By Greg Illes
“NO SIGNAL” — the words that are the bane of an RVer’s life. Without a connection, there’s no way to talk to friends and family far away. There’s no way to get news, weather, or your checkbook balance. Perhaps worst of all, there’s no way to call for emergency help.
Most of us now consider the Internet, and cell phone service, as simply a way of life, right up there with clean water and winter heat. But an RVer is not always within easy reach of cable or 3G/4G. In a suburban environment, it’s usually no big deal. We pay a bit more for data on the road (okay, maybe a lot more), but at least we’re connected. But for boondockers and other folks who wander out into the “great unknown”, having no signal is far more common than having a good connection.
We personally struggled with this for years. As dedicated boondockers (in fact, nearly fanatic), we’ve tried boosters, antennas, satellite phones — any possible method to achieve connection from the wide open spaces. All we got was frustration.
Most importantly, we need to couple the “want to have” and “nice to have” priorities, with the “Must Have” need to be able to deal with an emergency. Think medical, mechanical breakdown, stranding weather, etc.
We needed a robust, reliable method of communication, that would work from anywhere we traveled, allow at least basic messaging, and provide for emergency messaging as well.
And we found it. It’s called the InReach, and it’s made by Delorme (recently acquired by Garmin).
What It Is and Is Not
The InReach is a combination unit. It has a GPS “engine” and a satellite communication protocol, wrapped into a portable unit with an LCD user screen and some simple pushbuttons. It allows GPS tracking, satellite messaging, and SOS signaling and alerting, plus some other lesser features.
It won’t accept message attachments, and messages are limited to 160 characters. You can get weather reports, but you can’t get news or anything like a web page. Think “texting”.
Why It Works
The InReach has key features and characteristics that make it superbly suited to our needs.
•Satellite connection: InReach uses satellites to get connected. Such a connection can be achieved from anywhere on the planet. Mountains, deserts, oceans, are all covered.
•Iridium LEO Network: The LEO network (Low Earth Orbit) provides satellite coverage without having to “aim” the device at a geostationary satellite. This allows global connection, without needing a southern sky view.
•SOS and GPS coordinates: Like the Spot, InReach provides emergency location and notification data to rescuers.
•Text and Email: InReach also allows “ordinary” messages to be sent, and received. The limit is only 140 characters, but that turns out to be plenty for basic communication with friends and family.
•Weather: InReach provides a 3-day weather forecast on demand.
•Battery Lif: A full day’s hike and messaging uses less than 10 percent of the rechargeable battery.
•Incoming Messaging: Friends and Family can initiate messages to the InReach user. Using the Delorme website or a user-specific email address, anybody can send us a message any time, even if we did not send them one first.
Cost of the actual unit is about $300. (check at Amazon for specific prices) The connection services come in a variety of choices; ours is the Recreational Plan — $35 a month for occasional use, or $25 a month for annual contract. We choose the annual contract which includes 40 text messages a month, after which there’s a 50 cent additional charge. A weather forecast costs one message.
Unlike the Spot, there is no emergency insurance included with a subscription. However, it’s our feeling that with the improved communication capability we are far less likely to need such insurance. And if we do decide it’s a good idea, it can always be bought separately.
You can find more detailed InReach information at inreachdelorme.com.
How We Use It
We use the InReach to message folks and let them know when we’re off-grid (so they won’t expect responses to emails or voicemails), and how we’re doing in terms of location, weather, exploration, etc. Sometimes, if we’ve been out of touch for many days, we’ll use it just to say “Hi, we’re fine.” Although there is the capability to use pre-recorded messages, we rarely do it. The InReach has a Bluetooth connection to my smart phone, and I type original messages very easily this way. The ‘canned’ messages are most useful when using the InReach’s more limited keypad.
We take it with us on any and all vehicle or foot explorations, both to record our tracks, and also if we need the SOS feature.
As far as the SOS feature, we’ve never used it (and hope never to have to). It would only be applicable if we had a medical emergency or if we could not find a friend to help us get a broken-down vehicle fixed or extracted (unlikely). But the SOS feature provides great peace-of-mind, especially with our experience of how reliable the InReach operation has been.
The messaging interface even has a feature where we can post our current location to Facebook, something we use now and then to share our experiences.
As part of the subscription service, Delorme also stores and displays our tracking points on a pannable, zoomable map. While tracking, points are captured every 10 minutes, with no limit on points stored. The map below will give you an idea. Or see our personal map (photo) and here.
Previous Stuff that Did Not Work (and why)
•3G/4G: Firstly, let’s be clear on 3G/4G (cell phone service). There are many vast tracts of land in the American West, and the Canadian and Alaskan North, where not a shred of signal exists. It’s not a matter of using a high-gain antenna or booster or getting to a hilltop. There is simply nothing there. For tens or even hundreds of miles at times.
•WIFI: WiFi is strictly a locally-provided linkage, usually from a commercial facility like a restaurant or RV Park or library. Its quality is variable to very poor. Of all the paid/included/public WiFi we’ve ever found, I’d estimate perhaps 5 percent of it was useful. And in any case, when there’s nobody around (remote boondocking), there’s definitely no WiFi.
Spot: We researched the Spot (another satellite tracker/messenger), and found it lacking. First, it’s on Glonass, a less-reliable satellite constellation. There were many, many reports/reviews of missed messages and missed tracking points. Secondly, it had no provisions for “new” messages, only a few pre-recorded ones. And thirdly, it had no method to receive messages at all.
Satellite Phone: We tried a satellite phone on the Inmarsat satellite, which is a geostationary unit (fixed in space). It required a clear view to the southern sky, which is surprisingly unreliable especially in hilly or mountainous terrain. Even normal forests would block the signal. The farther north we went, the worse it got. I consider the service unusable (for me) anywhere north of the 50th parallel or so. Moreover, even with a good signal, the phone’s antenna needed to be pointed within a few degrees of the satellite’s position, and normal body movement during a call would drop the signal. Using the satellite phone for “I’m okay” messages costs $6 per minute, which can add quickly to the required monthly activation cost (about $35). More importantly, using the satellite phone for emergency/SOS messaging requires calling a specific phone number based on current location — a difficult action to coordinate, especially under emergency conditions.
We never tried a LEO (Iridium or Glonass) phone. This would have solved the connection problems, but still left the cost and SOS issues to deal with.
Latest and Greatest
Our InReach is an earlier version, without the GPS mapping of current models. However, the linkage to my cell phone, via Earthmate, makes this moot. For example, it’s really easy to compose a message on my cell phone’s keyboard; by comparison, creating that same message on the scroll/select InReach screen is painfully slow. My cell phone also provides a large, hi-res map via Earthmate, much better a navigation tool than the tiny screen on the InReach.
The only downside to the pairing of the cell phone is that my phone’s battery doesn’t last anywhere near as long as the InReach. For more than day-hikes, a solar charger would be a must.
We won’t travel without this thing. It’s handy, easy to use, and provides great peace of mind at a reasonable cost. Now, in late 2016, as far as I know, the InReach is the only device available with such capabilities. But with Garmin’s acquisition of Delorme, it’s not hard to imagine a future with a host of Garmin GPS units capable of satellite up-linking. Pretty exciting.
Greg Illes is a retired systems engineer who loves thinking up RV upgrades and modifications. When he’s not working on his motorhome, he’s traveling in it. You can follow his blog at www.divver-city.com/blog.