I was bikepacking through the high desert of Central Oregon, not a hint of cell coverage to be found, when I discovered an urgent need for route information I didn’t have. Shame on me for not planning better! Sometimes it happens to the best of us.
Fortunately I had my trusty orange Garmin InReach Mini at the ready, and a loving group of emergency contacts (a.k.a. husband, mom, and dad) on the Garmin’s equivalent of speed dial.
I sat down in the dust and carefully composed a concise but precise message. I asked for exactly what I needed and let them know I was messaging all of them so they could coordinate. It was a lot to communicate in 160 characters, but I was pretty sure they’d know what I meant.
Oops! Twenty minutes later I was drowning in a deluge of followup questions, unsolicited advice, and redundant messages while still lacking the one piece of information I had – so I thought – very clearly asked for. I most certainly felt loved and supported, which was nice. But by the time I was done fielding everyone’s responses, I had nearly exhausted my plan’s monthly message allotment in just a single day. My carefully crafted message, it seems, was not so clear after all.
I had switched from a SPOT Gen 3 to my InReach Mini a few years ago when I started taking longer solo bikepacking and hiking trips. The custom message feature was the deciding factor. I liked knowing I could communicate details to search and rescue if needed in an emergency, or exchange a few texts with my husband after a tough or exciting day.
Overall I love my InReach. Its cheerful orange presence comforts me when I’m alone somewhere wild and far from home. But as I learned that day in Oregon, the limited bandwidth of custom messages can complicate things.
Learning how to use a Garmin InReach Mini goes beyond just knowing which buttons to push. You need to think about your communication plan and bring your contacts into the loop, or risk frustration, unnecessary worry, and unexpected costs.
In this post I’ll explain the basics of how messaging works on a Garmin InReach Mini, and how to use it without driving your contacts – and yourself – crazy.
How Messaging Works on the InReach Mini
As a quick summary, the InReach Mini has three main features:
- Emergency “SOS” button: contact search and rescue in case of life-threatening emergency
- Messages: send and receive short messages, either predefined or custom
- Tracking: broadcast your location to a webpage at regular intervals
Though they’re all important, this post will take a deep dive into the messages feature, probably the most frequently used and also the most confusing.
With all our different messaging apps and services these days, it can be hard to visualize exactly how the InReach Mini fits in. Will there be emojis, gifs, and cat memes? Or does it feel more like text messaging from 10 years ago? (Hint: it’s the latter. For now.)
Here are the critital points:
The Mini lacks a keyboard, but can be paired with a smartphone app via Bluetooth to compose messages easily. More on this below.
Messages have a 160 character limit. If you send longer messages they are broken up into smaller chunks.
Group threads aren’t supported. You can send a message to multiple people, but recipients don’t see each other, and when they reply it only goes to you.
There are two types of messages: predefined and custom. This is worth elaborating on:
Predefined messages must be composed on the Garmin website and synced to your device while you have an internet connection. Once synced they are quick and easy to send, even without the Earthmate app, but you’ll need to think through them ahead of time. I update mine before each trip with specific scenarios in mind, for example “Taking an unplanned side trip from the main trail, but all is well,” or “Camping here tonight,” or (for a bikepacking trip) “Mechanical issue, continuing at walking pace but no help needed.”
Custom messages, on the other hand, are written on the fly using the device or paired Earthmate app. They can say whatever you want and be sent to any email address or phone number (that accepts SMS messages). For more on cost and plan limitations, see the next section below.
Messages don’t send instantly. I often see a delay of 5 to 10 minutes, depending on location. A clear view of the sky is needed, and occasionally messages won’t send at all until you move to a better spot.
Messages can be delivered to recipients in two ways: as an email (to an email address) or a text message (to a phone number).
Recipients receive the message, your GPS coordinates, and a link to the Garmin website where they can see your location on a map and send you a response.
Recipients should NOT reply directly to the text or email message. They should follow the link to the website and reply there.
People cannot send you a message unless they are replying to one you sent them. So, if you want people to be able to message you, you’ll need to message them first. (One exception: it’s possible to share your location on the Map Share page and allow anyone with that link to send you messages from there, but you’ll want to be careful who you give the link to or make sure you’re on an unlimited message plan.)
