Hands-on Gear Review

Garmin inReach Explorer+ Review

Editors' Choice Award
Price:  $450 List | $413.99 at Amazon
Compare prices at 3 resellers
Pros:  Easy and affordable two-way messaging, great smartphone app, feature loaded, proven global network
Cons:  Expensive initial purchase, largest and heaviest messenger
Bottom line:  The foremost satellite messenger available, fully featured and arguably more reliable even than commonly available satellite phones.
Editors' Rating:   
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2-way messaging:  Yes
Battery Life (hours):  100 hours (lithium polymer battery)
Weight w/ batts oz:  7.5 oz
Manufacturer:   Garmin

Our Verdict

The highest performer in our test fleet, the nReach Explorer+ is the best device for nearly-comprehensive communications when cell service is out of reach. Not only is it less expensive than a satellite phone, but we like it more. The smartphone interface for texting is clearer and more user-friendly than most sat phones. The inReach offers the only option for two-way texting and uses the most reliable, most wide-spread satellite network. Cost, of course, is a concern. However, when you consider the other pros and cons, and factor in subscription costs, the inReach is the best performer, at a surprisingly reasonable cost overall. Nothing else offers greater value until give up non-emergency messaging.

If you're willing to give up some of the navigational features of the inReach Explorer+check out the $400 Garmin inReach SE+. Navigate with your smartphone and save some dollars and battery life with the non-Explorer+ model.


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Our Analysis and Test Results

Review by:
Jediah Porter and Chris McNamara

Last Updated:
Sunday
May 27, 2018

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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 an SOS button.

The Explorer+ will keep you in touch wherever you take it.
The Explorer+ will keep you in touch wherever you take it.

Performance Comparison


This is the highest scoring product we tested, and when you correct for features and subscription costs, nothing else is a better value. Granting our Editors Choice award to the inReach was an easy choice. We only wish it was smaller and lighter. Thankfully, Garmin is soon releasing the inReach Mini. We have it in hand and will report back in a few months.

SOS/Emergency Message


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.


No other device we tested offers this level of emergency communication. 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.

You can share your location and tracking information via text message.
You can share your location and tracking information via text message.

Non-Emergency Messaging


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.

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.

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. 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 ten times as much. Messages can be sent to both phone numbers and email addresses.


The non-emergency messaging capability of the inReach is currently unmatched, and the inReach leads by a large margin. You can send customized messages and receive all kinds of information. The next closest competitor, the SPOT Gen3 only allows you to send rudimentary pre-programmed messages. 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.

Signal Coverage


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 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 coverage, as a ground-based, crowd-sourced web of relaying devices, 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).

Though you can text with the inReach  we prefer working through a smartphone app to text and send/receive location information.
Though you can text with the inReach, we prefer working through a smartphone app to text and send/receive location information.

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. 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.

Navigation — The Explorer+ doubles as a handheld GPS and comes with many navigation features. With study and care, it can be configured to work almost as well as a dedicated handheld GPS device. However, be cautious with this. Navigating with your inReach sucks up battery, but doesn't work as well as navigating with a dedicated GPS device or with a smartphone app. It can be a good back up for a stand-alone device, but your primary navigational strategy should be separate from the inReach, if only for battery preservation. Because of this, and because the comparisons are already so wide-ranging, we omit judgment of the navigational attributes of the inReach from our overall assessment.

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.

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.


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.

Size comparison of most of 2018's tested devices. The PLB1 on the far left is the same size  essentially  as the SPOT Gen3 (not pictured). The other devices  in order  are the Garmin InReach  the ACR ResQLink  and the GoTenna Mesh.
Size comparison of most of 2018's tested devices. The PLB1 on the far left is the same size, essentially, as the SPOT Gen3 (not pictured). The other devices, in order, are the Garmin InReach, the ACR ResQLink, and the GoTenna Mesh.

Portability


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. 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.

Best Applications


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.

The Garmin InReach works seamlessly with a smartphone app to send and receive text and location information.
The Garmin InReach works seamlessly with a smartphone app to send and receive text and location information.

Value


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.

Many will compare the value of the SPOT Gen3 to the inReach Explorer+. They are similar enough that this comparison is worthy. Outside of value, the SPOT is much smaller, while the inReach has two way messaging and worldwide coverage. Now, let us look at value. The SPOT is way, way less expensive to purchase. However, the bargain shopper must also consider the subscription costs of each. As of May of 2018, each device can be configured with different levels of subscription plans. With the initial purchase price, plus the least expensive subscription plan on each, the inReach is 1.7% more expensive over a 5-year service life, than the SPOT. This additional $4 a year, overall, gets you quite a bit more functionality with the inReach.

Conclusion


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

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OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews


Most recent review: May 27, 2018
Summary of All Ratings

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Rating:  
  • 1
  • 2
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  • 4
  • 5
 (5.0)
Average Customer Rating:  
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
 (4.0)

67% of 3 reviewers recommend it
 
Rating Distribution
4 Total Ratings
5 star: 75%  (3)
4 star: 0%  (0)
3 star: 0%  (0)
2 star: 25%  (1)
1 star: 0%  (0)
Person Icon

Mar 25, 2018 - 04:17pm
 
Polarberning
In reply to Stefan Jacobsen:
I tested the InReach SOS functionality in Greenland, and it worked.
I sent a custom SOS message, notifying the SOS centre that this was a test, no emergency. Within minutes I was called back on my mobile phone, and I confirmed the test. An attempt to call my home phone was also made by the GEOS centre. The test SOS was confirmed via satellite on my InReach device, and I was then asked to send a cancellation message, which I did. Cancelling the SOS took some time, but I was satisfied that the system worked as advertized.

