the SPOT Gen 3, even if you don’t use the entire range of capabilities provided by the inReach+ and just use it to text and communicate with loved ones via satellite.
In the following review, I’ll explain the major benefits, weaknesses, and quirks of the Garmin inReach Explorer+ in addition to explaining the ins and outs and weakness of its different subscription pricing tiers. If you’re trying to decide between the Garmin inReach and the SPOT Gen 3 Satellite Communicator, I can also give you some insight into the why I switched from using a SPOT to a Garmin inReach Explorer+ and haven’t looked back.
Reliable Two-Way Text Messaging
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ (weight 7.5 oz) provides fully interactive, two-way satellite based text messaging up to 160 characters in length.
There are four kinds of text messages supported on the Explorer+:
- Ad hoc messages, up to 160 characters in length, that can be sent to anyone with an email address or SMS cell phone number, including search and rescue responders. All messages include your GPS coordinates if GPS satellite connectivity is available
- Preset (pre-defined) messages that you can edit and change in the inReach web portal. These are good for check-in’s or to tell someone you’re running late.
- Quick text messages (also pre-defined) that you can edit and change which obviate the need to type common responses when messaging back and forth with someone.
- SOS messages which are sent to Search and Rescue agencies when you activate the SOS capability.
One of the best features on the inReach Explorer+ is audible or visual message confirmation. I’ve set up the Explorer+ to make an audible chirp when the message I’ve sent has been successfully relayed to the recipients email address or SMS cell phone number. That chirp sounds anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes after I send a message, but knowing that it’s been sent and not lost (which occurs periodically with SPOTs) gives me enormous piece of mind.
Those dropped messages are one of the main reasons I switched from a SPOT Gen 3 to an inReach Explorer+. With a SPOT, you never know whether your check-in messages are delivered. My wife likes me to check-in daily when I’m on backpacking trips in wilderness areas or overseas and she’d get really freaked out when she didn’t get my daily check-in messages because the SPOT messaging infrastructure dropped them. She is the person who I leave my trip plans with and would contact search and rescue if I became overdue. Keeping her up-to-date is a priority for me, even if I just send her predefined messages and GPS lat/lons with my current location once a day.
The two-way text messaging capabilities of the inReach Explorer+ are even more useful in an emergency because you can communicate with rescuers while they’re en route, providing them with information about your condition and receiving instructions from them about how to stabilize your circumstances. Even more importantly, the two-way communication makes it possible for you to use the inReach to call-in emergency services for your hiking partner, guiding client, or a casualty that you come across during a hike, while assuring your family that you are not the victim yourself. You can’t do that with the SPOT satellite communicator or any other personal locator beacon sold today.
Activating the SOS function on the inReach is simple but nearly impossible to do accidentally. The SOS button is hidden behind a small door on the side of the inReach that you need to open first to push it. You can also activate it from the main menu, but there is a countdown before the SOS is activated to make sure this was an intended action and not an accidental one. If you still manage to activate an SOS prematurely, you can cancel the SOS alert without requiring a SAR call-out by choosing the cancel SOS option on the two-way message history screen. Calling out a search and rescue team should always be avoided if you can rescue yourself. Many SAR personnel are volunteers and risk personal injury every time they leave for a mission.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ includes a weather forecast feature that lets you look up basic (free) or premium (detailed) forecast information. This is a great feature when you’re off the grid completely and need to avoid bad weather, especially in winter. The amount of detail provided in basic forecasts includes hour by hour break downs like those shown above, as well as wind speed, barometric pressure, wind chill value, cloud coverage, precipitation amounts, and temperature. You can request these forecasts for your current location or a distant one by typing in its GPS coordinates.
It’s possible to track and share the track you take on a hike, using the inReach Explorer+ with another person in near real-time. This is handy if you want other people to be able to follow your track using the web-based inReach Mapshare capability, using a personalized URL that you send them when you start your trip. This tracking feature is also useful if you’ve missed a previously agreed-to check-in time because you’ve had an accident and can’t signal for help, since rescuers can follow your track to your current location.
The accuracy of your track depends on the frequency in which you log track points in the Explorer+. For example, if you are mapping a new route instead of following an existing trail, you’ll want to set the log interval to one second, so you record your precise location frequently. A one second log interval is also necessary if you want an accurate estimate of the distance you’ve travelled. I’ve experienced 25-50% mileage discrepancies in the Explorer+ trip computer compared to paper maps when recording my tracks with the longer default 1 minute log interval (which trades better battery life for decreased accuracy.)
When tracking, you also need to define the send interval in which your logged track points are sent to the Garmin web site. If someone is following your route closely, you’ll want to set the sending interval to be more frequent. If you’re following a predefined route plan on a trail, a less frequent send interval is probably sufficient and will also extend the device’s battery life.
The inReach web site includes a basic route planning capability that lets you define your own routes, save them and synch them with your inReach device so you can refer to them in the field. GPX and KML imports and exports are also supported, although importing a GPX generated in Caltopo still generates an error and won’t work. (This bug existed several years ago when I first reviewed the DeLorme inReach Explorer before Garmin bought DeLorme and it still hasn’t been fixed.)
The inReach route planning tool has some serious limitations and is significantly less featured than other web-based mapping tools like Caltopo or Garmin’s Basecamp. For example, you can’t extend a route if you accidentally finish one, you can’t generate a route profile, and the quality and currency of the digital maps provided is barely passable. You do however need to use the inReach planning tool if you want to synch and download routes to your inReach or export tracks of your trips.
My advice would be to do all of your in-field GPS navigation, route tracking and waypoint marking with a separate GPS device if you own one already or a smartphone using the GAIA GPS navigation app. I believe that Garmin will eventually replace the inReach route planning tool with Garmin Basecamp, which is the existing GPS desktop route planning tool integrated with their GPS devices.
