Delorme's InReach Explorer may just be the best non-human friend a hiker could have. This Global Positioning System (GPS) has the standard navigation that has been on the market for years. The cherry on top (or bunch of cherries, as it were) is the addition of tracking and sharing, location pinging, two-way messaging and two-way SOS. And if those features weren't enough to make it worth the price, the device also includes 100% Iridium network global coverage.
In our mobile world we are all accustomed to keeping in touch or at least having the ability to choose to keep in touch. What is expected off the trail -- the ability to be in touch at any time -- is often vastly different on the trail where cell service is the exception and not the rule. Generally, I don't want to be reached when I am out on the hike. But I do want the freedom to make a call for help if the need arises.
There are two main types of satellite communicators. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) use the 406 MHz distress frequency to send a call for help to the nearest rescue center. When used with a GPS signal, the 406MHz frequency gets emergency messages to first responders within 5 minutes and guides them to within 100 meters from the signal. PLBs do not have subscription fees but do have to be registered with NOAA.
Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND) use commercial satellites to dispatch a call for help to the nearest response center. Satellite communication does not utilize the 406 MHz and it not recommended for extreme mountaineering. It does offer the ability to send pre-configured messages with your coordinates attached. This is useful if you want to do a virtual check-in with friends or family when you are out of reach in the cellular network.
SEND Devices: Differences
Two companies make SEND devices: SPOT (Gen 3 and Global Phone) and Delorme (InReach SE and InReach Explorer).
SPOT GEN 3 ($169.95) offers the ability to send pre-configured messages of 41 characters or less to personal contacts and social media sites. The SOS feature uses GEOS to deploy help. The device is one-way; you cannot receive inbound message nor is there confirmation that you SOS was received. An annual subscription of $149.99 is required.
SPOT Global Phone ($549.95) is just that -- a global phone -- that routes 911 calls to GEOS to deploy help. It includes a 10-digit local phone number that can include voicemail (for an additional charge) and send/receive text messages. A seasonal subscription (which prebuys minutes that can be used within one year) is available for as low as $480.
Delorme's InReach SE ($299.95) includes location pinging so that a loved one can check to see where you are, two-way messaging of 160 characters or less, GPS tracking and sharing on social media sites or contacts and downloadable topographic maps. Subscription plans are as low as $14.95/month (cancelled at will for no charge when part of the Freedom Plan which carries an annual fee of $24.95).
Delorme's InReach Explorer ($389.95) offers the same benefits of the SE but adds the ability to plan routes online and share them to the InReach, to see and share navigation and waypoints on a paired mobile device, to record detailed trip statistics and logging and includes a compass, barometer, altimeter and accelerometer. Subscription plans for the Explorer are identical to those offered for the SE.
We decided the InReach Explorer was the best fit for our needs. As geographers by trade, we love the ability to plan routes and create waypoints before we leave for a hike.
The Explorer also displays our current location and track on full topographic maps on the paired mobile device using the Earthmate app.
In our minds, the on-screen map display on the InReach is too limited. It shows tracking points without any map background.
The Explorer also let us share our routes, tracks and waypoints when we are done with our trip.
My MapShare on the Explore website.
Navigation on the device and companion app is pretty straightforward. I have highlighted some of the functionality in the video below.
Initial Impressions (InReach Explorer)
Setup and registration for the device was straightforward. After creating our account and selecting our subscription, Delorme sent an activation code to the device. It took about 15 minutes for the activation to occur and we were good to go.
We did not watch any how-to videos prior to using the InReach. We simply took it out of the box and started messing around. The interface is very simple to use. Each action you may want to take has an icon on either of the two home screens. The choices are:
- Routes: displays an active route to a selected destination; routes created on the Explore website also appear in the list
- Tracking: start and stop sending tracking points
- Social: send messages quickly to connected Facebook and Twitter accounts and/or MapShare page
- Map: shows your location on a map with relative locations of waypoints, track lines and messages
- Messages: choose this option to send a message
- Waypoints: displays the symbol, name, distance and bearing to each waypoint; changes can be made to name, symbol and location
- Weather: provides three levels of forecasts -- Basic (temperature, precipitation, wind speed/direction, atmospheric pressure) for 3 days at the cost of 1 message, Premium provides the same information as basic but for 7 days at 3 hour intervals, Marine provides the same information as Basic and Premium but add wave height, current and visibility details; Premium and Marine forecasts incur an additional charge but do not count against your subscription
- Compass: displays speed, elevation, heading and bearing
- SOS: to be used for emergencies only.
