With this month’s launch of two new satellite messengers, the Garmin inReach Mini and the SPOT X, backcountry enthusiasts have more options than ever for staying connected when venturing off the grid. You might be wondering, “Which satellite messenger is best for me?”
We’re here to help you make that decision with a rundown of the major differences between four of the most popular satellite messengers we carry at REI—the Garmin inReach Mini, Garmin inReach Explorer+, SPOT X and SPOT Gen3.
What is a Satellite Messenger?
All four of these devices have a number of basic functions in common. When activated with a satellite subscription, all of them let you do the following in (most) places without cellphone reception:
- Track your journey (default of 10 min. intervals; can be customized as needed)
- Send text-based messages to your personal contacts
- Create shareable online maps of your adventure so others can follow along in (near) real time
- Automatically post updates, including GPS location, to your Facebook or Twitter accounts
- In case of a non-life-threatening emergency, alert your personal contacts that you need help
- In case of a life-threatening emergency, activate an SOS button (protected against accidental activation in your pack) that directly notifies emergency responders of your distress signal, as well as your GPS coordinates
Notably, all four devices are impact-resistant and rated IPX7 waterproof, meaning they’re protected from water submersion up to 1 meter deep for at least 30 minutes (i.e., They’ll definitely do just fine hanging off the back of your pack in a rainstorm.) Additionally, SPOT X is also considered dustproof (IP67 rating).
Beyond having these baseline functions in common, each device offers a distinct set of features. Read on to understand the differences between these key features:
- Messaging Capabilities
- Navigation Aids
- Device and Satellite Subscription Plan Costs
- Battery Life, Type and Performance
Comparing Messaging Capabilities
Three of these four devices—the Garmin inReach Mini, inReach Explorer+ and SPOT X—have 2-way messaging capabilities, meaning you can both send and receive messages—to cellphones, email addresses and, in the case of Garmin, to other inReach devices. In case of a life-threatening emergency, you’ll also be able to text directly with rescue personnel to explain your emergency and receive confirmation if and when help is on the way.
The SPOT Gen3 can only send messages. (And it’s priced accordingly; more on that shortly.) Aside from the device’s SOS function, you have three message options to choose from—a check-in message, one other preprogrammed custom message (composed at home, not on the device) and a request for help in non-life-threatening situations. Messages can be sent to up to 10 contacts predetermined before your trip. A green light confirms that your message has been sent.
The two Garmin devices allow you to send a wide variety of preset texts, including messages customized ahead of time at home, or custom texts typed on the device itself. Neither has a built-in keyboard; typing messages is moderately time-consuming on the inReach Explorer+ (using predictive text and arrow buttons to navigate an on-screen keyboard), and highly time-consuming on the inReach Mini (using arrow buttons and a vertically scrolling alphabet to select letters one by one). In both cases, if you’re planning to message frequently, you may be best off pairing your inReach with a Bluetooth-capable smartphone and instead composing texts in Garmin’s Earthmate app (free with the purchase of an inReach device).
The SPOT X does not integrate directly with smartphones, but instead, has its own built-in, lit QWERTY keyboard, allowing you to easily and quickly compose messages from the device itself. The compact keyboard is reminiscent of certain early smartphone keyboards; typing on it may take some practice. As with both Garmin devices, you can also compose preset messages at home (e.g., “I’m feeling incredibly awesome!” or “I love you, honey” or “Are we there yet?”), and then send them with the press of a button once you’re in the backcountry, preventing you from having to type long messages on the device itself.
Navigation Aids and Other Unique Features
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ boasts a panoply of features. It is the only one of these four devices that also serves as a handheld GPS navigation unit with built-in topo maps and sensors, including a barometric altimeter and accelerometer that provide detailed metrics on your journey. You can also create a breadcrumb trail as you go, and then use it to navigate your way back the same way you came.
When paired with a smartphone and the Earthmate app, the inReach Mini offers most of the same functionality. On its own, without a paired phone, it still lets you follow routes (pre-uploaded to the device) and drop waypoints as you go. Additionally, one unique feature is that it can be synced up using ANT+ wireless technology to compatible wearables like the Garmin Forerunner 935 or Fenix 5 series watches, so you can send and receive inReach messages, or even trigger an SOS, on your watch.
