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Salmon Creek Trail. Los Padres National Forest. Seventeen miles of trail with coastal fog embracing every one of them. It was my first backpacking trip in California’s Big Sur region. I'm more of a Sierra Nevada Range junkie—no shade to those who prefer staying under 6,000 feet, it’s just that the provocations of the scree and talus textures found in high alpine regions bring a strange comfort to my masochistic heart.
And yet, I couldn’t help but notice the vibrancy of the lupine and bright red Indian paintbrush speckling the coastal mountains; it was stunning. Still, they had nothing on the little crimson device dangling from my pack's chest strap, Garmin’s inReach Mini. A must for solo adventurers and families alike looking to stay in touch with the modern world while adventuring beyond the reach of cell service.
Part of the company’s GPS collection, the inReach Mini is far smaller than its popular predecessor, the inReach Explorer, but packs similar functionality into a paltry 3.5-ounce form (about the weight of a deck of cards). Its tiny size and major functionality is precisely why the little gadget is beloved by ultralight backpackers around the world. But proportions aren’t all it has going for it.
The inReach Mini is a satellite communicator, which means it has two-way messaging capabilities, no cell service needed. Instead, it connects to a constellation of 66 satellites owned and operated by Iridium, a publicly traded company. Sci-snobs and adventurists alike will appreciate the array of satellites hovering over us all around the globe. Iridium’s satellites function similarly to typical GPS satellites, except they're about 25 times closer to the ground, and you can signal them from anywhere. Deadass, if you're in some serious shit outdoors, you're covered.
With the inReach Mini in hand, users can send and receive text messages (up to 160 characters per message; anything beyond that will send as separate messages), with limited preset messages for quick sends—after all, you wouldn't want to type out a message while hanging off the side of a cliff. Typing out a message on the inReach Mini is a bit cumbersome—there’s no keyboard—but syncing the device to Garmin’s free Earthmate app on your phone via Bluetooth helps improve functionality further.
In addition to the messaging feature, the Earthmate app provides easy access to global maps and real-time tracking on your phone, utilizing both US Topo Maps and NGA Charts. It’s waterproof up to one meter, too, so no need to fear rain showers or an accidental puddle plunge.
"You can go on a three- to five-day wilderness trip and find 50% of its battery life remaining upon return."
The Mini’s USB-rechargeable battery is also worth mentioning, with a life span ranging from 35 hours to 24 days, depending on use. With minimal tracking and messaging, Bluetooth turned off, and display brightness on low, you can go on a three- to five-day wilderness trip and still find 50 percent of its battery life remaining on return.
But the inReach Mini’s best feature is one you’ll hopefully never have to use: the SOS button. It’s protected by a hard outer shell casing that you have to lift to press (to prevent accidental activations), but that extra step is good because this button is a last resort.
If you do need it though, a 30-second countdown ends with a connection to GEOS, Garmin’s International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC). Once GEOS receives the message, they will check-in via the device, then dispatch a search and rescue team. Depending on your emergency, that might look like a helicopter descending to your location or a team of local park rangers hiking in by foot.
All this, of course, comes at a price. The inReach Mini costs $350 and requires a monthly subscription plan for satellite and SOS functionality, which ranges from $15 to $65. I’ve found that the Freedom and Safety plan ($15 per month) is wholly adequate for weekend warriors like me, allowing for 10 text messages a month, unlimited preset messages, and unlimited SOSs (again, hopefully none are needed). More comprehensive options are available that make more sense for those hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for the next six months, or working out in the ocean for weeks at a time.
The reality of venturing into nature is, there's always a real possibility that life will throw you a curveball. You could twist an ankle while exploring alone, or someone in your backpacking crew could become sick, for instance, which is what happened on my very test trip to Big Sur. We didn’t find the moment critical enough to send out an SOS, the inReach Mini's presence alone offered the reassurance we needed to feel assured that night. A few quick text messages between loved ones back home certainly helped too.