Satellite communication devices (inReach, Spot, etc)

Discussion in 'Gear Talk' started by stagger, Apr 24, 2019.

  1. stagger

    stagger Paddler

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    There doesn’t appear to be a general thread about the pros/cons/ins/outs of various satellite communication devices.

    A few years ago, inReach and sat phones were the only game in town if you wanted 2-way communication. Since then, Spot has introduced a 2-way communicator and there are other devices on the market. If anyone has experience with any of these, a review would be a valuable contribution to the community.
     
  2. stagger

    stagger Paddler

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    On a trip report thread, PDX Outbound asked for details about the inReach device I was using.

    It’s an old inReach 1.5 paired with an iPhone 4.

    Power: It runs on AA batteries, and it kept a charge for the entire 2-week trip, tracking us every 10 minutes for 6-12 hours per day. I brought extra batteries but didn’t have to use them. (I brought a power pack for the phone, but didn’t use it enough to need to charge it.)

    Functionality: As a standalone unit, it can send one of 3 preset messages to a predefined contact, or can send an SOS signal to emergency services. I have it set up to send “I’m ok” / “bit of trouble but we’re fine” / “we’re in trouble and have activated S&R” to my wife. I’ve used this feature to send “I’m ok” and it worked just fine.

    Paired with a phone or tablet via Bluetooth, it can send and receive text messages and can be used for simple GPS navigation. The topo maps on the app are terrible — I can’t figure out why Garmin hasn’t integrated its much superior map tech with inReach since the acquisition. If you’re a GPS person, think you’d be hard pressed to use inReach for that purpose. The app has “waypoints” and some other features I’ve never bothered to use; they don’t seem very user-friendly, especially on a tiny screen. I’m a bit old-school and am happy with its simple ability to give me my location when I need it.

    I enjoy being able to reconstruct my trips from the stored data after the fact. I can see routes, distances, speed, heading, messages sent and received, which help when putting together trip reports and which help for trip planning (how far can we expect to travel, how fast do we go, etc).

    Unlike the new versions, this one doesn’t pull weather forecasts, as far as I know.

    Reliability: So far, it’s done everything I’ve asked it to, with one exception: it mysteriously stopped tracking us and logging our route on one segment of our trip. I think it would still have worked if we’d needed to send a message or an SOS, because during that period I checked our position on the phone and it showed us where we were, so it was obviously communicating with the satellite... it just didn’t send pings about our track for some reason.

    When I bought the unit in 2016, it was already old tech, and I worried about it becoming unsupported and obsolete. The same concerns remain, although so far it’s been working like a tank.

    Value: A new inReach device runs $350-600 depending on the model. Obviously used units are cheaper, and if you’re looking for a first-gen unit like mine, used is your only option. I bought mine on kijiji for $125. Monthly plans are reasonable —$20/mo for basic service where you pay for each track or message you send, up to $75/mo for unlimited usage. You can suspend the plan anytime you’re not using it and go into “hibernation” for $3/mo.

    Support: I haven’t had any issues so far. Garmin has farmed out its Canadian customer service and support to a company called Roadpost but the technical end still sits with Garmin in the US, so I imagine it could be a bit of a runaround if you had problems to sort out. I don’t know how long they’ll support these old devices; I’ll probably keep mine as long as they continue to do so.

    Old vs. New: John Abercrombie noted on this thread that he had issues with a newer device. I would imagine that the tiny screen and scroll-and-click interface would make it tough to use without a phone pairing. Aside from weather reports and possible future issues with tech support, I don’t see any advantage to upgrading. On the other hand, a friend who mainly does hiking and horse trips has an Explorer Plus which she mostly uses for weather and SOS, and she’s happy with it — no reported issues.
     
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  3. JohnAbercrombie

    JohnAbercrombie Paddler

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    Most of my 'tech-savvy' paddler friends are using inReach units paired with their phones these days, it seems.
    Now that I have phone(s), I'll probably put an inReach (Mini??) on my shopping list. Hopefully the quality issues I found a few years ago will be reduced if the Garmin engineering team gets to work on the inReach.
    I did get a runaround when I had problems with the inReach keypad- USA company and Canada service contractor.
    I'm happy with the SPOT, but the advantages of 2-way text messaging were obvious when friends had to arrange transportation back to the launch site when the paddling plan changed. I have zero interest in updating Facebook pages and blogs when I'm on a paddling trip; that's what some folks cite as the inReach advantage.
    The SPOT is a good backup for the PLB and also keeps family from worrying when I'm on trips. I only use it once or twice a day (in the tent) to give campsite locations. The SPOT annual fee is getting noticed; the inReach plans seem better to me.
     
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  4. JohnAbercrombie

    JohnAbercrombie Paddler

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    Well, perhaps NOT!
    I just read a good selection of the (many) reviews of the InReach Mini at MEC - even some of the '4-star' (out of 5) reviews are 'lukewarm'.
     