- Trip Info: useful statistics about your trip including trip times, speeds and distances
- Settings: personal preferences and settings for Display, Map, Tracking, MapShare Prompt, Bluetooth, Compass & Altimeter, Messages, Sounds, Time, Units, Power, Owner Info, About this Device and Restore Factory Settings
- History: shows message and tracking activity stored by date
- Check: the listening interval, used for waiting messages; the default is 10 minutes
- Contacts: contacts for sending messages; can be email or SMS text numbers; contacts are automatically added when sending to or receiving from a new email/SMS
- Location: shows current GPS location details (speed, elevation, course, accuracy and current location); location can be shared with a contact by choosing share
- Preset: used to send preset messages; messages and recipient lists must be configured on the Explore website
- Data Use: displays data plan and renewal date as well as the number of messages, preset messages and tracking points sent in the billing cycle
- Help: lists help topics for each icon
While the on-screen look of the Explorer is much more basic then we have come to expect from handheld electronics, it gets the job done. I suspect the Delorme made some targeted choices for this device driven by function rather than beauty in order to save battery life. The added weight of the InReach and paired phone are enough added weight on their own. With an estimated 100 hours of battery life, efficient use of the InReach may allow for more than a week of tracking with a recharge. I'm envisioning using it for about 12 hours a day, which would give us about 8 days of use on a fully charged battery.
Initial Impressions (Earthmate App)
The Earthmate app is available for both iOS and Android. We are taking an Android phone that we no longer use (it is not connected with a cellular plan) on our hike to save on weight and remove risk of damaging or losing our primary cell phones.
The interface is very user friendly. There are menu items for:
The bar at the top of the app offers shortcuts to relevant frequently used items for that page.
The map view is crisp. It offers the ability to download and display many different map backgrounds. A compass is on screen and it is easy to pan and zoom with pinch/pull actions. Messages can be sent from the map view and waypoints can be added.
Messages are much easier to send on the app than on the InReach. The InReach requires you to scroll through letters, while the app offers traditional keyboarding as you would use for a text message. You can select contacts from your phone, which makes the whole process very easy,.
Tracking is shown on screen with the map background and trip statistics. Tracks can be started and stopped with buttons in the top bar of the app. Waypoints can be added, reordered, renamed and given different icons.
The Earthmate app syncs with the Explorer website to show pre-created routes. Live routes from the InReach are also displayed. The compass is a nice straightforward tool.
History shows tracking points by date. Tapping any point will open a page with detailed information about coordinates, time and date, speed, bearing and elevation for the track. A map display the point with a nice background. Tracking points can be used to navigate to again, view or delete.
All weather options are displayed under Weather. SOS is a slide bar that can be activated in an emergency.
I prefer the look, feel and responsiveness of the Earthmate app over the InReach itself.
Initial Impressions (Explore website)
The Explore website is used to manage your subscription, preset messages, quick text messages and more.
The map view is used to display existing waypoints and routes and can be used to create new waypoints and routes. Visibility of waypoints and routes can be adjusted as can availability of data on the MapShare site. Visible items can be exported into GPX or KML/KMZ format (both integrate with Google Earth and Google Maps) and routes can be imported from GPX and KML/KMZ.
I found route creation in the Maps tab to be very clunky. I could not choose trails that clearly appeared on the map. Instead I had to use rudimentary tools to click on the points along my desired route. I would love to see increased functionality for route creation in the future.
Messages are displayed in the Inbox tab; contacts can be added in the Contacts tab.
Social media accounts are specified in the Social tab. The MapShare site can be controlled in the Social tab and offers a number of personalization settings for what site visitors can see. You can also customize the address of your MapShare feed.
I was disappointed that there was no option to embed the MapShare page on a webpage. However, a quick search online scored big in finding the embed code to use.
Overall the Explore site is functional, but it could use some polish and updates.
We are very pleased with our decision to purchase the InReach Explorer. It does exactly what it is intended to do and offers some really nice bells and whistles. The form factor is small and the display is bright. It can be used with or without a paired mobile device. Sharing information across InReach device-Earthmate app-Explore site is seamless and does not require user intervention.
Garmin acquired Delorme in February, 2016. It will be interesting to see what changes in upcoming versions of the device, app and website.