Hiking with an Inreach satellite messenger. The best thing since sliced bread (but not better than my grandmother's cookies)!

Handheld satellite-signal rescue devices have come a LONG way.

"Beacons" were the first type of device. They are used by mariners at sea, explorers in very remote locations, and pilots. There are several types (EPIRBS, PLBs, etc.). Beacons enjoy a worldwide coverage due to an international collaboration of government satellites, and the units are typically required by law to be registered in a database. During an emergency, they send a signal via dedicated search-and-rescue (SAR) satellites to a rescue operations center (in the U.S. I think it's the Airforce).  There is however, no communication taking place between the person in distress and the rescuers, to let them know what is going on. The beacon only sends a ping signal of your location. Beacons used to be, and still are, very expensive—most are beyond the pricetag of the casual hiker. Some other negatives are that PLBs must be programmed for the country you live in (so it's not clear to me what happens when you travel internationally), and that the dealer you bought it from must, by law, replace and test the battery every 5 years...you pay for this ofcourse. 

Maybe 6 years or so ago, the SPOT Messenger came out, revolutionizing the rescue signal business. It was the first rescue signal device that was affordable to the leisure adventurer. Not only this, but it actually allows for one way communication. So you can activate an SOS signal that will translate your lat/lon position, or, you can send any sms text messages that you preprogrammed on a computer at home, to a designated recipient. So you could sms your wife to pick you up from the trailhead, for example.  You can't receive any messages though. The latest version may have evolved further. It (and you) is visible anywhere the SPOT satellite constellation provides coverage above Earth. This did NOT include Hawaii (!!) the last time I checked a few years ago (but maybe they've launched satellites into new orbits since then). 

Enter the Delorme Inreach messenger a few years later. Delorme is longtime mapping company that entered the GPS business. I think they are the main rival to Garmin. The last time I checked they were fighting a legal challenge to the Inreach technology with another company (maybe Canadian?), who claims to have developed the technology used by Inreach. I forget what this comany is called or what their messenger is called, because Delorme really beat them ten-fold on marketing, but I do remember that their messenger is more expensive and has not evolved as fast as the Inreach. 

The Inreach allows 2-way text messenging! It communicates via the Iridium network—the one that satellite phones run on. It has global coverage, including Hawaii! Hooray! Satellite phones are VERY expensive, but the Inreach—although not as cheap as the SPOT Messenger—is affordable because it only uses texting. It requires a subscription, but I have to say the company has been very responsive to user input and requests, which has led to not only the evolution of the hardware but also the subscription plans. There are many different types of subscription available, including a monthly one that you can deactivate and reactivate as you like! I use it, and it works great! I paid somewhere between $200-$300 for the device, and currently the subscription is about $20 a month for the months I use it. 

The Inreach has a digital keypad (or pair it with a smartphone), so you can either send precompiled messages or custom typed ones to any email, phone, facebook, or online maptracker. The recipient can respond to you from one of these mediums. You can set tracking so that the device uploads your position at an interval to your online account with a tracking map; Anyone you authorize can see your progress. 

Of course, the real purpose of the device is rescue. It has an SOS button. If you activate it, an SOS text with your position is sent to a commercial global rescue center, from where it is relayed to your local rescue authority. For the first time in history, we are able to initiate a rescue signal anywhere on Earth and communicate in real time with rescuers to let them know what is wrong, so that they can plan for the specific emergency. Think about how valuable this is. If you had a traditional Beacon, rescuers would not know what the emergency was. They very likely would show up without all the technical gear required for your specific emergency; this would prolong your distress, and maybe even lead to your death, as they would have to call for the real help, only when they have visually established what kind of help you need. The Inreach cuts through all this wasted time.

While I have never used the SOS function, I have used every other feature of the standalone  (not smartphone-linked) device for a year now. I have no complaints whatsoever so far. In fact, I find that my device locks more readily onto the GPS satellite constellation (which it uses to determine your position), than my Garmin GPS (which is an older handheld marine version, but still...). So often when my Garmin can't get a position lock, the Delorme will. I see the new Inreach Explorer has a fully functional GPS built into the same hardware, so you can log tracks, do waypoints etc. like you can with a Garmin.

