Hands On: Garmin inReach Mini Iridium Satcom

 - May 5, 2021, 8:30 AM
Garmin's inReach Mini provides GPS information to the Garmin Pilot app, which can also be used to send and receive messages via the inReach device. (Photo: Matt Thurber/AIN)

Last year, the number of rescues attributed to Garmin’s inReach satellite communication devices reached the 5,000 mark. Garmin purchased DeLorme, manufacturer of the inReach devices, in 2016, and now offers five products, including the smallest—the Mini—and four others with additional capabilities and screens large enough to display maps.

I’ve been testing the inReach Mini since last year, while hiking, kayaking, and flying. Though it’s a comfort to know that the device’s SOS button is always available to call for help, I like its ability to send and receive messages from anywhere in the world via the Iridium satcom network and location sharing of tracking information. For aircraft that are too small to install more capable and costly airborne connectivity systems, an Iridium messaging device like the inReach mini offers a good compromise.

I also like to bring the Mini with me when traveling, although I haven’t done much of that during the pandemic. However, some countries prohibit certain uses of satellite communications devices, and Garmin advises that "it is the responsibility of the user to know and follow all applicable laws in the jurisdictions where the device is intended to be used.” For this reason, I wouldn’t bring the inReach mini on a trip to one of these countries to avoid having it confiscated or getting in trouble for carrying an illegal device.

The inReach devices require a subscription to a usage plan, which covers tracking and messaging services as well as access to GEOS Worldwide and its International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC). Garmin purchased the assets of GEOS in January 2021. Usage plans cost $11.95 to $49.95 per month in an annual plan. You can also purchase monthly service—which you can suspend and reactivate only when needed—for $14.95 to $64.95. The prices reflect the number of messages and track points included, but all plans include unlimited SOS and unlimited preset messages.  

Garmin has plenty of examples of rescues via the inReach devices. In March 2017, a pilot and his friend crashed in a Cessna 182 in mountainous terrain in Idaho, after flying into a strong downdraft. Both survived after the pilot was able to “land” on a snowy and forested mountainside. After sending an SOS to the IERCC, the pilot sent messages to his family to let them know he and his companion were safe. Both were rescued a few hours later after they walked to a service road that gave rescuers better access.

In another incident, in January 2020, Alaska pilot Chad Lewis got his ski-equipped Super Cub stuck after landing in deep snow at the end of the day. Unable to build a fire in the -35 deg F nighttime temperature, he messaged with his wife; then hours later— after realizing his numb feet were not getting any warmer despite having emergency equipment and a cold-weather sleeping bag— he sent an SOS to the IERCC. A rescue helicopter soon was able to find Lewis, thanks to the precise coordinates relayed by his inReach Mini. Despite the deep snow, the helicopter crew managed to winch a rescuer to help load him up and fly him to a hospital.

While Lewis suffered severe frostbite on his hands and feet, he recovered and didn’t lose any digits. And he was told that he could have sent the SOS sooner. “The rescue team actually told me that rather than suffering as long as I had through the night, I should have just triggered the SOS earlier and not risked potential harm,” he said.

After recovering, Lewis was able to retrieve the Super Cub, using a helicopter to lift it from the snowfield.

“At the end of the day, the minor additional cost to be able to communicate with somebody if something happens, and being able to provide details of the situation so that rescue can be prepared, is a huge peace of mind,” he said.

The inReach Mini can be used to send and receive messages by itself, but to do so requires choosing and then accepting individual letters. It’s much easier to connect it via Bluetooth to either Garmin’s Earthmate or Garmin Pilot app and then use the smartphone or tablet’s keyboard to write messages. Earthmate also includes helpful topographic maps.

The tracking feature works by sharing a Garmin MapShare web page with friends and family members. The inReach user can set the track point intervals, but with the lowest-cost plan, track points are 10 cents each. The other plans include unlimited track points at 10-minute intervals. More frequent intervals are available.

The benefit of sharing tracking information is that the person viewing the tracking can see the location of the inReach user, even if the user becomes incapacitated and can’t activate the SOS button. That button is housed under a protective cap to prevent accidental activation.

According to Garmin’s specifications, the inReach Mini’s battery lasts for up to 35 hours when the device is using 10-minute tracking send intervals and one-second log intervals. Without the logging, battery life increases to up to 90 hours or 24 days in extended tracking mode (30-minute intervals).

During my testing, I’ve had good success connecting to the Iridium satellites from light aircraft and while hiking and kayaking. Note, however, that the inReach requires a clear view of the sky to make the connection to the satellites. The Mini comes with a solidly connected lanyard or carabiner, which makes it easy to attach to a backpack or a convenient attach point. In light airplanes, I usually place the Mini on top of the glare shield for good access to the sky. One of the handiest features when flying is that the inReach Mini provides GPS position information to the Garmin Pilot app.

You can send messages as presets or text messages to anyone in the contacts list. You can also post messages to Facebook and Twitter and append them to the MapShare web page.

On the ExploreGarmin website, you can create routes for the Earthmate app, then navigate those routes when the inReach is connected via Bluetooth to the device running Earthmate. The app includes a compass display showing heading, speed, and elevation.

Weather forecasts are available directly from the inReach but these cost extra (one plan message for basic weather or additional charges for premium weather). You can view the forecasts, based on the inReach’s location, on the inReach Mini’s screen or the Earthmate app.

One caveat when using the inReach Mini: make sure messages go through or delete outgoing messages if they don’t. I’ve had a few experiences where I tried to send a message and connection with the satellites didn’t occur before I landed. Later, when I switched the Mini on and connected to the satellite, the old message was sent, confusing the recipient about my real location.