EPIRB vs InReach

This is a fairly common question I get asked so I thought to lay out the key differences in a maritime context.

I can’t comment in great detail on land-based use cases so research that further for yourself.

Both are primarily types of emergency beacons, while an InReach can also be used for general comms.

SubscriptionNo Yes
Business ModelInternational non-profitCorporately operated
Emergency at seaPrimarySecondary

EPIRBs are designed specifically for emergency response, by automatically (category 1) or manually activating (category 2) in the event of distress.

A Garmin InReach can be used at sea but you SHOULD NOT be used as a substitute to an EPIRB. By all means use one for two-way messaging with friends and family or reach out for assistance after activating your EPIRB.

Key Features Compared

EPIRBs are designed solely to send out a distress signal to the search and rescue satellite system (SARSAT) when you activate it.

Some EPIRBs like the ACR GlobalFix V5 feature a Return Link Service (RLS) that acknowledges your distress signal has been picked up and help is on the way.

InReach devices offer two-way messaging capabilities through the Iridium satellite network. This means you can send and receive text messages, which can be crucial in non-life-threatening situations or for detailed communication with rescue services.

EPIRB: Due to its alignment with the international SARSAT system, EPIRBs provide coverage anywhere in the world, ensuring a reliable signal regardless of location. It’s precisely intended for maritime emergencies.

Garmin InReach: Operate using the global Iridium satellite network, offering extensive coverage that encompasses nearly the entire globe. Iridium covers the polar regions, unlike Inmarsat or Globalstar.

EPIRB: Generally comes with a non-rechargeable battery that can last several years without replacement — typically 5 to 10. Once activated, EPIRBs can continuously transmit a distress signal for at least 48 hours, as required by international standards.

InReach: Offers a rechargeable battery with varying life spans based on usage. When in continuous tracking mode, the battery may last up to several days, but frequent message communication will deplete the battery more rapidly.

Overview of an EPIRB

As I mentioned earlier your EPIRB is engineered to work within the international Cospas-Sarsat distress system.

Upon activation, an EPIRB transmits a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency, which contains unique identification information and, if integrated with GPS, your precise location.

You can activate your EPIRB manually by switching it on, or it may auto-deploy if submerged, using a hydrostatic release unit.

After activation, the EPIRB’s signal continues to emit, and in many models, an integrated strobe light will begin flashing, making it easier for rescuers to locate you, especially at night or in poor visibility conditions.

Overview of InReach

If you are considering if a sat phone is worth it, then a Garmin InReach can be viewed as a cheaper alternative.

Garmin uses the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) for any triggered SOS signal which is subscription-based and is a huge point of departure from an EPIRB.

Messaging: Two-way text messaging capabilities. You can communicate with family, friends, or emergency services from anywhere in the world.

Tracking: InReach devices provide tracking features that send your GPS location at intervals to friends or family.

Usage Scenarios

As I alluded to at the start, this article is written from a maritime perspective and the right choice between either depends largely on your specific context and requirements.

Maritime Applications

An EPIRB is mandatory on many commercial ships and forms a vital part of marine communication and GMDSS.

Sailors engaging in serious offshore fishing, or those journeying through remote oceanic routes, generally regard an EPIRB as essential.

Once you have one on board you can look further into the benefits of a satellite phone over an EPIRB.

Land Expeditions

Conversely, an InReach device is a versatile choice for land-based adventures. Whether you’re hiking, skiing, or traveling in a remote area, an InReach provides two-way text messaging, GPS tracking, and SOS capabilities.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), are variations of EPIRB suited for individual use, that don’t require subscriptions but are more limited in features compared to an InReach.

Frequently Asked Questions

An EPIRB is primarily designed for maritime use, so it may not be the most practical choice on land. In comparison, a PLB or inReach device is portable and suitable for personal use in various terrains.

PLBs, like EPIRBs, are highly reliable in emergencies due to their use of the Cospas-Sarsat system. However, an EPIRB is registered to a vessel and designed to float, making it more suited to maritime emergencies.

While the Garmin inReach Mini 2 offers communication and SOS capabilities, it is not a replacement for an EPIRB, which is specifically designed to signal maritime disasters to Search and Rescue organizations.

Nice to e-meet you. I’m Justin, a seasoned sailing journalist and communications pro with more than 25 years of extensive industry experience. And a track record of successfully promoting teams and events on the global stage.