Garmin inReach Mini 2 vs inReach Explorer+

Garmin inreach mini 2 vs inreach explorer+

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 and the inReach Explorer+ are two-way satellite communicators that can send and received status messages to loved ones or alert emergency services if you need assistance. The inReach Mini 2 received a major upgrade this year (2022) that made it much easier to use, improved its battery life, and added some useful new features that the original inReach Mini (version 1) lacked.

Before the Mini 2 upgrade, I preferred the Explorer+ because it had a longer battery life, a richer feature set, and was, in my opinion, easier to use. I have since switched to using the inReach Mini 2 for hiking and backpacking because its new features and capabilities exceed those of the Explorer+. This isn’t a full review of the Mini 2 but a recommendation for you to buy it if you don’t own one, or to upgrade from the original Mini or Explorer+, if not now, eventually.

If you’re interested in a deep dive into the Mini 2’s features and functionality, I’ve included a 50-minute video below with Chip Noble, the inReach product manager, that explains how to use the device without a lot of salesy fluff. It’s a useful video to watch, even if you’re a pro user.

A Standalone Two-Way Messaging/ SOS Device

The most important thing, for me, about the inReach devices including the Mini, Mini2, and Explorer+, is that they are standalone, two-way messaging devices that can operate fully without the need for an external display device like a Smartphone.

Battery power is a finite resource in the backcountry, so you want to conserve what you have. If you have to signal for help, it’s better to use one standalone device to message with Search and Rescue and not two, an inReach and a Smartphone linked using bluetooth. It doesn’t make any sense to me to burn through two batteries, when one will do. That said, you can still send texts through an app running on a Smartphone with the inReach, but it’s not a requirement.

Two way messaging is also a critical capability. In the event of an emergency, you want to be able to communicate with Search and Rescue since:

  1. they can tell you how to stabilize a patient if you lack the wilderness medicine know-how
  2. they can send you updates on their estimated time of arrival
  3. they can know what equipment and personnel to send to assist you. There’s no point in mustering a team to carry you out in a stretcher or via helicopter if you can walk out on your own power.

If all you need is a two-way standalone messaging and SOS capability, that you keep turned off most of the time, then any of the inReach devices: the original Mini, the Mini 2, or the Explorer+ provide you with that capability. Where they really differ is in their add-on functions, multi-device integration, and future support.

Tracking in Garmin Explore App on the Mini 2
Tracking in Garmin Explore App on the Mini 2

inReach Mini 2 Benefits

Briefly, here are the new features and capabilities of the inReach Mini 2 that convinced me to switch from using the Explorer+ to the Mini 2.

Battery Life

The original inReach Mini had a battery that lasted about 50% less the inReach Explorer+. The new inReach Mini 2 can last about 3 times longer than the Explorer+ because Garmin used a new chipset in the Mini 2 that uses much less power and requires less frequent charging, even when you use power-hungry functions like 10-minute or 30-minute tracking.

However, I would caution you to take Garmin’s battery life estimates with a grain of salt, depending on your location. They were benchmarked in optimal operating conditions. For example, I can get 20 hours of 10-minute tracking, when hiking in the heavily forested terrain of the White Mountain National Forest where I live and hike. That’s a far cry from the 4 days that Garmin estimates when tracking in moderate tree cover, whatever “moderate” means. I don’t use the tracking capabilities normally for this reason.

If you need to track a route because you want to save it as a route or GPX file, I suggest you do it with a Smartphone App like GaiaGPS instead of the inReach Mini 2 because it requires much less battery energy expenditure because the data is stored locally and not pushed up into a satellite. Satellite handshakes chew up power, so it’s best to limit them if you want to preserve the battery.

User Interface

The Mini 2 user interface has had a significant usability improvement that makes it much simpler to use than on the original Mini. It now consists of hierarchical menus that are similar to those used on Garmin’s other devices. It is also backlit so you can read it in the dark. This is important because most rescues occur after dark.

The Mini 2 interface is still not as easy to use as the Explorer+ for a complete novice, since its functions are not visible on the device screen. But with 10 minutes of familiarization, you could get a hiking partner or your 10-year-old son up to speed, in case you have a medical emergency and become incapacitated.

