GPS Buying Guide

Bill writes, I’m planning on doing some camping this summer and want to get a GPS for forest hikes. I already have mapping software for my laptop, so should I just get a GPS that connects to my laptop or would one of the handheld units work better. The laptop compatible models seem to be cheaper.
The GPS units specifically designed to connect to a PC are cheaper than other GPS devices, primarily because they offload most of the functionality to the PC. This isn’t a bad thing; a PC connected GPS systems most definitely have their place in the geo-location world. If you plan on hiking, you may want to reconsider your choice of GPS systems. Choosing a GPS not suited for your intended purpose means the navigation system will be left behind when it’s time to embark on your next adventure, because the costs of taking the unit with you might seem higher than the perceived benefit of knowing you’re on the right path. Weather conditions, available space in your backpack, total weight of gear carried and accessibility of GPS information while on your excursion all play into the final decision to take the GPS or leave it behind. Rather than basing your entire GPS purchase decision on the price of the GPS, it’s better to understand the benefits of specific GPS features, style of GPS interfaces and the practical applications you intend for the navigation system.

Buying the Right GPS

Obviously feature requirements differ slightly depending on the planned usage of your GPS navigation system. The GPS units designed to connect directly to a laptop rely on software like Microsoft’s Streets and Trips for all functionality other than gathering positioning data. If you use a laptop in conjunction with one of these GPS devices the laptop typically serves as basemap, waypoint and route marker, auto routing system, breadcrumb log, address finder, alarm, clock and human interface device. While this makes the GPS unit cheaper, it limits functionality in a number of ways.
Taking a laptop on a hike may not be convenient for a number of reasons. Laptops are generally designed for indoor usage and aren’t meant for the potential beating of a strenuous hike through the woods (yes, there are some laptops designed specifically for outdoor use). In addition to damage potential, a laptop weighs considerably more than a handheld device. Carrying a laptop may mean trading off between the weight of your laptop and more water or extra clothing on the trail. Laptops are also not typically battery efficient which means access to a power source or extra batteries are required.
Handheld GPS units are not without potential shortcomings too. Because a handheld unit is responsible for providing map visuals, route marking, breadcrumb trails, human interface and positioning, along with any additional features, each unit makes tradeoffs to fit in various price points we lost souls are willing to pay. This tradeoff between features and price to arrive at the most useful device still within your financial means is what finding the right GPS is all about.

Common GPS Features

Before choosing a particular GPS, it’s important to understand the features common to many GPS systems. GPS, if you’re not already familiar with the term, stands for Global Positioning System. If you have an in-car navigation system, you may already be familiar with how a GPS navigation system works. In car navigation systems, the car determines your starting point using an onboard GPS, you give the car a destination and the car provides you with route alternatives based on map information stored in its database of maps. A GPS used for hiking works on the same principles, although you need software with the maps for where you are hiking to provide valid routing information. In addition to the satellite positioning information and an accurate map database, GPS units typically come bundled with a variety of features to improve your navigational experience.
Below typical GPS features are categorized into three groups. The Key Features group includes features you shouldn’t be without when purchasing a GPS. These features impact your core navigation experience. Additional Features extend functionality in a fundamental way to enhance navigational experience. Optional Features are useful extras that come in handy but won’t hamper basic navigation if they don’t exist.

