Oct 18, 2011 at 10:15 am #1280777
I would like to get a handheld GPS unit for finding my way when i get off-trail and can't get back. Last weekend we've lost a short trail around 9,000ft in Inyo and ended up backtracking 2 times while trying to find it. We never did find it and had to change our trip plans.
I would like to get something under $200 new or used. Something that will give me ability to save my trip in memory, load my waypoints, save elevation profiles, long battery life. I don't know what else is possible so don't have any other requirements at the moment.
Any suggestions or advise on what to get? I don't mind buying used as long as it is not obsolete. I was thinking about Garmin units since they are very common…thoughts?Oct 18, 2011 at 10:22 am #1792011
drowning in spamMember
I think any Garmin handheld within the last ten years would fill those requirements, although using the older units will require that you have a serial port on your computer or have an adapter. The advantage of newer units are a faster satellite lock (good) and color screens (meh). No matter what you get, make sure you really understand how to use it. I once got lost for a little while even though I could see my location and where I wanted to be because I didn't quite understand what the gps was telling me to do.Oct 18, 2011 at 10:55 am #1792020
If you don't need mapping capability the Garmin Foretrex 301 is pretty ideal and has a really long battery life.Oct 18, 2011 at 11:56 am #1792045
Garmin has always been the market leader for consumer models, so it is a good place to start shopping.
You need a GPS receiver that is optimized to your intended purpose, hiking and backpacking. That is important, because you don't want one that is intended for marine use or aviation or any of the other specialties.
GPS receivers come in all shapes and flavors. The important thing is what its display is like. Some basic models only display lat/long numbers, some direction letters and arrows, and not much else. Others display your position on a screen that has no underlying map database for topography or roads or trails. Still others will display it all, and many are in color. You really want to think about how this handheld instrument will work in conjunction with your home computer.
The bad news is that the fancy color map displays burn up a fair amount of battery power, and of course they cost more in the first place.
I keep the color model in my car (where there is plenty of +12VDC power available), and I carry one of two monochrome models on the trail. I do the mission planning/mapping on my home computer and produce a printed color map that I carry.
–B.G.–Oct 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm #1792069
given your requirements and your price point I would get the new Garmin eTrex 20
You can load free topo maps from GPS File Depot or you can buy the 24k topo maps from Garmin, which are routeable.
Since you want to record your track, the battery life of 25 hours might be challenging on a long weekend trip. But that can be fixed with a second set of batteries.
ManfredOct 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm #1792080
@bookLocale: Northern California
I bought a Garmin gpsmap 60 csx for just under $200.00 at rei because the model has been upgraded and they're discontinuing this model.They only had a few left at the time at my local store. It's a bit heavy but it's very sturdy and reliable. I'd never pay the price for the new model; if you can get this puppy on sale it seems like a good deal. But listen to Bob–the man knows from gps.Oct 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm #1792081
@halfturboLocale: Northernish California
If you can hold off a month, last year's "black Friday" (day after Thanksgiving) had some terrific GPS deals. I was able to get an Oregon 450 that day for the best price I've seen.
Having used units with smaller screens I'm convinced a larger display is needed to really use mapping GPSs properly. OTOH a small display is okay if you don't want base maps.
Generally speaking, Garmins are solid choices. They have easier to learn user interfaces–both controls and menus–than most others I've tried. This makes a big difference, especially when you're tired.
RickOct 18, 2011 at 1:10 pm #1792088
Yea, i have no problem waiting until Thanksgiving, so I'll do that.
I've looked on Garmin website and really liked the eTrex 30 and Dakota 20, but they are somewhat pricey.
So the base map is no good for hiking right? I need to get Topo maps and i can get 3-d party free maps to load onto Garmin? Do they have the trails in popular national parks?Oct 18, 2011 at 1:28 pm #1792095
Again, this is a case where you ought to plan out the entire "system."
For example, I operate 99% of the time in California, so I have the TOPO! program for my home computer with the California set of topo maps (eleven CD-Roms). Along with a color printer, this allows me to plan out my trip in advance, and I can produce a custom printed map of my planned route. In some cases, I transfer some of the critical waypoints over to my handheld GPS receiver before heading to the field.
If you don't go through that mission planning step at home, then you are stuck with just the display on the handheld. Assuming that it is a mapping-type GPS receiver, you can see the fine detail for a tiny area, or you can see the overview for a large area, but the display will not allow you to view nearly as much information at once as on a printed map.
Some mapping-type receivers are sold with a map database inside. Some, you have to acquire and load in map databases. Let's see, do you want streets and roads, or do you want topographic, or something else? You probably won't get everything that you want and get it all wrapped up into a $200 handheld package.
A handheld receiver with a large color display is nice, but that weighs more and uses more battery power.
I own one GPS receiver (1997-model) and it still shows the waypoints in it that I stored in 1997, despite the fact that it is a non-mapping type.
I think I bought my first receiver in 1994 and taught my first GPS class in 1995.
