REVIEW: THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI

Before I begin, I would like to state that I am not sponsored by Garmin and I have not been paid to write this review. This is purely a research project, as I’ve been interested in purchasing a personal safety device for trail running and other outdoor adventures for a long time. Thanks to Garmin, I have now been given an opportunity to test such a product.

Trail running safety has very much been at the forefront of my mind for the last few months. Towards the end of last year there were two major incidents that completely changed my approach to training outdoors, especially in more extreme and potentially dangerous environments. The first incident happened whilst I was training in the Lake District with a friend, starting at Threlkeld and heading to the summit of Blencathra. We’d only planned on running for around 60-90 minutes and the weather was good, so I’d decided to just run in a long sleeved top and shorts. I had no phone, no bumbag or race pack, no extra clothing and no emergency kit. I’ve done this many times and always without any problems or incident. Until this day.

To cut a long story short, as we ran underneath Sharp Edge on Blencathra, we heard a loud voice in distress. As we followed the noise and drew nearer to the side of the ridge, suddenly we appeared at the scene of a major incident, where a man had fallen 100ft face-first from the top of Sharp Edge and onto the rocks below. His son, in shock, had managed to carefully climb down to where he had landed and shout for help. Needless to say, the man in question was in a terrible life-threatening state, but we had no way of contacting mountain rescue to call for help. Thankfully, a nearby walker did have a phone (and signal!) and was able to do this, so we spent the next two hours with the casualty whilst mountain rescue arrived. During this time, I really began to feel cold but I had no extra clothes with me to wear, or any emergency equipment. I felt completely helpless and as someone who would usually class themselves as an experienced fell runner, I felt somewhat ashamed. When I finally returned to my car, I swore that I would never put myself in a similar position ever again.

Just a week later, I learned the tragic news that my friend and teammate Chris Smith, had passed away in the Scottish mountains, after suffering from extreme exposure and hyperthermia, whilst alone on a 2-3 hour fell run. Had I ever needed a wake-up call, this was it. Two valuable lessons in the space of seven days, highlighting the need for a far more sensible and safety conscious approach to my outdoor lifestyle. And so, for me, testing the Garmin inReach® Mini is much more than trying to sell or promote a product, it’s about learning about what it can do and discovering how it might be used as a valuable safety device for off-road running and other outdoor activities.

WHAT IS THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI?

The Garmin inReach® Mini is a lightweight and compact satellite communicator that can be used as your go-to connection for maintaining off-the-grid contact.
Main features include two-way global messaging, interactive SOS alerts, location sharing, 100% global iridium satellite network and a detailed weather forecast service.

Click here for detailed specification.

The Garmin inReach® Mini in action as a stand alone device – image taken by Simon Nieborak

WHO IS THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI AIMED AT?

The Garmin inReach® Mini is a serious piece of kit and aimed at anyone who spends a considerable amount of time in dangerous and exposed outdoor environments, often without phone signal. Because of its handy size, it is ideal for someone on the move and when weight, size and shape of such a device are the most important factors. Therefore, it will appeal to runners, walkers, hikers, cyclists, climbers, outdoor adventurers, explorers and other extreme sportspeople.

USING THE FEATURES OF THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI

1. MESSAGING

The messaging service is one of the main features of this device. The inReach® Mini is a two-way satellite communicator, so capable of both sending and receiving messages and these can either be sent to mobile or email accounts. One thing to point out here is that when you first purchase the device, you MUST to take time to set up your Garmin Explore account.

This involves setting up your list of contacts (providing name, relationship, phone and email), creating pre-set messages and syncing your device, which will enable you to access and use this information whilst on the go. NB. You cannot send messages from the inReach® Mini until this process is complete.

