For a few years I have considered buying a satellite communicator. There have been a handful of occasions in the past where one would have been useful. But the cost always scared me away.
A recent motorcycle trip, with two of my children, to the remote Maze District of Canyonlands National Park convinced me it was worth the cost. If we had an emergency it would have taken many hours to find help and someone would likely need to go for help alone.
So, this spring I decided to buy a Delorme inReach SE. I selected this model because of its texting capability and the subscription plan that allows me to only pay for the months when I need the service.
I have now used the device on two wilderness outings; a 5-day river trip, and a 3-day dirt bike adventure trip. To my surprise, I actually used the SOS capability on my first outing – the river trip. On the motorcycle trip I used it to keep my wife informed as to our status, which is how I expect to use the communicator most of the time. This blog report talks about the lessons I have learned so far. (I do not intend to discuss the pros and cons of different brands or models – that is really a personal decision based on your use model.)
Key inReach Features
- SOS button
- 3 pre-programmed text messages
- Custom text messages up to 160 characters
- Bluetooth pairing with a smartphone
- Simplifies texting and provides your contact list
- Location tracking
- Map sharing
- Social media (I haven’t used this feature)
When you first buy a satellite communicator, you need to select a subscription plan and then go through a fairly lengthy process to set up your account. You need to add emergency contact information, text contacts, and set up pre-programmed text messages. You can upload GPS track information to your MapShare website so people can follow along. You can also install the Earthmate App on your smartphone.
Be sure to sync your device after making any changes to your setup on the website.
If you wish, you can enable location tracking so others can follow your progress on your journey. It may cost you for each track point sent, so you should select the slowest rate that will yield reasonable results.
You can upload your planned route to the MapShare website. This can include tracks and waypoints. These are shown in red in the snapshot above. This is from my 3-day motorcycle adventure.
I set the satellite communicator to send my location every 30 minutes. This is shown by the blue dots. The blue lines connect the dots, which shows an approximation to our route. Our actual route is closer to the red tracks from my GPS mapping software. The farther the dots are apart, the faster we were moving. My wife could check this map throughout the day to see where we were and if we were on schedule.
The MapShare website also allows you to see where I was when I sent a text message (the blue boxes hiding behind some of the waypoint flags).
A satellite communicator is certainly nice to have in an emergency, but I also wanted to keep my wife informed throughout our trips and let her know everyone was safe and healthy – especially when I have some of my children along on our adventures. Satellite texting allows me to do this.
The easiest text messages to send are the 3 pre-programmed messages. You simply select one and hit the send button.
The unit can also store a set of other pre-programmed messages which you can use, but it takes more effort to search through them and find the one you want to send.
The most flexible option is to send a custom text up to 160 characters in length. The keyboad on the device is very difficult to use, so it is advised to pair the unit with your smartphone.
Be aware that any text other than the 3 pre-programmed messages may cost you money. With the plan I am on, I get 10 free text messages per month, and then additional messages cost me $0.50 each – both incoming and outgoing messages.
To send an SOS and request help, you first slide the lock button open and then hold down the SOS button. You can also hit an SOS button inside the menu. The unit will give you time to cancel in case you hit the SOS by accident.
Once you send the SOS, you will receive a confirmation text from the global rescue service. You can then provide information about your specific situation and the type of help you need.
I practiced using the device at home to make sure my wife was getting my text messages. But even with that practice, my actual field experience taught me a lot.
- Think carefully about your 3 pre-progammed messages. What do you want them to say? Be sure your recipient understands what each message means.
- For my first trip (where I used the SOS button), I had them set to provide four levels of emergency; 1) all okay, 2) having trouble but we can handle it, 3) we need help, but not an emergency, and 4) the SOS button. This did not work out so well – before sending an SOS I sent my daughter message number 3 – which caused her to panic. She knew we had problems, but had no idea what they were. Too little information caused her to panic – which was worse than no information.
- For my second trip I changed them as follows; 1) all okay, 2) at the car and okay, and 3) having problems.