Earthmate App Integration
It is possible to see a topographic map of your route and track if you pair your inReach Explorer with Garmin’s free Earthmate iPhone or Android app via Bluetooth. The Earthmate mapping app can also be used to configure the Explorer device, send and receive text messages, and display data stored on it, providing a better interface than the clunky buttons and virtual keyboard on the Explorer device.
But the Earthmate app is not best of breed when it comes to a smartphone GPS apps (like Gaia GPS). While you can download some additional maps to it and follow your GPS track in the Earthmate app, it’s best to think of it as an alternate front end that’s more convenient for messaging than the built-in inReach keyboard.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ has a built-in battery which must be recharged using a USB compatible power source or battery. Battery life is typically 4-5 days if you are careful about the tracking intervals you use, you keep the screen brightness at a low-level, you turn the device off at night, and configure the screen to automatically lock after a short interval. I consider having a USB rechargeable inReach battery a plus since I always carry a battery charger for recharging my cell phone, headlamp, and digital camera when I’m day hiking and backpacking.
Garmin offers a number of subscription plans for the inReach Explorer+ users shown above, including discounted annual contracts and so-called Freedom Plans which let you upgrade or downgrade your inReach plan on a month-by-month basis. Annual plans require a 12-month contract. There is a one-time $19.95 subscription activation fee. Moving up a plan is free, and moving down a plan incurs a $24.95 fee. Freedom plans require a minimum 30-day commitment and you can move freely up and down a plan at no charge. When going up a plan, a minimum commitment of 30 days to the new plan is required. You can suspend your service on a monthly basis at no charge and still retain access to all your inReach data stored on the Explore portal. Your selected plan will auto-renew each month unless you make a change on your account in the Explore portal. There is an annual program fee of $24.95 to enroll in a Freedom plan.
If you are just interested in using the inReach Explorer+ to send pre-canned text messages and SOS message, then the safety plan is quite affordable, particularly since you can tell when inReach messages have been delivered to their intended recipients (unlike the SPOT Gen 3 where messages periodically fail and no confirmation is provided).
If you plan to travel internationally and want the ability to communicate with loved ones when you’re off the grid, then the Expedition plan is probably your best bet because you can send them an unlimited number of ad hoc messages.
However, if you also want to use the tracking capabilities provided by the explorer, which are handy if you can’t send an SOS message because you are incapacitated or you want to create new GPS tracks by walking them, you need to upgrade to one of the more expensive plans which provide unlimited tracking points and tracking points logging at a faster. more accurate rate.
Comparison with Garmin inReach SE+
The Garmin inReach SE+ is slightly less expensive that the inReach Explorer+. What are the differences between the two units and is it worth buying the more expensive Explorer+ model?
“As satellite communicators, both the inReach SE+ and Explorer+ offer identical messaging capabilities. However, it’s on the GPS navigation side that their differences become apparent. While inReach SE+ uses GPS to provide basic grid navigation and allow you to drop waypoints, mark key locations, track your progress, and follow a breadcrumb trail back to base, the inReach Explorer+ goes a step beyond, providing full-fledged GPS on-map guidance with preloaded TOPO mapping and waypoint routings viewable directly on the unit. Plus, a built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer are included with Explorer+ to help you get and maintain accurate bearings anywhere on or off the beaten path.”
While having preloaded Topo maps on the Explorer+ does make it easier to navigate to a waypoint or backtrack because you can see what the terrain looks like between your current location and desired destination on the Explorer+ screen, they’re not strictly necessary if you’re using the SE+ with an additional dedicated GPS device or smartphone app like Gaia GPS to navigate.
Net Net: If you’re a more experienced backcountry navigator and already use a dedicated GPS device or a smartphone navigation app, then the Garmin inReach SE+ is more than sufficient for your needs. But if you’re a more casual navigator without a desire or need to carry richer navigational tools, the Explorer+ is an easier to use, all-in-one solution than the SE+.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a satellite communicator and GPS tracking device that can send and receive text messages, confirms message delivery, can send an SOS message for help, and track your route and GPS waypoints, even when you are out of range of cell phone towers. It beats the pants off of the SPOT Gen 3, in terms of message delivery reliability and the fact that you are not limited to pre-canned OK messages. While the satellite communication and SOS capabilities in the Explorer+ are superb, it’s not anywhere as sophisticated as Garmin’s dedicated GPS units. If you already own a Garmin GPS or navigate with a smartphone navigation app like Gaia GPS, I’d recommend getting the Garmin SE+ instead. If you’d like some basic graphical GPS capabilities, but don’t need the full range of maps available in more sophisticated tools or devices, than the inReach Explorer+ is a better choice.
- Two-way satellite text is very handy for communicating outside of cell phone range
- Preset messages enable fast dispatch of routine check-in communication
- Satellite signal is strong enough to beam through tent walls and backpack fabric
- Website portal is easy to use and easy to synch with
- Audible message delivery notification
- Never experienced a dropped or undelivered message
- Mapshare lets friends and family follow your progress
- Digital compass does not have to be moving to display correct bearing.
- Earthmate app provides easier to use messaging interface
- Web-based route planning app is rudimentary and not best of breed.
- Limited selection of topo maps available in the Earthmate app.
Disclaimer: The author purchased this product with his own funds.
Written 2017. Updated 2018.Disclosure: SectionHiker.com receives affiliate compensation from retailers that sell the products we recommend or link to if you make a purchase through them. When reviewing products, we test each thoroughly and give high marks to only the very best. Our reputation for honesty is important to us, which is why we only review products that we've tested hands-on. Our mission is to help people, which is why we encourage readers to comment, ask questions, and share their experiences on our posts. We are independently owned and the opinions expressed here are our own.
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