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Outdoor technology bleg:

What is the best GPS for use in outdoor activities such as hiking, hunting, or fishing?

David Rontal:
I have had great success with the Garmin 60CSx series. I use it extensively for mountain biking and backcountry skiing in the Colorado mountains. Good signal strength, good features (though you cannot use Nat Geo maps), and excellent durability and reliability.

Make sure you get rechargable Lithium Ion batteries as it is usually 16 hours of run time per charge.

Hope this helps.
9.14.2009 6:55pm
UID:
The Garmin etrex series is a good place to start looking.

Features to keep in mind:

Computer interface: Serial or USB?
Battery life
Waterproofing
Add-in storage (via SD cards)
High-sensitivity receiver (models with an "H" prefix)
Cost/availability of digital maps
Screen size/quality
9.14.2009 6:59pm
Something Wicked:
This may seem like an odd recommendation but I just got a Garmin Edge 705 on sale at REI. My intended use is mountain biking but I think it would be very handy for backpacking, hiking, etc. It's light for one thing, claims 15 hours/charge, has barometric altitude in addition to GPS alt, and a street database (which you can replace with topo maps for about $100). The one I got comes with heart rate monitor and cadence sensor. Also you can download, runs, hikes, rides etc from the garmin website for turn by turn nav. The website will also overlay your course on top of google maps. Here's a link to a hike in the Angeles National Forest.
9.14.2009 7:12pm
jtray:
I'll second the Garmin 60CSx. I've used it for 3 years, never had any trouble with it. It's waterproof, it floats, you can buy topo maps for US and Canada (probably more). Uses micro-SD cards for extra storage. Only complaint is that the belt clip broke right away -- buy the "Carabiner Button Clip" instead.

https://buy.garmin.com/shop/shop.do?cID=145&pID=310

There may be newer Garmins that are nicer -- haven't looked.
9.14.2009 7:14pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
Anything not involving water? Blackberry storm + google maps. You also get a phone in case of emergency!
9.14.2009 7:21pm
Hank Bowman, MD (mail) (www):
Garmin - the new Rhinos are pretty nice (combined FRS radio and mapping GPS), otherwise any of the Etrex. I particularly like the Etrex Legend HCx.
9.14.2009 7:21pm
radicalc (mail):
The one that has Bob Dylan delivering the directions - whoa direction home !
9.14.2009 7:38pm
ShelbyC:
I use the Delorme Pn-20, which is OK but quirky. I don't know if they resolved any of the quirks in the PN-40.
9.14.2009 7:48pm
Phoenix5309:
I have a Garmin Rino 110. The combined radio &gps functions are brilliant: you can send your coordinates to the other device, which lets you see exactly where others are.

It's capable of GMRS but the 1-watt radio transmitter is definitely a weakness. It has a pretty poor user interface. Battery life is pretty crummy. The line hasn't really been updated in years.

In spite of all that, I wouldn't trade my Rinos for anything. The ability to pinpoint someone else's location is invaluable.
9.14.2009 8:03pm
Ak Mike (mail):
Whatever you get, make sure it has replaceable batteries, not the kind that you can't remove and must recharge - and bring lots of extra batteries.
9.14.2009 8:07pm
glangston (mail):
I use a Garmin 60Csx also. I've carried it hiking, on my motorcycle in Baja and I won the Halfway to Hawaii contest on United Airlines one trip.

It floats too.
9.14.2009 8:08pm
mcallen (mail):
Hiking, hunting and fishing are three very different activities and are best served by different GPS units. I don't hunt, and I don't fish except from shore. I do hike a lot. In the hiking context, light weight and ruggedness are king. I like the Garmein eTrex H. Light, rugged and waterproof--I can vouch for all three. Also, please don't get anything that needs to be recharged. You want to be able to get a couple of AA batteries and pop them in.

-mca
9.14.2009 8:11pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
Hiking: The Sierra Club BMT's class on map and compass nav. Even if the sats fall, or someone takes 'em out with an EMP, the nav course is good back-up!
9.14.2009 8:18pm
CurlyDave (mail):
I have used a Garmin 60 Csx for years for hiking and hunting. Can't be beat for a one-man GPS.

This year I upgraded to the Garmin Rino 530 HCx, which is the much like the 60 Csx, but with the addition of a FRS/GMRS radio. Which will also broadcast your position to other RINO units. And display the position of other Rinos on a map.

The Rino is maybe $50 more on the internet, and is larger than the 60 Csx, but is much more useful if you are with a group who also has Rinos.

The rechargeable batteries are OK, but you really need to be able to use AA batteries (needs a special adaptor for the Rino ~$25). In my state there is 3 weeks of deer season, followed by 5 days of elk season. When you haven't seen an electric outlet for almost a month, those rechargeable batteries really don't do any good.

