Delorme InReach SE

The InReach SE is a location tracker and two way (SMS-like) messaging device utilising the Iridium satellite network (which means it has a genuinely 100% global coverage). I have been using it for about 2.5 years, so I thought it might be worth saying something about it.

When I first took up hill running, I quickly developed taste for ground less trodden – it might seem hard to believe but within a half an hour drive of Stirling it is perfectly possible to do a 5+ hour hill run without bumping into another person, even at the weekend. And as the mobile phone coverage in Scotland is still patchy at the best of time, the phone rarely works in the hills. There are good reasons for having some means of communication on the longer outings at least, not least to avoid MRT call outs when what was supposed to be 4.5-5h run turns into a 7h one because ‘reasons’ (as has actually happened to me). Plus it makes my wife less anxious, I think!

When I started looking into the options, it really came down to two: the Spot, and the InReach SE – the InReach won, because of (a) Iridum having a truly global coverage, and (b) it being lot more flexible.

How It Works

The InReach SE has three basic functions: tracking, messaging and SOS. When the device is put into tracking mode, it uploads tracking points at an interval that can be adjusted from 10min to 4h. This tracking info can be accessed live via a web portal – this is quite useful, for example, if you need to be picked at the end of your run. The messaging is like SMS, i.e., you can send and receive short text messages, which can be delivered via either SMS gateway, or via email. The messages are automatically tagged with location info. The SOS function provides a one-button access to a 24/7 emergency response centre. There are a few other functions, for example, it is possible to get the coordinates of your current position, and there is some integration with Twitter and Facebook.

In order to use the Iridum network, you need a 'plan’, not unlike a mobile phone contract; Delorme provide a number of these that match different use cases and provide different allowances for tracking point upload and messaging. I use a plan that provides unlimited tracking points and 40 messages per month for ~$20; there are both cheaper and more expensive options.

The Gadget

The gadget itself is very rugged. It conforms to some military specifications for impact, and is waterproof to IP67, essential to make it usable in Scottish summer months – to put it simply, it is the only gadget I own which I don’t feel needs some extra protective case when traveling or when in use; it lives in a mesh pocket on the outside of my backpack (it needs to be upright for most efficient function).

The device has a small, fairly low resolution, colour screen. It is not a touch screen, which makes the unit feel somewhat dated, but that really is the only sensible option for a device of this type (a resistive touch screen would mean stylus, which would be a disaster in the outdoors, and capacitive screens don’t work when it rains!).

The user interface, including on-screen keyboard, is navigated using a four-way rocker, and the buttons are big enough to work in mid-weight gloves. The keyboard is, unavoidably, awkward to use, though I feel this is not helped by the keys being alphabetically organised; there is an autocomplete, but I find the suggestions rarely useful. You can preprogram three messages in advance to be dispatched with a dedicated button. All in all, the messaging works well, the messages dispatch fast. By default the device only checks for messages every 20min, but you can make it checked manually, and while this is not a device to swap silly messages with your friends there and fro, it is perfectly possible to have a fairly fluent 'conversation’ with it.

Power comes from a rechargeable battery, charged from USB; Delorme claim with the 10min tracking interval the battery provides 100h of use. I have never had a need to run it for so long, so I can’t confirm it, but based on my experience I have no reason to doubt it. The power management on the unit seem to be implemented very well, and the battery holds charge when powered off; in my use, I only need to charge it once every couple of months.

The thing that perhaps impresses me most is that in the two and half years I have used the InReach I have not run into any real bugs on the device; the update software had some issues couple of times, but the device itself has been rock solid. As an embedded software engineer I tend to be unhappy with most gadgets I buy, the InReach is one of the rare exceptions. The whole unit is designed in a very utilitarian manner, and does exactly what it should do very well – my one hope is that now Delorme is part of Gramin, they will be able to stick to this pragmatic approach.

I only have one feature request: could we please have support for coordinates using UK national grid; it would make the position readout more useful over here.

Final Thoughts

I tend to be fairly obsessive about kit weight. At 196g the InReach is not light, but on the longer runs it’s rarely what ends up left behind; I think that sums it up better than anything else I could say.

PS: Delorme now have a posher model, the InReach Explorer. It seems to be basically the SE with a conventional GPS functionality thrown in.