You can also request basic or premium weather updates at any time on both Garmin devices. Depending on your subscription plan, additional fees may apply.
Though the SPOT X does not feature maps, sensors or weather updates, it has several built-in navigation tools, including a compass and programmable waypoints. Each SPOT X also comes with a unique U.S. mobile number to make it easy for friends and loved ones to send your device text messages from their cellphones. (By comparison, messages are sent to the Garmin devices via a customized inReach email address or through the Earthmate app.)
The SPOT Gen3 does not have any navigational features.
The Garmin inReach Mini is the tiniest of all these devices, with the SPOT Gen3 not too far behind.
Both the SPOT X and Garmin inReach Explorer+ are larger and heavier than the other devices by a few ounces. Compared to each other, they’re in the same ballpark—though the SPOT X is slightly lighter.
Here are each device’s key dimensions, starting with the smallest and lightest weight.
- Garmin inReach Mini: 3.9 x 2 x 1 in. (3.5 oz.*)
- SPOT Gen3: 3.4 x 2.5 x 1 in. (4 oz.*)
- SPOT X: 6.5 x 2.9 x 0.9 in. (6.7 oz.*)
- Garmin inReach Explorer+: 6.5 x 2.7 x 1.5 in. (7.5 oz.*)
*All given product weights include battery weight, whether batteries are integrated or removable.
Device and Satellite Subscription Plan Costs
Choosing what you want to spend depends on which features matter most to you. Each device is priced to reflect the level of features it offers.
- SPOT Gen3: $149.95
- SPOT X: $249.95
- Garmin inReach Mini: $350
- Garmin inReach Explorer+: $450
However, evaluating the cost of a satellite messenger is not as simple as looking at the device price tag. Each one also requires purchasing a satellite subscription from Garmin or SPOT.
SPOT plans require a 12-month contract, billed monthly or annually, plus a $19.99 activation fee. The basic SPOT plan ($199.99/year) provides tracking options of 5-, 10-, 30- or 60-minute intervals. Upgrading to 2.5-minute tracking intervals costs an additional $99.99/year. Notably, unlike Garmin, SPOT also offers a Gen3 device rental program for one-time uses, or if you want to try the product out before buying.
|Basic Service Plan
||$199.99/year or $19.99/month|
||$99.99/year + Basic Service per year or $9.99/month + Basic Service per month|
Garmin offers a broad variety of plans, including monthly (“Freedom plan”) or annual, plus an activation fee ($24.95 annually for Freedom plans; $19.95 once for annual plans). Tiers range from the most basic Safety plan to the Extreme plan.
Freedom Plan: $14.95/month
Messages (each)*: $0.50
Freedom Plan: $34.95/month
Messages (each)*: $0.50
||Annual/Contract: $49.95/ month
Freedom Plan: $64.95/month
Messages (each)*: N/A
||Annual/Contract: $79.95/ month
Freedom Plan: $99.95/month
Messages (each)*: N/A
Though not equivalent in every detail, the inReach Recreation tier is fairly comparable to the basic SPOT plan. Both plans offer basic messaging, plus unlimited 10 min. interval tracking and SOS capabilities. At this tier, if you plan to use your device regularly, the annual cost of SPOT service is about $100 less than Garmin inReach service.
By contrast, let’s say you really only want a satellite device for summer backpacking trips, so will only require active satellite service for a few months each year. In this scenario, because Garmin offers monthly options, three months of Garmin inReach Recreation service costs about $90 less than basic SPOT service.
The Garmin devices operate on the Iridium satellite network, which provides 100 percent pole-to-pole coverage, with no gaps or fringe areas. (Yes, this means that should you wish to venture to the South Pole, or the middle of the Pacific Ocean, your inReach device will keep you connected.)
The SPOT devices operate on the Globalstar satellite network, which provides SPOT messenger devices with coverage for virtually all of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, portions of South America, portions of North and South Africa, Northeast Asia, and hundreds of miles offshore of those areas. A detailed coverage map can be found on the SPOT website.