Same thing if you have to unexpectedly stay out longer than planned. A fresh set of AAs in your daypack can make the difference between walking into camp under your own power or being the subject of a search &rescue effort.

Lastly, learn how to use the thing before you leave. I have found that you need both the GPS and a compass. The GPS will give you a bearing to your objective, but it is a lot easier to use a compass to follow that bearing. If you try to use the GPS for this, you will constantly be lagging behind.
9.14.2009 8:30pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
What hasn't Moore's Law applied to GPSs? I had an eMap 10 years ago for about $120. I recently bought a TomTom -- exactly not what you want for hiking etc -- for $70 (before rebate). It adds a fair Street navigation, and color, and maybe better package, but it's missing a lot of features like routes and tracks and waypoints that are useful even to people who drive more than they are outdoors.
9.14.2009 8:50pm
Anon Y. Mous:
The question I have is what is the best GPS for use in indoor activities?
9.14.2009 9:22pm
Smokey Behr:
There's plenty of GPS units out there are from a simple track and waypoint to a full color topo map display, so it's up to you as to how much you want to spend. My personal GPS units are a Garmin eTrex Classic (now the "H" model) that is my "beater" that I keep on my radio harness; a Garmin Nuvi 750 for the car; and a Garmin Rino 110 that I have for walkabouts when I'm with a group of people that have FRS radios.

For an overall future-proof handheld GPS, the Garmin eTrex Vista is probably your best bet.
9.14.2009 9:35pm
Bob Leibowitz (mail) (www):
iPhone, Dave, so you can multitask.
9.14.2009 9:58pm
W. J. J. Hoge:
A Garmin eTrex will give you your latitude and longitude, and you can use that information to locate your position on a map. Some states publish excellent maps, and you can always uses USGS maps. This as an fine low-cost solution that will work anyplace in the US.

If you are close enough to a cell tower, an iPhone 3GS (with its built-in compass and GPS) and Google Maps are great.
9.14.2009 10:24pm
W. J. J. Hoge:
Opps, a typo ...

This is a fine solution ...
9.14.2009 10:26pm
11-B/2O.B4:
A map. It never loses signal, the batteries never die, and properly laminated it will outlive you. Use GPS if you want, but most of the places you REALLY need it, they don't work.
9.14.2009 10:30pm
kimsch (mail) (www):
I use the GPS in my phone.
9.15.2009 12:05am
Ak Mike (mail):
Couple of additional points - Most of the commenters probably know this, but a few of you have mentioned the GPS in your cell phone. These probably will not function out of range of cellular signals (I know from experience that Blackberry's GPS is not usable except where there is a data link).

A map is not a substitute for a GPS although good to have as a backup, or as an aid if your GPS does not have map capability. When you're out in the wilds, one trail or hill pretty much looks like another. 11-B/20.B4's comment does have a kernel of truth - GPS does not function well under heavy cloud cover, or in deep ravines or other situations where much of the sky is blocked.
9.15.2009 2:23am
JDS:
Two great sources of information are gpsinformation.net and gpspassion.com.

As for "best" -- The handheld GPS with the biggest and best-executed feature set is the $600 Garmin Oregon 550t.
9.15.2009 2:34am
pintler:

A map. It never loses signal, the batteries never die, and properly laminated it will outlive you. Use GPS if you want, but most of the places you REALLY need it, they don't work.


FWIW, that has been my experience - the couple of times I have really wished it would work, I couldn't get a signal. Every time I get it out to play with, it works fine :-(.
I dunno if the one I got (a very small Garmin) requires stronger than usual signals, or it's because I don't leave it on as I hike (since I'm usually on multi day hikes, that would take a lot of batteries).

Someone mentioned one with an aneroid altimeter. If you are talking on trail hiking, those give very precise location, from the intersection of the trail and contour line. You do have to zero them at the trailhead or wherever, since the atmospheric pressure changes with the weather.
9.15.2009 7:54am
Turk Turon (mail):
I use an old eTrex and a new Blackberry with Garmin Mobile software.

Using a Blackberry for GPS is tricky and depends on the software. If you are out of range of a cell-tower, some apps won't work well: they depend on cell-tower triangulation as an adjunct to satellite signals. And some apps actually work better: AllSport GPS seems to work better in the wilderness, perhaps because the Blackberry is not trying to ping the cell-towers. For car navigation, Garmin Mobile on the BB works great.

