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GPS Advice

New postPosted: Sun Jan 13, 2013 11:21 am
by AntLive
I'm looking to purchase a hiking GPS, but I feel I have come to an impasse while researching. Everything I have researched seems to have a lot of bad reviews. I thought the expert members of this forum might be the best way to get first hand information on a good GPS. Any help will be appreciated. Thanks. Ant

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Sun Jan 13, 2013 1:27 pm
by Jon
What do you need the GPS for?
I think Garmin makes a pretty good line of GPS units. They have some pretty cheap options and you can download maps online for free.

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Sun Jan 13, 2013 10:26 pm
by AntLive
Good question Jon. If I'm on marked trails why would I need a GPS? I guess I was thinking about the Altimeter and to be able to track, log, and download/upload my hikes.

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Sun Jan 13, 2013 11:11 pm
by AntLive
Wanted to throw a curve. What about something like the Suunto Core or the Casio Sensor watch? Does anyone have any thoughts on these options compared to the Handheld GPS?

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Mon Jan 14, 2013 2:26 pm
by mike
The problem with most GPS devices is that they were designed by people who don't hike. Garmin seems to have the best GPS's. But, that isn't saying much. Maybe it's because Garmin is in Kansas. Or, maybe it's because Garmin truly doesn't care about it's products or customers. They continue to get horrible reviews, and yet they do nothing to correct the problems. Customers deserve a lot more then Garmin is willing to do. But, if you need a GPS, then Garmin is the most likely choice.

To give you an example. Garmin's software is bug ridden. Whoever is in charge of their software engineering should be fired. Many of the mistakes are classic negligence. Each update you get, they might solve one problem, and create a whole bunch more. Unless you have the very latest computer operating system, the updates DON'T work or leave your GPS worthless. It is all very frustrating. On my last update, they reset the temperature to 37 degrees when you turn it on. Takes quite a while for it to come up to the correct temperature. When the temperature is low, it will not start tracking. Another problem is that it will not start tracking after you clear everything. The GPS demands that you go back to the last spot you were tracking (hike from a week ago). Or, you can sit there for a 1/2 hour and wait for it to time out. If you start hiking anyway, it will not start tracking for the first 1/4-1/2 mile. Very annoying!

I think you want a GPS that has a Trip Computer Window like the one below:
On this older GPS, you can arrange the Trip Computer screen for whatever stats you might want. Garmin has done away with this screen on some of the later models. If they don't have the Trip Computer, walk away. It is the MOST useful part of the GPS. On mine, I use the temperature, MPH, elevation, and mileage. I also use the GPS tracks to print out a map of the hike. I also use waypoints to mark specific spots. The tons of other features on the GPS are worthless for hikers. Remember that this GPS is a car GPS converted for hikers. Many of the auto features are still in the GPS.

In spite of my rotten feeling about Garmin, I still find it a valuable device for bushwhacking and hiking. Even if it is still woefully lacking necessary features. You just have to put up with the poor engineering from Garmin.

I don't know if I answered your question. If I had to pick one this is how I would look at them. From what I have seen, the new Garmin Montana 650t does NOT have a Trip Computer screen. Avoid this model unless it has a Trip Computer. Their website states that it doesn't have it. The new Garmin Oregon 650t and 600t DO have the Trip Computer screen. The older Oregon models do NOT have Trip Computers. All of them have 100k maps. You really want 24k maps.

I know I crammed a lot of stuff into this post. So, if you are still confused about certain features, just ask.

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Mon Jan 14, 2013 10:48 pm
by AntLive
Thanks Mike. That was all great info. I've been reading the reviews and everyone seems to have the same sentiment about Garmin. Bugs galore, and customer service who doesn't care. It makes me very weary to spend the money to buy one. That's why I was thinking about maybe getting one of the watches. I think I would miss out on the tracking of the trip. And they're nothing to sneeze at price-wise either. I haven't even bought anything yet and I feel frustrated. What you said about the Trip Computer Window seems to be what I am looking for and I like that you would be able to print out your hikes. So 24k is more detailed? I was on the Garmin site and I saw I could download maps to it so that shouldn't be to much of an issue. Is there a minimum amount of built in memory I should be looking for or does that not really matter because it takes a mirco SD? The other question I have should I care if it only takes AA batteries or do I want one with a rechargeable pack? Thanks for all your help.