–B.G.–Oct 18, 2011 at 1:42 pm #1792098
I don't need the streets or city navigation. This will be for hiking/camping only. I don't care for the color screen, but it seems that the rest of the features that i do want mostly come in units with color screen.
Having the ability to "zoom in" and see if the trail is slightly left or right from my location is kind of what I have in mind. Having the ability to connect via USB is essential.
So i can insert a waypoint on a map on a computer, upload to the unit and it will show me where to go to get to that point?
these units only show direction to the waypoint or do they have the ability to follow the trail instead of trying to lead one through a frozen peak?Oct 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm #1792100
@halfturboLocale: Northernish California
It's not that a basemap isn't useful, they can be really helpful, it's more than once I began to use a larger display I realized how difficult a time I'd had before. They don't yet subsitute for a paper map but a larger display makes route planning much easier.
NG Topo will swap waypoints, routes and tracks with Garmin, but not the maps themselves (Topo will talk with certain Magellin units). But you can get maps from Garmin and free online sources too, but I don't have any experience with the latter. I have Garmin's "California-on-a-chip" 1:24,000 topo, so haven't had the need.
RickOct 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm #1792137
It would benefit you more to work on your woodcraft and navigtional skills than to plunk down money for an electronic gizmo. With a decent map and attention to your route, backtracking should be a fairly routine maneuver.
The skills involve weight nothing and have a very long battery life.Oct 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm #1792165
Follow the advice from both Don and Bob. Get better with map & compass, AND get a small lightweight GPS. Combine these things, and you have great power. A surgeon is not a surgeon because he has a scalpel, he is a surgeon because of his knowledge and training. But give a trained surgeon a good scalpel, and he will do much better work than one equipped with a wooden spoon.
Forget the color mapping units. All you need from a GPS is:
– current location coordinates, which you then reference on your gridded paper map. Don't know how to use a gridded map? Learn.
– GOTO function for a waypoint that you either set at home or took from your gridded paper map. Don't know how to use a gridded map? Learn.
– route following function to follow a route you either set at home or pieced together in the field from waypoints you took from your gridded map. Don't know how to use… well, you know the rest.
Some pointers on GPS hardware:
– Make sure the unit has a modern, high sensitivity receiver. This will ensure great performance the vast majority of the time.
– Except for rare cases, you should never need to run a GPS continually. Use it to find the way to the next point, then turn off the GPS and use your compass and terrain association to get there. A set of lithium batteries should last for many weeks this way.
– IMO the Garmin Foretrex 301 and 401 are pretty much unbeatable for navigators who pack light.Oct 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm #1792171
"With a decent map and attention to your route, backtracking should be a fairly routine maneuver."
The problem is that sometimes backtracking is not an option. Suppose you are doing a 100-mile loop trip, and you get about 90 miles around it, and then the trail disappears? Fresh overnight snow might leave a foot covering trails, and that might make some terrain hard for travel. It's hard to sight-in a compass bearing at night.
It shouldn't matter too much whether you are looking at the topo map within a GPS receiver, or else a printed topo map from home, and you should be able to follow either one by terrain. My experience is that I can't see enough detail map data in the GPS receiver display. That's why I carry a printed map with my route on it, and that is what TOPO! is all about.
Also, if you are using a GPS receiver full-time, it tends to use a fair amount of battery power. If the battery craps out and the GPS stops, you need the printed map as your backup system.
My next outing covers about 22 miles and goes through one 12,000-foot pass. I'm expecting enough snow up there that the trail can't be found. As long as visibility is good, I can navigate just by looking at the terrain features. However, suppose that visibility drops down to zero. I have a half-dozen critical waypoints picked off the map and transferred to my GPS receiver. So, I can move by instruments-only.
–B.G.–Oct 18, 2011 at 7:09 pm #1792253
Yup, alternate between VFR and IFR as needed.Oct 20, 2011 at 9:52 am #1792974
This may be a silly question but what is the difference between a 'mapping' and 'non-mapping' GPS?
I ask because I too am looking into a GPS for geo-caching and basic trail navigation (along with a map).
On a side note I hiked last winter with a guy who had a GPS and his unit tracked where we had hiked, showing the path we had taken along the trail. Is that 'mapping'?Oct 20, 2011 at 10:15 am #1792980
You need to understand mapping a little.
Nearly all GPS receivers will display a track log. This is just a path of where you've been moving, and it is just a straight or curving line with no background. You can generally zoom in or out, and you can see where you are now with respect to anything else that has been saved, such as waypoints. Waypoints may be landmarks or places that can be described within the grid reference (e.g. lat/long). So, seeing where you are now and with respect to your track log, you can guess which way you are headed, and if that is toward your target waypoint. Waypoints can be saved on the fly when you pass, or they can be picked theoretically off a good topo map and manually entered in. This was the way that many GPS receivers worked in 1997.
