What is it?
The Delorme InReach SE is a GPS sized device that communicates with the Iridium Satellite Network. It allows you to send text messages back and forth with the outside world anywhere on Earth. You can request help, leave a set of track points on a web-map of your trip or just say hi to your significant other.
I do a lot of solo trips. Sometimes quite deep into the backcountry where help is not easily available. I try to act like I can’t afford to get hurt and avoid risky behaviour which has worked so far, but I started to feel like having some communications back up would be a smart move.
How was it tested?
I’ve had the InReach SE a couple months now and have started carrying it in my pack on any trip where I’m not likely to have reliable cellphone service. I have not had an emergencies so I have just tested it sending messages to my own computer and cellphone to see what things look like from both ends.
I bought my InReach at MEC.ca here is their product spew:
Stay connected where there’s no cell phone coverage. This compact device uses satellite technology to let you send and receive text messages anywhere on the planet, and update social media from the ends of the earth. Use it on its own, or pair it with your iPhone®, iPad® or Android device to download maps and access GPS features.
- Housing is water-resistant and dust-proof with an easy to read colour display.
- Uses Iridium’s constellation of 66 satellites for coverage of the earth’s entire surface. Messages are buffered for up to a day.
- Intuitive LED indicator shows satellite availability.
- Virtual keyboard allows you to compose text and email.
- Stores predefined text messages for anticipated situations to send as needed.
- Tracking feature allows your friends and community to see your progress.
- Social media function lets you post messages and waypoints to Facebook, Twitter, or your own shared map.
- World coverage SOS feature gives you a confirmation message from rescue centre, if you use to send an SOS. 2-way texting allows them and you to provide situation updates.
- Messages have your GPS location embedded for faster finding in emergencies.
- High-sensitivity GPS chip provides position accuracy to within 5 metres.
- Free DeLorme Earthmate application available through iTunes and Android Marketplace. Allows you to download maps and nautical charts to smartphones and enables inReach and iOS communication features such as native GPS to display location.
- Downloaded maps are stored in your phone and are available even if there is no cell phone signal.
- Internal rechargeable battery uses long-lasting lithium technology.
- Requires a separate satellite plan to activate.
- Canadian monthly plans are available, as well as seasonal hibernation options that allow you to pay a minimal fee during months when you are not using the device.
- Dimensions are 62 x 26 x 149mm.
- Weight: 200g.
The InReach SE is the size of an average backpacking GPS [62 x 26 x 149mm] and weighs 200g. It fits easily into my hand and has a removable belt clip as well as a removable hand strap. The front of the device features a small colour screen, a 4-way mouse flanked by “no” and “yes” buttons. The “yes” or checkmark button is also the power button. Below the mouse there is a SOS button with a slide lock to prevent accidental SOS messages. On the right side of the device is a covered USB port for charging and talking with your computer. On the top left of the unit is a stubby antenna encased in hard plastic to avoid damage.
Inside the device is a rechargeable lithium battery. This isn’t user replaceable. Internal power can be supplemented by a USB battery pack.
Using the InReach SE is easy. The buttons, screen and interface all work well and are fairly intuitive. The level of refinement feels like something from 2007 or so. It’s no iPhone.
The device is waterproof, dust-proof and impact resistant. It should survive “normal” use in the backcountry biking or hiking as well as for water sports like sea kayaking.
Stuff I would like to see improved:
- 4-way mouse works fine, but being able to press down on the mouse to start an action or add a letter to your message would make using the InReach much faster and easier. Currently you have to use the mouse to move to a letter on the virtual keyboard then lift your finger and press the “yes/check” key and then go back to the mouse to find the next letter and so on. Typing a 100 character message this way gets old fast.
- a thin rubberized coating would help mitigate the slippery hard plastic shell from leading to drops
- a swappable battery would be awesome
- a larger screen would be nice
- a safety lock on the power button would avoid accidental in pack power ups
- weight and size is acceptable, but a reduction to something more pocketable wouldn’t hurt
Just like a cellphone the InReach requires you to subscribe to a service plan to communicate with anyone. You can read up on the plans here. In Canada we have more expensive plans than the US or EU. I could rant about that for a couple pages, but I won’t.
