A few days after a solo trip to the Trinity Alps five years ago, when I first began to go backpacking solo a lot, I came home to a package from REI on my stoop. I was confused—had I drunkenly gear-shopped? I couldn’t remember placing an order. I opened the package to find an ACR ResQLink personal locator beacon, along with a note from my parents that read “We hope you never have to use this, but just in case. For when you are the most alone.” Aww, so sweet. They had done their research and decided to go with the ACR since it was the most reliable, connected to government satellites, and didn’t require a subscription to be maintained. I’ve dutifully renewed its registration every two years, tested it every season, changed its batteries, and carried it on countless trips since then.
The technology has come a long way since then, though, and I’ve been eyeing the Garmin Inreach Mini. The ability to two-way text with both first responders and loved ones plus its tiny size have me intrigued. With REI member coupon and dividend season around the corner, I decided to run some numbers to see if it might be reasonable to upgrade. I earn my dollars teaching mathematics at a local college, so I decided to merge my talents (?) and go about this in a bit more of a structured way. The plan pricing for the Garmin products has eight different options just for the personal plans, all with different features, so a little analysis is in order. After doing this, I thought, why not share? So here we are. If you’re too lazy to Read Words Wow Gross, just skip to the end where I’ve included a handy flowchart to help you decide between the four most likely options.
Garmin offers four tiers of plans and two types of subscription for each plan: annual contracts and month-at-a-time plans that they call “freedom” plans. The idea is that if you expect to use the device every month, the annual contract will save you money. But how many months per year do you need to use the device before it becomes worth it to get the annual plan? Let’s make a chart.
This chart shows the annual cost as a function of how many months you use the device. The annual plans are, of course, horizontal lines since you are obligated to pay for the full year even if you only use the device for one day. The positive slope lines are the freedom plans, where the amount you pay depends on how many months you use the device. You can see that you’d need to use the device for 9 or 10 months before the annual plan becomes worth it. For all plans except the Recreational plan, the annual plan becomes cheaper at the 10 month mark. For the Recreational plan, it happens at 9 months, but the difference between the two is just $3, so let’s call it even and for simplicity’s sake say that you need to use the device 10 months per year before the annual plan is worth it.
This should make it pretty easy to decide whether to go for the annual plan or the freedom plan, but now which tier should you choose? For me the Safety plan is way too basic and the Extreme plan is much too, well, extreme. So it really comes down to the Recreational vs the Expedition plans. There are two differences between the two: the number of text messages and the cost of basic weather forecasts. For the Recreational plan, you get one basic weather message and 40 custom text messages per month, whereas for the Expedition plan you get unlimited for both.
In each plan you can pay $1 for a premium weather forecast, so let’s just focus on the text messages as the deciding factor. There are three categories for different types of messages you can send: preset, custom, and SOS. Preset messages are ones you set up in advance before leaving for your trip, generic things like “Got to camp safely!” or whatever. You can store 3 of them. Custom messages are just regular texts, like “Wow mom, the view from Clouds Rest is so beautiful!” SOS messages are the emergency messages for communicating with first responders. In all plans, preset and SOS are free for an unlimited number of messages, so the difference is in the custom messages.
The overage charge for each custom text message over 40 on the Recreational plan is $0.50, so the question really is: how many texts do you need to send and receive on overage before it would have made more sense to get the Expedition plan? Well that depends on whether you choose annual or freedom. With the annual subscription, the difference in price is $25, which is 50 messages. This plus the 40 that you get with the Recreational plan means that if you are going to use more than 90 messages per month, it makes more sense to get the Expedition plan. With the freedom plan, the difference in price is $30, which is 60 messages. This plus the 40 that you get with the Recreational plan means that if you are going to use more than 100 messages per month, it makes more sense to get the Expedition plan.
It’s worth noting that with the annual subscription you are locked in to a tier for the year, but with the freedom plan you can change your tier from month to month. So you could go with the Recreational Freedom and then bump up to Expedition Freedom if you know you have an extremely heavy usage month coming up. This is, in fact, what I think makes the most sense for me….if I decide to pull the trigger.
