Sunday, 29 June 2014

InReach Original Review

As a lover of wild places I’m sometimes told I’m mad, or even irresponsible, going into these places alone. In the risk adverse society that we live in perhaps that is true. I like the challenge, space and freedom that I find in the wilderness but I don’t consider myself irresponsible, and I do way-up all the risks. One of the things I’ve done is to carry a tracking device, and when linked to sites like Social Hiking (more on that later) it allows people to follow your hike in near real-time. I find this gives friends and family peace of mind and if the worst should happen then many of these devices have a SOS button connected to a rescue co-ordination centre. It’s important to realise that these devices are a last resort for getting help and you shouldn't press the SOS button lightly. Used right they can be a very useful piece of safety kit, and not just for solo hikers.
InReach Original
My first tracker was simply my mobile phone using the BuddyBeacon feature in Viewranger. That works fine if you have cell phone coverage but it’s of limited use in the wilderness. What you will find on a long hike in remote country is that you get many areas of long straight lines because it was impossible to transmit many beacons. Trackers like this normally don't provide any SOS facility. 

ViewRanger and BuddyBeacon used on my 2010 Arizona Trail hike
I soon moved over to SPOT, which is a satellite based system, and I've used it for 10000’s of km’s of hiking and cycling and it performed reasonably well. I say reasonably well because when used in tracking mode it should send a position beacon every 10mins and you get a confirmation green flashing light on the unit to say that has happened. Problem is there have been days when it has been telling me that all is ok and not one beacon has been sent! This isn’t good and highlights a problem with this device. Long periods of missing beacons can cause needless worry to the people back home. On the trail I have no idea that there is even a problem as I'm getting a green ‘everything is ok’ light.

SPOT2 in 10 min tracking mode over 2 days on the PCT. Only 3 beacon were sent (red line) the entire time, orange line was my actual track uploaded after

SPOT uses the old Gobalstar, simplex satellite system. This keeps costs down for the user but doesn’t offer 100% coverage of the world and is a one-way system (do check that SPOT covers your area before buying). Information can be sent up to the satellite but nothing can be received. If it can’t receive then it never really knows if it has successfully sent a beacon/message. When you get a green sent light on a SPOT device all that means is that it was able to grab your GPS position and it then tried to broadcast your position/message. It does not mean that the message was actually received by the satellite and transferred on to the ground station. Annoyed by its limitations when my SPOT finally died (power button broke) I looked at the alternatives and came across a system called InReach. This is a review of InReach Original but because I’m a longterm SPOT 2 user I will compare to that at times.

Spot 2 mounted for a cycling tour
The Delorme InReach Original offers all the features of SPOT plus a few more. You can can send tracking beacons (single or at pre-determined intervals), custom messages, and summon help with the SOS feature. If you link it to your mobile phone than you can send and receive text messages. This is the big standout feature over SPOT. InReaches other major advantage is that it uses the more modern Iridium satellite system. This gives 100% coverage of the world and is a 2-way system. Simply this means InReach and the Iridium satellite can talk to each other. A quick word about coverage - just because it offers 100% world coverage do not expect any system like this to be able to successfully send every beacon. These devices (SPOT, InReach and every other satellite based system) are line-of-sight devices and that means that they need to be able to see the satellites they are speaking with. These tracking systems also need to communicate with 2 different satellite systems, they need the GPS network (to get your position) and the communication satellite system (Iridium, Gobalstar to pass on your message). If anything gets in the way of that line-of-sight, such as a mountains or dense tree cover then the message may not be sent. This is taken into account in the devices software and if there is a problem sending a message then InReach will automatically try and resend later when hopefully you’ve either moved on or the satellites are in a better position. SPOT never knows if it has 100% successfully sent any message so it sends every message 3 times and then gives up. Hopefully at least one will get through. However when in tracking mode it only tries once, it either gets through 1st time or not at all. In theory a 2-way device like InReach should be more reliable at getting tracking beacons out than SPOT, and in my testing that has proven to be the case. I’ve used InReach for around 4000km of hiking so far, over 6 months, and had around 95% success with tracking beacons. It has also sent/received 100% of my text message sent via my smartphone. I’m actually quite amazed with this figure given how much time was spent in seriously dense bush on my Te Araroa hike.