Since I started hiking alone (read: my hiking buddies got spouses), I have used the Inreach SE regularly to track my location on my online map, so that if something happens to me and I don't return from hiking, my wife would be able to provide as much information as possible to the Fire Department. I also text her when and where to pick me up from 1-way hikes. Think of the missing hikers in Hawaii (see my post on trails for new hikers and visitors, for links) and how we don't know what happened to them. If they carried an Inreach with tracking on, not only might we have had more clues as to what happened to them, but they might actually have been rescued!

Now let's backtrack to beginning again. I'll note out of interest sake that there are still some positive aspects about Beacons--specifically PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons). An example is the McMurdo 220, or one of ACR's units. The SPOT or the Inreach require several satellites to get a GPS position fix, without which, even if a message via radio signal can be sent to the Iridium satellite, your location will remain unknown to rescuers. Such a scenario could happen in a canyon/valley where only one GPS satellite might be visible. On the other hand, the radio signal that a PLB sends to a single satellite overhead, can itself be used to give a ballpark estimate of your location. So it has a better chance to work for you in a canyon. I think the reason it works for a PLB and not a SPOT or Inreach, is because the PLB radio frequency is different/stronger. A secondary radio signal is also emitted from the PLB that serves as a homing beacon that rescuers can use to locate your exact position with directional tracking equipment. Aircraft can also pick up this secondary signal if they are listening for it. Thus, a PLB might give you a better shot at being rescued in canyons where you can't get a GPS fix. [--UPDATE August 2015--]: I see that this thought obviously occurred to the PLB companies. ACR now has a unit called "SARLink" (not to be confused with an unrelated model of, bizarrely, the same name) that combines Iridium texting with a conventional PLB. It has not been approved by the FCC for sale to the public yet. It'll be interesting to see how much this thing is going to cost and whether or not they can come close to Delorme's excellent customer service for the Inreach. I predict that Delorme's inclusion of a GPS in the "Inreach Explorer" model, and access to their map library, is sure to keep hikers interested. It is interesting to note that the  SARLink will not include the traditional secondary radio signal that PLB's use as a homing beacon--the rational being that you can guide rescuers via texting to your location.
  As you can see, a hybrid PLB-messenger unit (like SARLink) is in theory the most robust rescue device to date, but given the details I listed in the first paragraph at the top of the post, it has a lot more official hassles involved than an Inreach messenger unit. 

Finally, I must point out that these devices require great responsibility to use. There has already been much controversy on the mainland about idiots who use these devices willy-nilly to summon "rescue". Like fat and unfit people who go hiking and then get tired...and then activate the SOS function. Or hikers that get into a situation where they feel a little threatened in, and then instead of relying on courage or outdoor skills to get by, they activate the SOS function. Don't be one of these people. It's people like this that will cause the State to start charging hikers for rescues! No one is going to thank you for contributing towards THAT. In fact, I might personally kick you in the nutsack. Think of this device as the thing you activate right before your dying breath. Or with a broken leg. Don't use it as a safety crutch to fool yourself into getting into situations where you shouldn't be. Your first responsibility to your own survival and the reputation of the hiking community, is to continually develop your outdoor, survival, and navigation skills to the point where THOSE are the first things you fall back on when things get tough—just like everyone did before 6 years ago. Yuppie hikers take notice—you know who you are! Having said that, I think this is a great backup for responsible outdoorsmen (outdoors humans? outdoors people? sometimes politically correctness can be so ineloquent!)

[--April 2015]

Above photo: The SPOT Messenger circa 2010. I rented this one through the MAIL from this hiking store in Arizona, that works like Netflix. How cool is THAT?! I used it in the Pacific Northwest on a trip. The one time I tried to use it to send a precompiled message for a friend to pick me up, it couldn't link up to the satellite for some reason. I had to use old school technology....the pay phone!

Above photo: The Delorme Inreach SE . Dimensions are 6cm x 14.5cm x 3.5 cm (including belt clip). One of two models currently on offer.

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