Scot’s Product Review: DeLorme inReach Explorer

The first warning is that this is an electronic device. It probably won’t work after an EMP or Carrington event. It communicates via the Iridium satellite system, which is also used by the government, so it isn’t secure, not that any electronic communications are. It depends on the GPS satellite constellation, which is another government service. The government can, when it feels like it, degrade the accuracy of civilian GPS units or even shut down the service to all but government clients. There are, therefore, drawbacks that you have to be aware of. Regardless, the DeLorme inReach offers some pretty amazing abilities, especially for those who get off the beaten path or who need to communicate or navigate in times of a disaster, short of a countrywide collapse.

There are two inReach units. The one I reviewed, thanks to a loaner from DeLorme, is the inReach Explorer. The other one is the SE. The essential difference between the two units is that the Explorer has navigation capabilities, though it has some limits. Both units allow the user to be tracked over a web page and to send and receive messages through the Iridium satellite network anywhere on the planet.

In my mind, the biggest ability with both is that you can send an SOS message, complete with your location, by flipping off the safety lock and pressing one button. The SOS message goes to GEOS, which could be thought of as an international 911 center located in Houston, Texas. GEOS, which also provides services to other vendors, will contact the emergency dispatch site closest to your location who will then send help. Your SOS message will include your position and who you are, and you can also add information about what exactly is the nature of your problem so you can get an appropriate response.

This service is not for boo boos, however; it is for serious life-threatening matters only. You could face substantial fines or other problems if you use this feature inappropriately. There may also be charges, even for legitimate search and rescue services, and GEOS offers extra cost plans to help cover those. Such charges are unlikely in the U.S., if the call was for a real emergency, although there may be costs for ambulance services and transport to a hospital. GEOS offers medevac plans to get you from the hospital you were deposited in to a hospital of your choice. That could be a huge benefit if you are far from home or in a location with subpar medical care. Information on the plans, costs, and how they work are on the GEOS website.

Besides the SOS function, you can text message or email whoever you desire. I had to spend some time to get used to messaging with the inReach. The functions were not intuitive to my personal brain, but I persisted with bumbling about until I was able to do it. Part of the problem is that, besides the SOS button and its safety lock, there are only three controls on the unit– an enter button, an escape button, and a four-way rocker switch. The screen is about 1.5×1 inches, which is a bit small for the amount of information it can deliver. You have to scroll around a virtual keyboard with the rocker switch to compose and address messages, though it does start to learn words and addresses and prompt for them, which can help a bit.

There are pre-written messages, like “yes”, “no”, “starting trip”, “delayed”, or “pick me up” among others, which I found very useful. You can add more from the web page that works with your inReach account.

When you send a message, there is a little rotating icon next to it until it completes sending, which is helpful to know. It took me a while to figure that out, which frustrated me since I wanted to be sure the message went out. I didn’t see this information in the rather sparse “get started” manual that came with the unit, when I read it. There is, however, a lot of information on the DeLorme website that I found very helpful. There is also help information available on the device.

When someone replies to an email message, it is important for them to know that they can’t reply directly to the email. They have to go to the link that came with the email and use the messaging function on the web page. The email does warn the recipient, but many people don’t fully digest what they read. (Who, me?) If you want people to retain the ability to message you, be sure to warn them not to delete the email with the link or to at least bookmark the link.

Thankfully, you can reply directly to a text message from your cell phone. Every text message I sent came to my cellphone with the same “reply to” number, so one could add it to their address book for future use. The text message contains a link that will take you to a map showing the sender’s location, if your phone can do that. The map, as with the one that comes with an email, uses the excellent DeLorme topographic maps, as well as offering a simpler version with just the streets or a satellite view. The satellite view showed where I was sitting inside my house, which was somewhat disturbing in some ways. You can also configure it to include your longitude and latitude with a text message.

A key point to remember about messaging is that, unlike your cell phone, it is not instantaneous. To save battery life, the inReach checks at preset intervals. You can, however, change the intervals or force a check whenever you wish. You may still have to wait for a satellite to come into view, however, for the inReach to connect.

