For those who venture outdoors in search of serenity and take joy in the isolation of remote places, there's value in being able to escape the 24/7 connectivity that dictates modern life. In these moments of peaceful contemplation, we're able to sift through the clatter and reflect on what's really important; it isn't the lack of social media that'll have us switching on our smart-phones as we re-enter the borders of civilisation, it's the feeling of being so distant from our loved ones.
With the understanding that returning home is the goal of every adventure, I recently decided it was time I invested in a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB); a small GPS device that would allow me to send an SOS signal via satellite in the event of an emergency in a remote location.
In the Beginning
Primarily, I was after something small and lightweight to take on hiking and rock climbing trips to areas outside of cellular range. Any features other than emergency transmission would be a bonus. In the end, Garmin's InReach mini ticked all the right boxes so I summoned up the courage and handed over a little under $500.
Instantly, I was struck by the size of it. I've held other PLBs before, which all seemed like bricks in comparison, despite having fewer features. When I got home I switched it on and followed the prompts, I connected it to my computer, downloaded a smart-phone app and linked up via Bluetooth. At first it seemed like a lot to take in but it wasn't long before I discovered how easy it is to use the Garmin Earthmare app to enrich the InReach. But first, I'd have to set up an account and choose a subscription level.
Since the device needs to be registered to a satellite network, it's necessary to pay a monthly fee, as with a mobile phone, to keep it active. Garmin have three levels of subscription: Safety ($20 per month), Recreation ($40 per month) and Expedition ($75 per month). They all provide unlimited SOS coverage, the difference being that the more you pay, the more you can use the device’s additional features.
For the purposes of in-depth product review, I'm sorry to say I've not had reason to activate the SOS function (though I did consider mixing a bit of fiction in the fact and 'recounting' an incident where I was plucked from the side of a mountain on a helicopter long-line after a freak rockfall incident, but I don't think anyone would believe that). What I have discovered is that the Garmin InReach mini is so much more than an emergency beacon.
In the Field
A recent week in and around the Tasman Saddle Hut in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park had me preaching the virtues of the InReach mini to any fellow hut-mates that showed interest. In an area like the Southern Alps of NZ, the little unit really comes into its own.
Each morning I clipped it to my harness and switched on the tracking function before stepping onto the glacier. Every 10 minutes the InReach records a location, making it easy to record your adventures, or in the event of an unforeseen storm, it allows you to backtrack by navigating from point to point . You can also use plot points and create tracks on you computer or smart-phone before heading out, and then use this same navigational feature to find your way.
Returning back to the hut in the evening, I could see our day's efforts marked along the map on the Earthmate app, through which I was also able to text the folk back home via the InReach's satellite connection about how exhausted I was, or something along those lines. It's also possible to send texts from the inReach without having to use a smart-phone, it just takes a bit longer to type.
Another useful feature in unforgiving terrain is the weather report capability, which detects your location and sends a detailed forecast for that area. The number of weather forecasts you can receive and text messages you can send depends on which subscription you're on, if you go over your allowance, you'll be charged a small amount extra ($0.75 per text).
In the Future
I can see myself using my Garmin inReach mini for many years to come, and I expect I'll be able to thanks to its rugged design. I've sat on it in snow, had it clipped to my harness as I thrutched up rock chimneys and slung it from the shoulder strap of my pack as I navigated through rain; after this and plenty more it doesn't show any sign of fatigue.
I truly hadn't expected to get so much out of it, but the inReach mini has allowed me to get more out of my trips, step out with greater confidence and provided peace of mind for those close to me while I'm away.