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This $300 tiny satellite communicator impressed me during an off-grid adventure

The Garmin InReach makes it easy to communicate with your loved ones when venturing off-grid.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributing Writer
Testing the Garmin InReach Messenger satellite communicator

Testing the Garmin InReach Messenger satellite communicator.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

I've been using and testing satellite messaging and emergency SOS systems long before Apple added the feature to the iPhone 14. There is no end of devices out there that will allow you to connect to your nearest satellite to communicate with the world.

And while we're a long, long way off from satellite communication being anywhere near as easy or as convenient as using Wi-Fi or a cellular network, they can be invaluable when it comes to offering peace of mind to the family and friends of those who like to go on adventures that take them beyond the reach of a cellular network, and become a lifeline in the event that something goes wrong.

Also: This $150 GPS sports watch is almost too easy to recommend, even if it's not for me

I've been testing the capabilities of the Garmin InReach Messenger, a puck-shaped pocket-sized device that can connect to the Iridium satellite network.  

Now, you can read the specs and even test the device from the comfort and safety of your backyard like I did, but nothing beats taking it on a little adventure before taking it on bigger ones.

View at Best Buy

So, this is what I did on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far. I set the tiny InReach Messenger to track my location, threw the tiny device into a pocket on my hydration pack and started walking.

A pocket on the Camelbak hydration pack

A pocket on my Camelbak hydration pack was the perfect spot for the InReach Messenger to get a good view of the sky.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

I wanted to test a few of the features of the InReach Messenger, the first being the device's ability to keep a lock on my location as I moved through terrain that varied from open grassland to the forest to coastlines edged by cliffs. This area has varied cellular coverage, from strong 4G, patchy 3G, to nothing.

Kicking off the tracking is a matter of either enabling it via the Garmin Messenger app installed on a smartphone (iOS or Android) or enabling it on the InReach Messenger itself. It needs a reasonably clear view of the sky, and I found having it in my hydration pack was perfect. 

It sent my location every 10 minutes and uploaded them to Garmin's MapShare website, where you can give friends and family a special URL (and optional password) where they will be able to see your location on a map in close to real-time.

Also: Motorola's handy Bluetooth device adds satellite messaging to your smartphone

Tracking using the InReach Messenger

Flawless location tracking using the InReach Messenger, no matter whether I had a cellular signal or not.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

It worked flawlessly, not only showing my location on a map but also recording speed, course, elevation, and the battery status of the device.

You can also allow viewers of your map to message your InReach Messenger direct from the map (this message forms part of your allowance, or it incurs a charge), and also find your current location.

I can see this feature offering those that you leave at home peace of mind.

Also: Someone just made the first-ever voice call over satellite with an everyday phone

The next thing I wanted to know was how handy it would be to send and receive messages using the InReach Messenger. For this test, I wanted to rely solely on the InReach Messenger unit and not interface with it using an app on my smartphone. 

Again, I had no problem using the device to send email messages to contacts using just the satellite network. In an era where we're used to instant communications, it's easy to take this for granted. But I was well impressed by the fact that this little device in my bag was beaming messages to and from satellites in space.

Along with the message, you get the coordinates and a link that takes you to a map showing the position the message was sent.

Example of the message the InReach Messenger sends

Example of the message the InReach Messenger sends.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

That is very cool!

As for battery life, the unit lived up to my expectations. The specs promise some 28 days from a battery when tracking is enabled to send a location every 10 minutes, and my testing confirms this. This will outlast your smartphone by a long, long time. Just remember to charge it up before you adventure!

Also: This rugged Android phone is so enormous you can use it as a power bank, too

Finally, there's that SOS button that you can press in the event of an emergency. Obviously, I can't test this feature, but I've no doubt that it works as effectively and efficiently as the rest of the device. 

It's there, just in case.

ZDNET's buying advice

The Garmin InReach Messenger is a pricey device, and even a basic subscription adds considerably to the cost. But if you need to be available and visible to others when outside the reach of a Wi-Fi or cellular network, you don't have a great deal of choice. It's pay-big-bucks-satellite-prices or nothing at all.

But if you choose to take the satellite communicator route, you will be very pleased to find that you've chosen a gadget that's both highly reliable and super easy to use, and that will give loved ones peace of mind and a way to get in touch with you.

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