Key Features

Accuracy may be one of the more underrated features of consumer GPS equipment. Almost every consumer GPS system supports accuracy to 49 feet (15 meters). A smaller subset of GPS units with support for Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) , which coordinates position within 9-23 feet (3-7 meters) of accuracy depending on horizontal and vertical changes relative to previous position, although most consumer units supporting WAAS don’t guarantee better than 23 feet (7 meters) of accuracy.
Antenna options are important in determining how versatile a given GPS unit is (or isn’t). To function properly, a GPS antenna requires an unobstructed view of the sky. Some units include only the onboard antenna which means the physical GPS unit will always need a clear view of the sky to function. GPS units with support for an external antenna provide more versatility because the GPS could be located in a pack, shirt pocket or car trunk, with an externally connected antenna providing access to data from the satellite positioning systems.
Battery Life is a key feature for any electronic device. If you plan on taking a GPS on extended hikes with infrequent access to a power source, make sure you either bring spare batteries or have an alternative means of powering the GPS. Solar power cells come in handy when hiking without access to power for extended periods of time. Be sure to check the continuous use and power conservation modes to determine exactly how much battery life your GPS has.
Built-in Basemap provides a core routing for North America, Europe or Australia. Without a basemap, you need a solid understanding of reading points on a map to make use of a GPS. Basemaps are typically fairly basic, including most major details in a give continent, but not details included on more location specific maps (which are downloadable via software).
Coordinate display shows you mapping coordinates in either latitude/longitude or Universal Traverse Mercator (UTM).
LCD screens are found on every GPS, with the exception of those units you jack into your laptop for the sole purpose of adding navigation to a portable PC. The differences between screens are: how much detail is presented; how big the screen is; how easy the screen is to read in the dark and full sunlight; color or monochrome; supported information types like route maps, coordinates and topographical maps.
Memory is just as important to GPS units as it is to computers. In this case, GPS memory determines how much mapping data may be stored in the GPS. Eight megabytes of memory is a good minimum, with some units including considerably more or expanded memory via a card slot.
PC access is necessary for most GPS units to download maps, update destination information and transfer data back for analysis. While some GPS units are merely conduits for passing satellite coordinated locations to a PC, most also require a computer to add functionality to the GPS.
Rocker or Thumbstick switch located on the face of the GPS provides navigation of menus and map locations, similar to a mini-joystick control. This may not seem important at first blush, but a GPS is functionally limited if navigation is a hassle.
Routes and Waypoints show you start to finish via a series of marked locations on your map. In most GPS units routes are limited to a maximum of 20-30 waypoints per trip with an upper limit of maximum waypoints determined by the amount of memory in the GPS. Typically routes are reversible making it easy to retrace your steps.
Software support determines how much additional map detail is available to the GPS from outside sources. Depending on which GPS vendor you choose, maps may be limited to the vendor’s own or the GPS may be compatible with a variety of maps.
Water Resistance determines the ability for the GPS unit to withstand things like rain, dunking in lakes and puddles and other water hazards. If a GPS is rated water resistant it can likely take a few drops of rain and may survive a very brief submergence. Waterproof should mean the GPS will survive a swim in the lake. This is one feature I’m never fond of testing and tend to err toward assuming the worst. Floating, which doesn’t really have anything to do with water resistance, is another water-related feature.

Additional Features

Altimeter readings are useful when hiking up steep inclines or down steep declines. GPS units typically provide altimeter data in one of two forms: 4-satellite quadrangulation with somewhat dubious accuracy or via onboard barometric altimeter for more accurate elevation with no dependence on satellite coordinates.
Breadcrumb track logs provide a series of track points showing the path you followed over the course of travel.
Compass readings are generally possible when traveling a minimum of 10 miles per hour, which isn’t very useful for hiking. Some GPS units include a digital compass which provides compass information like a traditional analog compass even when the GPS is not in motion.
Solar and Lunar positions give you celestial data including position relative to your current location, sunrise and sunset.

Optional Features

Address Finders lookup specific address locations within the mapping database associated with the GPS.
Alarms provide either visual or audible notification of an approaching waypoint programmed into the GPS.
Clock/Timer functionality is available for most GPS units, providing atomic time and the occasional expected arrival time based on when you started and the distance to your destination.
Auto Routing takes you turn-by-turn from start to destination, similar to in-car navigation systems. This feature is really only useful at off-road vehicle or automobile speeds. On foot it becomes annoying.

Making A Choice

For my own needs, I could manage without some of the features that increase the price of a GPS, but having them is certainly nice. I learned to navigate a map using an analog compass and latitude/longitude points growing up, but having all that detail at my fingertips sure beats making calculations on a map. Color screens, when appropriately bright, provide more accurate detail about surrounding topography than monochrome models at a price of higher battery consumption and a higher price. A Barometric altimeter provides more accurate elevation data, which is only relevant if you plan to hike to high heights. A digital compass is another feature that only matters if you use trails and routes far from heavily traveled park trails. More memory matters when you want to store more maps and detailed topography. Batteries almost never last too long.
In comparing topographic detail on monochrome and color screens, I find the monochrome screens to be severely lacking in details easily brought out by color-coding the landscape with the limited 256 color screens available in most of the color GPS handhelds. I’m finding I prefer packing extra AA batteries for the devices that support them rather than counting on getting back to a power source in time, although 2500 mAMP rechargeable batteries tend to last far longer than alkaline alternatives. An onscreen map is a must for me because I don’t want to refer to a paper map unless it’s an emergency (always bring paper in case of emergency). The improved accuracy of WAAS just makes sense too me. And I want the functional advantage of having an external antenna as an option, even if I never use it. For all of these reasons, the Magellan Meridian Color GPS or the Garmin eTrek Legend C GPS make the most sense for my own needs.
You can find a wide variety of GPS units starting around $150 with enough features to easily assist you in hiking, without needing to lug your laptop. In most cases, the devices will connect to your laptop providing you a link to the GPS when you want to use onboard software for navigating to your destination.