Pint-Sized Powerhouse

With a plethora of tools, Garmin’s updated GPSMap handheld line takes a giant step forward.

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The Garmin GPSMap 86 family is a powerhouse of communication and connectivity. With a dizzying array of technology inside, this handheld provides two-way satellite messaging, GPS chart plotting and integrations with many onboard electronics, all in a compact, weather-resistant, buoyant device.

Handheld GPS units haven’t changed a whole lot since the mid-90s, when features included location display, a basic trip computer and perhaps a low-res map view. Garmin’s GPSMap 86 series improves on these old features by introducing two-way satellite messaging, high-res Garmin G3 charts and a toolbox full of other functions. The GPSMap 86 series replaces a few products in Garmin’s product line, serving as the update to both the venerable GPSMap 78 and the inReach Explorer+.

The $650 GPSMap 86sci is the first full-featured marine GPS handheld with inReach capabilities built with Garmin’s G3 cartography. The line starts with the $400 GPSMap 86s, which comes with a worldwide basemap and no inReach functionality. Next is the $450 GPSMap 86sc, which adds BlueChart G3 but does not have the inReach functionality. And lastly at $600 is the GPSMap 86i, which features inReach functionality but does not have G3 cartography. All models have a 3-inch display. There’s WiFi, Bluetooth, ANT+, GPS, an Iridium radio (sci and i models) and a 3-axis compass.

Garmin includes a cradle-style mount with a USB charging cable that mates to two pins on the bottom of the GPSMap 86. There’s also a Micro-USB charging port under a secure rubber cover at the top of the unit. An accessory mount that takes power directly from your boat’s 12-volt system is also available.

The SOS button is on the right side of the unit under another secure rubber cover. To deploy the SOS function on the unit, the cover has to be lifted and the button underneath held down. Pressing the button again cancels an active emergency. The cover is secure and the button recessed enough that I can’t imagine there will be too many accidental deployments.

With their robust floating cases, all of the 86 series handhelds feel just a little bit too big in your hand. The tradeoff is the unit also feels solidly made—it will stand up to regular use on a boat.

There’s a speaker in the unit that generates alerts, which are quite loud. I was happy to find the unit also has a vibration motor so it can rumble in addition to producing sounds, a feature which is particularly helpful in loud environments where an alert might be missed.

Garmin uses a simple, icon-based user interface. The home screen displays all of the device’s many functions; the 86sci has three screens full of icons. In addition to the home screen icons, the page button on the keypad cycles through a list of favorite screens.

Large analog buttons allow for easy control when underway.

Large analog buttons allow for easy control when underway.

There’s more functionality in this little guy than I can possibly cover, but as I used the unit I noticed it behaves differently from other Garmin marine products. The modifications made to the 86 series include an increased size, G3 cartography and remote control of Fusion stereos and Garmin autopilots.

Immediately after unboxing, I found myself trying to touch the screen to control it. Let me save you some trouble: It’s not a touchscreen. Garmin explained that part of the reason for this is to maximize water resistance and avoid issues with wet fingers. This makes sense, though I do sometimes find myself missing the touchscreen as I use the directional pad to scroll around. The good news is the Explore app provides an alternative option to control the unit from the screen of your mobile device.

The GPSMap 86sci (and the non-inReach GPSMap 86sc) comes bundled with Garmin’s BlueCharts G3 coastal charts (for the U.S. and Bahamas), built using Navionics data. These charts deliver good detail and display nicely on the 3-inch screen.

Routes can be built on the device or via the Garmin Explore app. Once defined, routes can be followed from the device, though unlike many marine GPS units there isn’t a specific route-following mode. Instead, the route is displayed on the chart and the data bar above the chart can be changed to display information about the route or the next waypoint. I found the route-following capabilities minimal compared to an inexpensive mounted GPS unit like a Garmin EchoMap 43.

The GPSMap 86 series replaces the GPSMap 78 series and when viewed as a successor to the 78 series, the 86 is a big improvement. The screen is larger, with higher resolution and roughly 10 times the internal storage. The charts are higher resolution and the device is much faster.

The inReach functionality built into the GPSMap 86sci and 86i is what sets these devices apart from any other GPS handheld (save Garmin’s previous inReach devices). It allows two-way messaging, tracking, weather updates and interactive SOS all via the Iridium satellite network. Two-way messaging allows you to send and receive messages with SMS, email and Facebook contacts. You can either send preset messages to predetermined recipients—such as “we’re underway” and “we’ve arrived” to a shore-based safety contact—or type your own message to any recipient. Messages can be composed on the device using the onscreen keyboard and the device’s directional pad (a little cumbersome for wordier messages), or within the Garmin Explore app on a mobile device (much easier if you have a lot to say).

One of inReach’s best-known features is its real-time location tracking. The GPSMap 86sci’s LiveTrack uploads your position on an interval that can be set anywhere from every two minutes to four hours; more frequent location tracking will reduce battery life. Garmin says the unit’s expedition mode—which turns off the screen, enters power save mode and collects fewer GPS track points using a 30-minute LiveTrack interval—will allow it to last 200 hours on a single charge. Of course, all of this is moot if the device is plugged in.

Once the data is transmitted from the handheld, it is uploaded to Garmin’s Explore servers and available to be reviewed and shared as the account owner desires. Although the handheld has BlueChart G3 charts, the Garmin share website only has surface maps available.

The Explore app provides a much easier place to compose a custom message and is a good place to review collected data or check the forecast, but it’s not useful to plan a route on the water. This drawback isn’t because of any limitations on transferring routes, waypoints or any other data between the app and the handheld (those are all excellent and in my testing quite reliable). The trouble is that the app doesn’t display nautical charts. So instead, you’re left to plan a route through water using a road or topo map. That’s not a viable planning scheme, and it’s really a pity. Route creation in the app is intuitive, quick and easy, but without visibility of depth soundings, aids to navigation and other critical features typically found on a nautical chart, it’s also dangerous. Garmin says they’ve heard from users asking for nautical charts in the app and are looking into adding them.

Monthly service plans start at as little as $12 a month when paid annually for the safety subscription. As the name implies, this plan is for those who want to be sure they have an active device they can use to transmit an SOS message. The inReach product pages are clear that you must have an active subscription for the SOS functions to work. On their Freedom plans, Garmin allows you to suspend service one month at a time for no charge.

The many capabilities of the GPSMap 86 make it a great tool on almost any size boat. On a smaller boat, the waterproof handheld may be the only navigational tool you need. On a larger boat it’s probably not going to be your primary navigational instrument but it can be a valuable backup tool. On a dinghy, the buoyant, waterproof GPSMap 86 provides valuable tools while boating. Plus, the inReach functionality can be just as useful when you get to shore. In every case, the two-way messaging, real-time tracking and SOS capabilities provide peace of mind and safety no matter how you’re using them.

On my own boat, the 86 will likely spend much of its time in the powered cradle, but it will come out and join us when we use the dinghy to explore new areas. I can’t think of an active boater who wouldn’t benefit from what these devices offer.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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