- In both cases, my daughter (trip 1) and my wife (trip 2) became frustrated by the lack of information. For my next trip my plan will be to use all three messages to provide status when everything is okay; 1) just checking in, all is well, 2) at the car, all is well, and 3) at camp, all is well. I would send #2 at the beginning of our adventure and when we finally return to the car. Similarly, I would send #3 when we arrive at camp or before departing in the morning. And I would send #1 any other time I want to check in – such as when we stop for lunch, or when taking a break.
- If we are having problems, I will send a custom message with enough information to let them know what our situation is. Information so they can send help if necessary, or know if someone is hurt. Even though a custom message may cost money, if we are having problems, it will be worth the cost. I can send as many texts as are needed to communicate our situation.
- Be patient. It takes a few minutes to send a text message. By default, the device only checks for incoming messages every 20 minutes. You can manually tell it to check for messages. The delay can be frustrating during an emergency. Even if not an emergency, I may not wait long enough to receive a response. I would typically arrive at camp, send a check-in message, wait for an hour or so, then turn off the communicator. The next morning when I turned it back on, I would receive their response which they sent the night before.
- Have a battery charger available. The communicator battery lasts a long time – but when sending and receiving frequent text messages, the battery will drain much faster. But your smartphone will likely die even faster. During our SOS communications I had to charge my phone during the ordeal.
Our SOS Experience
We had a fairly large group of family and friends rafting the Main Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. I have run the river many times in the past, as have most of the others in the group. On our third day a couple flipped their inflatable kayak in a rapid and a gal slammed into a rock and hurt her hip. She was very sore, but otherwise seemed fine.
By the time we arrived at our camp on day four, she was very sick. She had severe stomach pain and bloody diarrhea. Luckily, we had two medical doctors in the group, a life flight pilot, and I had my new satellite communicator.
We feared that her injury may have caused internal bleeding, so we decided to use the SOS button and call for a Life Flight helicopter.
The process worked – but it took quite a long time. We concluded that texting via a satellite communicator is somewhat like communicating with someone on Mars – it takes a long time. After we got home I was able to talk with my daughter to learn her side of the story – which helped me peace together what happened. Here is what I think happened:
- I sent the SOS request.
- Rather than wait for the emergency center to text back, I sent the emergency dispatch a description of our situation. I had one of the doctors tell me what to send – which was in medical terminology – assuming the medics would receive my text. But my text goes to an emergency response center (similar to a 911 call). The person receiving my text may not have understood the terminology.
- The emergency center called my cell phone to try and verify the emergency. If I was within cell coverage I wouldn’t have needed the satellite communicator – but I suppose this is a way to avoid false SOS calls.
- Since I didn’t answer, they called my wife (my first point of contact). Since she was on the river trip, she did not answer.
- They then called my daughter (my second point of contact). Luckily I had previously informed her that the gal was sick. Otherwise she would have been totally surprised by the call.
- I exchanged several messages with both my daughter and the emergency center.
- The emergency center frequently called my daughter for updates. She would read them my text messages and they would say that they saw that message – so apparently they can monitor all text traffic. But since satellite texting was our only form of communication, the emergency center knew as much as my daughter.
- It took about 45 minutes to 1 hour to close the loop and get them to call for a Life Flight helicopter. It then took another 40 minutes for the helicopter to arrive.
- Once they landed, it only took the medics a few minutes to assess the situation, load her on the helicopter, and fly back to the hospital.
- After Life Flight departed back to the hospital, I send a text confirming that they had arrived and retrieved the patient.
- I then terminated the SOS call.
From here on, I checked in periodically with my daughter, who was able to call the hospital and find out the gal’s status. We were all relieved the next morning when we learned that she did not have any serious problem and would be discharged that morning.
Here are a few photos from the helicopter rescue, followed by a video of the event:
We moved our tents and kitchen away from the landing site and watered down the sand to minimize rotor-wash dust. Luckily we were camped on a very large beach.
People often tease me for sleeping on a cot – but they make a very nice stretcher!