Battery Life, Type and Performance
Battery life of these devices depends on many factors, including:
- Frequency of tracking intervals—the more frequently your device logs or reports GPS coordinates, the more quickly it will eat through its battery life
- Temperature—extreme hot or cold can decrease battery life
- Whether the device has a clear line of sight to the sky—the battery may drain faster in exceptionally dense tree cover, or if you try to send messages from indoors or inside a cave
- Whether it’s connected to ANT+ or Bluetooth wireless technology—using either one can decrease battery life
- Frequency of message-checking intervals—a higher frequency can decrease battery life
For comparison, here’s the vendor-provided information on battery life of each device, assuming a full charge in optimal operating conditions, with continuous 10-minute tracking intervals:
- Garmin inReach Mini: 50 hrs. (2 days)
- Garmin inReach Explorer+: 100 hrs. (4 days)
- SPOT X: 240 hrs. (10 days)
- SPOT Gen3: 17 days
With less frequent tracking intervals, battery life capacity improves significantly. For example, both Garmin devices have an extended tracking option—30-minute tracking intervals, with messaging, detailed track lines and Bluetooth disabled—that lengthens their battery life by weeks. (Total battery life of up to 20 days for the inReach Mini, and up to 30 days for the inReach Explorer.)
Similarly, the SPOT devices can last nearly three times as long when they’re set to 60-minute tracking intervals (vs. the default 10-minute intervals).
Three of the four devices—the Garmin inReach Mini, Garmin inReach Explorer+ and SPOT X—operate on an integrated, rechargeable lithium ion battery that recharges via an included micro USB charger.
The SPOT Gen3, on the other hand, operates on 4 AAA lithium batteries, 4 AAA NiMH rechargeable batteries or 5-volt USB line power. This allows you to easily carry external power packs or backup batteries to swap out on the go if need be. Note: AAA alkaline batteries will work, too, but are not recommended for optimal performance.
The Bottom Line: Which Satellite Messenger Should I Get?
As you’ve probably figured out, your answer will depend on your unique needs. Ask yourself the following questions, and then read on for our high-level summary of each device:
- What are your biggest priorities? Easy, quick messaging? Battery life? Cost savings? Compact size and weight? Navigational tools?
- Do you need a device for just one or two major adventures per year, or are you looking for something to use regularly year-round?
- How important to you is 2-way messaging, and how often do you plan to use this feature?
- Will primarily preset messages (including custom ones you create at home before leaving for your journey) suffice, or do you want the flexibility to easily type messages in the backcountry?
- Do you plan to also carry a smartphone and use it in conjunction with your satellite messenger, or do you want a standalone device?
Choose the Garmin inReach Explorer+ if you’re seeking a full-featured 2-way messenger, handheld GPS navigation tool, tracker and SOS device that can be used anywhere on the planet. It’s ideal if you’re planning deep backcountry explorations and value robust navigational assistance, data tracking and a user-friendly interface. Though it’s the heaviest and most expensive of all four devices reviewed here, it provides plenty of bang for your buck as a standalone, do-it-all device or when paired with a Bluetooth-capable smartphone.
Choose the SPOT X if you adventure year-round and want a good value not only for baseline tracking and SOS capability, but also for receiving and sending custom messages with ease. Its battery life is two-and-a-half to five times as long as the other 2-way messengers discussed here, and it doesn’t require pairing with a smartphone for relatively fast composition of messages, making it a great standalone messaging device. Plus, its built-in compass and programmable waypoints are ideal for activities like hiking and backpacking.
Choose the Garmin inReach Mini if you’re seeking an impressively compact, forget-it’s-there satellite lifeline with 2-way messaging capabilities. It’s great for gram-counting adventurers (backpackers and thru-hikers, trail runners, etc.). Though it accomplishes all of the basic functions of a standalone device, typing custom messages on the device itself is time-consuming. Its functionality and user-friendliness soar when paired with a Bluetooth-capable smartphone—so if you’re already planning to carry your phone, it’s an especially great choice. But even without, it provides solid tracking and SOS capabilities all over the globe. Plus, if you own a compatible Garmin wearable, the watch integration is a huge boon.
Choose the SPOT Gen3 if you want just the essentials of a satellite communication device: GPS tracking, SOS capabilities and 1-way satellite messaging to let your friends and loved ones know whether you’re doing OK or need help. It’s compact, lightweight and far and away the most budget-friendly option for those who adventure regularly but don’t need fancy bells and whistles. It offers set-it-and-forget-it tracking and peace of mind that you'll be able to call for help in case of emergency.