Faster GPS Satellite Acquisition

The Mini 2 has access to four GPS Satellite Networks, while the Explorer+ can only access one. This results in much faster GPS position acquisition and fewer ‘battery burning” attempts to find a signal. I’ve waited upwards of 15 minutes for a preset checkin message to be sent because the Explorer+ couldn’t acquire its GPS location to attach to the message. Sometimes it never gets a GPS signal even when I can get a cellphone message out. The Mini 2 is much faster because it has many additional satellites to receive signal from.

Mini 2 TracBack Feature
Mini 2 TracBack Feature

TracBack

This capability is now automatic on the Mini 2 whereas it had to be manually activated on the original Mini. It creates a GPS track, minus topo map data, of your track so you walk it back if you get lost. It’s a lot like the tracks Garmin’s old monochrome GPS units would display before they could display topo maps.

It’s very useful for finding your car if you’ve headed off-trail to bushwhack a peak and didn’t pay attention to where you’d parked. It automatically starts when you turn on the device and uses very little power since its data is all stored locally. Of course, you still have to turn the device on to use it.

Faster Charging

The Mini 2 requires a USB-C plug instead of the micro-USB interface used by the original Mini and the Explorer+. This results in faster charging and is the direction many other rechargeable devices are headed, including headlamps.

App Support/Garmin EcoSystem Integration

It’s very frustrating to be a consumer of an electronic device when you learn that the manufacturer isn’t going to support the software that accompanies it in the future. I expect that the Earthmate App, which works with the original Mini and the Explorer+ will be killed off and unsupported going forward.

The Mini 2 does not work with the Earthmate App and only works with Garmin’s Explore App, which is integrated with their watches, the Garmin fenix and the Garmin Instinct, so you can access inReach messages, send SOS messages, and navigate from your wrist. My hope is that they bundle more of the inReach’s capabilities into a watch eventually so it is a self-contained worn device, you know, like Dick Tracy’s watch.

If you want to leverage the other devices in the Garmin Ecosystem or just want to use an App that will be enhanced, this is a good time to switch to the Mini 2. Devices that support the Earthmate app are likely a dead-end. The Explore App includes a decent set of navigation features and map sets if you want to use a free mobile app, but it’s nowhere as good as GaiaGPS, which is what I use. Still it’s good fall back since GaiaGPS charges an annual subscription fee and is fairly expensive.

Garmin Explore App Navigation Display
Garmin Explore App Navigation Display

Gripes

There are a few things I don’t like about the Mini 2, which you should be aware of.

  1. The carabiner used to attach the Mini 2 to your backpack can open unexpectedly resulting in a lost device. I wish Garmin would sell a good soft pocket to attach the Mini 2 to your pack that keeps the antenna vertical and doesn’t swing around when you walk. This would be a great accessory for a small company to make. Hint.
  2. The Mini 2 turns on when you connect to its charger and stays on even after the battery is full and the charger stops charging. The result is that you lose charge if you don’t turn it off (manually) when it’s finished charging. The Explorer+ never turns on when it is charging, so you always have a 100% full battery when you leave the house.

Wrap Up

The main reason I switched from the Explorer+ to the Mini 2 can be summed up as follows:

  • Much longer battery life
  • Much simpler, better engineered user interface.
  • Faster GPS satellite acquisition
  • Automatic TracBack function, which I plan to use more when bushwhacking off-trail.
  • Faster charging
  • Garmin Explore App Support

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 is also a lot less cumbersome to carry than the Explore+ since it’s so small and lightweight. That’s a feature that’s grown on me as I use it. It really does need to be at close at hand if you need to use it and having a smaller unit is much more convenient.

How to Use the Garmin inReach Mini 2

This a very detailed video about how to use the Garmin Mini 2 presented by Chip Noble who’s been the inReach product manager from day 1, when it was first developed by DeLorme, before Garmin acquired the company. It’s not “salesy” at all and contains a lot of good information that should probably be in a product manual.

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34 comments

  1. Seems like some huge functional and structural (battery life, charging) improvements. I know it’s a pittance compared the actual cost of needing SAR to come out but for someone that only gets out 1-2 days/month the monthly fee is a tough nut. Not suggesting Garmin is gouging – it’s just an unfortunate obstacle to wider spread use of the devices.

