Last week I was hiking in the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks, south of Lake Placid, and this was the first time doing a multi-day hike by myself. My partner was supportive of this outdoor excursion, but was unsurprisingly worried that I might fall into a ravine, slip on a rock, or get eaten by a bear in the middle of the night. Luckily, even miles away from a cell tower, there is a way to get messages out, and that’s with a satellite communicator.
You are probably familiar with satellite phones; they’ve appeared in tons of action shows like 24 and Homeland, and movies like Castaway and American Sniper. You just point the antenna toward the sky and call someone to get you out of a dramatic bind in the nick of time. But here in the real world, where I’m a bonehead backpacker and not an action hero, all I really need is to be able to get a text message out and maybe put out an SOS if things go sideways.
That’s what the Garmin InReach Mini does, and not much more. It’s a little dingle that you attach to your backpack with a carabiner and it relay's messages between your regular smartphone and the Iridium network of satellites above. It sounds simple, but while I was hiking, the feeling of being able to shoot messages up into space to communicate with my partner really brought me back to when I was a kid playing with CB radios and imagining a world where you could get internet everywhere. If only I had known about the hellscape we’d come to live within, but that’s another story.
The InReach Mini has another nifty feature — weather forecasts. You can use them two ways; you can summon either a basic weather forecast or a premium one, which costs more money (we’ll get into service charges in a moment), and you can do this on the device itself or in the Earthmate app on your phone. I like having the option, but I would recommend doing this (and everything, honestly) on the phone because it’s a lot easier to see and your phone presumably has a color display.
Having the weather forecast is absolutely clutch, because when you’re on a multi-day hike, the forecast you saw before you set out probably won’t be relevant by your second day. And yes, if you’re high up in the mountains you will probably get sporadically rained on anyway, but it’s unbelievably nice to be able to see a sustained storm coming so that you can make decisions about where and when to set up camp. I imagine some people even more daring than I, on trips fare more dangerous than this one, really get a lot out of this feature.
It’s not all great, however: The InReach Mini is quite expensive at $350. Given that there are satellite phones in the $500-600 range, and Spot’s messenger device is $250, I really feel like the Mini should cost $100 less. The service plan is also relatively steep, but these prices are a bit less offensive. Garmin has three plans, Safety, Recreation, and Expedition, that cost $14.95, $34.95, and $64.95, respectively, if you pay month-to-month. They cost less if you buy an annual plan, and if you’re out there enough to justify paying for this every month, please contact me on Twitter. I have questions.
Regardless, the thing to know about these plans is that they’re pretty anemic if you’re the chatty type. I purchased a monthly Recreation plan for this trip (which also required an annoying $24.95 "annual fee"), which only gives you 10 text messages. After the 10, each text costs 50 cents, and given the length of my trip I found that to be fine.
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I should also talk about using the device, because it’s certainly not perfect. For one thing, it takes a while for a message to go through, but this isn’t surprising given that you have to shoot a message into space. Similarly, it takes a while to get messages back, but they do eventually get there. Battery life is also rather short for a device that has a black-and-white Tamagotchi screen from the 1990s (which is backlit, thank goodness.) One of the things I love about InReach Mini, though, is that it makes these absolutely delightful 1990s monophonic sounds when it powers up and when you send and receive messages, just like an old cellphone from before they had polyphonic sounds. Real OGs will know what I’m talking about.
I really liked using the InReach Mini on my trip. It certainly made my partner feel better knowing that I wasn’t trapped in a ditch somewhere, that’s for sure. And that feeling of being able to communicate anywhere? Priceless.