Wednesday, February 9, 2011

An Actual Question

Here's a test of my readership: I need an actual opinion.

I pretty much assumed I'd want a separate GPS device, since they're a nearly foolproof way of grabbing your location no matter where you are. I didn't want to use my phone's GPS because it eats the batteries, and I hope to keep my phone fresh in case it's applicable in an emergency.

But here's the thing: an "outdoors" GPS is extremely expensive, like hundreds of dollars. Since I only plan on using GPS as a last resort, when maps, compass, and my own pretty reliable sense of direction aren't enough, is a unit worth it? Or would my phone be enough for rare and brief GPS usage? (There's an incredibly thorough GPS app for my smartphone, which contains 1. downloadable topo maps that are readable without a cell connection and 2. a nav system that communicates directly with satellites and is also operable without a cell connection).

I don't plan on bushwhacking; I'm sticking to marked National Park trails that are shown on topo maps and described in guidebooks. I'd probably use a GPS only if I accidentally ended up off the trail. And as I mentioned, I have a pretty good intuitive sense of direction, and I not only know how to read a map, but I actually enjoy cross-referencing my location with a map like every few minutes or so, even when I know where I am. So what's the advantage of a separate GPS? And is it 400 bucks' worth of advantage? If you've got more wilderness navigation experience than I do, please weigh in!


  1. One of the points of comparison on GPS units is the quality of the "base map," which is basically how the software takes the position data it figures from the satellites (e.g. "you are at 42.39561N, 71.13051W") and translates it into something which is more useful to you ("You're at a playground in Cambridge"). Your phone's base map is probably keyed heavily to civilization - roads and stuff - and probably will just show you in the midst of big green blobs much of the time. (Some phone GPS programs allow for a dynamic base map, a la Google Maps, but they download those from the cell network.) I'd look at the base map issue before relying too heavily on the phone GPS.

    That said: $400 is probably too much GPS for you. Something like the Garmin eTrex Venture HC (which is what I have) is pretty small and light, runs about $130 at Amazon, and should be more than sufficient for you given that it's not going to be your primary navigation tool. (I bought mine at L.L. Bean over a year ago.) I would stay away from Magellan, I've had bad experiences with them.

  2. I don't think $400 for a nice outdoor GPS is worth it. If you'll have a good physical map with lat/long on hand anyway and just want to cross-reference, you should be able to get a super-basic hiking/geocaching GPS for under $200, maybe even less than $100 used. That'll just spit out coordinates without a (useful) map.

    This one from Garmin says it lasts 18 hrs on AA batteries:

    That said, it looks like you can get extra phone batteries for between $5 and $30 (a suspicious price difference). Charging phone batteries is less convenient than bringing a brick of AAs with you, but it's also less wasteful. Also, if you set your phone to airplane mode and the GPS program knows to shut off satellite reception when the screen goes dark, you might be able to get 2 full days of frequent use off a single battery charge.

    You can even buy devices for around $15-$20 that charge 2+ batteries at a time.

    If you're comfortable swapping out phone batteries, buying 2-4 extra plus a charger would be the way I'd go.

  3. I know for a fact I have less wilderness experience, so this may not be useful...because I can't say for sure whether or not a GPS will be worth it. I think the main question is, if the app on your smartphone is enough to take care of the needs you think you'll have, are you positive that you have an easy way of charging it up? How long will you be away from your car between charge ups? Will you have one of those charge up stations as a backup? Would investing in one of those things be cheaper and make not buying a GPS necessary? Are there things your phone can't do that a GPS can?
    Have you "tested" an outdoors "GPS" before? Does it provide any additional benefits or is it more baggage to worry about?

    Hope this helps!

  4. Re: phone GPS. The top Android GPS I'm considering uses USGS topo maps, downloaded to your sim card, to pinpoint your location on a map that's useful for you (the maps are accessible without a cell connection). I was actually thinking I'd leave my phone entirely off unless I was using it (hopefully infrequently), and carrying an extra battery.

  5. Be careful. Relying on a Cell Phone GPS in the back country is generally not a good idea. The reason is the fundamental difference between how a "cell phone GPS" works, and how a backpacking GPS works. You cell phone gets your position by triangulating your position off of cell phone towers. Backpacking GPS units use multiple satellites to get your position. This is important because most good back county locations (where you'll need it) don't have cell phone coverage, and thus your Cell Phone GPS is useless.

    I use a Garmin 60Csx unit, and I'm quite happy with it. Like you said though, it's kind of pricey. $250 for the unit alone which is not very functional without good maps (24K topo), and those run about $100 bucks per region (West, South West, North West, etc).

  6. I guess I should learn to read. Apparently there are Cell Phones that can talk to real GPS satellites now. I still have a hard time believing that it could get as good of reception as the real deal units (especially in canyons and thick forests), but if you're sticking to main trails you'll probably be just fine. Truth be told I use mine more for showing where I've been than figuring out where I'm going if that makes sense.