  5. designer

    designer Paddler

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    I've used the Spot for years and am considering switching to some version of InReach. That's because the yearly fees for Spot have jumped from $99/year to about $250/year. If I'm lucky, I might get two or three trips in a year. In two years, the fee for the Spot would pay for an InReach device and fees for just the three or four months a year I'd use it. At first reading, it looks like the InReach would provide everything the Spot does, plus add the text messaging ability when necessary.

    That said, as for as locating me, on the water, the Spot has put me in the exact boat slip on the dock. But when used hiking in the woods, with tracking on, sometimes it would throw in a phantom waypoint that was miles from my location (bounce off a mountain?).

    I prefer the Spot to a PLB because I can "test" it by sending non-emergency messages and it runs on easy to find/replace AAA batteries. The other advantage over a PLB is it provides some comfort to those (who worry) back home. Each night I can send an Okay/Check-in message (set up before the trip) that gives them my Lat/Long and a link to a GoogleEarth type zoomable map showing my location.

    The Gen3 model provides four fixed messages you create before a trip - they are in a "profile" you save that includes the messages and their recipients. Okay/Check-In, Custom, Help, SOS. For Okay, I just put "Everything's Fine". For Custom I put, "Everything's fine but because of weather or other scheduling issues I'm off my float plan a bit." For Help I put, "I'm okay, no medical problems, but I can't get out if here by myself." I imagine using this if my boat broke but I was okay; i.e. no medical emergency. The SOS message is forwarded to Search and Rescue and in that I put medical information, contact info, boat description, etc.

    There is some setup involved before the trip. In another post I described how I became a "missing person" because I set up a new profile and my Custom Message wasn't saved. And my On the water Tracking wasn't turned on (in software). However, the tracking page was showing my Okay Message locations and a Default Custom Message location when I pushed the Custom button. People back home didn't notice that and the calls went from Local Police 911 to Canadian Police in Sidney, to The Spot people who let everyone know I had just landed next to the Ferry terminal.

    I didn't know the InReach month fees were that high, but I do recall raising an eyebrow each time I saw another cost (setup fees, etc.).
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2019
  6. PDX outbound

    PDX outbound Paddler

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    Stagger - thank you so much for starting this thread; I truly appreciate your effort! The members on this forum are always so helpful and everyone's willingness to share information like this makes me proud to be part of the paddling community.

    I'm still leaning towards the InReach Mini, but now I need to go read through the MEC reviews. I envision using the device much like Stagger and would pair it to a phone for messaging; the GPS functions don't really seem practical on the water and I already have a stand alone device for that purpose. The home front would really value the reassurance a message at the start and end of the paddle day would bring, and that messaging ability is why I'm looking at the InReach over a PLB. Weather forecasts on the plans seem like a bonus, but might not add much over what is available with the VHF. My biggest concern is reliability, particularly in the marine environment - if I'm investing $$ in the device plus paying for the subscription service, I'm hoping to get several years out of it. I've heard about some ruggedness concerns for the Spot-X keyboard and if their monthly fees are increasing, all the more reason to consider the Garmin.

    I look forward to having others relate their opinions and help me steer toward a smart choice on which device to add to my kit. Thanks!
     
  7. jamonte

    jamonte Paddler

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    The InReach mini is mainly designed for hikers so a great place to find info from people who own it/use it is on hiking forums. Try NWHikers.net and search their site. Personally, I switched from a sat phone (Globalstar) to a DeLorme InReach SE two years ago. Here's my experience:

    The phone was awesome, and I often had crisper/faster reception than with my Verizon cell phone. Seriously, I'd be a hundred miles from nowhere in the desert SW and it was like calling landline to landline in the same city. But it wasn't cheap to start with and then it became ridiculously expensive. I paid $1,000 for the phone in 2015 and that included 12 months of usage. In 2016, you could still choose relatively cheap monthly plans ($45/mo. for 120 minutes?), but in early 2017, the plans became WAY too expensive and restrictive, like $1,200 for a year with no month-to-month options... so I sold the phone and bought an InReach just after DeLorme was sold to Garmin. I own several Garmin devices, but I am not a fan of that company AT ALL, so I wanted to buy the DeLorme-made product before Garmin started "improving" it. There is a lot to like about the InReach:
    • Battery life is excellent if you don't leave it in track mode, plus you can charge it in the field with a small brick or a solar panel. (All it takes is a micro USB to regular USB cable. The shorter, the better.)
    • It takes forever to type a message just using the device's arrow buttons, but it's very fast when linked to a phone. (However, the bluetooth app for the phone can wipe out your phone battery in no time if you forget to turn it off!) Also, if you use the InReach in track mode, it uses way more juice. I only turn mine on in camp to send/receive messages, or sometimes once or twice on a side hike. I tried using the track function while kayaking and it showed me paddling right through islands. (i.e., unlike your GPS, it's not recording a lot of data points.)
    • It's very easy for folks back home to send you messages. (Even my 85 year old mother can do it!) You can also have someone send you very specific data for your trip, for example, river level data, long range weather forecasts, updates on border crossings, etc.
    • You can also have a short-term weather forecast sent to you that is supposedly a "pin-point" weather forecast for your exact location. This is very helpful and I think this is still included even in the most basic plan, but it does "cost" you a text message.
    • Writing your own pre-set messages is an art form. You only get three. Do it well, and you can do a two week trip with the least expensive plan. Do it poorly, and you will need to pay for a plan that allows you write your own unique message every time.
    • I haven't looked recently, but in the past Garmin has offered a good selection of subscription plan options. Pick the one that works for you. I especially like the ability to kill the plan when I'm not doing big trips.
    • Size, weight, and weather resistance seems pretty good. I have a stand alone Garmin GPS Map 78sc and do not want or need a crappy GPS built into to my satellite messenger.
    • It's been reliable for me so far, but I did see a friend's DeLorme-made InReach go tits up on a Grand Canyon trip in 2016. Like any piece of electronic tech, sometimes a device just dies on you, which can create a serious problem if you don't have a backup method to communicate. If the folks back home are expecting messages, and you quit posting them, they're going to think the worst.
    • Final note: Globalstar owns SPOT so it's no surprise to me that my sat phone plan went through the roof at the same time that SPOT plans got jacked up beyond their value. My dream has always been for Google to buy Garmin. Then we'd get some sweet devices and functionality!
     
