The highest performer in our test fleet, the inReach Explorer+ is the best device for nearly-comprehensive communications when cell service is out of reach. Its only weakness is in portability. Thankfully Garmin also makes the tiny, and only slightly compromised, inReach Mini. The Mini performs nearly as well and is much smaller and lighter. As a result, in the summer of 2018, our Editors' Choice award moves from the Explorer to the Mini. The Explorer is the right choice if you want a longer battery life and more navigation attributes.
Garmin inReach Explorer+ Review
Compare prices at 2 resellers Pros: Easy and affordable two-way messaging, great smartphone app, feature loaded, proven global network
Cons: Expensive initial purchase, largest and heaviest messenger
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Our Analysis and Test Results
For those who spend a lot of time in the backcountry or on trips to remote areas, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a great tool for staying in touch via satellite messaging. It also has a fully featured GPS, weather forecasting, and an SOS button.
This is nearly the highest scoring product we tested. Only the much smaller inReach Mini edges it out.
The Explorer+ has an easily accessible SOS button on its side. A sturdy plastic cover makes it almost impossible to accidentally activate, 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 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 call after it is initiated.
The value of sharing two-way correspondence with emergency responders cannot be overstated. The SPOT Gen3, ACR ResQLink and OceanSignal rescueME PLB1 all have effective SOS modes but offer no opportunity to transmit any more information until the rescuer(s) make direct contact. Conceivably, on a well-developed GoTenna Mesh network, emergency communications could be comprehensive and two-way. However, there are significant signal coverage differences between the ground-based and organically growing GoTenna network and the Iridium Satellite constellation used by the inReach.
The Explorer+ excels at messaging, as long as you set your expectations appropriately. Satellite communications, no matter the network or the technology employed, have inherent limitations. Sometimes you have to wait a few minutes for satellites to pass overhead and send and receive the messages.
The simplest way to send messages with the inReach is through the Garmin smartphone app. On the app, it's easy to add your contacts and then send and receive a big batch of messages. Pre-programmed messages make it much easier to send quick updates, so you don't have to type the same message multiple times. Messages can be sent to both phone numbers and email addresses.
The non-emergency messaging capability of the inReach is currently matched by only the Top Pick SPOT X and the Editors Choice InReach Mini. The OceanSignal PLB1 does not have non-emergency messaging capability. The ACR ResQLink+ will send test alerts to friends and family. Read the review for more information. Within its signal coverage limitations, the GoTenna Mesh offers non-emergency messaging that is very similar to texting.
We found the inReach's reception impressively reliable, and it's relatively quick to send and receive messages. You only need a clear view of the sky to acquire satellite connections. 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.
Garmin works through the Iridium satellite network with the inReach. The Iridium network is the only civilian, global, two-way communications network. We are thankful that it is as reliable as it is. Of course, like with any satellite communications, there are local terrain, vegetation, and electronic interference issues with the Iridium network. This is inherent and inevitable.
The inReach, the ACR ResQLink, and the OceanSignal PLB1 all use global satellite networks. The GlobalStar satellite network employed by the SPOT Gen3 and SPOT X is a misnomer. It covers much of the terrestrial wilderness that might be of interest to you, but it isn't truly world-wide. The GoTenna Mesh network is a ground-based, crowd-sourced web of relaying devices. As a result, its coverage is highly dependent on local participation, your group size, and terrain considerations. The inReach has coverage that you can count on in an emergency, while the GoTenna currently does not.
Ease of Use
With abundant features and a simple interface, the inReach Explorer+ is easy enough to use, albeit it feels much clunkier than, say, an iPhone X. The menus are 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.
A status light on the front of the inReach shows 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 the 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.
You can take advantage of basically all of the inReach's functionality through both the app and on the device itself. 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).
It is effortless 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. You can save routes and waypoints to the Explorer+ prior to your trip, enabling you to stay on track and stick to a planned route. The digital map can also function as a normal topographic map, and the device has an integrated compass.
Like the SPOT Gen3, you must subscribe to either a monthly or annual plan to use the inReach. 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 straight into the wild. With front-country connectivity, send and receive a few test satellite messages to make sure it's working. Also, you will need to use the Garmin website to customize your messages.
The inReach is complicated. That being said, given its diverse functionality, it is well designed and fairly straightforward to figure out. Because most of the devices we compare it to are simpler in design and function, they are also simpler to use. The SPOT Gen3, ACR ResQLink+, and OceanSignal PLB1 are all easier to use and less functional.
The GoTenna Mesh is at least as complicated as the inReach. Because the Mesh users comprise the network itself, more engagement is required. You have to know more and make more decisions to maximize the GoTenna. Even when fully optimized, it has lower functionality than the inReach.
There is a common theme in our assessment of the inReach; "for what it does, it is xxx." It is simple, inexpensive, and very portable, given all that it does. It is larger and heavier than even the bulkiest smartphones, but it does things your smartphone cannot do. Its bulk and weight are a little onerous to trail runners and the most fastidious of ultralight backpackers. All other human-powered adventurers should have no problem justifying the size and weight of the inReach.
The Explorer+ is larger than the other devices we tested, but it does so much more than most. It is basically twice the weight and bulk of the ACR ResQLink+, but it does far more than twice what the ACR does. The other devices are even smaller. The difference in bulk and weight between the inReach and the SPOT, the GoTenna, and the OceanSignal PLB1 is significant. Again, though, the greater functionality of the Garmin likely far outweighs any compromise in portability. We forgive the size of the Explorer in most comparisons. However, in comparison to its own sibling, the inReach Mini, the Explorer is almost too bulky to carry for human-powered adventures.
The inReach 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. Of course, more casual users will also dig the peace of mind that comes with emergency and non-emergency messaging almost anywhere you might go.
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, and occasional users since its service plans and upfront costs are relatively expensive. If you want a device strictly for SOS purposes, the OceanSignal rescueME PLB1 provides a much better value, with much lower overall costs but no additional features or messaging.
The inReach Explorer+ is the most fully featured and functional satellite messenger we've 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 in the backcountry or on remote expeditions.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ vs. The Garmin inReach SE+
- Identical messaging capabilities
- Both are IPX7 rated — full submersion up to one meter for 30 minutes
- Only differences between the two models are in GPS navigation features
- InReach SE+ provides basic grid navigation — drop waypoints, mark locations, track progress, follow points back to base
- InReach Explorer+ provides navigation through pre-loaded topo maps and waypoints
— Jediah Porter and Chris McNamara