Regarding SMS messaging - this indeed only works one-way in Greenland: from Inreach to phone. The reply has to use another channel - InReach or e-mail.

In all aspects, I was quite happy with the device. Navigation, messaging, tracking, weather all worked nicely.
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   Jan 6, 2018 - 12:23pm
hikingwithcamera · Backpacker · Seattle, WA
I own both the original Delorme Explorer and the newer Garmin Explorer+ models. I use the Garmin now as my main device, and I love the new features. The biggest is that maps are on the device, so I can use it without my phone. This is sometimes nice so I don't have to have my phone right there. Although when doing more serious navigation, my 5.5" phone screen is definitely still better than the 2.5" Garmin screen. Plus you can download better maps to the iPhone (particular USGS maps). But I have, more than once, gone into the backcountry to discover that something was wrong with my map downloads and I'd have to redownload them to use them. So the backup maps on the Garmin are great.

Of course, I always still have a paper map and compass with me as well.

I did want to note a correction to the comparison above. Weather is available on the older Delorme inReach Explorer. It was a feature added (I can't remember whether it was prior to or after Garmin), however, if you update your device, you will be able to download the same weather options as on the newer Garmin Explorer+.

Delorme inReach Explorer with Weather icon on the home screen
Delorme inReach Explorer with Weather icon on the home screen


Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this product to a friend.
Person Icon

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   Nov 29, 2017 - 11:24pm
Jordan Hufford · Backpacker · Parker
This is a sweet GPS and communicator. The plans are simple! I believe you get 3 or 4 choices of plans, and you can suspend them at any time if you get monthly. The maps aren't like the normal Garmin GPS maps. But these maps I feel are simple, easy to read, and detailed where you need it.

Texting and viewing the maps can be done on the phone, so you can save the battery on the GPS and have it be more user-friendly via your smartphone. The actual device is not hard to read either or navigate the map, but the texting can take a bit.

Text messages take a while to send, but this is to be expected when communicating through satellites. Tracking is also a breeze to initiate. With tracking, anyone at home from the webpage can watch your progress with adjustable intervals which is neat.

I thankfully have not needed to use the SOS option, but the button is easy to activate at the flip of a cover and press of a button.

I've only used the weather forecast feature once, but it worked without a hitch. It gave me a weather forecast for 3 days at 6-hour intervals. The weather forecast was pretty accurate. This basic weather forecast costs one text message, or 10 cents depending on which plan you have. You can also get a "premium" forecast, which gives hourly weather forecasts for the next 7 days, which cost varies by plan.

One of my favorite communication features is the location feature, which tells you exact speed, elevation, the accuracy of GPS, and coordinates. The best part of that is that you can send those coordinates in a text form to anyone at any time. I usually use this to tell people when and where I arrive at camp, or however else I see fit.

With the webpage, people at home are able to request and acquire a location of where you are at any time, which is comforting for whoever you have at home waiting for you.

When you use your GPS via your smartphone, you're able to download a few more different maps onto your phone, like a real photo birds eye view of whatever area you choose. DO NOTE that you must download maps onto your phone Separately from your GPS if you do plan on relying on your phone. As a backup, I have every extra downloadable map for my state already on my GPS alone, and before a hike I simply just download the maps for the area if I haven't got them already. Also note that these maps for your phone can take up considerable memory depending on which map you use, especially the birds eye view.

Battery life on this thing is great. As long as you aren't using a interval tracking system 24/7, this GPS is guaranteed to last you a week and beyond without charging if you are conservative and turning it off at night. I can't say how fast the interval tracking drains the battery as I haven't had a reason to use that feature yet.

You can also download software that allows you to pre-make maps and even downloads whatever maps have been made by the community, which is neat. And you can definitely make your custom trails as detailed as needed.

I will say, this device isn't for a monthly weekend hiker or a once a year backpacker. A Garmin 64st or something like that is much more oriented towards a casual of the outdoors. And there's nothing wrong with being casual. Less money to spend! But if you do any sort of multi-day backpacking, climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, or anything on the more technical side, this GPS is definitely for you. If you do one-day pack trips, have trouble with directions, need something to navigate in areas with no reception, or want security in simply knowing where you are, then look elsewhere like in the 64st.

Also, although I haven't tried them yet, you can buy annual hunt map subscriptions for the GPS unit!

Bottom Line: Yes, I would recommend this product to a friend.
Climber

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   Aug 9, 2017 - 10:48pm
Stefan Jacobsen · Climber · Danmark
1) The SOS functionality doesn't work in Greenland.
2) Texting in Greenland works only one way from inReach to phone, not from phone to inReach. Eg. It is not possible to text back that help is on the way.

Bottom Line: No, I would not recommend this product to a friend.


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