Gear Wars: Somewear Global Hotspot Vs. Garmin inReach Mini
Satellite-enabled location tracking, backcountry GPS units, and off-grid texting have become almost ubiquitous when it comes to long-distance hiking. Whether you’re on an extended trip on a high-traffic trail or venturing off the grid, it’s possible to be in contact with home, track your miles, or send an SOS from pretty much anywhere. Buyers can also be picky, as there are numerous options in what was once a field dominated by that one model from SPOT.
These days, satellite messengers come with smartphone connectivity capabilities, can be equipped with screens for visual mapping, and can track weather even if you don’t have service. These updates come with a cost though, and instead of a one-time purchase price, you might find yourself buying a monthly data plan, or paying for a subscription for the service. This technology is constantly evolving, and the subscription-based nature of the devices mean that software updates are to be expected and new features continue to be rolled out that are compatible with the device you already own.
In this edition of Gear Wars, we’re comparing the stalwart Garmin inReach Mini with newcomer Somewear Hotspot to see how they stack up. Both can send texts from a linked smartphone, have a variety of communication features, and have similar upfront costs with different subscription / data options. We’ve linked Hugh’s and Brandon’s original reviews below, and you can find the Garmin inReach Mini here and the Somewear Global Hotspot here.
Brandon Chase: Somewear Hotspot
On the Trail
A newer competitor to the market of satellite messengers, the Somewear Global Hotspot takes many of the best features from other devices and offers them in a sleek, compact profile that is waterproof, shockproof, and buoyant for relatively low cost. Using Somewear’s crisp smartphone app allows for easy and effortless control of the device’s functions such as viewing the map and tracking, checking the seven-day or hourly weather forecast, and sending or receiving messages to anyone in the world. The device measures 3.5 inches long, weighs an airy 4 ounces, and attaches to your gear via an elastic loop as opposed to a rigid plastic clip.
Keeping in Touch with Home
The Somewear Global Hotspot uses Iridium’s satellite network to make worldwide connectivity possible. During a hike in the remote Cederberg Wilderness Area of South Africa, I was able to readily carry on text conversations with friends and family in the US as seamlessly as if I were at home in Maine or my duty station in Pakistan. With Somewear’s advanced “smart routing” feature, the device automatically toggles between satellite and cellular (or Wi-Fi) connectivity in order to save data when such networks are available (For weather and messages only. Tracking must be done from a satellite connection).
To enable tracking, simply tap “start” from the “Tracking” pane in the app or rapidly toggle the on/off button three times on the device. You can add contacts from your phone to the list of followers and they will be notified via text (US and Canada only) or email each time you start tracking. You can also send them your exact location coordinates via text at any time with a single tap.
One significant drawback of Somewear’s tracking setup is that you can only share your location with people who are currently in your phone’s contact list. Not only that, but each person you share with must create an account with Somewear to track your progress on the app or web browser—there is no way to share this information via a public link or on social media as you can with other devices. Note: the Somewear team has notified me that they plan to offer this capability in the coming months and that devices and apps will be automatically updated when available.
Weather, Maps, and SOS
Somewear uses the same Dark Sky service as many other communicators in order to provide weather forecasts. Fetching a forecast provides current, hourly, and seven-day forecasts for your location complete with temperatures and likelihood of precipitation. This type of forecast is considered “premium” for most other communicators and generally incurs an additional fee, but Somewear provides it all for the cost of one text message.
Maps on the device are provided by open-source Mapbox software that is used by major corporations like Lonely Planet and Facebook, which are simple and useful, providing topographic contour lines and most common trails. You can set, name and share waypoints on your map by long-pressing the location on the map.
Emergency response is provided by GEOS and is activated by removing the light blue cap on the device and pressing the “SOS”’ button. An LED on the device will illuminate when the message has been received by GEOS and a response team will dispatch local providers to assist you. Once triggered, a new text thread called “Emergency Responders” is automatically created in the “Messages” tab on the app, which will allow you to communicate directly with dispatchers to relay specific information about your condition or location.
With an upfront price of $350, the Somewear Global Hotspot is on par with choices of similar caliber. This device’s advantage, however, is that the subscription prices are less costly than competitors, with the lowest option pricing out at less than $9 per month with a yearlong contract. Even its unlimited plan costs just $50 per month with the ability to pause service at any time, and other plans consistently price out at $15-$20 cheaper than competitors’ with a similar level of flexibility. For a six-month thru-hike, you could pay just $300 with free activation for unlimited messages and tracking points and then simply pause the service until you are ready to use it again. The SOS functionality is included in all plans and never costs extra to use.