Starting ten years or so ago, some GPS receivers had a map database installed. The map database might be only streets and roads (for auto use), or it might be topographic (for hiker use), or it might be marine (for yachts), or it might be aeronautical (for pilots). The map database forms the background for the track log display mentioned above. A few products can hold multiple database files and can be switched. A few products just kind of mixes all map data together for display. If there is a landmark shown in your database map, then you can do a GOTO that landmark. That will display a vector with distance and bearing to the landmark.
So, a mapping database will generally require a good color display, and that burns a little battery power. It will require a faster processor, and that burns a little power.
I've been using these things for 16-17 years now, and I've determined that I need to plan the mission on my home computer using TOPO!, then transfer the critical waypoints to my handheld GPS receiver, then print out a custom color map for the area of operation. Then I carry only the handheld receiver in the field. I no longer work with permanent GPS installations.
–B.G.–Oct 20, 2011 at 10:24 am #1792985
Oooo, thanks Bob! That was very informative!Oct 20, 2011 at 10:36 am #1792995
If you shop at REI, they will try to sell you a GPS receiver that bears a good profit margin for them. Those fancy units cost a lot, and then there are the add-ons like data cables, extra map databases, instruction manuals, etc. Then REI will try to sell you some GPS classes. In some cases, the GPS class is taught by somebody with wide-range GPS skills and experience. In other cases, the GPS class is taught by somebody with very narrow GPS experience, like maybe for geocaching only, and they feel that the entire world of GPS revolves around geocaching. Not so.
I've run into REI sales clerks trying to sell GPS receivers, and the clerks are absolutely worthless for any technical question about GPS.
If you watch a modern police drama on TV, you will learn how the criminal's car GPS receiver sends its position that the police use. Not so.
There are a few good web sites with general GPS information.
FWIW, I own three receivers. One is an ancient 1997-vintage Garmin that does not do mapping, and I have used it on five continents. One is a 2002-vintage Garmin that does not do mapping, and I bought it specifically for lightweight navigation when all else fails. One is a 2009-vintage Garmin with street/road map database that I use in my car.
–B.G.–Oct 20, 2011 at 11:32 am #1793017
@kiddzosoLocale: N. California
From my experience the free GPS topos usually have the trails for national parks. They also tend to have many of the national forest/wilderness area trails on them. With Garmin, it comes with a program called Base Camp. You can download the maps and then open them on your computer to view on a large screen. Then you can check ahead of time/compare them with USGS maps, etc., to see if the trails you want are represented correctly. If they are not, someone may have created a detailed national park map you can download as well. You can have several maps on your GPS unit at one time, and switch between them, or overlay some maps on others.Oct 20, 2011 at 11:44 am #1793023
So Bob, would you recommend the Garmin Foretrex 301 for what I'm looking to do with it (basic navigation while using a paper map and geo-caching)?Oct 20, 2011 at 11:51 am #1793026
Where the home computer gets important (with GPS work) is that you can find these map-sharing sites with route-sharing. What are routes?
A route is just a collection of waypoints, and if you play connect-the-dots, it will draw in a crude map of your route. It helps if the waypoints are named or numbered sequentially for the direction of travel. I've found some good shared routes before, and they were helpful.
What if you don't find any shared routes or waypoints? Then you need to use TOPO! to draw in your proposed route on one of the TOPO! maps. That takes a little practice to be able to do it accurately, and it takes time.
I have found free topo maps before, and some of them are very good. Others are free for a reason, either because the resolution is not good, they are out-of-date, or they have errors. In general, it is easier to find a free electronic map file than it is to find a free printed map.
Incidentally, if you use the term "topo" it refers to a generic topographic map. If you use the term "TOPO!" it refers to the National Geographic topo map program for a computer.
I think I have one TOPO! disk here with national park topo maps, and it is next to worthless. Either it doesn't have all of the parks, and the missing one is the one that I need, or else it has poor detail.
–B.G.–Oct 20, 2011 at 11:58 am #1793030
Bob – do you still teach GPS classes? If so, where? I've been thinking perhaps we should learn something about them, and a class taught by you sounds ideal.Oct 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm #1793038
No, I don't teach classes anymore. What I taught was a GPS technology class, not exactly a practical class for outdoors people. This had to do with fixed-station GPS receivers for a completely different purpose other than navigation, and I have been a presenter at national conferences. I've been a GPS user for many years, and I taught one or two basic GPS classes to Sierra Club groups.
If you have questions, then I might be able to answer, but there are too many people running around out there who don't know what questions to ask.
–B.G.–Oct 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm #1793039
By the way, this thread was prompted by me getting off the trail and not finding where it went. I've had iPhone with me and turned it on thinking that since it has GPS – it may be able to show me where i'm at so i could compare it with the map and get back on the trail.
While we were by Agnew Pass (close to Silver/June lakes in Mammoth) the GPS showed a "lock" and then showed that we were in the middle of Barstow, CA – which is only 250 miles away.
I know that cellphone should not be relied upon as navigation device, but i had no idea it would be this useless.
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