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Hands-on Gear Review
Garmin inReach Explorer+ Review
Cons: Expensive, largest and heaviest messenger.
Bottom line: The foremost satellite messenger available, fully featured and more reliable than a satellite phone.
The most prominent in our fleet, the inReach Explorer+ is the best device when cell phone range is out of reach. Not only is it less expensive than a satellite phone, but we like it more. When Garmin bought DeLorme, the Explorer benefitted from new features and a new form factor. It also replaces the former DeLorme inReach Explorer. Fortunately, essential features like the app and connectivity to satellites remain the same. We have full details on how the two differ below, as well as more in-depth details on how the Explorer performed in each metric. As far as budget models go, we only recommend the SPOT if you are on a tighter budget or just don't care about two-way messaging.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
For those who spend a lot of time in the backcountry or on trips to remote areas, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is the best tool for staying in touch via satellite messaging. It also has a fully featured GPS, weather forecasting, and SOS button.
The Explorer+ excels at messaging as long as you set your expectations appropriately. Sometimes you have to wait a few minutes for satellites to pass overhead and send and receive the messages. The best way to message is through the app. On the app, it's easy to add your contacts and then send a big batch of messages (and receive a batch of messages). Pre-programmed messages make it much easier to send quick updates than having to type the same message multiple times. With the unlimited messaging plan, you can stay very well-connected at a relatively affordable rate. For example, sending 400 texts to 40 people over a month costs you $65. Trying to communicate that much by satellite phone would cost >$650. Messages can be sent to both phone numbers and email addresses.
Both the inReach Explorer+ and inReach SE+ can be connected to Facebook, Twitter, and MapShare, enabling you to post text and your location via satellite connection.
We found the inReach's reception to be impressively reliable and relatively quick to send and receive messages. The only requirement to acquire satellites is to have a clear view of the sky. Connection times varied but we rarely waited more than 5 minutes to get a solid one. Almost every message we sent was confirmed as received or failed within 20 minutes and you can adjust how frequently the device checks for new messages.
Ease of Use
With abundant features and a simple interface, the inReach Explorer+ is very easy to use, albeit feeling much clunkier than an iPhone X. The menus were straightforward to learn and easy to navigate. Depending on your subscription plan, the inReach can provide up-to-date weather forecasts for your current location, waypoints, or GPS coordinates. We used this feature often during a climbing trip to the Alaska Range and found it to be incredibly useful and mostly accurate.
A status light on the front of the inReach makes it easy to know what the device is doing without having to open up the main menu. This indicator light lets you know when you have unread messages, poor connection, low battery, and the status of SOS mode. Simple status indicator symbols at the top of the screen provide further details of the device's connection, messaging status, battery level, and whether or not tracking is enabled.
The Explorer+ has an easily accessible SOS button on its side. A sturdy plastic cover makes it almost impossible to accidentally press, even when it's shoved deep inside of your pack among loose items.
To initiate a rescue you hold down the SOS key and wait for a countdown, which ends with a preset message and your location being sent to the regional emergency response service. After replying to a confirmation message you can communicate with the emergency response service. The device sends an updated location to emergency responders throughout the rescue; once per minute for the first ten minutes, and from there once every 10 minutes while moving or once every 30 minutes when stationary. If circumstances change it is also possible to cancel a rescue after it is initiated.
It is very easy to turn tracking on and off on the Explorer+. Tracking information is submitted to MapShare; a platform that enables you to publish your location while you are using the device.
It doubles as a handheld GPS and comes with many navigation features. Routes and waypoints can be saved to the Explorer+ prior to your trip, enabling you to stay on track and stick to a planned route. The digital map can also be used as a normal topographic map and the device has an integrated compass.
Like all the messengers, you must subscribe to either a monthly or annual plan to use the device. In fact, if you don't subscribe, you can't even use the SOS function (unlike cell phones and landlines that will call 911 without a contract).
Setup is easy as long as you are near a computer. There might be new firmware or a version of the app to download. Give yourself 30 minutes and be ready to wait around for updates. We do not recommend trying to use this device, or any GPS/messenger device, out of the box out of cell range. Send a few test messages to make sure it's working. Also, you will need to use the Garmin website to customize what your messages look like to the person that receives them.
While these devices are not battery hogs, we highly recommend using the battery sparingly. Turn down screen brightness, tracking intervals, and turn off the device when not in use. Do this and your device can last for weeks between charges
Performance As a Standalone Device
We GREATLY prefer using the app. But what if your phone dies or the app stops working? No problem, even without the app, the Garmin inReach can send messages (it's just annoying to type using the limited keypad).
The inReach's ability to let you know your message sent is comforting. You get no such confirmation with the SPOT.
Now that Garmin bought DeLorme, we lay out the differences between all four below.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ vs. The (discontinued) Delorme inReach Explorer
The app and the connectivity of the devices stay the same. The main differences are in the physical device itself:
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ vs. The Garmin inReach SE+
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is an invaluable tool for anybody who spends a lot of time out of cell phone service in the backcountry. Between its reliable text messaging, navigation features, SOS button, and weather forecasts, it is ideal for ambitious expeditions anywhere in the world and extended backpacking trips.
With a list price of $450 and additional monthly usage fees, the Explorer+ is the most expensive device that we reviewed, yet still a good value given its outstanding performance and versatility. Satellite phones are substantially more expensive and less reliable. The inReach might be overkill for short trips since its service plans and upfront costs are relatively expensive. If you want a device strictly for SOS purposes and don't need messaging then the ACR ResQlink 406 provides a much better value, with lower costs and no additional features or messaging.
The inReach Explorer+ is the most fully featured and functional satellite messenger that we tested. Regardless of where you find yourself, you can count on it to keep you connected. Being so fully-featured makes it ideal for those who only want to carry one device for messaging, navigation, and emergencies on frequent trips into the backcountry or remote expeditions.
— Chris McNamara
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