We haven’t done too many gear/ tech reviews over the past year or so, but I feel like there are a few products that make our lives easier that deserve a mention on here. Today we’ll be reviewing our new, more portable Garmin InReach Mini and putting it through its paces.
An SOS beacon might not be a piece of equipment you’ve ever considered for your adventures, but hopefully by the end of this review you’ll understand why it might be a good idea.
Why did we want a GPS beacon?
Over the past few years, Louise and I have been on many, many adventures into the vast Canadian Wilderness. One thing that becomes immediately obvious when you head out into the middle of nowhere, is just how disconnected you are from the rest of the world, and how vulnerable you are as soon as you go out of cell service.
In fact, our vulnerability when we’re off the grid has been something that’s plagued my thoughts for a few years now. Fortunately, nothing has gone wrong yet on our adventures (knock on wood), but we’ve definitely come perilously close to disaster on a few occasions. If anything had indeed gone wrong on those occasions, we’d have easily found ourselves stranded in the middle of nowhere with absolutely no way to reach help.
One story in particular comes to mind, where Louise and I decided to track down a hot springs in the middle of winter.. in a small rental car. We got about halfway up the single track mountain pass when suddenly we lost all traction in our car and got completely stuck. Fortunately we were eventually able to dig ourselves out and turn around, but things could have easily turned out differently.
Above all else, it was the feeling that there was nobody coming to save us that really stuck with me. It was something I really didn’t want to experience again, so I started researching SOS beacons and ways to protect ourselves in the future.
Fast forward to this summer, and I finally decided that with a few backcountry adventures on the cards, it was time to get ourselves an SOS beacon. We reached out to Garmin and they were generous enough to send us a Garmin InReach Mini to put through its paces.
Just a quick disclaimer; Although Garmin sent us the product, we aren’t going to be pulling any punches and all opinions are definitely our own.
The Garmin InReach Mini
The Garmin InReach Mini looks great; it’s brightly coloured (meaning it’s easy to spot when time is of the essence), super lightweight and easy to clip on to the outside of your backpack with the handy carabiner that comes with it. It was so light that it was barely noticeable. I’m not sure how much lighter it would be than a regular sized InReach, but when every gram is important; every little helps.
If you want to use some of the navigation features of the InReach Mini, you have to pair the device with a cell phone and download the Earthmate App. To me, needing a separate device to access all the functions kind of defeats the purpose of making it lighter, but if you’re going to bring a phone along with you anyway, it does make sense. Of course, you can still operate the device as an SOS beacon without pairing it, so leaving your phone at home is always an option.
Pairing with your phone
If you do decide to pair the device with your mobile, you’ll have access to two way messaging (you can use your beacon to transmit messages from your phone). Although this isn’t your normal messaging; it’s 1 or 2 messages for emergency purposes with the cheaper package and then you’re charged for subsequent messages (Buy the extreme package and get unlimited texts). Seems reasonable but perhaps not immediately obvious when you’re purchasing.
I find pairing with my phone to be somewhat dodgy (could easily be my crappy phone), so I always make sure I pair it while I’m still in cell service. To be clear, the connection was rock solid once my phone found the device, but sometimes actually connecting in the first place was tough. The device still worked perfectly without a phone though so I never felt like my safety was compromised.
The Earthmate app
Pairing to your phone with the Earthmate app allows you to follow routes and follow your progress on a pre-downloaded map. You can currently download the US and Canada maps. I know you can take the device around the world but route finding might be limited to North America. To sync new routes with your device you need to connect to the online platform (on a computer), upload a .gpx file and then transfer it to your device. It took me a while to figure out how to do it because the online help wasn’t very intuitive, but once I’d figured it out, it worked like a charm.
Pre-uploaded routes have made our life much, much easier in recent hikes, and we’ve easily been able to avoid wrong turns thanks to the app. It’s accurate to within a few metres, and with even a few map contours it’s usually easy to get back on track.
Ultimately though, I would say that the route finding features are generally just icing on the cake for an SOS beacon because, actually, you can use a cell phone to track your progress quite easily. Even when there’s no cell service a phone can usually locate you to within a few metres with its own inbuilt GPS. The only place I found this to fail us was deep in the heart of the Yukon. You can read more about our adventures in the Yukon here!
Other features of the Garmin InReach Mini
If you set your InReach Mini to track your route, you’ll also get access to various other features such as walking speed, time elapsed, elevation, direction, distance travelled etc. This has been super helpful for us just in terms of keeping an eye on the time and knowing where we’re at during a hike.
It’s also useful to note that your GPS will record your route even if you don’t connect it to your phone. You can still upload it later onto the computer.
You can also request specific weather updates for your region with the device, although this counts as a message on your service plan.
Battery life is pretty good. If you’re not tracking yourself with any of the functions, the battery life should last 50 hours with 1 minute tracking or up to 1 year with 30 minute intervals! As long as you’re not tracking the entire time, it should last you for the duration of almost any backpacking trip.
The SOS function
Fortunately I haven’t needed to use this function yet, and seeing as testing it out is forbidden I’m going to assume it will work if/when I need it. It’s just a simple, clearly marked button covered by a protective case and even a monkey could operate it. It’s good to know that anyone could use it in the event that I was incapacitated.
Here’s something I bet you didn’t realize; if you use an SOS beacon to call for help, you’re actually insured for the helicopter that picks you up and don’t have to pay for anything.
Explanation; when you buy one of these SOS beacons, you also have to purchase a satellite coverage package. Part of the cost of that is search and rescue insurance through GEOS. That means, not only are you safer with a beacon, the beacon will probably pay for itself with even a single helicopter rescue. One of our friends used one in British Columbia in Winter and was amazed to find the $2,700 fee for helicopter rescue covered because she’d used a beacon. If that’s not a reason to invest in this baby then I don’t know what is!
So now you might be wondering, how much is a Garmin InReach Mini and how does that compare to other models? The Garmin InReach Mini retails at around $350 USD, with a satellite package varying depending on your requirements. It can range from between $14.95 and $99.99 per month depending on the package you select. You can find out more about the satellite coverage costs here.
Compared to other GPS devices, this is certainly on the low price end, and Garmin has a fantastic reputation for making quality products. I read a lot of reviews of other brands and found that Garmin products seemed to fail far less and people seemed to be generally happier. Without personally testing any other brands though, it’s impossible for me to say for sure.
This is one of those things that you buy and you hope you never need to use. To many that might seem like a waste of money, but I’d honestly rather have one and not use it than need one and not have one.
The GPS tracking is great because it means you get some use out of the product even when you’re not using it for its ultimate intended purpose (SOS beacon). I personally feel 100x safer using the InReach Mini, and after having used it several times I’m confident that I don’t need anything more advanced. Of course, if my phone was to die and I had an accident, I’d probably miss the two way communication, but just being able to call for help at all makes me feel a lot less anxious.
In a perfect world, I would also want there to be more than one of these devices in our group; especially in winter conditions. If one or more of us was to get caught up in an avalanche, for example, having more devices might improve our odds of getting help.
I can easily give the Garmin InReach Mini our seal of approval and will continue using it for the foreseeable future. If anyone needs any more specific advice about its features, feel free to get in touch!
Here’s a link if you’re looking to buy your own! (It’s an affiliate link but it won’t cost you anything; thank you for your support!)