There are three ways in which you can send messages – either by using the device to type a message, via the free Garmin Earthmate app on your mobile phone, or on your Garmin Smartwatch (more about pairing both of these devices later). I would recommend creating a number of pre-set messages, as this will save you a lot of time and effort when using the device in the outdoors. My personal examples usually revolve around food, or me being typically late during a run because I’ve added on an extra climb, or completely underestimated the severity of a route!

When sending a message, the time, date, exact position/location and co-ordinates will be included, so that the person you’re contacting can identify exactly where you are. You can also share a fixed current location or invite a contact to track your movements throughout the duration of your activity. Be aware that messaging does rely on the device having a signal, so it isn’t instant and will often take a few minutes to send and receive. The inReach® Mini can get a signal anywhere in the world, but you must have clear, unobstructed access to the sky in order to communicate with a satellite.

Something else to note, is that dependant on your subscription, there is a limit on the number of messages you can send and this figure does include and apply to the number of messages you send and receive (more on subscription costs later).

The Garmin inReach® Mini displaying a typical text message – image taken by Simon Nieborak

2. NAVIGATION

One thing I was pretty keen to do is use the inReach® Mini for navigating, either by following a planned route or navigating to individual waypoints. Both methods are easy to create and follow, but best if you pre-plan and prepare your intended routes/destination.

My first navigation test was to use the inReach® Mini to help guide me to the summit of my highest local peak, Thorpe Fell Top (506m), in the Yorkshire Dales. Those familiar with Wharfedale, will know that there are no obvious tracks to the trig point and aside from Cracoe Memorial, a shooting hut, a few boundary stones and one main track, this area is pretty featureless and difficult to navigate in poor weather, especially if you’re walking or running across the open moorland.

I created an accurate waypoint for the summit cairn by using the map feature within my Garmin Expore account and synced my inReach® Mini to access the waypoint on the device. I waited for a foggy day where navigation would be a test and headed up to the moor and off the beaten track. From here, I relied solely on the device for navigation. On screen, it provides you with an arrow for direction (which continuously calibrates and changes as you move) and the distance (mine is set to miles but can be changed) from your intended location. I was most impressed with the accuracy and ease of which I could use just the device to help me do this, although I did also connect my Garmin Enduro Smartwatch to the inReach, which gave me the same screen to navigate with on my watch face. It didn’t take me long to locate the summit (I took a straight-line route to the trig) and on arrival both the device and watch beeped to tell me that I had arrived at my destination. Despite the fact I could have used my watch face as a visual tool to do this, I quite liked holding the inReach® Mini and using its screen for guidance. For safety and security, I clipped the Garmin carabiner (which comes with the device) to the strap at the back of the device and looped it over my thumb, whilst holding the inReach® Mini in my hand. Because of its tiny size and the fact that it’s so lightweight, it was super-easy to use and carry at pace.

The Garmin inReach® Mini in navigation mode – image taken by Simon Nieborak

3. TRACKING

Personally, the thing I was most excited about was being able to share my location with my emergency contacts in order for them to track my progress during a run. Despite being almost 40 years old, my mum ALWAYS worries about me and was most pleased when I told her that I was testing the inReach® Mini. She consequently played a key part in in the testing process, because it allowed me to understand exactly what information was being shared when I sent her messages and tracking requests. At first, I just shared my current location, but then realised I could also allow her to track the progress of my run via a link that I sent to both her phone and email address. This communication was incredible and the accuracy of my location was near perfect. To further test the speed in which this information was relayed, she also sent me Whatsapp messages to inform me when the messages from the inReach® Mini device had arrived. I had WIFI access at the time (to check Whatsapp) and was therefore able to monitor the speed of our communication – the greatest delay between sending and receiving any messages via satellite was never more than a couple of minutes. I stopped at various points on the run to ask her where I was on the map. Such is the tracking accuracy of the device, she took great pleasure in guessing correctly every single time and even more so when I returned home safely. I did remind her that I am now middle-aged and that I do run on the fells almost every single day, but my mum always worries (that’s what mums do!). She also asked me to include her feedback in this review. In short, she thinks that this is the most wonderful device and worth every single penny. She even offered to pay for my monthly subscription, so it must definitely meet with her approval!

