GPS Related Issues
Handheld GPS Units
I do not claim to be an expert on all the many different GPS units now available. These units work by contacting satellites and the coverage of these satellites is very good. Also, the ability of these units to contact satellites has been greatly improved with each new model. There are very few places and very few conditions where these units cannot be used. As with may products, the array of available options is stunning as is the price of many of the high-end models. You will have to decide how much you are willing to pay and what features are most important to you. One important considerations are the maps included with the package you buy and what computer software is included.
I carry the GPS unit on almost every hike but I also always have my compass and maps with me. I use the GPS unit to record my track so that I can publish it later on the website. I also like to have the data of the track including the distances, times and speed. Sometimes I use the GPS to make sure I know where I am and where I am going. To me this is especially important when I am bushwhacking and trying to find the exact location on a ridge or flat summit.
After using two different Magellan GPS units for several years, I began to do research on some of the newest units from Magellan, Garmin and Delorme. These included the Triton series from Magellan, the Colorado, Oregon and Dakota units from Garmin and the newest models from Delorme. I also wanted compatible software. After reading some reviews from knowledgeable people I know and respect, I also began to look at the Garmin GPSmap 60CSx. This is the unit I finally decided on and purchased. I could not be happier! I can use standard AA batteries without having to worry about recharging a battery pack. The batteries do run down rather quickly especially in cold weather. The colors on the display are more than adequate for my purpose although they are by no means vivid. Best of all it has NEVER failed to pick up my location when I step out of the car and it has NEVER lost a signal on a hike. Both my Magellan units did this on a rather consistent basis! I have had the unit out in the rain with no ill effects. The controls are intuitive for me. I will take memory cards large enough for me to store maps of the entire Northeast US and record many long GPS tracks. By default it records a lot of track points which gives a smoother track when transferring to the computer. It connects to the computer through a standard USB cable and transfers information very quickly. I know that I should read the manual and practice to get the best use of the unit but so far I haven't done that. This model has now been discontinued in favor of the slightly upgraded GPSMAP 62CSx. To read about all the features go to the Garmin website.
After using the Garmin GPS 60Csx for some time I decided I would upgrade to a new model. I didn't really NEED a new unit but I WANTED a new unit. I Decided to buy a Garmin since I had good luck with this brand. I looked at all the fancy touchscreen models and quickly decided to avoid them a get the GPSmap 64st and added the Garmin 24K US topo maps on a microSD card. The reviews I read were mixed with some suggesting the new unit was not as good as the old. So far the new unit is every bit as good as the old. It is a bit more accurate and finds satellites more quickly. The included NiMH battery pack doesn't last too long but is easy to recharge from a USB adapter. The unit will also work on AA batteries although I had some problems inserting them. The only other complaint so far is that the old unit had a stud on the back which attached to a clip that I could attached to my pack's shoulder strap. The new unit does not have this attachment and so far I have just put it in my pack. The color display is nice but I haven't found that it adds that much to the basic use of the GPS. Best of all so far it has NEVER failed to pick up my location when I step out of the car and it has NEVER lost a signal on a hike. The controls and screens are slightly different than the older unit and I am still getting accustomed to them. It will take memory cards large enough for me to store maps of the entire Northeast US and record many long GPS tracks. By default it records a lot of track points which gives a smoother track when transferring to the computer. It connects to the computer through a standard USB cable and transfers information very quickly or it can use a WiFi connection. I know that I should read the manual and practice to get the best use of the unit but so far I haven't done that. To read about all the features go to the Garmin website.
I do not claim to be an expert on all the many different cell phones now available and all the apps on each of these phones. These units work by contacting cell towers and the coverage of these cell towers can be very spotty depending on your provider and your location. There are many places where these units cannot be used. You may begin a hike with a good signal and a functioning GPS app and then lose the signal at some point in the hike. The major advantage of the cell phone is that many people have them and so do not have to buy another device. Apps are less than $10 compared to handheld units which cost from $100 to $400.
The GPSmap 60Csx comes with basic software called MapSource to allow basic transfers between computer and unit. This software is so limited I don't use it much and immediately installed Garmin's BaseCamp to take car of these duties. This program came with an adequate set of 100K maps for the US but I was also able to download public domain maps that work well. Some of these maps have different labels and other information and are worth a look. BaseCamp allows easy communications with the GPS unit for upload maps, tracks and route and downloading tracks after a hike. The 100K maps are adequate but I also purchased the 24K maps which have some more details. The program also allows manipulation of the maps for adding, removing, inserting, copying and moving track points. It allows you to scroll through all of the track points it has recorded and displays the location on the map. It also shows an elevation profile and allows you to "walk" along the track. The 3D feature is not very good but I seldom use it. The program will export files in the Garmin GDB format or in GPX format to easily switch between units and software programs. I am sure there are more features that I am not using.
To transfer the maps to my website, I take screenshots using SnagIt. I like this program since it has an editor that allows me to add labels and draw objects. It also allows me to add "hotspots" and link to pictures. There are many other good programs out there and many are FREE!
My camera does not geotag photographs so I sometimes use a program called Photomapper which is free. It allows you to coordinate your photographs with a GPS track and publish a map that integrates both. Note: Your camera and GPS unit must both be set to the SAME TIME for this to work! The files it produces are large and can cause page loading to be slow. The program saves the pictures and a .kmz file that can be viewed in Google Earth (desktop).
GPX is an open source effort to allow people with different GPS receivers to exchange information. My GPS unit WILL load these files. I have found a free program called GPS Utility which coverts between different types of files. It will load the TRK files from Magellan GPS unit or my MapSend software. I can then save these files in GPX format. I can also use this use this program to upload GPX files to my GPS unit.
I have also used the GPS Babel program to do some conversions. This is a free program that a team of authors is constantly trying to update and improve. Find more information at their website.
I VERY often use a website called GPS Visualizer which is invaluable in so many different ways and is also FREE! I use it in conjunction with Google Maps and also to produce its own profiles and maps. This site will:
- Create various file formats from GPS files
- Create a Google Earth to import into Google Maps
- Convert between file formats
- Draw a profile
- Create a Google map from a GPS file
- Covert to GPX format
Cell Phone Apps
I use the Avenza app at times on my iPhone. The app is available for iDevices and the Android OS. The app is free and once downloaded you can also use many free maps. The best maps, however, must be purchased. I have paid for and installed most of the NYNJTC maps. The app allows you to follow your progress along the trails and has been handy in areas where the trails are not well-marked. It also allows dropping pins on the maps and searching form places by name or coordinates. Pictures can be tagged and associated with different places. The app also will record your GPS track and allow you to import it into your computer.
I would also like to know YOUR EXPERIENCES with GPS handheld units. Both of my Magellan units seem to keep accurate mileage on relatively flat trails. However, they are WILDLY INACCURATE when many mountains are involved. I will be hiking and by the maps I have and the signs on the trail the distance is at least 8 miles. The GPS is reading 4.8 miles! The trails seem accurate but the mileage is off! When I transfer the GPS information to my MapSend software on the computer the mileage THEN seems more in line with the maps and signs. The Garmin GPSmap 60CSx seems to be much more accurate in all ways. What are your experiences?