I took a the Canadian Chat Plan which gives me access to the SOS function and a 100 free text messages as well as 25 tracking points per month. I could burn through those tracking points in a day or two, but my primary purpose for carrying this device is to call for help and to keep in touch with my friends and family from the backcountry.
You can turn the device off in Canada for ~$5/month if you don’t need it and you can get a more expensive $50/month plan that gives you 250 free text messages and unlimited tracking each month. There is also a $15/month safety plan that gives you the SOS function and you pay for each text and tracking point you use.
I haven’t figured out exactly how I will use the InReach each year. I suspect I’ll run the $50/month plan during the peak activity season which on Vancouver Island is April – Sept . For the remaining months I’ll probably switch to the $15/month plan so I can send SOS messages and pay for specific texts if I feel the need.
That would cost $50 x 6 + $15 x 6 = $390/year for service or $33/month on average.
All in all this is not cheap – especially living in Canada.
However, as somebody who is frequently out of cellular service range and who undertakes relatively risky activities the cost relative to the peace of mind it gives me and my loved ones is reasonable.
The InReach uses the Iridium Satellite Network. These satellites are not-geosynchronous. That means they are passing overhead regularly. This works very well with the short-burst message requirements of the InReach. Since you are not trying to have an uninterrupted conversation the InReach saves any messages and as soon as a satellite is in view it fires it upwards. That means biking in a steep-sided valley you will still be able to communicate even if you wouldn’t be able to “see” a geosynchronous satellite which would be above the equator to the south in North America.
Another feature I like is the InReach confirms with the satellite that the message was received and lets you know so there is no second guessing.
Most importantly the InReach is a two-way communications device so you can send your messages and get replies back then follow up again. Rather than pressing a SOS button on a SPOT Messenger and not knowing what is happening with an InReach you get confirmation that help is on the way. You can describe your problem [ie. broken leg] so the rescue personnel come prepared. You can get an ETA for how long they will take and if you need medical advice you can get some so that you can keep the injured person in the best condition possible while you wait for help.
It was this feature that really sold me on the InReach. I had quite a few poor experiences with reliability using SPOT Messengers and when it came time to buy an emergency device I had to ask myself if the shit really hit the fan and somebody’s life was on the line do I want the best shot at things coming out positively or do I want to save some $$ and get a device that offers significantly less performance? Put into those terms the answer was easy.
The SOS button has a safety lock to prevent an accidental request going out. You have to unlock it and then hold the SOS button down for 3 seconds. The device will confirm when the SOS has been received and I assume the emergency centre will contact you to find out what the problem is to fine tune the response. I can’t say for sure since I don’t plan to ride my bike off a cliff just to test out what happens! 😉
Your SOS message includes your GPS position automatically.
You can cancel an erroneous SOS if you need to.
Although I bought the InReach for its performance when things are life and death those situations should be rare and the rest of the time you just have normal stuff to deal with like being late for supper or getting lost or a bike failure. I really liked the idea that I can chat with my friends and family from the backcountry. I’m not trying to have extensive conversations, but being able to say “Hi. Made it to my planned camp. Wildflowers are amazing!” means that the people at home get to stay connected with you and that keeps them happy. You can also avoid unhappiness by letting them know when you’ll be late and when to expect you.
The InReach can send text messages to cellphones as SMS, to email or even to other InReach devices. If you split up a group deep in the woods and want to be able to coordinate a meet up at the end of the day that last feature is very handy!
Now you might be thinking you don’t want a texting fiesta ruining your backcountry contemplation. I don’t blame you! The InReach’s texting experience is a lot harder to use than a typical smartphone so I find it hard to imagine anyone carrying on extensive conversations via it. You can also turn it off when you don’t want to be disturbed or arrange a set time [maybe in camp at night] when you’ll be available to the family. If you don’t give anyone your InReach contact info then you’ll be on your own without anyone bothering you until you choose to contact them.
This isn’t a feature I’ve used much beyond testing to see that it works. The basic idea is the InReach will send a message out with your GPS coordinates on command or at a set interval. You then provide your contacts a URL that will allow them to see where you are.
Keep in mind you will be using your internal power for this function and at some point you’ll run out or have to stop the tracking function to have some emergency power left.
