Surely there will come a day in a not-too-distant decade when cell phones are able to communicate directly with satellites, no cell towers required. Or a day in which cell service is beamed so thoroughly around the world every square inch of earth is in cell range. Until that day arrives, however (as terrifying as it might be), if you want to communicate with loved ones or SAR teams in the backcountry you’ll need a satellite communication device. And it’s awfully hard to imagine any satellite communication gizmo besting the new Garmin inReach Mini. It’s pint-sized, easy to use, boasts great battery life, and is dead-bang reliable when it comes to sending and receiving messages. If you carry a smartphone with you, the inReach Mini is simply the best backcountry communication tool out there.
The inReach Mini is a tiny, stripped-down version of the larger inReach SE+ and Explorer+ devices. But there’s little reason to purchase the larger, more expensive versions when the Mini is so capable. It sends and receives text messages. It can dependably send SOS messages and your location to emergency personnel. It will drop digital breadcrumbs and track location. It will send location updates to friends and family back home. It will communicate with nearby Garmin devices. It can even tell you the weather. You need a monthly subscription to use any of these features, but they can be had for as little as $15/month depending on messages sent and tracking intervals. You can also suspend service for months at a time if you don’t expect to use the device regularly.
All of that in a waterproof 3.4-ounce package measuring roughly four inches long, two inches wide, by one inch thick.
Garmin works with the Iridium global satellite network so the Mini can be used anywhere on earth, provided you have decent access to open skies. You don’t need to be standing on a treeless prairie, but slot canyons and heavy tree cover can block signals. Messages are sent quickly and easily; I’ve generally experienced less than a minute of lag time between sending messages and the recipient receiving them.
When pressed, the SOS button alerts a for-profit dispatch service called GEOS, a service used by both Garmin and SPOT devices. The dispatch will attempt to determine the nature of the emergency, through messaging, then will alert the proper authorities. While I’ve thankfully never had to use this function, anecdotal evidence from close friends suggests it works very well and quickly summons SAR.
The incredible usefulness of this little digital assistant is entirely predicated on pairing with it a smartphone through the excellent Earthmate app, which is free to download and to use. While you can use the three physical buttons on the Mini to spell out text messages, it takes forever. Far better to send and read texts through the Earthmate app on your phone, on which you can also download Garmin’s very good trail maps as well as USGS topo maps.
Similar to messaging, while you can use the Mini as a standalone GPS unit the display gives only rudimentary directions and notes latitude, longitude, direction, and elevation. It’s much, much easier to navigate on or off trails with a full-color smartphone screen. I still typically use Gaia’s GPS app on my smartphone in the backcountry, mostly because I’m used to its interface and have a paid subscription, but if you’re familiar with Gaia, the Earthmate software and downloadable maps will be easy to use and intuitive.
But it’s the messaging function that makes devices like the Mini indispensable if you like the idea of being able to communicate with loved ones while tromping around the boonies. Location pings can be sent to anybody you like, with a tag that includes your coordinates, whether or not you’re moving or sitting at camp, and which can be tracked on a map on Garmin’s website.
Text messages through the Earthmate app are quick and intuitive. The Mini pairs (over Bluetooth) with your phone and accesses your contact list. You can also add a location to text messages, so if you want to let somebody back home know that you’ve fallen in love with a dream camping spot and you’re going to stay for an extra night, they can see where you are. Or if you want to scout a campsite for friends who are going to meet up with you later, you can text them your location. When traveling in a group that may split up, using the Mini’s ability to communicate with any other inReach users in your group is a godsend, too.
You can also send unlimited pre-set messages: “I’m OK” or “Be home late” that don’t count against the text message limit in your monthly subscription service.
The Mini also provides weather updates. Using the Dark Sky weather network, you can download two-day weather reports for your location for the cost of one text message, or pay a small fee for “premium” forecasts that cover five days. A great service if you’re spending more than just a couple days in the backcountry during shoulder season.
Garmin claims a 50-hour battery life for the Mini, depending on how often you drop waypoints, which is more than enough for multi-day trips, especially if you aren’t constantly sending and receiving messages.
I’ve carried an emergency-only, non-messaging PLB, and I’ve long used the larger DeLorme inReach SE, (Garmin bought out DeLorme a couple years back), but the Mini does everything the PLB and SE can do, just in a smaller, lighter, package. Earlier this summer I tested the Mini against the SPOT X, SPOT’s new two-way satellite messenger, and the Mini is better in just about every conceivable way. Easier to use, sends messages quicker, pairs with a smartphone, and is one-third the size.
I wouldn’t want to use the Mini without a smartphone, but since I always carry my phone in the backcountry for photos and to use Gaia, the Mini is always with me now on wilderness excursions. It’s the best backcountry communication tool I’ve used.
$300 • BUY
*Update* This post has been updated to include GEOS, the name of the SOS dispatch service contracted by Garmin