The tracking feature is managed and billed separately from messaging. It allows you to set an interval, like 10 minutes or 2 hours, and the device will send a GPS location to your Garmin Map Share page at that interval as long as it’s turned on. This is great for when you want people to follow your location without you needing to do anything.
How are messages counted and billed?
As of early 2021, costs for messaging with the InReach Mini follow this structure:
- Custom messages (those you write using the device or Earthmate app) are unlimited on the Expedition plan but have quotas of 40 and 10 on the two cheaper plans.
- Text longer than 160 characters is split and charged as multiple messages.
- Sending the same custom message to multiple contacts at once counts as only 1 message, but each reply counts as a separate message (and recipients won’t see that others received the same message).
- All incoming messages – even replies to a predefined message – count against your message quota.
- Predefined messages (text and contacts defined in advance on the Garmin website) are unlimited on all plans, but replies to them count toward your message quota.
- If you go over your monthly message quota, you can still send and receive messages but you’ll be billed $0.50 per message.
- Tracking (periodically sending location updates) is a separate feature from messaging, with its own quotas and overage charges. Cheaper plans are limited to longer time intervals between tracking points.
For the latest details, see Garmin’s plan descriptions.
As you can see, messaging functionality is pretty basic and can potentially be costly if you’re not on the unlimited plan. This can lead to frustration unless you set expectations ahead of time. Here are some suggestions for doing that.
Set Expectations With Your Contacts
Combine this constrained messaging system with eager or concerned loved ones, and you have a recipe for misunderstandings and false alarms. If you plan to use your InReach for anything other than an emergency “SOS” feature, it’s important to set expectations with your contacts upfront.
When I head off on a long trip, I send an email to everyone I might be contacting from my InReach (usually my parents and husband) letting them know they’re “on call” and telling them what to expect. It’s different for every trip, but I recommend always covering these things:
Your planned route or trail, and how likely you are to deviate from it. For example, do you plan to stick to a specific trail and only leave it if something goes wrong? Or is it a more tentative plan, for example a long-distance bikepacking route that you expect to modify as you go? If you don’t make this clear, people might think there’s a problem if you end up off-route intentionally.
How often you plan to send messages. Will you send an “I’m ok” checkin most evenings, or will you only message if you need something? Will you have tracking turned on, and if so, what’s the link to the website where they can track your progress?
Whether you want them to reply to your messages and/or send you unsolicited messages. This probably depends on your messaging plan. If you have unlimited messages and want to stay in touch, you might welcome chatty updates from time to time. But if you’re on a limited plan (or just want some alone time) you may want to save messages for important updates or emergencies. Explain, if needed, that your messages are limited and you’ll be billed for overages.
Any key decision points or special circumstances on your radar, if applicable. “If my daily mileage isn’t high enough, I’ll hike out to trailhead ____ to resupply food.” Or, “I’ll take a zero day when I find a nice place to camp, so don’t worry if I stay put for a day.” Or, “If I don’t reach ____ by Wednesday, I’ll take a shortcut via _____.”
When you expect to be back, when you really expect to be back, and when they should start worrying if they haven’t heard from you. For example, you might plan to finish a backpacking trip on Sunday afternoon, but acknowledge there’s a chance you’ll be slower than expected and finish Monday instead. If you’re still out on Tuesday though, that means something unexpected has happened and they should try to get in touch if they haven’t heard from you.
What they should do if it’s past the “start worrying” time and they haven’t heard from you. Putting loved ones in charge of initiating your rescue mission is stressful for them, so give them guidelines to ease the burden. Typically, if it’s past the “start worrying” time and they haven’t received an update from you, they should first try to contact you or your adventure companions via InReach (this is why it’s important to send at least one message to them, so they have something to reply to), cell phone, carrier pigeon, etc. The idea is to make sure they’re not deploying Search and Rescue while you’re drinking a celebratory beer, having forgotten to send your “all finished” message.
Only then, after they’ve attempted to contact you and a reasonable amount of time has passed, should they contact emergency services. Ideally tell them in advance which land management agency or emergency services to contact, and what route information to give them.