The navigation features of the inReach are helpful but rudimentary. The problem is that the maps presented on the inReach have no details. You can create a waypoint to navigate to, but you pretty much have to know its longitude and latitude. It is possible to scroll the map and point to a location, but without map features, that is tough. You can’t just ask it to show you Shellman, Georgia, how to get there, and what’s in between. Entering the information for a waypoint on the inReach itself is tedious and really requires a map with longitude and latitude.

When you subscribe to a plan for the inReach, you get access to a web page that gives you access to the excellent DeLorme topographic maps, upon which you can plan a route and place waypoints. When you connect the inReach to your computer, you can use their Sync application to upload the information to the inReach. This makes it a lot easier to use for navigation.

When you plan a route, you are actually drawing a line across the map, not saying I’m here and want to go there. It isn’t like one of the car GPS units that can follow roads automatically. This has advantages in that you can create off-road treks, but it really isn’t designed for navigating your car. You can do it, but it will take more effort than most car-oriented GPS units.

Once you have placed your waypoints in the inReach, it will show you which way to go to get to them. If you have input a route, it will guide you along it. There is also a compass, so you know which direction is which. This is all extraordinarily useful if you go astray.

You can upload contacts from the web page, which is a lot easier than entering them through the inReach. The inReach will remember any addresses to which you send a message, which does help the next time you message that person.

When you send an email message to someone, it will include your location. You can have the inReach track you at desired intervals and send periodic messages to tell people where you are. If you don’t think Facebook and Twitter are security violations, it can update those too. I didn’t try this feature, as I don’t do social networks. It is possible to set up access for family or friends, so they can ping your inReach to see where you are now, but there may be costs when they do it, depending on your service plan.

There is the usual stuff on the web page to manage your account, and you will need access to it to finalize setting up the inReach, as it requires a lot of emergency contact information should you ever need rescue.

In my view, the inReach really comes to life if you have an Android or Apple device with Bluetooth. You can pretty much run the inReach using DeLorme’s Earthmate app from the mobile device, which is a whole lot easier than using the three buttons on the inReach. Even more powerful are the full-featured maps you can download from DeLorme and display on whatever size screen you can afford and feel like carrying.

The one drawback is that I didn’t find a search function to find addresses on the PC or mobile device maps. To set a destination, you need to locate it on the map and mark it as a waypoint. On the mobile device or inReach, it will draw a straight line from where you are to the waypoint. You can create additional waypoints along the trails or roads you plan to use to force it to route you along your desired path. This gets tedious, though. The web-based, PC version gives you the option to draw the route as precisely as you desire, though it takes time and energy.

Messaging was also far easier with a paired device. You can create additional preset messages that are easily accessible from the app and access contacts in your address book. While it will send and receive messages from the mobile device through the inReach, it will not sync your contacts without an Internet connection.

I had no problems getting it to pair with a 2012 Nexus 7 tablet, and it worked quite well. One oddity to me was seeing that the app required the mobile device to have its own GPS, rather than pulling information from the inReach. So, beware of that.

One thing to always remember about the inReach is that it depends on satellites that use line-of-sight radio frequencies. That means you are trying to get a signal to something overhead; if there is much between you and the satellite, it won’t work well. The GPS in the unit was startlingly sensitive, and as noted above could even detect in which room I was hiding in my house, which has a plywood sheathed asphalt shingled roof. It didn’t work in my shed with a metal roof, so there is some safety from it.

The messaging was not as good as the GPS. It would work from a window in my office, which was a bit of surprise. It definitely worked better than the Iridium handsets I managed back in my newspaper days, so technology has improved in the last ten years. Heavy tree cover will cause issues with the messaging system, and it may be necessary to move to an area with a clearer view of the sky. It is best to have a full view of the sky, not just part of it as a satellite might be on the wrong side of whatever is preventing you from seeing the whole sky. Since there are 66 satellites in the system and they are in different planes of orbit, sooner or later most of your local sky will be covered, but it can take longer to get out a message if it has to wait for a satellite to show up. Being deep in a canyon is a particular problem as only a small part of the sky is available and it may be a long while before a satellite can see you. This is why satellite communications don’t work well in downtown cities with tall buildings.

