Backcountry adventurers shopping for a reliable satellite communication tool will now find the market more crowded and harder to pick through with the release of Garmin’s new inReach Messenger. This new device is the cheapest and smallest of Garmin’s line, but strikingly similar to their own inReach Mini 2.
I already have a Mini 2 and I initially couldn’t get my head around why they would launch a whole new satellite communication platform. To be honest, I was so overwhelmed when Garmin sent me the Messenger that I actually let it sit in the box in my garage for over a week.
However, after I opened the box and tested it for a week, I finally understood where the Messenger fits in the larger communication sphere and why you might want to buy one.
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Who Is the Messenger For?
Both the Messenger and the Mini 2 are two-way satellite communication devices. They both have an SOS button for calling in the cavalry in an emergency, but more often, they’re used to send and receive messages with family and friends when you’re out of cell service. The inReach Mini 2 is designed for the more dedicated backcountry adventurer, whereas the inReach Messenger is more suitable for the average consumer, the weekend warrior, and anyone who doesn’t think they need or want to figure out how to use a satellite communicator.
The Messenger will appeal to this audience because using it is more intuitive than using other satellite communication tools. But Garmin actually buried the lead with this launch because it isn’t the Messenger itself that’s simpler; texting is made much easier by the introduction of the new free Garmin Messenger app.
Neither the Messenger or the Mini 2 comes with a keyboard so typing a message on the device is a tedious process that involves scrolling through the alphabet or selecting a preset message created earlier online. As a result, Garmin encourages you to use their phone apps as an interface. The older Garmin Explore app is what people typically used for the Mini 2, but the new Messenger app is significantly easier to navigate.
The apps’ stand-out feature is that it allows you to text your contacts using either a cell/WiFi signal or by using a satellite network. This makes a lot of sense for trips that include traveling to and then disappearing into the backcountry.
Scenarios in Which the Messenger Shines
A couple of weekends ago, for example, a buddy and I hiked the entire length of the Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico where I live. The trail was 23 miles long and it took us nearly 12 hours to complete. I had cell service driving to the trail, and for parts of the hike, but for parts of the hike I didn’t. I was trying to stay in touch with my wife about when I’d be home (dinner plans with her family) so I had to wait to update her until we found a spot with service.
With the Messenger and Messenger app, this communication would have been simpler and more seamless. I could have started texting my wife using the Messenger app with cell service and then continued texting via satellite when I was on the more remote parts of the hike, without any interruption. On her phone, the Messenger texts (both the ones sent via cell towers and satellite) would have appeared under my name but in a new thread, outside my regular iPhone messages. They also would have taken longer to load, but we would have had consistent communication.
In full transparency, I carried my Garmin Mini 2 during the hike but didn’t want to pull it out, connect it to the Explore app, and go through the trouble of creating a whole new communication line with my wife. I only brought it along for an emergency.
While thinking about that hike, I started to wonder what other outdoor communities might benefit from this seamless change. Overlanders immediately came to mind. That community is constantly traveling in and out of service and instead of switching between apps to stay in touch, folks in their truck could just stay in the Messenger feed. The Messenger app also enables group texts so multiple trucks can be on the same thread. Overlanders are also going to like the Messenger because it has a flat bottom and can rest on the dash of their truck or easily be mounted to the dash with some third-party part that a company like Ram Mounts will likely create.
Garmin isn’t advertising this very much, but people will soon realize that the Messenger app also works with the Mini 2. That means anyone who already owns that device will have very little incentive to buy the Messenger, in my opinion. Those who already own a Mini 2 will likely prefer its slightly larger screen that delivers more information at once, displays a map, and makes features like TracBack (which will map you back to your car) easier to use. The Mini 2 is much easier to strap to your backpack when you’re out hiking or skiing, but it does not sit well on a dash or slide as smoothly into a pocket.
The Messenger has a significantly longer battery life—nearly double in some circumstances—but the Mini 2’s battery is already plenty robust for multi-day adventures. Additionally, the Messenger can be used to charge your phone, but a longer battery life and charging aren’t going to be worth the $300 it will cost Mini 2 owners to switch to the Messenger.
The Messenger Vs. Apple’s Emergency SOS
Apple’s Emergency SOS feature launched this week, adding yet another option to the emergency market. It comes free on any iPhone 14 for the next two years and allows iPhone users to contact emergency responders when they don’t have cell service. Time will tell, but many people are already predicting that this SOS service will be popular with weekend warriors and consumers who’ve traditionally shied away from a device like the Mini 2. It will undoubtedly help save many lives and help thousands of people who find themselves in trouble in the backcountry.
But it’s important to point out that Apple’s SOS service is not designed for two-way messaging like the Messenger or Mini 2. It’s only designed for a rescue. I couldn’t have used my iPhone to stay in touch on my recent hike when I was out of cell service, or to stay in touch with my wife on a recent hunt when I was gone for four days in the remote wilderness. Plus, Apple’s SOS service is only available in the United States and Canada for now, but you can use a Garmin Messenger or Mini 2 anywhere in the world.
Which One Should You Buy?
The easy answer to this question is this: If you play in the backcountry a fair amount and spend time out of cell service and want a truly reliable way to put out an SOS and stay in touch with your family and friends, buy a Garmin Messenger. If you want those same features and also want to use your device for navigation, spring the extra dollars to buy a Mini 2.
Size and shape are also a consideration. If you spend more time in your car, buy a Messenger. If you spend more time with a pack on, buy a Mini 2. Either way, the first thing you should do when you buy a Messenger or Mini 2 is to download the Messenger app and use that as the main way to control your device. With the app, plus your choice of satellite communicator, you’ll have a powerful tool that can do everything from negotiating dinner plans from the top of a 10,000-foot mountain to calling for a rescue if you find yourself in a truly scary situation.