Te Araroa's dense bush didn't stop InReach sending beacons

For comparison I estimate that SPOT’s success rate with tracking beacons to be (over around 10000 km) no more than 70%. SPOT's custom messages are more likely to be delivered than its tracking beacons because it will send them 3 times in a 20 mins period. In an emergency situation SPOT will just keep sending the SOS signal every 5 minutes until that batteries run out so hopefully some will get through. InReach does something similar in an SOS situation but uses variable timing. Fortunately I can’t comment on the SOS function of either devices as I’ve never had to use it, and hopefully never will! I do know of people that have used a SPOT device for successful rescues so they appear to work ok. One advantage of using InReach for rescue is that the control centre/rescue people can contact you directly through the text message facility to find out what’s wrong and update you on progress. With SPOT it’s a sit and wait game and hope that it’s all working. I actually have confidence that both systems would work in an emergency but I would trust my life to InReach, and its more modern Iridium system, more than SPOT.

InReach in use on the Te Araroa. 95% of beacons were sent correctly (red line)

There are things you can do to help these devices increase their success rate and it’s really important to mount them properly. They should be mounted as high up as possible (preferably on the top of your pack so that your back doesn’t block the signals). Dangling from your belt or a shoulder strap is not ideal. SPOT needs to be perfectly flat (horizontal) to work at its best while InReach is less fussy but vertical is better. SPOT’s horizontal mount is easier to achieve then InReach’s vertical and with both systems you will probably have to come up with some kind of pack mount to hold it in position. Both units indicate when batteries are running low and then is the time to replace them even though the unit may still function for as much as a day. Low batteries = lower success rate (worse with SPOT).

SPOT 2 mounted horizontally on top of pack (look closely!)
InReach mounted vertically on the pack

Where SPOT wins over InReach is in size and weight. SPOT 2 comes in at around 150g while InReach is around 230g and is significantly larger (weights depend on what batteries you are using and how it is mounted). InReach does feel like a much higher quality device and is very solid (perhaps overbuilt) and the buttons have a nice positive feel (unlike SPOT’s zero feedback rubber buttons). The SOS button is protected by a sliding locking device rather than a simple plastic cap. Both devices are waterproof and can be left on your pack in the rain or when crossing rivers (InReach is waterproof to 3m). InReach has a number of external buttons and can be operated as a standalone unit or linked to a smartphone via bluetooth for additional features. 

Earthmate APP for InReach
Everything important can be selected directly on the unit. Batteries are accessed via a screw-on hatch under the device and you don't need any tools. There is no display on the unit but there are a number of LED indicators to tell you what is going on with the important one being the signal light. It flashes red if it is unable to send, blinks green when sending and when it stops blinking you know that your message has been delivered. There's a facility to send preset messages but I’m not really sure why you would want to do that with InReach and it’s a facility I’ve never used. If you don’t carry a smartphone then I guess it has a use but then you really aren’t making full use of InReach’s abilities. There are other versions of InReach that have a built-in display and rechargeable battery pack but displays are easily broken when it's attached to your pack and rechargeable batteries can’t be replaced by the user.

Maps outside of the USA are basic
Texting in the mountains was something I never thought I would do but when on my Te Araroa hike there were a number of days when the weather was too bad to hike. The only thing to do was bunker down in a mountain hut for a day till the storm passed. With InReach I was able to send a message home saying that all was ok and I’m sitting out a storm in a hut and will move on tomorrow. Keeps people from worrying! Really found this feature much more useful than I thought and if you are that way inclined you can also post to Facebook and Twitter from anywhere in the world! There is also a useful facility where family can ‘ping’ your device from the Delorme website to find out where you are. Could be useful if you have tracking turned off and someone is picking you up after your hike. Of course the device needs to be turned on for this to work. Family can also send messages to you from the same website and see your tracking map. 
You can adjust tracking interval through the APP
The companion APP on your smartphone/tablet (Apple/Android) links to InReach via bluetooth and gives you the ability to see your position on a map. You can type/send/read messages (up to 160 characters), post messages to Facebook/twitter (up to 160 characters), start/stop tracking mode, change settings, get help and more. Being able to change the tracking interval from the APP is useful if you need to conserve power on a long section. The companion maps which you download over wifi are available off-line but are basic outside of the USA. They show terrain but are no replacement for OS! Sending and receiving messages has been 100% reliable but it is not always instant like over a cell phone. Messages might take a minute or 2 get through to the recipient and the same getting back to you. InReach Original has a message waiting light on the main unit which flashes when you have an unread message. Pairing InReach to the smartphone is easy and once paired there is no need to do it again. If you want to un-pair a device then you need to perform a hard reset which you can do with a few buttons on the InReach unit. You may want to do that if you use another smartphone (InReach can only be paired with one device at a time) or want maximum battery life. When you pair InReach it turns bluetooth on and it stays on all the time InReach is turned on even if not connected to your smartphone. Therefore battery drain is higher than it would be if un-paired. If you want maximum battery life from InReach then using it unpaired and only pairing when absolutely necessary will give you longer runtimes. This is a bit annoying to do regularly and a simple switch on the device to manually turn bluetooth on/off would be better. 

In tracking mode you can see that your beacons have been successfully sent
Battery life - with bluetooth turned on battery life is quoted at 90 hrs with disposable lithium batteries, compared to 120 with bluetooth off. That’s quite a significant difference and assuming a 10hr walking day you can expect 12 days life with bluetooth off compared to only 9 days with it on. These are theoretical run times, in perfect conditions, and I found that I was getting 5-10 days out of a set of new lithiums with bluetooth turned off. How long you get depends on how hard the device has to work to send a message/beacon. In the dense bush of north New Zealand 5 days was the norm but in the more open mountains in the south that was easily doubled. InReach Original uses 2*AA sized batteries which are much easier to source than SPOT2’s 3*AAA’s on the trail. It will use any type of battery - lithiums, alkaline, rechargeable. Alkaline and rechargeable will give shorter runtimes than lithium with 72 hours quotes for alkaline and 75 for NiMH rechargeable (bluetooth off). With rechargeable batteries and bluetooth turned on I found that I get about 30-50 hrs (3-5 days) pending on how hard it had to work to send messages. You have to tell InReach what type of battery you are using and that is done my pressing a series of buttons in a set order on the device, it would be much easier if you could do this in the APP.

One problem with these trackers is that they can be expensive to own and run. InReach Original will cost you around £180 for the unit and then you need an airtime plan. I use the recreation plan which gives 40 messages/month and unlimited tracking for £16/month, depending on exchange rate (charged in US $). There are many plans depending on your needs. That gives you a yearly running cost of £192. SPOT costs around £160 for the unit (but do shop around as I’ve seen it much cheaper) and airtime is around £125/yr with tracking. InReach is more expensive to buy and run but considering what you are getting I find it good value.

Various plans are available. I'm on the Recreation Plan
Tracking information can be used for more than just reassuring friends and family. Social Hiking can take the beacons sent from a tracker and overlay additional social media content onto a live map. Lets say you take a photo on the trail and upload it to flickr (either live or after the hike when you have phone/wifi coverage), Social Hiking will grab the photo and overlay it on the map exactly where it was taken. It can do the same with your twitter feed and many other social media sites. What you are left with is a media rich track of you hike that is great as a reminder of your time, or your friends and family can follow you live. You can also use the track generated by these trackers to geotag your original photo’s when you get home. I came back from New Zealand with over 3000 photo’s and as my camera does not have built-in GPS it is impossible to remember exactly where every shot was taken. I was able to  export my route from Social Hiking in GPX format (you must be logged in to get a track with the necessary timecode information) and then imported that GPX file into a program like Aperture (for mac) of Lightroom (mac or windows) on the mapping page. Then select which photo’s you want to geotag and press the Auto Tag button. It will then automatically match up the tracker beacons timecode with that of the photo’s and now all my photo’s are instantly geotagged, it’s really that simple!
InReach track used to geotag original photo's in Aperture
Another useful function if you use electronic maps on your phone is that it’s possible to use the InReach GPS rather than the one built into the phone. This will save a lot of battery drain on your phone. If the trackers on anyway why both to turn on another GPS device to get what’s already available elsewhere? If you run your phone in flight mode, and on an iPhone that means that the GPS is also automatically disabled, then when you press the GPS position button in a mapping program (such as ViewRanger) then it will use the external GPS in InReach to find your position on the map. Of course your phone has to be linked via bluetooth for this to work and it is a bit slower than using the built in GPS but it’s a great battery saving feature. I have not tried this feature with an Android phone. It also means that you can add GPS to an iPod if you wanted.
ViewRanger can use the external GPS of InReach
Trackers are something I will continue to take on my long hikes and the InReach is the best I’ve used. It’s 2-way communication features make it standout from the crowd and are really useful and reliable. A very well made device it would be great if the size and weight could be reduced a bit but I'm ok with that. It's a significant step up in performance over my SPOT 2 and for the peace of mind it brings, and the additional usefulness of the tracks it generates, it's worth every penny to me. If you are looking for tracker with a rescue facility then have a good look at this one.

My Delorme InReach was purchased by myself at full price and I have not been asked to review it. I do not review free kit so stop asking!