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2019
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  8. AM

    AM Paddler

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    Thanks for that post - it was useful for me. I rent a sat phone when I guide kids out of cell range, and those rentals start to add up over time. I was thinking that InReach might be a workable option.
     
  9. jamonte

    jamonte Paddler

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    AM, one big advantage of using a satellite messenger for your specific purpose (guiding a group) is that you can post ONE message that goes out to ALL the parents. For example, one of my pre-set messages says, "I'm camping here for the night. All is well." And that message shows up on a map so everyone knows exactly where I'm at and that everything is fine. (I'm not a big fan of facebook, but you can also have your messages post there for all to see.)

    For sea kayak trips, I'd probably try my VHF first in an emergency and if I couldn't raise the CG, then I'd consider hitting the InReach SOS button. This would put me in touch with an emergency coordinator who will then contact the CG for me, if necessary. Mostly, I use the InReach to let everyone know where I'm at and that everything is okay. You can't do that with a VHF or a PLB, and it's not convenient or cost effective to do it with a sat phone.
     
  10. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    jamonte, twelve years ago one of a group of four of us, in the Deers, elected to extend her time in Barkley Sound another four days after the remaining three left Bamfield for home in Oregon. We arranged for her to contact us via cell phone upon reaching shore in Bamfield, so that we could be certain she was safely ashore. Unfortunately, she failed to do that. On the fifth day I contacted the CCG SAR center. As the notifying party, they informed me that I was "responsible" for undetermined aspects of determining whether she was indeed missing.

    Fortunately, within about three hours, she finally checked in with me. And, CCG determined her vehicle was not still in Bamfield. I called the CCG SAR center and confirmed she was safe. SAR stood down, and no harm, no foul.

    My question for you: do you have some sort of prearranged protocol for contacting CCG SAR in the event your party gets separated or split up, with your InReach unit unavailable to part of your group?
     
  11. AM

    AM Paddler

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    Thanks for the extra details, jamonte. The group message is a good feature.

    The only downside I can see (InReach vs. sat phone) is that "talking" to SAR or medical services would have to take place by text through a third party intermediary (likely my wife). For example, last year we had a girl burn herself seriously enough that we considered immediate evac. Luckily, we were in cell range, so an 811 call and conversation with a nurse helped us make a decision that was more medically informed.

    If we were trying to do the same thing with an InReach, I'd have to text my wife our questions and she would text back the responses from 811.

    I see that as a manageable challenge. If you have any other thoughts from real life experience, I'd appreciate hearing them.

    Cheers,
    Andrew
     
  12. jamonte

    jamonte Paddler

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    I confess my ignorance to the finer details of contacting help via a satellite messenger, but here goes anyway... Andrew first, since it's an easier explanation. Here's the info from Garmin's webpage:

    "During an emergency, you can contact the GEOS International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center (IERCC) to request help. Pressing the SOS key sends a message to the rescue coordination center, and they notify the appropriate emergency responders of your situation. You can communicate with the rescue coordination center during your emergency while you wait for help to arrive. You should only use the SOS function in a real emergency situation."​

    If it's a medical emergency, I would think they'd put you in touch with a medical professional, especially if the responders couldn't get to you immediately. The biggest advantage of a sat phone is the ease of explaining your situation via voice as opposed to texting. However, you have to know who to call ahead of time. I don't think Globalstar provides an in-house emergency coordinator to call, but I bet that service is available from an international travel insurance agency. On my 213-mile river trip down the Salmon River last summer I passed through three different states (Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) and God knows how many different federal, state, and county jurisdictions. But if I'd needed to call for help, all I had to do was hit the SOS button and let the emergency coordinator figure out who to contact.

    Dave, I think your question is more generally about what makes for a good contingency plan when the group intentionally splits up... and that is a big and complex question. One feature of InReach which I've never used is the ability for two In Reach devices to "talk" directly to each other while you're out on a trip. That way, your friend could be in the Deer Group and you could be on Catala Island and you can still text back and forth with each other and plan a rendezvous in Tofino. That would be cool!