    • I use the Freedom Plan. I pay 34.99 for the month I need it, then turn it back off. The yearly subscription to do this is 34.99. Yes, each time I go out in a different month, I spend 34.99, but it’s well worth it to me. Its a couple dinners or a week of Starbucks??

      Last time out, I got hurt. After a few days of struggling, I had to call it quits. I had no cell service. I was able to text the shuttle driver and confirm with him the shortest way out. Shuttle driver offered to call 911, I explained I could walk out, etc. I just needed to cut the trip short. So he also knew he was not dealing with an emergency situation. Sometimes I go out just for an overnight, sometimes longer, but I feel it’s worth the money, especially that last event. It took close to 5 months for my rib to heal, but it could have been far worse.

    • They basically kept the external case and replaced the insides.

  2. I want to piggyback on PClemons. For occasional users, you can’t ignore subscription cost. The Zoleo is less functional, and heavier, but for me good enough, and after 3 months you can suspend the service and pay just $4 per month.

    • I pay an annual subscription to Garmin of 34.00 which allows me to suspend and activate my plan whenever I want.

    • Zoleo is cheaper to buy up front but Garmin’s subscription cost is arguably less depending on your preferred usage. Garmin has suspendable plans also. Bivvy Stick since it was bought by ACR and repriced is now competitive with Zoleo. It is a very similar device but smaller and lighter. They have what seems the least expensive plan for occasional use…more pay as you go I think. (ymmv) Generally though the difference in subscription prices is a wash imo. These devices are not cheap to buy or free to use. If you want that a PLB can provide a basic SOS for a fairly low upfront cost and no running costs except for a 5 year battery replacement.

      In my experience, satellite tracking is the most interesting for folks at home and I disagree that is not useful for SAR. Last know positions may be all there is to go on if you have a fall and provide a much better place to start than a car at a trail head. While you can travel some distance in 30 mins it is still a limited range and tracking will likely give your general direction of travel. So long as the device can see the sky it will give your position automatically if you are there long enough as you would be with a fall or a collapse. It is however more expensive to use than say manual checkin messages which are unlimited in Garmin’s plans. Possibly, since the device checks for messages periodically, a last known position can be known to SAR in a real emergency if requested but that is just speculation on my part. My recommendation is that you do not carry your device switched off except when you have established a camp location.

      The automatic version that the Mini2’s battery life allows is definitely a big improvement but it is not an entirely new feature. Even the simplest GPS devices usually have some variant of it. The original Mini has a manually activated track back feature. What is nice about the automatic feature is that it is always there to guide you back when you find you need it (ie get lost). Again only if you have the device switched on. Generally people don’t anticipate getting lost…or they wouldn’t get lost.

      • You’ve Got to be Kidding

        Sorry but turning on tracking on every hike is idiotic, especially when hiking with companions. I can see using it on high risk hikes, like off trail or when you leave a trail to pee, but if you leave a route plan with a trusted friend and hike on frequented trails you should be fine without tracking. People have been hiking without tracking for thousands of years and the world isn’t any deadlier.

        • Not actually what I said, but I fail to see how it is “idiotic” to track a hike with a GPS device. People have been doing it since consumer GPS tracking devices became available. It’s fun, interesting, even useful and potentially life saving in some situations. You do have to pay attention to battery usage but since you can run and re-charge the device from a light weight battery bank you can manage power anyway you want to.
          More to the point, I have confirmed that, according to Garmin, In Reach devices send their location when they query for messages…whenever you check and in any case every hour for the original mini and maybe also the mini2…more frequently for other devices where the period is also configurable. This is the location you get if you request it and the device does not have Satellite tracking on. As far as I can tell you cannot disable this except by turning off the Mini. This location is only shared to your online Map on request where Satellite tracking is displayed as received. Bottom line, there is a safety benefit from having your Mini on except when in camp even if you chose not use Satellite Tracking for whatever reason.

  3. Thanks for the comparison and review Phil. This may finally make me upgrade from my still fully functional but probably soon not supported Garmin Inreach SE+

  4. Timely article as I have been looking for comparisons with the full size Explorer and not the original Mini. I own the full size which uses Earthmate.

    Can I move my waypoints over to the Mini 2 Explore App? Contacts?

    Thanks.

    • It’s remarkably easy as a matter of fact. All of your data lives in the cloud and will be replicated onto the new device when you activate it. This makes switching super easy. I was impressed!