4. WEATHER

In all honestly, I did use the weather update feature, but mainly out of curiosity. It’s not a feature I heavily relied on during the testing period. I do however appreciate how valuable this information might be, especially if you are mid-way through a multi-day adventure or trek in the middle of nowhere, without internet access.

A basic weather forecast includes temperature, precipitation, wind and pressure for the next few days. The cost of this is charged at one message from your subscription package. Premium weather gives you an extended 7-day forecast as opposed to just 24 hours.

5. BATTERY LIFE

Garmin suggests that the battery life will last up to 90 hours at 10-minute tracking (default); up to 35 hours at 10-minute tracking with 1-second logging; up to 24 days at 30-minute tracking power save mode; and up to 1 year when powered off.

Personally, in terms of tracking accuracy, I have set my device to send tracking updates at 2 min intervals and log intervals every 30 seconds (I tested the device using the Expedition subscription – explained later). This setting can be changed directly on the device, via the app, or on my Garmin Explore account on my computer. As most of my individual training sessions are less than 4 hours, I opted to have more regular updates, so conserving the battery was not a high-priority.

If you are wanting to conserve the battery for longer adventures, then I would recommend changing these settings and also turning down the brightness of the screen. If you’re only using the device to send the occasional message or just in case of emergency, then it’s best to switch off completely when not in use.

6. THE SOS BUTTON

The SOS Button is located underneath a small protective case on the side of the device and instructions to use are written clearly on the back. Needless to say, this feature is ONLY to be used in an emergency. As previously mentioned, you can also access the SOS feature within the Garmin Explore app.

Once the SOS button has been pressed, it will send a signal to Garmin HQ, who in turn will determine how to process and respond your emergency request, based on your location and type of emergency. Of course, any form of rescue will inevitably take time, so always best to carry full emergency kit with you for all types of activity in extreme and potentially dangerous environments.

Like almost every other comparable device, Garmin uses GEOS response, who successfully co-ordinate rescues around the globe. If you are planning an epic multi-day adventure, I would obviously recommend that you take out suitable travel insurance for cover, as you will be solely responsible for covering the costs of any large-scale emergency recovery/evacuation.

The SOS button on the Garmin inReach® Mini – image taken by Simon Nieborak

7. GLOBAL IRIDIUM SATELLITE NETWORK

All Garmin inReach® devices use iridium satellite network, which means there are no black spots and pole-to-pole coverage is provided. Not all comparable devices use iridium satellite network, which virtually guarantees worldwide coverage, even outside of western countries, where other networks may struggle. So, if you are planning on an adventure in the remote parts of Pakistan or China, for example, then Garmin inReach® devices are the perfect choice.

Champion fell runner, cyclist, skier and extreme adventurer, Ben Bardsley, used the Garmin inReach® mini last year, during his 1,500-mile Arctic solo ski challenge to raise funds to help his injured friend.

‘I used mine in Norway, it’s an amazing device. Satellite text communication whilst in the sticks is incredible’. Ben Bardsley

Anything that Ben has to say about the Garmin inReach® mini is worth far more than my review. He tested this device in one of the world’s most extreme and remote environments, travelling alone during his epic 106-day trek across the Arctic winter wilderness of Norway.

SUBSCRIPTION SERVICES FOR THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI

Moving on to the section of the review which will inevitably put many people off purchasing this type of device. Unfortunately, using satellite communications and having access to GEOS emergency response services does come at a cost. Monthly subscriptions may seem expensive, but in the event of a serious accident and should you require emergency aid, then you’ll soon realise that you can’t put a price on personal safety.

There are 3 subscription plans – Safety, Recreation and Expedition.