Another concern is that messages on satellite services don’t always go through as quickly as they do on your cell phone. Satellite services use older and slower technologies. You have to add this to the wait time for a satellite to be in view. I had a wide range of times to send and receive messages, from almost instantaneous to 20 minutes. It usually took three to five minutes to punch one out from my office window and one to two minutes while we were walking the dog with it hung from my neck on a lanyard. It also worked well on a road trip hanging from my rear view mirror while driving south, but it didn’t work well at all while going north. So, apparently the car roof was blocking the needed portion of the sky.

The inReach weighs just 6.7 ounces, and it measure 6.0 inches high, 2.5 inches wide, and 1.3 inches thick. You can get it for $359.00 from Amazon. You also need a subscription service to use it. There are two types of plans– an annual contract and the Freedom plan, which allows you to suspend service whenever you don’t think you will need it. There are different levels of plans, and if you pay more you get more services. The plans run from $12 to $100 per month. The Freedom plan requires a $25 annual fee, and then you turn it on when needed for 30 day increments. You have to have an Internet connection to activate it after suspending it.

I should mention that there is another device that somewhat competes with the inReach; it’s the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB.) PLB’s run about the same price as an inReach but only do one thing– call for help. They operate on different satellites and communicate with Cospas-Sarsat– an international governmental organization. Cospas-Sarsat stands for Space System for the Search of Vessels in Distress-Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking which is a breath-taking but descriptive name. PLB’s system operates with more power and on a lower frequency than inReach’s, which gives them a better ability to reach the satellite through overhead cover. If you buy one, be sure to get one with a built-in GPS. Some don’t have this capability, which makes it harder to find you. If all you want is to get help, a PLB might be a better choice, and they have no subscription fees; however, the messaging ability of the inReach is extremely useful, in my view.

DeLorme rates the battery life at 100 hours with tracking points sent at 10-minute intervals. This will vary, depending on how much other messaging you do or how long you keep the screen lit. The rated battery life seemed realistic in my trials. It charges quickly from a USB charger.

Delorme markets inReach largely to outdoors people, like hunters, hikers, and the like. As a prepper, I have mixed feeling about the inReach. The requirements for satellite and Internet service and the inherent insecurity of electronic communications concern me. I do know I am going to buy one for my son when he starts going on scout trips next year, so I can keep track of where he is and he can call for help if needed. I may have a squabble with the scouting leadership over it but so it goes. They don’t like electronic devices on trips, but I see this as quite different from a game thing or texting on a cell phone.

One big caveat about any electronic navigational device is that you should not throw out your paper maps and compass. Electronics get broken, fail, or we forget to charge batteries. As preppers, we have concerns about EMP or Carrington events. Any electronic device that is in communication with other electronic devices is a security issue. I see inReach as a very useful tool, but we mustn’t forget these facts about electronics.

Out of curiosity, I put the inReach in one of the MobileSec Cell Phone blocker bags I reviewed in December, and a single bag appeared to completely block the signal to the Iridium and GPS satellites. It appears to me that when the inReach is powered down, it is invisible, but I can imagine times when one would want to be completely sure of privacy, and these bags would take care of that concern.

I currently live in an area with solid cell phone coverage in normal times, but I would like to have this capability on hand for hurricanes and other regional issues. If we were still spending much time outdoors out of cellular coverage, it would be a no brainer, but it is hard in my part of the country these days to escape cellular contact even when you want to. As much as I would like to have this capability, the monthly costs and initial outlay deter me until I get it for my son’s trips. I also have the feeling that they will come out with better products down the road that might answer my desire to do address searches and provide the ability to plot over road navigation as well as by straight line.

If you decide an inReach is for you, expect to spend some time learning to use it along with the web site and the Earthmate app. Like any powerful tool, it requires commitment. Some of the features aren’t obvious to find. I spent several hours working with them and then going back and doing research and then working some more. It was all worthwhile, but it wasn’t always instinctive for me. The most important function, though, getting help, is obvious and easy to use and would be a great comfort to have at any time.

– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie