“Adventure navigation is about knowing where you are and has very little to do with where you are going. The best discoveries in history were found by the lost.”
While not knowing where you are going is at the heart of all good adventures, knowing where you are and in what direction home lies is at least comforting. When I plied the waters of the Pacific back in the 70’s, modern offshore navigation was in a transition period between LORAN A and LORAN C. While both systems were adequate in aiding mariners, they were nowhere near as accurate as the satellite navigation systems that followed, or the GPS systems we see today.
When the US Government allowed non-military use of the GPS satellites circling overhead for civilian navigation the world changed. Now anyone could know where they were on the planet within a few yards. GPS or Global Positioning System is a network of orbiting satellites that send precise details of their position in space back to earth. The signals are obtained by GPS receivers and are used to calculate the exact position, speed and time at the user’s location. Most devices are handheld, but many vehicles now come equipped with GPS navigation. Chances are your cell phone has such navigation to help you find a Starbucks and that 6 dollar latte you crave.
Choosing the right GPS unit
With so many GPS receivers on the market choosing the one that is right for you can be daunting. The first question you need to ask is how will you be using it? Will you be hiking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail, driving across the country in the family truckster or crossing the Pacific in a 40 foot sailboat with a full crew? Will you be limited to paper topographic maps, road maps or carry a full array of other electronic aids, charts and monitors? In any case, somewhere out there is the perfect system for you. The task now is to find it.
For adventure travel the popular vehicle mounted GPS systems may leave you wondering where you are or have you looking for Satellite Road on Lopez Island. (It doesn’t exist, trust me on this one.) While they are great for navigating unknown neighborhoods or highways, they lack detail when leaving the pavement. Compact GPS models with built in topographic maps are great for hiking the trails or driving the back roads, but should be backed up with a compass and maps just in case the batteries fail. Trying to drive and look at a small screen is also a good way to drive off the trail to test your extraction skills.
DeLorme inReach Explorer
When I was looking for a new system to help me in navigating my way home after an off the pavement fishing/photography/overlanding adventure I looked no further that my trusty DeLorme Oregon Atlas & Gazetteer. There on the back page was a full color ad for the inReach Explorer, “The World’s first Satellite Communicator with Built-in Navigation.” That tag line got me interested. I spend much of my time traveling solo off the beaten path and being able to stay in contact with the home office is paramount. Knowing where you are is one thing, being able to tell someone else where you are is another.
After perusing the DeLorme website and doing a bit of Googling research I decided the Explorer fit my needs nicely. The final approval came when my wife looked into it and found that she would be able to follow along as I navigated across the Great Northwest as well as receive updates by text message when I was out of cell phone range.
Setting up the inReach Explorer
As with any new electronic device, mastering the operation requires either hours of reading mine numbing manuals or a natural curiosity and a few test trips to get comfortable. Once I had figured out how to turn the unit on, the rest was fairly simple. I’ve never been one to read manuals unless I run into a roadblock and can’t figure out how to do something. The inReach Explorer is very simple to learn and easy to operate. The menu selection is intuitive and easy to understand and navigate. Delorme’s website also offers plenty of information on the operation of these units.
For my use I paired the inReach Explorer with my Apple iPad Mini and uploaded the Earthmate app. This provides a detailed topographical map that becomes more detailed as you zoom in to your location. While the accuracy of your realtime position will depend on line of sight to a satellite, most off-road travel does not happen at a high rate of speed making it possible to follow your track in and out of any location. While not all trails are visible in this app, you will be surprised how many are. There may be other apps that are compatible with the inReach Explorer and offer more detail, but I went the simple route to start.
When the inReach is powered up and paired to a tablet or phone via bluetooth your location is displayed on the screen of the phone/tablet. You can choose to have the screen be alined with up being north, or your heading. By touching an icon in the upper right corner your position is centered on the screen. Setting your device to remain on will allow for tracks to be followed or waypoints to be located more easily. External power supplies should be used for your tablet or phone if using them for extended periods.
In places where the trails are not shown, you can save tracks that you discover to your control panel on your home computer and share it with other adventurers. Marking tracks and waypoints is easily done on your control panel as well. Transferring that information to the Explorer is simply a matter of plugging in the unit and syncing it. Once these tracks or waypoints are synced to your unit they will show up on the menu and maps.
When mounting your inReach Explorer remember that it works best when it has a full view of the sky. I have found that locating it on the dashboard works the best. If traveling in a deep canyon or heavily wooded area you may lose a signal until you move to a better location. If using it in conjunction with a phone or tablet a message will appear stating your last check in point was not noted.
The communication feature of the inReach Explorer is the one that attracted me the most. Taking off into the boonies and being able to let my wife know I’m fine when I’m running late makes both of us happy. You can edit preselected messages to make checking in simple, or tap out a message using the same slow method you used to program your old VCR. Pairing to your phone or tablet makes that function much easier and less time consuming. I have a Zagg case and keyboard for the iPad Mini and that combination works great. I keep the iPad in the Ram Mount, but stow the keyboard until I need to send a text. Tapping out a note with a nearly full size keyboard is perfect for us old guys.
The Share feature allows for people to track my progress if I want them to by following a weblink to a map that shows my pinged locations. You can also post your position and a short message to Facebook if you have to keep your posse up to date on your location. No, Instagram photos and other social media posts are not available with this device.
Another very important feature of the inReach Explorer is the SOS button. Hopefully, I never need to use it, but it is nice to know it’s there. By sliding a locking tab and pressing the SOS button a message is sent to a monitored emergency center (GEOS) that will respond and ask what your emergency is. This monitoring center is formally known as the International Emergency Response Coordination Center. When you send an SOS emergency message through your inReach device it goes directly to the IERCC. Running out of gas isn’t an emergency. If you are in need of medical attention or extraction the proper authorities are notified, and you are informed of their progress to your location until rescue is complete.
This feature alone is worth the price of the inReach Explorer and required subscription in my opinion. Think of it as a “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” unit for those of us who venture off the couch and into the great outdoors. World travelers may find this handy in the event of an emergency when far away from home.
Non-emergency issues can be handled by having preprogrammed messages that can be sent to a home base or friend who can call AAA or other roadside assistance for you when you are out of cell range. It always helps to have a contact that knows where you are going and can help out in the event of an emergency.
While I personally looked at this unit as a navigation and communication aid, carrying it when I leave my vehicle on foot provides peace of mind in the event of a mishap. Being waterproof it is ideal for all outdoor activities.
None of these features are free. To navigate, send and receive text messages or use the SOS feature you need to have a subscription. Those can be purchased as needed in one month increments or as a full year. There are different plans to fit the needs of most adventurers that run from $12.00 to $100.00 a month. Freedom plans allow for shutting off the service when you are not using it. Those of us who venture out year-round will find it’s easier to just step up to a full year plan. If the costs of this type of communication capability scares you, price a SAT phone rental.
DeLorme makes two models in the inReach series, but the Explorer is a true GPS with tracking and waypoint features. The inReach SE is a satellite communicator and may serve your needs if you already have a good GPS.
The inReach Explorer retails for $379.95 and comes with a free copy of the Earthmate app for your phone or tablet.
A full line of mounts and charging accessories are available including a solar panel charger. If you are using your inReach Explorer away from a vehicle for an extended period of time that may prove handy. Otherwise I have found the battery life to be several days. The unit will power down to save for an SOS when the battery gets low. You can still power up to get a fix on your location, but it will power down again. If using the unit in a vehicle it can be charged with the provided cable through a USB or 12v outlet.
While I still have much to learn about all of the functions of my inReach Explorer, I know enough to navigate myself back home or let my wife know I might be little late for dinner. As they say, better late than never.