Safety – Likely to be the most obvious and popular choice for most Garmin inReach® users. An annual plan costs £12.99 per month and gives you unlimited access the iridium satellite network, SOS help should you require it, 10 messages and tracking intervals of up to 10 minutes. The cost of sending tracking points is charged at £0.10.

Recreation – An annual plan costs £12.99 per month and gives you all of the same benefits as the Safety subscription, but with 40 messages and unlimited tracking points.

Expedition* – An annual plan costs £49.99 per month and allows you unlimited access to all of the communication and tracking features. In addition to this tracking intervals can be sent every 2 minutes, as opposed to every 10 minutes.

For every subscription plan there is a charge of £1.00 for premium weather and marine weather updates. Should you also go over your message allowance, there is an additional £0.10 charge to users of the Safety and Recreation plans.

It’s also worth mentioning that Freedom plans are available for each of the 3 options. They are priced slightly more than annual plans, but only require a 30-day commitment. They allow you to suspend service when you don’t need it and are perfect for single adventures or seasonal use.

All annual plans are subject to £29.99 activation fee. No charge applies to changing an annual plan. Enrolment in Freedom plans is subject to a £34.99 annual fee. 

Click here for more information regarding subscription plans.

*I tested the Garmin inReach® Mini using a trial subscription to the Expedition plan in order to access and use all the features for this review.

The Garmin inReach® Mini paired with the Garmin Explore app on a smartphone – image taken by Simon Nieborak

USING THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI WITH A SMARTPHONE AND THE GARMIN EARTHMATE APP

Using the inReach® Mini in conjunction with the Garmin Earthmate App is, without doubt, the greatest and most effective way to use this device. Firstly, the visual performance is dramatically enhanced, because the small digital screen of the inReach® Mini is extremely limited with the small amount information that you are able to see. Once paired together, it’s best to use your smartphone to control the performance of your device.

The app dramatically transforms navigation because you can see, in real-time, exactly where you are on the map via the phone screen. The best thing about this is that you don’t need a phone signal, because the app is using a satellite connection from the inReach® Mini to determine exactly where you are – as you move, so does your current position on the map.

Like all other pieces of Garmin software and apps, the interface is friendly and extremely easy to use and navigate. Visually the map is outstanding, allowing you to zoom in and out to view any location and analyse the landscape is detail. There are features and summits that I didn’t know even existed in my local area, every small hill seems to have a name. I actually found myself wanting to visit each and every one, just because I’d never heard of them before. And so, I began doing exactly that! I quickly located a small peak above Bordley, near Malham, called Kealcup Hill. It’s tiny in comparison to more prominent nearby summits like Weets Top and there is no trigpoint or summit cairn, but there are the remains of a rather impressive lime kiln. Nevertheless, in my excitement (yes, I really am that sad), I found myself wanting to navigate to its highest point. Using the app, I zoomed in on the map, clicked on the summit and created a waypoint. I then asked the inReach® Mini to navigate to this point (this can be done on either the smartphone or the device itself). All in all, this process took about 5-10 seconds before I was on my way and heading towards my intended destination. The fact that this can be done whilst on the move is incredible and made me realise that especially in poor conditions, this is an outstanding feature for any walker or runner wanting to navigate safely to a particular point on the map. I also think it would be a pretty fun thing to do, not just as an individual but perhaps even as a family. Searching and discovering new peaks around a particular area and then using the device and app to help you navigate to a chosen destination would be a bit like local treasure hunt (think Geocache, but the reward is a summit or prominent feature).

However, there are a number of safety issues I must point out. Firstly, the inReach® Mini will try and navigate directly in a straight line and doesn’t take into consideration the features of the landscape. A path may twist and turn, or there may be a river to cross, so it’s important to use the map in order to see where you are at all times and visually plot the safest and most sensible route, whilst constantly checking your current location and progress. Also, when using the inReach® Mini, a smartwatch and a smartphone together, this will inevitably have a big impact on the battery life of all three devices (no problem if you’re using a Garmin Enduro). It’s always best to take a portable charging device and a physical map and compass for longer trips, just in case you run out of charge on any of the devices.