  5. Philip,

    It would be interesting to see a compare-and-contrast article covering the InReach, Zoleo, and Somewear. Is this something you would consider writing?

    I’m surprised how many online discussion threads on the InReach don’t even mention the other two.

    • Somewear sent me their device to review last year and I was so disgusted by its lack of usability and reliability that I returned it rather than waste my time reviewing it. It takes a lot of time to actually use these things… However, I did just order a Zoleo because I think it would be good to give my readers a lower cost option to consider. We’ll see. That experience with Somewear cemented my belief that you don’t want to rely on a Smartphone app for two-way communications or any other functions with a satellite messenging device.

      The reason online discussions probably don’t consider those other two is because the inReach is head and shoulders better.

      • Thanks for the information, Philip. Negative feedback is very useful too.

        Without considering the alternatives, it’s hard to tell if Garmin is worth the money or not.

    • Perhaps the inclusion of the Garmin 66i would complete this review?
      My guess is that device might be better than any of the inreach products??

      • I haven’t used a 66i, but the problem I have with Garmin GPS devices in general is that they charge you for out of date maps from the USGS which are in the public domain and free. I mean you can just go and download the up-to-date ones from the USGS and not have to pay for them.

  6. Still you said nothing about the most important feature of any device from the SOS perspective and that is how strong the SOS signal is, which, combined with the reliability of the receiving satellite network, determines the reliability of the outgoing SOS getting through. Nobody seems to say anything about this anymore. And worse, nobody complains that the companies are not publishing this data anymore. Obviously, a smaller battery has less juice to use in sending the SOS signal. Probably, the size and weight of the mini (any mini) means a smaller antenna which produces less signal. The original satellite messengers produced well under one tenth as strong a signal as the legal standard for Personal Locator Beacons, but there is no legal standard for Satellite Messengers,
    so we are left to just trust the manufacturers? And no reviewers seem to care about that situation? This might seem a non-issue after you seem to get your regular texts through fairly reliably. But it becomes a major issue if you are injured in heavy forest, in a deep canyon, or at the base of an obscuring cliff. Sometimes it seems even severe weather can be a problem. There have been quite a few stories of people who have died due to poor reception from satellite messengers when the circumstances suggested that a PLB would have gotten the SOS through.

    • You raise some interesting questions but I think the takeaway is that users should have a basic understanding of the limitations of these devices, chose appropriately and manage their risk accordingly. Neither system guarantees an SOS will be received in all circumstances or that a rescue will occur. They only ever make it more likely.
      PLBs and Satellite Messengers while they both can summon SAR, work very differently so it is not useful to compare transmitter power. PLBs are designed specifically to be distress beacons, are the the best for that purpose and are free to use. But.. one time and one way, they have no other purpose and come with certain registration and maintenance responsibilities. Satellite Messengers are designed to allow messaging where a cell phone won’t reach and the SOS feature is more of an added convenience to a device that can help you coordinate lunch, a ride or your rescue, get you a weather report in addition to allowing people at home to track your progress. An SM is not free to use even for SOS but is more generally useful and its SOS capability is sufficient for the great majority of hikers and other backcountry users in the great majority or cases. However, both types of device are now small, light and inexpensive enough that if you are taking larger risks in places where an SM might have trouble then carrying both types is feasible. I know of people who say they do this. Most carry neither…

  7. Glad to see the mini has shifted to Explore, which is also a mobile app for ios and android. My in-reach device is a GPSmap 66i and even though communicating with that is probably leaps and bounds easier than one of the mini devices, it’s pretty cumbersome. However, it will bluetooth with my airplane mode phone (as I’m guessing the mine will too), and I can communicate as easy as text messaging using the Explore app on my phone. It is much easier than using the in-reach device.

  8. Holy Moly! I think I will keep my Mini 1. It’s $250 less then the new model and works great with my Dick Tracy watch too!!!

  9. I’ve been using the Mini for two years. I went with the “Annual Safety Plan” ($11.95/mo) after realizing that if I got lost or injured on a “routine” cross country ski outing, the Garmin was worthless because I lacked cell phone coverage in order to quickly purchase a month of subscription! Now I have a pretty cheap peace of mind, and I take it on road trips and routine dayhikes. It’s so small and light, it’s a no brainer.

