Garmin GPSMAP 66i / 86i

Initial Thoughts

I have been running the 66i for a year now and so far have taken it up and down the country putting it to task on a range of trips. So far the device has far more pro's than it does con's and is so feature packed that you really need to learn the device to get the full potential of it, but that's true for most things now days. 

The tough looking 66i has been out kayaking, hunting, multiday hiking, SAROP's and even a horse recovery from the Kaimanawa's. It has withstood all of it. The operation is relatively intuitive and mimics most other Garmin handhelds so if you've ever used the trusty old eTrex series you'll be able to hit the ground running on the 66i. 

So far this device has left me with the warm fuzzies and I'm constantly looking for more reasons to get out and put it to use.


Since writing this article my 66i has been replaced with the 86i, an electrically identical device but with a slight larger size, The advantage of the 86i and its larger case is it adds buoyancy, I will add a review of the 86i after I have had a more realistic opportunity to use it in the field.  


The 66i comes equipped with the Garmin TopoActive maps which frankly leave a lot to be desired when compared to the LINZ topo series we are all used to and even when compared to Garmin's full featured Garmin Topo Australia and New Zealand. It's worth noting the TopoActive are different from the Garmin Topo Light and the full featured Garmin Topo Australia and New Zealand, sitting somewhere uncomfortably between the two. There is an easy fix for the map issue though, after I received my device I promptly added a series of third party mapsets to it. 

The maps I added were:

  • Mr Purple LINZ style Topo maps with additional Doc Boundaries, Titles, Roads, Hunting Areas, Animal Densities and even the Te Araroa Trail
  • OSM Routable streetmaps for NZ, These are great for on road sections of larger overlanding trips with plenty of POI's
  • NZ Marine Charts 2011, These are great for basic kayaking or small craft navigation, There may be newer more up to date versions floating around the forums however this series seemed suitable for my intended use. 

Comparing the Mr Purple maps against the TopoActive the level of detail missing from the TopoActive is very noticeable, River flats are missing detail such as the depiction of braiding, Open tops aren't as noticeable and in some cases colored the same as the surrounding bush effectively hiding them more critically especially when hunting native forest isnt distinguishable from exotic forest as it is in the LINZ series. 

The GPSMAP 66i & 86i also come with a lifetime subscription to BirdsEye which allows you to load relatively high resolution imagery to the device of the locations you are travelling to and view them in conjuction with topo data on the device, A very handy feature for hunting and finding clearings. 

The LINZ Topo map is very feature rich and has plenty of detail.

Critical terrain info such as open tops and creek beds are not very clear in the Garmin TopoActive Map.

BirdsEye makes spotting clearings easy when hunting. 

RNC 2011 Charts have plenty of detail and depth/channel info.

Battery Life

Up to 35 hours of battery life is claimed when in 10min tracking mode or 200 hours at 30min (power save) mode. It is even long when you don't use tracking and have it turned off. My typical use is quickly checking a route and messaging back home so for the most part the device is off, The exception to this being when I am recording a track on a SAROP (Search & Rescue OP) or am wanting to check my track after the trip for what ever reason. Using the device in this way I often see days of usage before needing to recharge, Given I take a power bank on most trips for charging lanterns and things this isn't to much of a hassle. If you were intending on longer trips with more use I would recommend taking a solar charger. Expedition mode is another handy feature of the device that really conserves battery life, It essentially puts the device into a half sleep mode, turning the screen off, disabling Bluetooth & ANT and still recording your track data using a smart interval most appropriate for you movement. 


For those that aren't quite aware of the difference between tracking and recording on Garmin devices the term "Tracking" refers to actually sending your location out via the Iridium network to your map share account online at a given interval (Default is every 10 mins) to your map share account, Note that you must either pay for this service or have a subscription with tracking included. From your map share page family or friends can see where you are anytime you have the tracking feature turned on. Recording on the other hand is when you record your location on the device at a given interval, This could be every few seconds or every few minutes but the difference is the unit doesn't send that record out it is stored locally. 

Personally I don't use the tracking as I don't see the value, Some argue their family can watch where they are but in reality the novelty of that typically wears off after the first few trips. Reality for most is unless your wife is dead set on knowing your every move she really isn't going to check unless she hasn't heard from you past an expected check-in. Breaking it down tracking is a nice feature but not overly practical outside of a commercial lone worker type environment or for larger scale sporting events such as the Mongol rally. Some reasons not to use the tracking include:

  1. You extend your battery life significantly by not using it
  2. Your family will get your location when you send them a message anyway. I often send a free preset message showing where my camp will be. 
  3. You need a more expensive subscription plan to run tracking
  4. You can still record where you went on the device locally and upload/sync this after your trip with map share or Garmin Basecamp for analysis

All in all the tracking really doesn't add any value to my use cases especially considering when I send a message back home from camp it is tagged with my location anyway, so for me the benefit of tracking versus the extended battery life of not using it really doesn't seem to balance up for me. I'm sure you will have your own opinion on this. 


Now for many people this is certainly the what puts the 66i and infact any inReach product well and truly above the that of a "normal" GPSr, The ability to communicate well out of reach of conventional cell services and in many cases VHF radio coverage. The inReach range of products be it the inReach Mini or the GPSMAP 66i all connect to the outside world via the Iridium network, The only satellite network to currently offer global pole to pole coverage. 

To keep this review simple and easy to swallow I will break the messaging into 4 components.