Aside from navigation, the app is by far the best way to use the messaging service, as previously mentioned. You can, of course, type or select a pre-set message and send on the device itself. The latter is pretty easy, however, trying to type a message on the inReach® Mini itself is almost as difficult as putting toothpaste back in the tube. Unless, you have plenty of patience and, like me, you actually owned one of the first mobile phones ever invented e.g. the Nokia Ringo (google it if you’re younger than 35).

Personally, I don’t have an issue constructing a text message letter by letter. However, I can appreciate that this task would be beyond the capabilities of anyone with very little patience, or who is stood freezing cold mid-run whilst trying to touch type with frostbitten fingers.

By using the app, you can eliminate this frustrating process completely, because the ‘Messages’ button allows you to type a message in the usual quick and easy way with auto-correct and then send via the satellite connection of the inReach® Mini. You also have the option of sending a message with your fixed current location, or invite the recipient to track and follow your journey.

Additional features of the app include an on-screen compass, access to weather, saved routes and waypoints, device settings, contacts and the SOS button (more on this later).

USING THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI WITH A COMPATIBLE GARMIN SMARTWATCH

By enabling ANT plus, it’s possible to connect the inReach® Mini (within a 1 metre range) to a compatible Garmin smartwatch like the Enduro. This is particularly useful to do when you don’t want to carry the inReach® Mini in your hand. You can send and receive messages via your wrist (easiest to send pre-set messages) and use the watch as a dual screen to navigate and view the run information. However, for the best visual information and ease of use, pairing and controlling the device with the Garmin Explore app and phone is still the best option.

The Garmin inReach® Mini paired with the Garmin Enduro® – image taken by Simon Nieborak

MY TOP TIPS FOR THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI

  • Contact list: Remember to set up your list of emergency contacts before you use the device
  • Prepare your messages: Take time to create a list of pre-set messages that you’re likely to use
  • Instructions: Carefully read the instructions and information on the Garmin website. I’m a typical man – I hate reading instructions, but this device works best when you understand its features and capabilities.
  • Read reviews: Spend time reading other in-depth reviews to learn how to get the best from your device.
  • Ask the experts: Use running/hiking/outdoor forums to ask any questions– there are lots of people who regular use these types of devices and most will be willing to provide tips and advice.
  • Practice makes perfect: Use the device on smaller runs/hikes/adventures until you learn and understand how to use it effectively
  • Best to test: Test the messaging service and tracking features by communicating with one of your contacts during an activity. You could even add yourself to your list of contacts to do this.
  • Be prepared: Prior to setting off, ensure that your device has had time to find a satellite signal for tracking (allow 10-20 mins).
  • Conserve power: When not in use, turn off your device to save the battery. I made the mistake of leaving the device on overnight and the next time I wanted to use it for a run it was out of charge because I had forgot to stop the live tracking feature.

OVERALL SUMMARY OF THE GARMIN INREACH® MINI

A big reason for testing this device was to find out whether it would be suitable for trail running and hiking, including how many of the features I would regularly use, but with a primary focus on how it would improve my personal safety. I found the compact size of the inReach® Mini absolutely ideal and I enjoyed using it as a stand-alone device and also when paired with a smartwatch and smartphone. It is most effective when used in conjunction with the app and other supporting Garmin devices. I love the navigation features and regularly use it to follow routes and waypoints, especially when walking and hiking. As I’ve previously mentioned, it’s been fun searching and navigating to lesser-known hills in my local area after discovering they have a name on the Garmin Explore app. But mostly I’ve used the messaging features to contact my mum and partner Kirsty, whilst out on a long run. The live tracking feature is particularly impressive and by far my mum’s favourite feature.