For a standalone GPS, I agree with commenters on: use AA batteries - my GPS eats up batteries, so carry an extra set or two.....SD card memory: some of the high-detail topo maps are 6 gigs per state!.....software upgradable over the 'net.....export tracks to ".gpx" format for Google Earth.
9.15.2009 9:37am
Paul A'Barge (mail):
IPhone +1
9.15.2009 9:40am
DonP (mail):
FWIW...

I just got back from a week in the UP. My "older" Garmin E-Trex Legend with its downloaded Topo maps of the local lakes did great for me for both fishing and navigation. The GPS maps were much more accurate than the printed version for finding reefs and edges.

One big advantage of getting that far into the "wilds" is that there are actually "All Polka All The TIme" radio stations. (Still preferable to the ubiquitous NPR stations.)

The Legend runs for days and days on 2 AA batteries (Lithium).

I also used it for some hiking in the Nicolet National Forest and the backtrack feature is great.
9.15.2009 10:19am
Slocum (mail):
Depends on your preferences -- big question is do you want lat/lng, distance, direction, track, waypoint, routes, etc, or do you want a color display with street maps, topo maps, and nautical charts in addition? If the former, than any of the sub-$100 units will do just fine. But if you want a map display (and the maps--that's what will cost you), you're talking a lot more money.

Personally, I use a roll-your-own solution. I have an older handheld with primitive black-and-white street maps only and then a Nokia internet tablet with a built in GPS and a mapping app that can use pretty much any kind of map you can download (street maps, satellite images, topo maps, nautical charts, etc). The Nokia tablet was cheaper than the Garmin mapping units and the maps are free that way. But it's not the way to go for non-techie types.

Another thing you can do, BTW, if you carry a GPS while hiking is to 'geocode' any photos you take. You download the GPS track and the digital cameras and you have a bit of software to stamp the images with the appropriate coordinates by matching up the camera clock with the GPS clock.
9.15.2009 10:22am
Don Miller (mail) (www):
I have to disagree partially with the commentator who said a map and compass can't replace a GPS.

I started Orienteering training as a Cub Scout and continued into my days as a Boy Scout.

Eventually, I found myself in the Army Reserve. I found not only did I have my old skills, but I had a talent for it. At one point, I took the active duty version of the 11B BNCOC at Ft Lewis. I beat 23 Army Rangers on the land navigation course.

I currently do wildland firefighting occassionally. My ability to read and understand maps in unfamiliar terrain has continued to benefit me.

Navigating by compass and map is not only extremely possible, but it has the advantage of not needing batteries.

It has the disadvantage of requiring time, training and patience to learn.

GPS has its own problems. If you don't learn how to read a map and plot an easy route to your destination, your GPS bearings may lead you into trouble.
9.15.2009 10:53am
J.R.L.:
Another fan of the Garmin 60csx!
9.15.2009 11:21am
A Law Clerk:
Garmin eTrex Vista HCx. Best bang for the buck. They can be found on Amazon for about $200.

Couple that with a free topographical map from gpsfiledepot.com and you are set.

There are more feature packed Garmins, but I found that the Vista has all I need. It's rugged, weather proof, supports map, has an electronic compass, and a barameter. If you don't need the compass or barometer, then go with the Legend.
9.15.2009 11:51am
Davebo (mail):
Why not an Iphone with the compass and google earth overlay so you not only know where you are, but also what the terrain looks like in all directions around you?

But now, the phone probably won't be of much help in the deep woods. But it is handy when you get back to the city.
9.15.2009 11:57am
ShelbyC:

iPhone, Dave, so you can multitask.


If you're anywhere where a phone will work, you don't need a gps.
9.15.2009 12:12pm
Bryan (mail):
I will second the Garmin Oregon series. I have used many Garmin units, and the Oregon combines the best features of all of them. It works great in the car, on the trail, or on a bike. It is small, and works on batteries for many hours.

Their support is fantastic, and they even replaced one under warranty when my son fell on top of it and scratched the screen.
9.15.2009 1:52pm
David Schwartz (mail):
I can also give a vote for the Garmin 60CSx. It's great for hunting, hiking, fishing, and skiing. It is also adequate for vehicle navigation, aviation, and marine use.

Two really nice features: It has a built in compass. So you can, without moving, determine which direction something is. Also, it has a built in pressure sensor. So you can track altitude more accurately.

I will point out one problem though. My power switch failed right as the warranty expired. Garmin fixed it under warranty anyway. That was about a year ago, and the power switch is getting to be a problem again, it takes very large amounts of force to turn the unit on or off. Reports of this problem are all over the blogosphere as well.
9.15.2009 2:39pm
PeterWimsey (mail):
Garmin 60csx or 76csx. These are basically the same unit; the 76 is slightly larger and floats, so it's better for activities on the water.