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Tue Jan 15, 2013 12:31 am
by Jon
While I'll agree with mike that there might be some bugs, my overall experience with my garmin unit has been pretty good. I won't go to the extent that people should be fired LOL, but there are some odd things that happen. Mine is a few years old (Garmin Etrex Venture HC) I have never updated my unit's software, and from reading Mike's post I don't plan on it!

I noticed that mine does not always show the correct reading on trip odometer while hiking. It can sometimes be 20% lower than the actual mileage when I download the GPS track to mapsource. (example 5 mile gps track in Mapsource will only show up as 4 miles in trip computer on unit) Still don't know why this is. I haven't really investigated that much. I am used to the discrepancy and calculate for it. I know I've gone 20% further than my unit says I have. I don't have a thermometer on my unit so I can't say anything in that regard.

My unit has no problems starting hikes like Mike describes. I clear data before every hike, and I download the track after every hike. I don't have that much RAM so I don't store much on there except the waypoints for all the summits and whatever map tiles I've got on there (see pic below). When I start a hike it takes about 2-3 minutes to link up to satellites, and it does this the best when stationary and not in a valley (and most catskill hikes start out in valleys). I usually will turn it on and clear data right when I get to a parking area, and by the time I've got my gaiters on it's got Satellite link up.

I definitely agree with Mike, that the most useful screen is the trip computer. Why would they do away with this? I use the trip computer screen the most while hiking to see the elevation, time hiked, the moving time/resting time, average MPH, and all that. But without the trip computer just a silly little line on the screen and the topo doesn't help all that much during a hike. (except when you're lost lol) If the garmin doesn't have the trip computer I would not get it.

Two most asked questions "how far have we gone" and "how much further/ how long until we get there" nothing but the trip computer screen can give you the answers to these. Here is a shot of my HC's trip computer, my unit is fairly smaller than Mikes. I think that smaller is better, I throw it in my camera bag and forget about it most of the time.
(If you're wondering about the Max speed it's a track from my last bike ride)

I don't really print out my hikes, but the Garmin Software interacts seamlessly with Google Earth and I usually transfer my GPS tracks over to .kmz files so that I can email them to people I went hiking with or upload them to my website.(you can view them all here) Then anyone can download those .kmz files (For Google Earth) and view the hike in 3D. It's all fairly easy, and I have so many papers around my house that digital copies are a better idea for me than map printouts.

Before you go wasting money on topo maps from garmin check out this Free website:

These are topo maps for basically every single region. I highly recommend them since they are very accurate and are freeware so you don't have to pay an arm and a leg every-time you want to travel to a new region of the country. Most are 20 foot contours but some are 50 foot contours.

Here is a sample of my GPS track of Kaaterskill High Peak hike overlayed on the NYtopo from that website with 20 ft contours. I have not seen what you get from Garmin for the money they charge, but for people like me who don't have a lot of disposable cash this is a great alternative.

Yes there is a limit on the amount of maps that you can have on the unit. It depends on the Kilobytes of RAM and the size of the map files. For instance, these are the map tiles that I currently have on my unit (pink shading):


You can see it holds the 4 tiles for the Catskills plus I put an extra one on there for the Mass hike I did 2 weeks ago. I also have 2 tiles for NJ on there. That's it though my unit doesn't have any more RAM so when I go to the Adirondacks I usually delete these maps and load different ones on there. It's all very easy and there are good help files with the garmin software. My unit does not have a microSD slot, so I just need to be mindful before I hike that I have the correct Topo set downloaded to the unit.

My unit takes 2 AA batteries and I use the Energizer rechargable and it will last about two hikes or one weekend trip on one set of batteries, but I always have a few extras in my pack. I don't think it matters if you get one with built in rechargeable battery, other than it might last longer if they are lithium ion.

