After much thought a few weeks ago I decided to purchase a Garmin inReach Explorer+ GPS and satellite communicator. At £415.00 this is a serious investment but, that’s only the beginning of it.
Once purchased you then have to buy a satellite subscription package for the device to actually work. Satellite time isn’t cheap and there are a number of different packages and ways to pay depending on what level of support you want and how long you want to have access for.
It’s worth nothing the charges for messages and track points on the cheapest package, if you do the math you’ll find that with tracking on it’s not as cheap as it initially looks!
So, firstly lets look at the device itself.
The device is really nicely put together and feels like a quality product in the hand. The buttons are very tactile and give positive feedback when pressed. Sizewise it’s as tall as an iPhone 7 Plus and about 2/3 of the width across the screen but much thicker of course. The battery is supposed to last unto 100hrs depending on settings used. I should imagine this time will reduce in extremely low temperatures. The device comes with a clip for attaching it to a jacket or rucksack and a huge carabina which I think could had been smaller and just as effective. You can of course remove the carabina should you wish,
I won’t go into the full functionality of the device as it’s all available on the Garmin website.
What I do want to talk about is the Garmin Mapshare online Service and the EarthMate phone app.
MapShare is a web based mapping service that allows you to give family and friends access to a portal where they can track your location pretty much realtime. This is great if like me, you have a wife at home that needs to know where you are during your wild adventures into uncharted territories. This works pretty well and even enables the user to send messages to you via satellite, ping you to see exactly where you are now and see how your journey is progressing but, where it falls down is in the route planning.
One of the main attractions of these kind of devices is the ability to plan your route and then follow it, just like any other GPS device. Unfortunately you can only put routes together on the MapShare website, you cannot create a route on the EarthMate app or the device, a huge disadvantage if you don’t have internet access!
When you do have internet access putting together a route is a rather clunky exercise.
Planning my route to Harwich for example, I initially zoomed in so that I could plan the route at a detailed level following the exact roads that I needed to take, this is great until you come to need to move the map so that you can see the next part of the road. It turns out that whilst you are in route planning mode you cannot move the map, this means that you cannot plan the entire journey at a detailed level. If you complete the route and save it, move the map and then edit the route you find that you cannot add more roads on to the route, all you can do is alter the existing route making it impossible to plan a route at a detailed level.
Zooming the map out so that you can see your start and finish point and then planning the route is successful however, once saved and then zoomed into you will find that your route isn’t actually on the roads you want and the route is actually across fields and through buildings!
This simple functionality of being able to plan the route at a detailed level and move the map at the same time really isn’t rocket science to achieve and is a major failing on Garmin’s part. In this day and age with the tech available this whole MapShare web app could be so much better than it is.
The rest of the functionality on the site is the same, clunky, difficult to use and cannot be done at a detailed level. This is a real shame and a massive disappointment.
Moving onto the EarthMate app, it too is somewhat disappointing. It is basically a cut down version of the web based system but with even less functionality. It also needs to have an internet connection to function correctly defeating the object completely.
To be able to get the routes into EarthMate that were planned on the MapShare web service the phone on which the app is running has to have internet access to be able to sync the route information. This works well when you have an internet connection but if you are in the middle of nowhere you have no chance so, it’s important to plan as many routes as possible when you have internet access and sync immediately.
Once you’ve activated the route it then appears on the main screen map and you are able to zoom in and out. Your heading, elevation and LAT/LONG coordinates are visible at all times. It’s worth nothing that this is not a turn by turn GPS app and so you will have to watch the map as you move to ensure you take the right turn.
Looking at the good features of the Garmin Explorer+ it’s tracking facility is great and works without the need for internet access. You can choose how often your tracking information is sent to the MapShare service via it’s satellite link, I’ve chosen 1min track intervals sent every 10mins which seems to work well and provide a fairly detailed view of the day’s travelling.
The big feature of these inReach devices is the SOS service. This service comes as part of any of the subscription packages and enables the user of the device to raise an alarm should they need urgent assistance. When an alarm is raised it’s immediately handled by Geos Travel Safety in America.
Once an alarm is raised they will contact you immediately via the device messaging service and obtain details of the emergency. They are also immediately notified of your current location. The user of the device can communicate with the Geos support team and provide them with updates as the emergency unfolds. The Geos team will then coordinate with local rescue teams on the ground and arrange your recovery.
The SOS can be initiated via the Garmin device directly or on the EarthMate phone app as long as it has bluetooth connectivity with the device.
It’s worth nothing that for an annual fee of just £19.99 you can cover yourself for up to US$100,000 of rescue fees including helicopter recovery should it be necessary, well worth it in my opinion.
The other good thing about the Garmin Explorer+ is that you can send messages to mobile phones via SMS or email directly from the device without the need for an internet connection, this is ideal when you want to let your wife know all is well when in the middle of nowhere.
You can also send the messages from your mobile phone even when you have no internet connection as the phone uses bluetooth to send the message via the devices satellite connection.
You can also send free test messages that reply to you automatically so that you can check whether you have satellite connectivity or not.
So, to summarise, the Mapshare web app could be much better than it is and really needs an update, same with the EarthMate app. It’s really cheap to develop good phone apps these days so there really is no excuse.
The device itself is really good, rugged, waterproof and has all the functionality I need on my trip through Central Asia. It’s also worth mentioning that the Garmin inReach devices use the Irridium satellite network which has 100% global coverage unlike some of the other devices available on the market today.
Was it a good buy? I think so as it gives peace of mind to my lovely wife and enables her to keep in touch with me all the time and of course the SOS functionality really is a must when travelling alone.