The Somewear Global Hotspot is a fierce competitor in the realm of satellite trackers. The impressive features, polished smartphone app, and compact size put it at the same level with leaders such as the Garmin inReach Mini. What sets it apart, though, are its low-cost data plans, which can be more economical at every level of use.
Notable drawbacks are that there is no on-device functionality (except start/stop tracking and SOS activation), so you are reliant on your smartphone and limited by its battery. You also cannot download different maps to the device or share your tracking information publicly or easily with anyone who is not in your phone’s contacts and who doesn’t have a Somewear account.
That being said, this device could give you and your family peace of mind and constant communication during outdoor adventures for a thru-hiker-friendly price.
Hugh Owen: Garmin inReach Mini
On the Trail
The Garmin inReach Mini is a small package with a packload of features. On-trail connections to home are dependable and fast with the Mini’s text messaging. Weather reports powered by Dark Sky provide three- or seven-day forecasts. Check your location and altitude. Turn on tracking to keep a daily tally of your time hiking, average speed, and distance hiked. Connect the Mini to your smartphone using Garmin’s free Earthmate app to see your position on a map, track your progress on a map, send longer texts more easily using your phone’s keypad, and see a detailed weather report. And did I say how small it is? About the size of a mini Snickers bar.
Keeping in Touch with Home
This is the reason I bought a Mini. I grew tired of searching for cell reception to send text messages to my wife, telling her where I was and that I was OK. I set up three preset messages—Leaving camp for the day; Checking in, everything OK (the only one I send while day-hiking during COVID-19 hiking restrictions); and Stopping for the night at camp—and I can send as many as I want for free, wherever and whenever I want, using the Iridium satellite network. (Responses count toward a monthly text minimum.)
Sending texts is easy, and there are multiple ways to communicate with people back home or using a Garmin product on trail. Create up to three preset messages, along with a link to Mapshare, at explore.garmin.com. Then decide who will get them via text or email, or send them to Twitter or Facebook. The message can be set up to include your location and a Mapshare link that shows where you are. You can also set up quick text messages or type free-form messages. I’ve only composed free-form messages using the Earthmate app on my smartphone because writing a text on the Mini appeared daunting. I love the preset messages: they’re free, no matter how many you send, and they include latitude, longitude, and location on a map in case my wife needs to tell someone where I am.
Weather, Maps, and SOS
The Mini uses Dark Sky for three- or seven day weather forecasts, based on your location or another location you choose. You can download topo maps to the free Garmin Earthmate on your smart phone to see your location, track your progress while you hike, and navigate to a waypoint you choose. Because these are not trail maps, the navigation function is a weak spot for the Mini. I do like the tracking function that shows where you are, and how far you’ve walked, giving you an idea of how much farther to camp.
Finally, the SOS function. The EOS International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center (used by many satellite communicators) operates 24/7 to answer an SOS, track your device, and notify emergency responders in your area. A delivery confirmation that help is on the way will be sent after you trigger an SOS, followed by updates on the status of the response team. You can also respond to the emergency response service, or cancel the SOS request after it has been sent. An SOS also can be sent through a smartphone using Earthmate. The SOS button on the Mini is housed under a hard rubber covering, guarding against accidental activation. And Garmin offers rescue insurance and medical evacuation.
The MSRP is $350. I’ve seen it as low as $280, and Garmin sometimes has a year-end sale. The annual activation fee is $24.95, and after that costs vary wildly. Keeping the Mini activated for a full year carries lower monthly fees, but the total cost can be high, ranging from about $160 for the basic plan to about $600 for the most costly plan. Compare that with $14.95 a month for the least-expensive Safety plan with the option to suspend and renew service. The Freedom option with each subscription plan—Safety, Recreation, Expedition—allows you to suspend service when you’re not using it. So for a thru-hike, you could pay for six months of service and suspend service for the rest of the year. Suspending service is immediate and trouble-free. Hours after I suspended service I received an email from Garmin acknowledging that service was suspended, and the next day received an email with a tally of charges for texts and tracking points beyond what my subscription plan allowed.
The inReach Mini is the smallest and lightest two-way satellite communicator I’ve found. It’s 3.5 ounces and about the size of a mini Snickers. The battery, good for about four days with text messaging and a three-day weather forecast, is a concern. Keeping it paired to a smartphone through Bluetooth drains the Mini and smart phone battery. So when I get back on trail for a multiday trip I’ll turn on the Mini only when I send a text message, or turn off my phone to disconnect Bluetooth. I did a lot of research before buying a Mini, and in the end its rich features, size and weight, two-way messaging, and ability to operate without connecting to a smartphone are what sold me. I haven’t been disappointed.
Both units were purchased by the writers, and no services were donated.
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