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Garmin InReach mini or other device? pros/cons?

Going on a cross country trip solo to several NP's & NM's want something for safety on the trails. Would like the best bang for the buck. Thanks

12 Replies

Obtain paper maps as a first step.  The National Geographic series concentrates on NPS areas and they are generally quite current with any recent changes.  Check relevant NPS web sites for current conditions (some places are closed due to Covid-19). Pay attention to the weather and know your limits.

If you do all this, probably the InReach Mini will be unused baggage.  It is a highly regarded unit.  Just don't be like the group at Grand Canyon who triggered their PLB on three successive days for frivolous concerns.  They were removed from the canyon forthwith and doubtless charged for the helicopter ride...

As a retired NPS hand, I am impelled to ask - What areas are you planning to visit?

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

I have the In-Reach Mini.  I always have my mobile phone with me, so the bigger one seems unnecessary.  I also use GaiaGPS to plan my route and print my paper map and can upload that to thr Garmin.  Short story, if you're also carrying a mobile phone (to augment the small screen on the mini), I think the mini is awesome.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Keeping your cell phone on you and keeping it charged is you first defense...at least electronically.  Coverage gets spotty and non existent in remote areas and in the backcountry but often you can find service on higher ground and a text message often can get through if there is at least some service.

An InReach or similar satellite device adds "out of cell service area" messaging and satellite tracking and are more rugged than a cell phone.  Tracking is mostly useful if you have friends and family following along on your journey although it could be useful for providing prior movement if you go missing. Messaging is useful for sending ad hoc positions, interacting with friends and family or summoning help from Search and Rescue (SAR) if you are incapacitated or otherwise incapable of self rescue.  The messaging allows you to interact with your would be rescuers for advice and options so you can cancel the request if necessary.

For InReach,  you must create an account with Garmin to set up and manage your device. It requires an active subscription and is fairly expensive to setup and run although not as expensive as a cell phone. There are various service levels at increasing cost depending on your expected usage. You can suspend the service if you are not using it but you have to unsuspend it (ie pay) if you want to use it's emergency features at all. Unlike a cell phone 911 calls there is no free lunch for InReach "SOS" messages. However unlike 911 from a cell phone where you need to know your location to be sure you get your request to the right SAR area, the InReach SOS sends your location and should relay your SOS directly to the appropriate SAR.

Garmin provide a somewhat dated smart phone app you can used to control your device from your phone mostly useful for setting options and composing custom messages and synchronizing your tracks back to your garmin app when you have cell service. It has a fairly basic GPS mapping function. Other smart phone apps are better.

The nice thing about InReach devices are that they are self contained as far as the satellite tracking and messaging service is concerned and do not require your cell phone to use that function ...although it is easier to do so.  Cell Phones are somewhat fragile and don't work well in the wet or cold.

For most people the Mini is the InReach to get assuming you also will use a SMART phone. The other models make on device messaging easier and have a longer battery life which might suite an impetuous day hiker.  The Explorer+ adds maps which give you a backup if you are otherwise relying on your cell phone for that.  Generally you must actively cache maps on your cell phone before you lose service.  Personally I prefer a printed backup but sometimes that is not possible if you come across a trail you want to explore.  The 66i and 700i have better mapping and are more fully functioned GPS units but for most I think they are overkill.  

There are some other devices that use Iridium like InReach,  (eg Zoleom, Bivystick ) that have different pricing models. As far as I know these require you to use your phone for messaging although they may have a SOS button.

SPOT has models similar to InReach but its coverage is not as good because it uses a different satellite system. I don't know how their pricing works.

There are also PLBs that are purely SOS devices. They generally have a single setup fee and do not require a subscription. Possibly there is an annual fee. These generally have a variety of ways to signal and some can act as a beacon allowing more local radio finding. These devices can be good if it is likely you will move after triggering an SOS...skiing, river travel, maybe biking.