One feature interesting feature is the ability of select contacts you pre-approve to turn on your tracking function and find out where you are. So if your forget to activate the tracking function in the morning and your wife wants an update she can trigger one. Of course your InReach has to be turned on and be in a position to “see” satellites for this to work. You also have to activate this feature as the default is set to off.
The reason Delorme went with an internal Lithium battery is to keep the weight and size of the unit down. That makes sense. It would be ideal if the battery was user swappable so you could carry spares and put them in as needed. Sadly that’s not an option.
So on multi-day trips you are left with:
- conserving power carefully
- using an external USB battery pack to recharge the unit
- using a solar panel to recharge the unit
- carrying the charger and finding an AC outlet or USB power if you pass through civilization mid-trip
Delorme says the unit has power for 100hrs of non-stop tracking at 10min intervals with a good view of the sky [ie. not trying to send the same point multiple times]. That’s over 4 days of continuous use and you can set the tracking interval for a longer period to use less power.
On the whole I think the power capacity of the InReach is sufficient for my needs. I am not going to use the tracking feature on multi-day trips. I’d rather send messages in the AM, lunch and in the PM then keep the unit turned off in my pack. Since the service is paid for [when I have the $50/month summer package] I’ll probably use the tracking feature for 1 or 2 day trips where I am unconcerned about power consumption.
At the moment trips more than 9 days are unlikely.
Currently I just carry the InReach in my pack powered off. Sharon has been with me so I have no texting needs, but I do want to be able to call for help if someone has a bad crash on their bike. I’ve notice that the InReach holds a charge well and I lose very little even after a week or more sitting unused.
Note that the power button is raised slightly which means it can accidentally turn on in your pack if it presses against something. I just ensure the device is not up against something hard and so far I haven’t had the InReach turn on unintentionally, but I have read reviews where other folks have. The firm has been updated in this device so that it is virtually impossible now to have an accidental turn on in the pack. 🙂
Since the battery is internal frequent users such as commercial operations may need to replace the battery. I assume that’s possible through Delorme service, but it would be worth checking if you will use your device frequently. The typical lifespan of a lithium battery is 300+ charges. For me that would be more than 3yrs of use and after 3yrs I would just upgrade to something new rather than invest more $$ into the InReach. Technology in this market is sure to improve rapidly.
You can pair your InReach to a smartphone via bluetooth. This gives you the ability to use the much larger screen and better user interface of your phone to access all the InReach SE’s functions. You can also use the InReach’s accurate GPS plus Delorme’s maps [downloaded to your phone when you had internet access] to navigate.
I haven’t tried this and I don’t plan on using my smartphone with my InReach. That just starts to be a complex arrangement of devices and services that all need power and to be stored and carried.
It’s possible I will change my mind about this, but for now I’ll let other folks explore this possibility.
You can connect your InReach SE to Facebook and Twitter as well as the Delorme MapShare website. I don’t care about the first two, but MapShare lets your contacts see where you are when you message and track
Why not a SPOT?
The other main contender in the satellite beacon world is the SPOT Messenger. I have used them when I borrowed them or when I have been on trips with folks who own them. On the whole I have not been impressed:
- dealing with SPOT customer service has been a PITA for everyone I know including myself when I called about a friend’s unit
- SPOT uses a different satellite network and does not have true global coverage and does not work well if you can’t “see” the equator such as a steep-sided valley
- the reliability of SPOT units has been poor in my experience…for example we’ve gone on 4 day trips where the SPOT didn’t track us properly at all leaving people at home wondering what happened…at the time we thought it was functioning perfectly
- I’ve seen several broken SPOTs and poor customer service when the owners tried to access warranty help
- SPOT does not offer 2-way communications so you can’t let anyone know what is happening or get confirmation that action is being taken
- SPOT consumes a lot of power [however, you can replace the batteries]
- on the plus side the SPOT is smaller and lighter as well as cheaper to buy and use
What it came down to was that I could save money by buying a SPOT Messenger, but its primary functions [tracking and more critically SOS help] were not nearly as reliable or useful as the InReach SE. It’s a bit like going emergency parachute shopping – do you buy based on price or reliability/performance?