I just returned from a week in the boundary waters, and the 76 worked very well (it replaces my old e-trex legend).

Note that with either the 60 or 76 you will also want to buy a mapping program - topo (or Topo USA or whatever garmin calls it now) is probably enough, although you can get more detailed maps.

The problem with the iphone or similar solutions is that they don't have replaceable batteries, which is an issue if you are out for a week (or, really, more than a day). The 60 and 76 run on batteries; I get 16-18 hours from 2 NiMH AAs in my 76.
9.15.2009 4:30pm
Ak Mike (mail):
Don Miller - you're obvously a very skilled outdoorsman. I used to use topo maps and compass, of course, before the GPS era. I was successful most but not all of the time. Especially if you're going off trail, in deep woods (as one sometimes does while hunting) it is not hard to lose bearings, and then have to spend a long time working out where you probably are. With GPS (if it's working, which it usually is) you know right away and there is no uncertainty. I always bring a map and compass, but I also always have a GPS these days.

If you're really good, of course, you can no doubt eschew use of GPS. I think most people heading out into the woods would be best advised to bring one.
9.15.2009 4:31pm
rarango (mail):
I am a luddite when it comes to GPS--great stuff and I wish I had it when I went thru the army ranger school in 1967--but the map and compass training in ranger school has stood me in good stead from backpacking in the cascades to wilderness canoeing in Northern Saskatchewan--just make sure you have a good waterproof map case! now a small gps system might be in order on those occasional times I doubt my compass :)
9.15.2009 4:55pm
Laughingdog (mail):
I kayak a lot, and use the Garmin 76CSx, but I also never leave the shore without a compass attached to my kayak. I've never had a problem with losing the signal, unless I was using it in my car and went through a tunnel. Granted, heavy tree cover isn't really an issue when you're paddling.

Basically, the GPS is an amazing tool. But I agree with the others that you probably at least want a compass along to maintain course in heavy cover. Also bear in mind that it can take a long time for it to pick up the satellites if you only turn it on sporadically to check your position.

As for using phone based GPS, the main issue with most means of doing this is that the maps aren't stored on the phone. The phone may know exactly where you are. But without the ability to download the maps from the cellular network, it has no way to show this to you. However, I know that there is at least one GPS app for the iPhone that stores the maps on your phone (I think Wired.com had a review of several of these). Granted, I definitely would prefer something like a 60CSx or 76CSx if there was a reasonable chance of being around water.

Lastly, having used both the 60CSx and 76CSx, the biggest difference between the two is that the 76 floats, but the 60 is smaller. Also, the 76 having the screen on the bottom is better suited for boating purposes, and the 60 is better for if you'll primarily be holding it in your hand when you use it.
9.15.2009 5:20pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
"I have to disagree partially with the commentator who said a map and compass can't replace a GPS.

I started Orienteering training as a Cub Scout and continued into my days as a Boy Scout..."

You make the mistake of assuming that everybody has the same brain wiring as you do. Many don't. It turns out that orientation, while to some degree trainable, is a specific relatively compartmentalized brain function, located primarily in the hippocampus. Different people have different innate abilities and different abilities to be trained.

I, for instance, have a specific inability to make certain kinds of cognitive maps. I, literally, get lost driving to and from work if I don't take *exactly* the same route every time. I once attempted to drive (at night) from Columbus, Ohio to Chapel Hill, NC and ended up in Baltimore. Life is always a surprise for me.

I too went through orienteering training in the Army. Happily for me, the Army knew that what they wanted me for was not my ability to find markers on trees. Their solution was to ensure that every time I took a step in the woods, I did so in the company of a very patient Noncom.

Oddly, one of my skills is 3D graphics. Another is (even more oddly) map reading. I have a very good visual memory, and when I *do* drive successfully, it is because I have memorized a map and "drive" the map without trying to orient too much to the landmarks I see. The problem with that is that if I get disoriented, I cannot reorient by landmark, but have to stop and correlate road signs, etc. to the map I have memorized. I am also known for my observational skills -- since I have to constantly reason where I *might* be from what's around me, I tend to notice things that other people don't.

Since I greatly enjoy hiking in the woods, this is a constant problem for me. I is not uncommon for one hour walks in the woods to end up being all day affairs that take me to new and interesting places. My life is ruled by the prinicples of "go downstream and eventually you will find someone" and "follow the barbed wire fence."

I thinking about taking up sailing. My wife is frantic.
9.15.2009 8:15pm
Jeffery W Wilson (www):
Garmin GPSmap 60CSx, without a doubt.

While you're at it, give geocaching a try. The 60CSx has native support.
9.16.2009 9:29pm

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