Tips and Advice for the Outdoors



Choosing a GPS Receiver

Garmin is the market leader in Global Positioning System receivers, but they’re not the only manufacturer. Magellan, Lowrance and others make good units, too. With so many manufacturers and models to choose from what should you look for?

Naturally, the answer depends on what you intend to do with it.

The basic purpose of a GPS unit is to enable the user to locate his or her position at any time. That’s accomplished by reading the display on a hand-held device that receives the signal from a series of satellites in geo-synchronous orbit around the Earth. How it does that is ingenious, but a little technical so we’ll skip that for now.

But, there are actually several different types of GPS unit. One type is optimized for use at sea on a ship, others work better in cars, still others are oriented toward use for hiking. Some basics apply to every type, however.

The user should be able to interpret the display and operate the controls without a degree in electrical engineering. Some are little more than electronic maps, some of those are static (they have only pre-loaded maps), others can download new maps via wireless or through a PC/Internet connection. Some have cryptic latitude and longitude readings only, requiring you to translate your position by use of a map.

For a hiking GPS unit, long battery life is important. Navigating around wilderness areas is generally done in a fairly casual way, unless you get lost. When that happens you want the unit to stay active for a long time.

For similar reasons, a waterproof unit is a near must. Rapid, unexpected changes in the weather are common in camping areas. Rain can start and stop before you know it. You don’t want your unit to get damaged or stop functioning when you’re navigating your way back. Don’t forget to ask if the unit you’re considering is sturdy. It isn’t useful if it can’t stand up to the rigors of the trail.

The number of routes and maps, as well as the number of waypoints or coordinates, that a unit will hold varies with model. The more memory the unit has (just as with your computer), the more it can store.

Route capacity should be at least 20, but 50 or more is preferable. Waypoint capacity is a healthy 500 for most, but given that every location is a waypoint, that can add up quickly. Here again, more is better, but you pay for that.

The ability to adjust the map you see in any compass direction is very helpful. The bearing (direction) to your next waypoint is standard, but check to make sure. Knowing where you are at a given time is often almost useless. Your goal is to get from one point to the next, not simply to know which lat/long you occupy.

Ergonomic factors are somewhat important. The unit should fit comfortably in your hand and not be so heavy as to cause fatigue. It should be small enough to fit in your pocket, but light enough as to not be an annoyance while it’s there.

Be prepared to pay a little extra to get a good unit. It will last for years and they are already so feature packed that you won’t have to replace it in a year with the newest model.

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