The best bang for the buck depends on your needs and desires.  Personally I like the InReach Mini because it is self contained, small and light, has a good battery life and provides peace of mind for those at home  I probably would not have bought one but for that.  If you are mostly exploring well traveled trails there are generally quite a few people about.  The dangers of backcountry backpacking while real are probably statistically much less than say walking through a city or riding a bike on a public road.  Most people that actually need rescuing are poorly equipped day hikers who bite off more than they can chew.

"Most people that actually need rescuing are poorly equipped day hikers who bite off more than they can chew."

Most of those I have encountered doing SAR fit this description rather well....Most of the rest were poorly equipped backpackers on poorly planned trips.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
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Hi, @JP I am a newbie backpacker working on planning a 100 mile trek plan. I'm also interested in finding the best emergency backcountry device[s] and/or satellite phone[s]. I was about to post this question when I saw you had already posted.

To be honest, I wasn't thinking these were very critical if I was fully prepared, until recently. My work colleague who is an experienced hiker went solo in Southern Utah for a planned 7 days. Despite being well prepared, he took a very bad fall on his first day out. His leg was broken in two places & the tendon was torn [surgery required], He literally couldn't move. He was below phone reception, and he had no way to contact SAR. He would not be missed for 7 days. His situation had turned dire. Miraculously, some hours later a Search and Rescue crew who was looking for another hiker in the area randomly came across my friend. They were able to call for a helicopter. I'm still feeling shaken up about this situation. If all the stars had not aligned, I don't think he would have made it out alive.

I am now an advocate for investing in ways to reliably call for help. Most likely we won't need it. But, you just never know. Be prepared. I've heard there is a way to rent these - maybe even from REI? I'm going to investigate that option.

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Go outside and play, kids!

@GramaNana If you are hiking solo I think it is a good idea to carry a Satellite messenger or PLB in addition to your phone. If you hike with a group then it is good if at least one person in the group has one.

I don't know of any service that rents these devices.

Note that you can share your location via Google or Apple which will work if you have at least occasional cell service.  This can provide a last known location and a likely direction of travel.  You need to have your phone cell service turned on for it to work.  It won't work if you have your phone in airplane mode to save batteries which often people do.

Thanks for the tips. I know they are heavy, but it sounds like I need to carry several power banks to keep everything charged for the duration. Do you have suggestions for best power banks for 7+ day wilderness hikes? 

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Go outside and play, kids!
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@GramaNana  it will definitely depend on how many devices you have, what they are and how extensively you'll be using them, but I use the Nitecore NB10000 and have been pleased with it. I typically have my phone (Google Pixel 4), GPS / PLB (Garmin InReach Mini), GoPro Hero 4+, small olite flashlight and headlamp (Nitecore NU25) and it's more than enough to keep me going for 2-3 days with power to spare. It's relatively inexpensive, lightweight and small.  My plan is to get a second one for longer hikes (two is one, one is none) but the reality is for my 1 to 3 day hikes, even everything battery powered dies, I'm close enough to get out without it.  I could make an argument that losing both light sources and my GPS would be very bad but a) the liklihood that I'll lose all of them at once is hopefully pretty low and b) most of my hikes really don't take me more than a day's hike away from 'the world'.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Thank you @nathanu that's good info. So... how many power banks would you carry if you decided to take a longer backcountry trip - such as 7 days, or even 9 or 10? Will a powerbank hold its charge for multiple days before it is put into use? [i.e. use up one powerback for 3 days, then start using the next one, etc?]

I'm working on creating a 100 mile trek plan for my husband and I in August. One of the trek options being considered would remain in remote wilderness with no resupply or recharge for up to 9 or 10 days. We would each have a phone [keeping off to save power, perhaps on airplane mode as a camera] Garmin watch, Garmin Mini [or some kind of GPS/PLB], possibly one GoPro. We can split up the battery weight between our two packs. Just wondering how many we will need? 

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Go outside and play, kids!
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