    In 202, I used it to track while backpacking each day for seven days in the Wind River range. The battery lasted the whole week (although I did let it go below the recommended minimum just to see how long it would last). My family enjoyed being able to watch me as I hiked each day. Then I turned it off each evening when I got to camp and sent a confirmation message.

    The biggest negative of the Mini is the lack of keyboard. Typing messages is EXTREMELY tedious and might even make some people decide just to kill themselves! Just kidding. As long as your phone is working, of course, you can easily and quickly send messages. Then remember to turn off Bluetooth on the phone and the Garmin. The Mini does not need to be connected to your phone in order to track and send those coordinates to the cloud.

    Garmin, if they are smart, will offer an attractive upgrade discount to people like me. Hello Garmin? Otherwise I am not going to shell out another $400 for a device when I just paid $300 two years ago!

    • I am also surprised that Garmin hasn’t offered an upgrade discount myself. I don’t find the keyboard to be that onerous, personally. the word completion speeds things up nicely. But its true, the bluetooth connection is much easier to use.

  10. Generally not Garmin’s way. In the past, they have discounted the Mini in spring and fall sales…usually $50 but once $100 off msrp. Most reviews I have seen so far conclude that while the Mini 2 is an improvement and worth the extra $50 msrp, upgrading from an original is not compelling for most people (occasional users) unless you need a replacement. That was also my conclusion and I won’t be any time soon. Also Garmin is still selling the original so I doubt they would discount the 2 until they have depleted that supply. Retailers are discounting the original at the moment in the pre-season sales…although not as much as previous years. You may see the Mini 2 discounted in next years sales. Maybe in the fall if they sell out of originals this summer.

  11. Roger Massicotte

    Have you tried the Garmin Backpack Tether instead of the carabiner? It seems to do what you want, but a bit pricey for what it is.

  12. Staying powered on after charging is not a flaw. It is a feature. It means you can run the device from an external battery and it won’t power off at the wrong moment just because it has reached full charge. …a good idea in an on going emergency. It also powers on when you connect it to an external battery…useful if you run out of charge during an emergency and you need to get it running again quickly.
    If you want it to turn off after charging, just power it off after you connect the charge cable to start charging it. A charge indicator will appear instead of the regular screen and that will stay indicating the charge % level until you remove the charging cable. Then the charge indicator will disappear and it will remain off.
    At least that is how the original Mini works and the Mini 2 manual indicates it works the same.
    The original Mini also has an “Auto Off” option, disabled by default, which powers off 30s after the charging cable is removed…there is a 30s countdown…OK powers off immediately, BACK stops the countdown…all a bit fussy imo. Reading the manual, that seems to have been removed in the Mini2, probably to make room for other options. The “power it off when charging” behavior mostly covers the use case so it is was only a minor convenience and the Mini2’s better battery life means there is less reason for it anyway.

    • It’s a gripe, but as you say there was no manual included with the mini 2.

      • It’s 2022. The manual is online in pdf format and they did a decent job of it. The Content and Index are linked to the text so you can find what you are looking for easily. You can download it to your phone to read in your tent…or print it at home if you must waste paper and ink. For the Mini there is a feature in the Earthmate app Help menu that links to the online manuals. You can download it from there for offline use…a gripe is that the Android Earthmate app doesn’t know you downloaded it so you have to find it in your downloads. I suspect the Explore App has a similar feature for its supported devices like the Mini2.

  13. If the person I text via my InReach app does not have cell coverage, will he receive the text? Can he respond to it?

    • It will depend on the carrier and whether they hold onto a message until it can be delivered. They usually don’t. That’s what email is for.

      If they do receive the text message, they can simply reply back to you from within their messaging app. My wife did it just the other day to me.

      I find it best to send recipients a text message and an email at the same time, because I know at least one will get through.

  14. To tell someone 10 minute tracking is useless is ****. I question your experience. First, to be a mile away in 10 ministers means you’re doing a pace well over the average pace of 2-3mph that a typical hiker moves. Next, with tracking turned on the device has the ability to transmit your location if you were to fall and be knocked unconscious. Even 30 min, an hour interval, or more could save your life. But yet you want to tell your readers it’s invaluable. Seriously??

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