Not for everyone, but uniquely wonderful for those…
Source: bought it new
Price Paid: $600
Not for everyone, but uniquely wonderful for those who need it.
- As good as best backcountry consumer GPS receivers.
- As good as best satellite text communicators.
- Half-pound weight
- Battery lasts for days.
- $600 price tag
- A couple of problems Garmin says will be corrected soon.
- The five stars is for people who are weight conscious and need this much nav/comm. For most outdoorsmen, its functions are overkill.
The Garmin GPSMAP 66i introduced in June 2019 is the world’s first consumer handheld device that combines a full-featured GPS navigation tool and a satellite text message system in one half-pound, rugged, battery-efficient device. Despite the serious problems mentioned below, that capability-to-weight ratio is wroth all five stars.
The 66i has several software problems. Two of the problems are serious and completely eliminate capabilities claimed in the product description and in its user manual. You cannot store contact information in the unit. And you cannot receive weather information by satellite.
Still, it is the world's only half-pound device that is a fully functioning GPS navigator and that can send and receive text messages from anywhere in the world. This is more than an incremental improvement. It is a major advance for those who need what it will do. If you answer yes to all of the following questions, then you are in that group:
- Do you have text or email communication needs while away from from Internet service?
- Do you want high-tech navigation information when away from the Internet?
- Is weight down to the faction of a pound important to you?
- Are your smartphone’s power requirements too great for the time you are away from a recharging source?
- Can you afford a $600 backcountry device?
Guides who take less experienced people into the backcountry unsupported by animals or vehicles should definitely consider this device.
If you’re familiar with Garmin’s other products, imagine taking the top line GPS receiver in the GPSMAP series and combining it with the top line InReach communication device into one device that has about the same size, weight, ruggedness, and battery life of either of those devices by itself. That's not a perfect description. But it's close.
The 66i currently has two debilitating problems. Namely, it is not documented and it does not have the ability to store contacts. Garmin acknowledges both and says solutions are forthcoming.
For those less familiar with Garmin’s line of GPS receivers or its line of InReach communicators, here’s what you can expect from the GPSMAP 66i:
▶ Like earlier InReach devices, it sends and receives geotagged text messages and emails from anywhere on or close to the planet.
▶ It provides the necessary navigation tools available on Garmin’s backcountry GPS receivers, i.e. electronic maps, tracking, waypoint creation, etc.
▶ It is rugged, water- and dirt-resistant.
▶ It accepts the Garmin map products made for Garmin GPS receivers, i.e. it contains the inferior map products made for previous InReach devices, but it is not limited to those maps.
▶ It is energy efficient. If power is husbanded, a single charge will last for days. Garmin tech support says the battery capacity is 9.3 Watt-hours (33480 Joules). So a 10,000 milliwatt-hour external battery should completely recharge a dead 66i one time.
▶ You can manage navigation information on the 66i with Garmin Basecamp via a USB cable to a Windows (I know) or a Max (I believe). Like Garmin’s other backcountry GPS receivers, you can easily move tracks, waypoints, maps, routes, etc. between the 66i and your library of navigation information. Unlike all other InReach communication devices, you do not need an Internet connection to do this.
▶ Like previous InReach devices, the 66i communicates better than advertised in that you do not need the clear view of the sky from horizon to horizon that Garmin recommends. The devices work just fine from inside a tent at the bottom of a canyon under a heavy canopy. It will take longer for message or tracking bursts to reach the satellites, but that is all handled automatically by the device and does need user attention.
▶ Like earlier InReach devices, a simple SOS button will alert rescue authorities of your precise location and need for help.
▶ Like all InReach devices, the explore.garmin.com web site allows you keep anyone you choose informed of where you are, at worst within a few hours of real time. Even if you are so injured you cannot send an SOS, people can at least know approximately where you are.
▶ The InReach communication features do not need to be activated for the device to be used like other backcountry GPS receivers. In other words, the device can still be your GPS navigation tool even without activating the fee-based communication subscriptions.
▶ Even when you’re not in the backcountry and don’t need the navigation features, you can still send and receive text messages from anywhere on the planet without fear of monitoring by local authorities. So if your car breaks down far from the nearest cell tower, you can still get help.
For those reasons I bought the device and am grateful to Garmin for creating it. I bought it mainly for use in the backcountry. It replaces equipment, including a fragile expensive iPhone, an early InReach communicator, an Oregon 600 GPS receiver, AA batteries, and cables that collectively weighed three to four times as much as the 66i and that required significantly more user attention. I am away from the power and Internet grids for three to seven weeks every summer. About two-thirds of that time, I'm at some kind of basecamp that may have limited solar power. The rest of that time I'm walking overland carrying everything, usually without stock support.
I recognize this device is overkill for most outdoorsmen. And there are some faults that will lead others decide against this device or at least wait for improvements.
▶ It’s expensive. The device itself costs about as much as the combined cost of an InReach communicator and a GPS receiver bought separately. And like other InReach communicators, it requires a subscription to use its communication capabilities. The subscriptions in the United States range from about $10 to $100 per month.
▶ As noted above Garmin has not published printable documentation yet.
▶ As noted above, it does not store contact information. Garmin says it is working to fix that.
▶ People not familiar with InReach communication should not expect the near instant transmission of email and SMS text message networks. In the best of circumstances it takes several minutes and can take hours in unfriendly terrain under a canopy. No user attention is needed during these delays. The device automatically retries until it succeeds in sending or receiving a message.
There are many other bad design features that I consider simple nuisances that would not substantially affect the usefulness of the device.
One other thing that worries me about the future of this device is that Garmin may be moving toward web-app-only management of navigation data that requires an Internet connection. Garmin still provides free Basecamp navigation management software that does not need an Internet connection. But I’ve been told it does not plan to support that indefinitely. So it's possible in the future you will need an Internet connection to load tracks and other nav data into your Garmin devices.
If you’re only gone from the Internet for a few days and you always go where you planned to go before leaving home, then this won’t matter to you. But if you leave the Internet to go to a vacation home, basecamp, fire lookout, Forest Service guard station, fishing lodge, forest fire, distant trek that takes days of travel to reach or anywhere else away from the Internet for an extended time and hope to study maps, create waypoints, load tracks etc. into your Garmin device you might be out of luck.
I'm new to the device. I've used it on a couple short hikes. But the most important experience is preparing it for a longer trip later this summer. I have years experience with similar GPS receivers and InReach communicators that preceded this device.