Despite testing this device during a national lockdown with travel restrictions, it did make me appreciate how useful it would be for multi-day adventures. In the past I have completed ultra-distance trails, like the GR20 in Corsica, the Tour De Mont Blanc in the Alps and the GR21 in Mallorca. For such trips and adventures, when the weight and size of all essential equipment is a major factor, the Garmin inReach® Mini would certainly serve as the perfect safety companion.

I understand that many of you will read this and agree that it sounds like an excellent device, but think that it’s just too expensive, especially when coupled with a subscription plan. I won’t argue with that and I’m certainly not working on commission. There are other comparable alternatives that work on different satellite networks, albeit at a similar price point. There are also some great free apps that will serve a purpose when exercising on local trails. One such example is Wikiloc, but users must be aware that apps like these rely on internet access and if you lose signal (which is likely even on a local fell run), then it wouldn’t be much use should you run into trouble.

My job is to provide a detailed and independent review, it’s up to you to decide whether this is for you. To clarify, this device is NOT for everyone, but anyone within its target audience will greatly benefit from its features and capabilities.

Whether it is a suitable device for you really does depend on a few things – where you exercise, how often you exercise and ultimately, how much you value your health and safety when you’re exercising in remote and potentially dangerous environments.

Personally, I run every day. Running dominates my life and at least 80% of my training is done solo, on dangerous and unpredictable terrain and mostly in quiet and remote areas. I have a real need for this type of device, I regularly use it and carrying it gives me an enormous amount of confidence, knowing that should I ever need to press the SOS button, then help will always be at hand.

I’ve made stupid mistakes in the past and tried to learn from them and I’ve seen others do the same, sadly resulting, at times, with tragic consequences. Most importantly, I know that this type of device can save lives and for me, that alone is enough to justify the expense. And for everything else, i.e. the subscription costs, I have my mum 😉

My mum and I would like to say a huge thanks to Garmin for giving me us the opportunity to test the inReach® Mini.

ADDITIONAL TESTIMONIALS

Thanks to everyone who contributed to my Facebook and Strava requests when asking for feedback about the device. Here is what some of the other Garmin inReach® owners/users had to say.

Ian Stewart – Trail Running Scotland

I’ve had it for about 2 years. Obviously up here it is easy to run into places without phone signal, so it is very reassuring from a safety point of view to know you could always call for help or even just get a text out so update on progress etc. I have used the tracking feature for big rounds for 24hrs over 6days and found it very reliable. I also really like the way that if it is turned on and has a signal, someone at home with your login details to the Garmin website can ask for the current location. So even without the expensive tracking on all the time, you can use it as a tracker should you be late back etc.

Ben Dowling – Trail and Fell Runner

I use mine every week, the area I run in is remote and often lacking in phone signal, so it’s a great just in case to have. It’s dead easy to use once you pair it with the phone app. Without the app you wouldn’t want to use it for anything more than the SOS button. Through the app you can easily send texts and get pretty decent weather reports. We use it throughout the year in the mountains when hiking and the battery has been great even in -10 snow conditions.

Morgan Williams – Ultra Runner and Adventurer

Had a Garmin inReach® mini for a while now, great piece of mind whether I’m out trail running, trekking, camping out or wading in the river fly fishing. Knowing my loved ones can track my progress or that I can call for help irrespective of mobile signal coverage is priceless.

We used it for a 100km trail adventure so our friends could track us and meet us at the check points.

It’s not the most exciting or dynamic product you’ll ever own but feels good to have it for when the chips are down.

Claire Tooher Connelly – Runner and (Relieved) Mother

My daughter Annie has one, she went off back country skiing and camping for a few days and took it, it was nice to get the ‘I’m OK’ notifications!

Jennifer Gill – My Mum

I wouldn’t trust Ben to run to the end of my road on his own. Testing this fancy gadget is just about the best thing that has ever happened to him. Not to mention it’s done wonders for my stress levels.

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