Messaging is a great feature but requires an active subscription to keep to use. Luckily the subscriptions aren't overly prohibitive. The subscriptions are available on annual contracts for a slightly cheaper rate or a freedom plan which cost a touch more but you aren't locked into a contract and can suspend the plan over the months you may not need it, for a lot of people their outdoor adventures stop during winter. 

I am just on the freedom safety plan which is the smallest plan costing only $25. It includes: 

  • 10 messages 
  • Unlimited preset messages
  • No Tracking (I don't use it anyway)
  • Unlimited SOS 
  • Basic Weather (Uses a Message)
  • Premium Weather ($1.70)

On this plan if you exceed your 10 message quota which I quite often do given you pay for messages received as well as sent, it will cost you 85c per message additional which I don't find to bad. More often than not I only message home at camp to let them know I got a deer, or am staying longer/delayed but ok etc. 

Considering the next plan up will be $59 and includes 40 messages, Even if you exceed your 10 messages on the safety plan by 40 bringing your total to 50 messages it will cost you the same as the $59 plan. Garmin offer a range of inReach subscriptions as well as customizable plans for business. 

Preset Messages

Preset messages are messages that you define when you set up the device, The content and recipients of the message are fixed in nature and cannot be changed in the field. The inReach services allows you to create 3 preset messages which you can sent as many times as you like without it counting as a message off your quota. 

Typical preset messages are things like, "Camping here for the night" , "Just checking in and everything is ok". They enable you to send a quick update to family or friends with a click of a button. They can also reply to the presets if they want but this will cost a message. 

Freeform Messages

Freeform messages as the name suggests are messages you type in free form. They are also the messages your plan will count towards your included messages and charge you overage if you use more than your plan allowance. 

There are two ways to do this, on the device itself or on a smart phone paired via via Bluetooth. I prefer using my phone paired to the device as this allows much faster typing in a manner similar to what we are used to, In order to type on the device you end up navigating around a keypad with arrow keys and selected everything letter by letter. 

Messaging directly on the device, using the arrow keys to manually selected each letter.

Typing with the modern touch screen of a smartphone makes messaging a breeze.

Satellite Limitations

One of the biggest complaints I see with inReach products is an unrealistic expectation that it should perform and be as reliable as a urban cell service which most of us are accustomed too. Many people complain that messages don't always send when they are deep in a valley or under thick canopy. 

Having come from a background where I have used satellite phones and terminals you quickly learn the limitations of the technology and how to minimize the chances of bad connection's, The biggest solver is ensuring the device must has a clear view of the sky. People often don't realize with satellite we are dealing with weak signals sent to us from a long way away. In the case of Iridium the satellites are 780km above our head, that's a long way.  

If we are under heavy canopy its likely the canopy is preventing a reliable connection to the satellites overhead, We can move to an area with thinner canopy to send our message or better yet a clearing or stream. If we find ourselves in a deep valley it may simply be a matter of the satellite we need hasnt yet moved itself high enough in the sky to see us and is currently blocked via the ridges around us. 

Iridium Where?

The 66i & 86i both support 3rd party apps, I would strongly recommend installing the Iridium Where app onto the device from Connect IQ store. It is a free app that maps out the current location of the satellite's in the sky. I use it when I am in tough terrain such as deep valleys to find the direction and height of the nearest satellite so I can see when it will be in view or I can use it to move myself into a position that does have view. 

Here we can see that there are two satellites potentially in view with there absolute distance to us shown along with the path they will follow represented by the straight line in front. The outside edge of the circle map is the horizon and the circle in the middle represents a 45 degree elevation whilst the red dot is directly overhead. 
Below the satellite map we can see a map of the world shown the current location of each satellite in the constellation. This helps us track which satellite's will next be in view and where it will go. 

For the hunters among us

Ballistics Calculator

As previously mentioned the 66i & 86i both support 3rd party app's from the Connect IQ app store. One of my favorites I have installed is the TruFlite Ballistic Calculator. It is compatible with a range of Garmin watches as well as a variety of handhelds. The app does have some limitations like only being able to configure one rifle and one ammunition type, It is also not clear if the calculation takes into consideration the Coriolis effect or spin drift, A positive however it does appear to be updated frequently. 

I have configured mine with the rifle data for my 6.5 Creedmoor and Hornady 147gr ELD-M's I typically hunt with. It has a rather simple interface of "up"/"down" to increase target distance and "enter" to generate the firing solution. 

Comparing against my firing solution generated from Applied Ballistics there is a slight difference in the elevation between AB and TruFlite (Typically .2mil @ 400ish). I have yet to properly assess this at a range to verify the TruFlite solution. Despite this it cant be much short of a positive to know there are developers out there working on usable and functional app's for the inReach. 

"Sight n Go"

Picture this, You're out glassing some animals on another hill across the river, They haven't spotted you so you decide to set up, ranging the shot the range finder tells you 360m. A comfortable shot is taken and you achieve a ethical kill The animal drops, now begins the task of descending your side of the river before climbing back up to where you though the animal was. The shrub is thick in places and makes finding it hard. Eventually you find it, or maybe you don't, This is a scenario that plays out often in NZ's unique landscape.

Now what if you could drop a waypoint from your GPS right in close proximity to where the animal was? Sight' N Go is the answer. This unique feature allows you to look down your device pointing it at a target to get its direction and then entering the distance to the target and hey presto, you've just dumped a waypoint at the location of the target. As simple is this feature is from a hunting perspective that is a huge value add.

My mind is largely made up on this feature, no more fighting scrub, no more racing darkness and no more lost animals, It's an easy game changer. 

Posted: Sat 24 Jul 2021


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