Garmin InReach vs. SPOT

I bought a Spot satellite messenger a few years ago, and have kept the subscription up to date all that time. I mostly used it for sending an “I’m OK” email at the end of the day to tell F&F that I’m OK and where I’m staying the night. I had the Search & Rescue and Medical Evacuation plans too, but never needed to use them.

SPOT device on the bike in Norway two years ago.

I can’t say there was anything particularly irritating about the device that made me wish I never bought it, but the fact it worked on non-rechargeable batteries was to me both a blessing and a curse, and it seemed to take a bit long when pressing the OK button for the LED to go out suggesting the message had been sent. I landed up including my own email address to the distribution list as an additional level of confirmation, in case I had email access that evening. The only thing about the Spot that made me continue looking was the fact that it works off a number of different satellite networks to send its messages depending where you are in the world, and there is a dark area in North Africa where messages are unlikely to get through – right in the path of where I was planning to ride!

SPOT Global coverage map.

That continuous side-search led me to the InReach device after Garmin bought Delorme out. I have always been a bit of a Garmin fan so I read up a bit on it and decided to change from the Spot to the InReach for 4 main reasons – 

  1. No dark spot over north Africa for sending messages. The InReach uses the Iridium satellite network for messaging which has 100% global coverage. No need for a coverage map if it’s 100%!
  2. Bike powered and rechargeable batteries (powered mount for SE+ and Explorer+ only). No more making sure I have spare AAA batteries for when the Spot died. Battery life depends on device settings, but I had mine tracking every 10 minutes for 8 hrs a day in The Serengeti and after 4 days it was down to 60% battery remaining.
  3. Two way text communication on the device. No reliance on mobile phone calls in foreign countries where both cell coverage and international roaming can’t be guaranteed, esp. in an emergency situation. With the Spot, if you didn’t have a cell phone with you and needed to press the SOS you just did so and hoped for the best.
  4. The Explorer+ also has the ability to display OSM maps (free to download and install), which can be used for such things as 4×4 safaris, boat trips, Gorilla trekking, and other off-bike trips. Also a good backup GPS in case the BMW Nav6 died.

Given I wanted the bike powered mount, the choice was the SE+ or Explorer+. The subscriptions are the same for either unit and the OSM maps are free, so the only price difference is the unit itself. To me it made sense to pay the additional once-off purchase price and get the Explorer+ (I also think the orange says “emergency device” more than the yellow; pity the new 66i is only black. OK, there’s a bit of orange on the back 😐 ). You can have features and not use them, but you can’t use a feature if the device doesn’t have it! If the unit price is an issue, and you don’t need it bike powered, the small InReach mini paired with the phone app is also a great solution.

Powered mount on a RAM ball. Powered by dual output USB charger.
The orange bungee is my own addition; I’m not convinced the clip will hold in a tumble.

I originally went for the PAYG monthly subscription for December in UK and then February in New Zealand, but after getting confused on their website accounts page to stop and start the subscription, and having to pay an annual service charge anyway, I landed up taking the annual subscription from April onwards. I have the recreation plan as I use it for tracking – having the basic Safety plan would cost more on the number of tracking points throughout the month, but if someone is just using it a few weeks or months of the year, then the annual costs might be lower even if some months the tracking costs are higher. I don’t use it for weather or chatting via text message as I’m normally in mobile phone reach, so the Expedition plan is overkill for me.

The GEOS S&R and Med Evac options are the same between Spot and Garmin, both just resell the GEOS services and they are the people who co-ordinate things on the ground. I guess one big difference is GEOS’s ability to send and receive text based messages to my InReach Explorer+, but not my Spot device. If you read my Tanzania and Rwanda blog you’ll know I had occasion to press the SOS button! According to the Spot global coverage map I was still in their coverage area, but not by much, so I’m rather glad I had the Explorer+. As it happened, they called my mobile phone and we discussed the options, deciding to go with an option available on the ground to take a car to the hospital instead of them trying to arrange anything from their end. That kind of discussion could also have been done by messages over the InReach, but would not have been possible in a remote location with just a Spot device.

Comparing the response time from sending a message to getting a confirmation, the InReach is much faster. I normally get a delivery confirmation tone 10-15 seconds after sending a message.

Friends & Family that follow my map since having the Spot all agree that the Garmin map page is much better than the Spot version. The Spot page only held the most recent 50 points, or one week, so no good for historic tracking (hence the map page on this site).

A quick word on PLBs (Personal Locator Beacon); the Spot and InReach are satellite messengers that use high orbit satellites (GEO) to send messages and GPS co-ordinates. PLB’s use low orbit satellites (LEO) and doppler effect to triangulate your position, so are less prone to interference from trees, rock crevices, and the like, but don’t send chit-chat or “I’m OK” messages to F&F. Because LEO satellites are low orbit, there are dark spots in it’s global coverage, Iridium GEO coverage is 100% global. PLB rescues are military co-ordinated, GEOS services are commercial. PLB’s are very common in places like USA for solo hikers in forests and mountains, but given I’m taking my device on the bike, hopefully to many countries around the world (with varying degrees of military effectiveness), on a road, normally with a clear view of the sky, and I wanted the messaging capability, I decided against a PLB.

I’m very happy with the Garmin InReach Explorer+, and at least for now, am not looking for anything to take its place. Result!

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