The handheld GPS hasn’t changed a whole lot since the mid-1990s, when a unit could display a boat’s location, a basic trip computer and a fairly low-resolution map view. Now, Garmin’s GPSMap 86 series changes that, with capabilities that include two-way satellite messaging, GPS chartplotter features, high-resolution Garmin G3 charts and more.
A number of handhelds are part of the new series. The entry-level unit is the $400 GPSMap 86s, which comes with a worldwide base map but no inReach functionality. The $450 GPSMap 86sc adds BlueChart G3, but has no inReach functionality. The $600 GPSMap 86i has inReach functionality but no G3 cartography. The 86sci has the BlueChart G3 and the inReach functionality and retails for about $650.
All models have a 3-inch transflective TFT display. There’s WiFi, Bluetooth, ANT+, GPS, an Iridium radio and a three-axis compass. A lithium-ion battery is inside, and there’s a micro USB connector on the back for charging and sharing data via NMEA 0183, Garmin Serial, text or MTP for media transfer. An SOS button is on the right side, under a rubber cover. The button is recessed to prevent accidental SOS calls.
A cradle-style mount with a USB charging cable comes with the GPSMap 86. There’s also a USB charging port at the top of the unit. A mount sold separately takes power from a boat’s DC electrical system.
All of the handhelds in the 86 series are a bit larger than the hiking- and outdoor-focused GPSMap 66 series. That’s because the 86 series floats. It also has a speaker to generate alerts, along with the ability to vibrate. The vibrate function can be particularly helpful amid wind and engine noise, where alert tones might be missed.
It takes three screens to scroll through all the functions of the GPSMap 86sci. There’s more functionality in the 86sci than I can possibly cover here, but I noticed that it behaves differently from other Garmin marine products. For starters, it’s not a touch screen. Garmin says the design maximizes water resistance. A directional pad lets users scroll around, and the Explore app allows control from the screen of a mobile device.
The 86sci comes bundled with Garmin’s BlueCharts G3 coastal charts for the United States and Bahamas. These charts, based on Navionics data, deliver good detail on the 3-inch screen. Routes can be built on the device or via the Garmin Explore app. I found the route-following capabilities minimal compared to a mounted GPS unit like a Garmin EchoMap 43, but the GPSMap 86 can go from the deck of a boat to a hike and seamlessly provide maps, communications and weather updates.
The GPSMap 86 user interface is based on the outdoor-focused GPSMap 66, which in turn comes from the inReach family of products like the Explorer+ and inReach SE+. 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 users to send and receive messages with SMS, email and Facebook contacts. Messages can be composed on the device using the onscreen keyboard and directional pad, or with the Garmin Explore app on a mobile device.
Weather can be downloaded using the inReach Iridium connection, which means it has the ability to receive updated weather nearly anywhere on the globe. The device will receive a four-day weather basic forecast or an eight-day premium forecast and, optionally, a marine weather forecast for a selected location. The basic and premium forecasts provide daily summaries with two-hour detail, and can be selected for more information about temperature, precipitation, cloud coverage, wind and humidity.
One of inReach’s best-known features is its real-time location tracking. The GPSMap 86sci’s LiveTrack uploads a boat’s position on an interval between two minutes and four hours. More frequent location tracking will reduce battery life, while less frequent tracking allows the device to last longer. Garmin says the unit will last 200 hours per battery charge in expedition mode—which turns off the screen, saves power and collects fewer GPS track points.
With the new generation of inReach-capable devices, Garmin has migrated away from the Earthmate app and replaced it with the Explore app. From what I can tell, the capabilities of these two apps are similar, except that Earthmate supports NOAA charts while Explore can’t show marine charts. (Garmin says users want nautical charts in the app, so they may be added.) The Explore app does provide a much easier place to compose a custom message, and a good place to review collected data or check a weather forecast.
And, the handheld unit can control an ANT+ Fusion stereo or a Garmin Autopilot. Additionally, a long list of Garmin watches can be used to control GPSMap 86 devices including reading messages, sending preset messages, triggering an SOS and controlling tracking. The handheld display also can show boat data from a compatible Garmin multifunction display.
And, the unit is good for anchor alarms. If a smartphone is paired to a GPSMap 86, phone notifications will appear on the handheld too. This feature seems especially handy on an open boat, where a skipper’s phone might be stowed.
Monthly service plans start at $12 when paid annually for the safety subscription. This plan is for boaters who want an active device to transmit an SOS message. On its Freedom plans,
Garmin allows users to suspend service for one month at a time with no charge.
Overall, the GPSMap 86sci demonstrates how much technology can be packed into a handheld package. On my own 57-foot powerboat, this device is likely to spend much of its time in the powered cradle, providing location information to my friends and family while giving me peace of mind that I can always get messages out and receive them regardless of cellular service. It’s also likely to join us when we take the dinghy out to explore new areas, especially when there is no cellular service.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.