GPS Buying Advice
By Max Neale ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Tuesday December 4, 2012
Do you really need a GPS?
In our experience a GPS unit is rarely necessary for hiking. When walking on established and maintained trails, for example, it's difficult to get lost. And, if you do lose the trail, it's generally quite easy to retrace your steps and get back on track. Learn to navigate by map and a compass before you get a GPS. A map doesn't run on batteries and can't be broken (most waterproof topo maps are tear resistant). The vast majority of lightweight hikers don't use GPS units to navigate. (Even people who walk across Alaska alone.) Also, don't be intimidated by the marketing departments of GPS makers or by dramatized horror movies like 127 Hours, which instill fear in hopes that you'll buy more gear or be scared of going out alone. As Yvon Chouinard says, "Risk sports create stresses that better oneself." Spend more time playing and less time worrying.
What are they good for?
GPS devices can be an excellent navigation aid in low visibility situations. Buy a unit if you partake in activities where a GPS can provide valuable location-based information that you can't get with your own eyes. GPS devices are particularly useful for keeping track of spatial information. Marine GPS devices with charts show water depth, potential underwater hazards, and most importantly display your position in poor visibility conditions. Lobster fishermen in Maine use GPS to plot the locations of their traps so that they can fish even in dense fog, heavy rain, or whiteout snow conditions. Hunters use GPS to mark the location of their kill, tree stand, or trailhead. For outdoor recreation purposes, GPS devices are most useful for displaying your position (which presumably can't be found by other methods) relative to your destination. Luc Mehl has a good tutorial on GPS route planning for low visibility conditions here.
What to Consider When Buying a GPS
The primary question to consider when buying a GPS device is whether you need a touchscreen. Touchscreens are advantageous only in that they provide faster text entry than traditional screens. They're harder to see in bright sunlight, behave sluggishly in colder temperatures, require bare fingers to operate, suck up more battery than a normal screen, and have a less efficient workflow. The touchscreen GPS units we tested have displays that are years behind those of most smartphones. We recommend getting a touchscreen GPS only if you enter a lot of text. Otherwise get a traditional screen.
Next, consider the environment in which you plan to use the GPS. Will there be heavy canopy overhead? Will you be in deep canyons? Will you encounter thick fog, whiteout snow conditions, or be on the side of a mountain in the clouds? Larger GPS units are generally more accurate and have better reception than smaller units. Opt for the Garmin GPSMAP 62 series if you plan to navigate under heavy cover.
Do you need a GPS capable of car navigation? If so, we recommend a touchscreen. Of the units we tested the Oregon 550 is most suitable for car navigation. In order to do turn-by-turn directions you'll need Garmin's City Navigator maps (sold separately). Though we didn't review the Montana series, this is the company's most versatile unit and would likely be better for the car than the Oregon (but it's very large and heavy).
Electronic compasses are usually the cut-off point where manufacturers separate the basic units from the more powerful ones. An electronic compass is useful for navigating to an unknown point. Imagine you're in a gigantic white room. You can't see the walls, but know that the floor is level and that you must find an invisible location in the room, for which you have the coordinates in your GPS. With an electronic compass you'd be able to see the point on the GPS display, turn the device (in map view with track up) until the point lies ahead, then simply walk to it. Without an electronic compass you'd have to walk one direction far enough for the GPS to accurately identify the direction (usually ~50ft) and turn again, and perhaps again, in the direction of the point. Electronic compasses make navigating faster and easier. They're nice, but not necessary.
Get a Garmin. When it comes to handheld hiking GPS devices, Garmin takes the cake. Their navigation features, software, mapping products, and support tools were, on the whole, the most impressive of all manufacturers tested here.
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