Here’s a summary for you lazy-asses who didn’t want to read the analysis:
Ok so who’s going to buy this for me as thanks? ;)
8 thoughts on “A brief comparison of Garmin Inreach monthly plans”
The Safety plan is a good value. Why’d you dismiss it as too basic? You get 10 free-form messages per month, but you can send unlimited preset messages, and in my experience preset messages are usually adequate for most purposes. You can have a preset message that says, “Just checking in, everything is going fine” and send that message with your location 10 times a day for free, if you want.
I don’t think the weather forecasts on the inReach are that great. I’d recommend using WX2InReach instead:
Yes, unlimited preset messages are available for every plan and that absolutely might be adequate for some. For me, the primary advantage of the Inreach is the 2-way communication, not just the check-ins (otherwise why not get a much cheaper Spot, or just settle with the PLB I currently have, with my loved ones knowing that I’d use it if everything weren’t ok?)
Also, tracking points with the Safety Plan are $0.10 each, as are location pings—are you saying that when you send the preset message it automatically includes your location and this doesn’t charge you the $0.10? I am a newbie to the Garmin Inreach so I don’t know all the details!
Yes, when you send the preset messages there is an option to include your location, and using it incurs no additional charge, as far as I can tell.
The tracking points are only necessary if you want your location to be updated real-time on a map that can be viewed on the web, which is a cool feature, but it uses up battery to constantly transmit your location and I don’t really care about that. (You can still have the device track your location without uploading it to be viewed in real-time on a map, and then pull your track off of the device when you get home, if you just want a GPS track of your trip for archival reasons. That is free.)
I agree that 2-way communication is important, but for me it’s most important for communication with potential rescuers. Using devices without 2-way communication in this day and age is borderline irresponsible, in my opinion, since if you trigger an SOS on such a device, you’re asking rescuers to respond and put themselves in harm’s way with no information about what the problem is.
Also be aware that there is a $25 annual fee for using the freedom plan. That changes the algebra slightly – the crossover point in each plan is between 7 and 8 months for the safety and recreation plans, 8 and 9 months for the expedition plan and 9 and 10 months for the extreme plan. The annual rate discount between plans fluctuates from 20-28%.
Thanks for the article; Plutoniclove’s comments actually answered a number of questions I had :)
You’re totally right! I noticed that when I bought my plan. I’ll update when I get back from Iceland!
I am an advid solo hiker/climber and always have my InReach Mini with me in the outdoors. I use the annual Safety plan and use this strategy for peak bagging and shorter 1-3 day trips:
Preset Message #1: Reached Trail Head – All is well. DO NOT REPLY
Preset Message #2: Summit Achieved! – All is well. DO NOT REPLY
Preset Message #3: Progress Tracking Point – All is well. DO NOT REPLY
For concerned family members or friends I leave them with an itinerary of the trail head and peak(s) I’ll be attempting. If multi day effort it will indicate where I plan to set base camp/bivouac.
1. When I get to the trail head I send message #1.
2. If I get into something sketchy I will send message #2 just in case something happens to me and I am unable to send a SOS or message. At least they will have my last location. If I successfully get past the sketchy section I will send another message #2 to let them know I made it through okay. These come in pairs.
3. When I achieve the summit I send message #2.
4. When I get back to the trail head I send message #1.
5. If I am camping/bivouac for the night I’ll send message #2 and based on the location they can see on MapShare that I have reached my base camp/bivouac site.
Also, the 10 free text messages can be used for letting them know you are in camp or that you are dealing with some issues and delayed, but help is not currently needed. If you exceed the 10 free text messages 0.50 per additional messages is not significant when needed (have never needed them yet, knock on wood.)
This preset message strategy has served me well and keeps the monthly fee to a very reasonable amount given the benefit of keeping family concerns to a minimum and of course two-way SOS capability if needed is priceless.
The Annual Program Fee for using the Freedom plan just went up from $24.95 to $34.95 in February 2021, so that changes the math even more. For me I figured that 9 months of use on the Freedom – Safety plan would be $169.50 including the annual fee whereas it would be $163.35 for the year with the Annual Contract – Safety plan with the activation fee included.That goes down to $143.40 the second year since there is no activation fee and no Annual Program Fee.
I just ran a similar comparison between the Garmin Safety plan and the Spot Basic plan, using numbsers I have as of today. The Spot break even point is 8 months so if you are on their Flex plan and use it more than 8 months you are better off with the annual plan. The Garmin break even point is at nine months.