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Wed Jan 16, 2013 12:30 pm
by kennykb
A contrarian view: I'm actually getting fairly good GPS performance from my smartphone (a Galaxy S3). If I run in airplane mode, turn off Wi-Fi and keep the display dim, I can record tracks for about a day and a half of hiking on one battery charge. If I'm out for a weekend or a long-weekend, I can bring my MintyBoost and a couple of lithium AA batteries to get a recharge on the trail.

I use an app called BackCountry Navigator. It's not perfect by any means, but it's serviceable, and it lets me download my own maps. For a typical outing, I'll preload the relevant USGS grids from USATopo and also put my own base map on the phone. (That way, I have a map with an overlay with the NYSDEC and state park facilities, so I've got at least a hint of where the trails are - all the freeware map sources stink at that.) I'll also typically preload the nearby GPX files that appear on this lovely site. :) If I'm going for a trailless peak, I'll grab coordinates from here, DEC, and the 3500 club, so as to have at least four guesses to answer the question, "no direction is obviously up from here, where the **** is the **** canister?"

Speaking of that, the app offers a pretty compass display, with separate lines pointing in the orientation of the phone, the direction of travel, and the direction to the next waypoint. Distance and elevation change to the next waypoint are displayed next to it. Exactly what you want when traveling to a canister or geocache.

A few pointers if you go that route:
(1) Preload your map tiles, of course!
(2) Bring up your GPS for a few minutes, not in airplane mode, within a few hours before you hit the trail. Smartphones typically use 'assisted' GPS, where they get satellite data from the network as well as from the spacecraft. Some of them are not capable of 'autonomous' operation, where only satellite signals are available, until they have their first satellite fix. All of them will take many minutes to acquire the satellites unless they have net access. Once you have the signal, you can go back in airplane mode and shut down the app, and you'll still be good to go for some hours.
(3) Keep the display as dim as you can read it, and turn it off when not in use. The phone backlight is a battery hog.
(4) On BackCountry Navigator, in particular, exit the app but "keep recording tracks" when you're not watching the display. That saves a lot of CPU time (and hence battery).
(5) Of course, shut down any nonessential apps from the task manager.
(6) If you're really trying to eke out the battery life, try extending time and distance between track points when you're recording tracks.

Your Mileage May Vary.

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Wed Jan 16, 2013 1:39 pm
by mike
Smart phones will be the GPS of the future. No doubt about that. As the apps get better, people will stop buying hiking GPS's. But, it will take a while for them to replace them. We have been watching them come for about 5 years now. In the near all phones will be switching to the "White Space". The White Space is a new frequency that will be closer to radio waves. That way, a cell phone tower could transmit out 25-100 miles. But, all of this takes time. Right now, hiking GPS's are king. With time, all technology changes.

I should also note that the 3500 club changes the canister position ever so often. I know that Friday and Rocky canisters have moved in the last year. It would be real nice if they were actually on the true summit.

Re: GPS Advice

New postPosted: Wed Jan 16, 2013 10:38 pm
by kennykb
With the techniques I was talking about, the choice of frequency for the cell communication (the "white space" issue) has nothing to do with it. I was even talking about leaving the phone in "airplane mode", which disconnects it from the cellular network altogether. At that point, it's listening to the same satellites that a hiking GPS uses.

There are, I admit, differences in the receiver - a phone's GPS is often added as an afterthought, while a hiking GPS usually has a good one. Moreover, a hiking GPS will often have a barometric altimeter backing up the GPS-derived altitude. And of course, there differences in the quality of the application software, but in this area, the phone often wins! (For instance, Garmin units have some pretty arbitrary limits about the size of a custom map you can include, mostly to force you to buy maps from them.)

With my Galaxy S3, I happen to have got lucky in the quality of the GPS receiver; it acquires fast, and stays locked even in marginal conditions. So the performance is pretty comparable. So this is another case of the smartphone replacing multiple other appliances, faster than you might imagine.