Finally, remind your contacts that lack of a checkin message, or a tracking dot that stops moving for awhile, does NOT necessarily mean there has been an emergency. This is a common cause of unfortunate worry and costly false alarms, so be sure to help your contacts understand that sometimes messages fail to send, your InReach Mini can run out of batteries (consider carrying a power bank), or you might be so busy dealing with a tricky situation or enjoying the views that you forgot to send your evening update.
Though an InReach Mini can inspire a lot of confidence, it’s important to realize that it’s not a perfect system. At the end of the day, we’re still responsible for our own wellbeing in the wilderness.
Define a Communication Code
As I learned that day in Oregon, the InReach can be a frustratingly low-bandwidth way to communicate. Thus, it’s helpful to define a kind of “code” in advance so you can stay within your 160 character limit, be understood as clearly as possible, and not burn through extra messages with clarifications and followups.
There are many ways to approach this, but here are some ideas from my personal experience. Try telling your contacts something like this in advance:
- If I name people in a message (perhaps by abbreviated names or letters) it means I’d like you to coordinate with each other and send one reply, instead of each sending redundant messages.
- If I end a message with “…” it means to wait for more info in the next message before responding or asking for clarification.
- If I need info quickly I’ll include “asap,” otherwise assume it’s fine to respond when it’s convenient for you.
- I’ll ask for exactly what I need, as specifically as possible, and would prefer you not send info I don’t ask for. (For example, I once asked about bus schedules from a nearby town and also received advice about nearby campgrounds, which was totally unnecessary given that I was in a National Forest and could literally camp anywhere.)
- If it’s a life-threatening emergency I will NOT contact you first; that’s what the SOS button is for.
If I had communicated these things before my bikepacking trip in Oregon, I could have saved at least 10 messages of back-and-forth with my well-meaning and wonderful family members. It’s not their fault that they completely missed my carefully crafted “code” that I had failed to tell them about!
General Tips for Using an InReach Mini
Finally, here are a few general tips that all InReach Mini users should know.
Pair with the Earthmate app. I love the small size of the InReach Mini, but to compose messages one letter at a time, especially in a stressful situation, can make your head explode. Garmin’s free Earthmate app lets you pair your InReach Mini via Bluetooth so you can compose, send, and read messages from your smartphone. It also includes some nice downloadable map layers, so it can serve as part of your navigation system as well.
Download maps before starting your adventure. The map layers in the Earthmate app are handy, but they need to be downloaded for specific regions while you still have wifi or cell service.
Define contacts and preset messages on the Garmin website before starting your trip, and sync them to your device.
Sync your device and messages before leaving, while you still have internet and can access the Garmin website. This is also a great time to check for and apply any firmware updates.
Send a test message to your contacts before leaving. There are two important reasons for this:
- You’ll know all your data is synced and your subscription is active.
- If you want your contacts to be able to message you, they need a recent message to reply to. Apparently old messages (sent more than a few weeks ago) don’t always maintain this linkage, so it’s important to message your contacts from time to time if you’ll be on a long trip (unless you’re using the Map Share functionality with the message sending setting turned on).
Turn Bluetooth off on your InReach to conserve battery whenever you’re not actively using the Earthmate app. It’s easy enough to read incoming messages on the InReach Mini itself (much easier than writing them), so I only leave Bluetooth on when I’m actively writing messages. One time I forgot this and ran through half the InReach’s battery in just a few hours.
Keep your device on your person if possible, instead of attached to your backpack or bike. Ever drop your backpack by the trail, sneak off into the woods for a pee break, and get a little confused about how to return to the trail? I once read a story about a bikepacker who crashed and fell down a hillside, becoming separated from his bike, and needed to call for rescue. In these cases and many others, having your Garmin on your backpack or bike would be unfortunate.
Lastly, if you’re just getting started with your new device and want the nitty gritty of exactly how to use each feature, you might want to also check out the Garmin InReach Mini Manual.
I hope this post helps you get the most out of your InReach Mini. After all, the whole point of the device is to help us stay safe and connected to loved ones while enjoying the great outdoors. When we ask people to be on-call for us, we give them a burden to carry, so let’s take that responsibility seriously. We should do our homework, communicate clearly, and then relax and enjoy the adventure!
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