9:23 a.m. on August 20, 2008 (EDT)
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have just started backpacking in the Rocky mountains of Montana. My wife and I go with another couple that has been hiking for years. Question is this--would a gps benefit me at all, and if so what do you suggest to get?
Thank you in adavance for your suggestions.

12:43 p.m. on August 20, 2008 (EDT)
3,034 reviewer rep
5,486 forum posts

A GPS receiver will benefit you only if:
1. you are proficient with map and compass (and carry and use them)
2. you learn how to properly use your GPSR.

A GPSR will tell you where you are and which direction your next preloaded waypoint/landmark is. It will not tell you how to get there.

At this stage, the maps available for downloading on GPSRs are pretty rudimentary and/or pretty small (due to the tiny screens on the units). Magellan has units (their Triton series) that accept maps from National Geographic's TOPO! computerized USGS map program, and Garmin has scanned 1:24,000 UGS maps that can be downloaded. The screens on handheld units (the size you would use for backpacking) are on the order of 2 inches by 3 or 4 inches in size. Most of the time, you have to use the GPSR manufacturer's proprietary maps for those units that do accept maps (a cost that can add up to many times the cost of the original unit).

GPSRs, like any electronic widget, depends on batteries. Batteries eventually run down (typical battery life is 10 to 20 hours, depending on the unit and how you use it). Some units have rechargeable batteries, so you need a way to recharge when out in the woods. Others take AA or AAA batteries (sometimes restricted to alkalines or NiMH, no lithium allowed), so you have to carry spares.

The recent trend in GPSRs has been to "dumb down" the units, removing real features that help you determine how dependable the reading it is giving, while adding super-whiz-bang "features" that look and sound great (sometimes literally, such as some that have built-in MP3 players) that really don't help (do you need a buddy-tracking feature when out in the woods, when the feature requires cell-phone contact?).

What you can do -
1.If you learn how to transfer the position reading from the unit to a paper map (that is, learn about latitude/longitude and/or UTM coordinate systems), you can find your location accurately on the map (you can do this post-trip with one of the electronic mapping programs, such as NatGeo's TOPO! or GoogleEarth).
2. You can use a program like TOPO! or Delorme's TopoUSA (proprietary and specific to Delorme's GPSRs) to plan a route ahead of time, marking trail junctions, important waypoints, and other information, then uploading it to the GPSR. This helps with the navigation, with a paper map in hand (print out a customized map from TOPO! or TopoUSA on waterproof paper to take with you, along with your standard, conventional baseplate compass, which of course requires no batteries and can be had for $10).
3. As you do your backpack, you can mark important waypoints (trailhead, car parking, trail junctions, campsite, etc) to aid your return trip. You can also mark exact locations if you encounter a problem, so that you or your companion can pass the information to the rangers or other search and rescue people.
4. When you return, you can download any waypoints you marked on the way, along with your track to one of the computerized mapping programs (or GoogleEarth) to see where you really went.

Bottom line advice -
A. Learn to use your map and compass. Orienteering events are an excellent way to do this. REI runs basic intro courses to map and compass, as do many outdoor clubs, such as university clubs, Appalachian Mountain Club, Seattle Mountaineers, Mazamas, Colorado Mountain Club, Sierra Club, etc. (I usually run a workshop for the Sierra Club once or twice a year at their Clair Tappaan Lodge at Donner Pass in the Sierra, though this year, I am too much involved in rebuilding my house).
B. Sit through one of the workshops that REI, EMS, and other outdoor stores give on GPSRs, or contact your local geocaching group (look on for your local area group). Geocaching has more of a treasure-hunting bent than land navigation, but in some areas, the local group offers reasonable basic training that goes beyond finding the tupperware filled with toys hidden in the woods.
C. Get out there, after learning the basics, to try things out in your local parks or around the neighborhood.

Specific units? Things are changing so rapidly (3-5 month product cycle time these days) that specific unit suggestions are obsolete by the time you read this. Besides, there is another "Apple vs PC" fanatical war continuing. Garmin has the most aggressive marketing campaign and the most bewildering array of models (eTrex, GPSMap 60 and 76 series, Colorado, Oregon). Magellan has some really nice units in the eXplorist and Triton series. Delorme's handheld unit has lots of great features (though it is painfully slow).

Just be sure you get one of the high sensitivity units (Garmin's H series, or the SiRF chips, or any of the current Magellan units).

All GPSRs have the same accuracy of coordinates, due to the limitations of the Global Positioning System for "non-authorized users" (i.e., civilians). With a clear view of the sky (no tree canopy, no blockage of the horizon due to hills, canyons, buildings, etc), the accuracy is about 7 meters (a bit tighter with WAAS, which all units these days have, but the WAAS satellites are more readily blocked by canyon/canopy problems). So you will get just as accurate a position with the $50 WalMart special as with the $1000 unit, though with less features.

My current personal units are Garmin 60CSx (I do not advise this, I suggest the 60Cx instead), Magellan eXplorist 500, and Delorme PN-20 (good for most people, and has downloadable satellite image and USGS map capability, with aerial photos for some areas, but is really slow).

4:20 p.m. on August 20, 2008 (EDT)
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3 forum posts

thank you for your time and info, it was really beneficial. I will hold off on a gps and learn to use compass and map first.

10:38 a.m. on August 29, 2008 (EDT)
126 reviewer rep
10 forum posts

I just bought the Triton 300, nice unit but the tech support is poor at best. It is hard to get the unit to connect to my PC and I still can not download maps through the program provided by Magellan. There are many others having the same problem, see the gear reviews on this web site.

March 26, 2015
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