Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Ultralight GPS / Mapping Software Navigation Systems

The purpose of this forum thread is to discuss ultralight GPS and Mapping Softare as integral parts of a "navigation system" for ultralight hiking. How do these improve efficiency? Thoughts on gear? How to keep the system as light as possible? Other questions/comments are welcome. Please consider the following articles and reviews in your discussions:

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Steven Scates MD
(scatesmd) - MLife
X9 review on 04/27/2005 18:38:13 MDT Print View


Thanks for your response and, again, an excellent review. It was this review that first led me to become a memeber here.

One reason I brought the 9v is alluded to in your review. Of the issues surrounding the device, this is really the only one that bothers me.

You mentioned how the battery level can fluctuate quite a bit. I found that a bit unnerving. The level can go from full to recharge and then back up, even if the watch is only used to tell time. This can happen over minutes to hours and can happen a day or two after a full charge, when the battery should not be drained. In the field, this left me wondering how much power I actually had left. Do I need to recharge? Do I need a new battery from Suunto? There is just no way to tell sometimes and I find myself looking at the gauge frequently. Suunto tells me that I should not worry about it, but in the field I am conservative and end up carrying a battery and charger I probably don't need for short trips.

Otherwise, I have had no difficulty working around the other issues.

Thanks for a forum that allows us to give feedback like this,


Fred Engel
(fredengel) - F
Garmin or National Geographic software. on 11/10/2005 20:40:46 MST Print View

National Geographic software is generally $100.00 per state and the Garmin is $100.00 for the entire country. I was told they both have the same features by a sales "expert". For printing UTM on topo maps with trail location added in Etc. are the two programs really the same. There is a huge cost difference.

Based on experience, are they really equivelant? If not, which is the preferred software to use?

FYI, I had discussed learning good navigation with some well traveled hikers and they all suggested a simple GPS, map, compass, Vector combination.

David White
(davidw) - F

Locale: Midwest
Re: Garmin or National Geographic software. on 11/10/2005 22:02:30 MST Print View

I've got both the Garmin and National Geographic software. They both have their place depending on what your needs are.

The Garmin software works very well with Garmin GPS's -- you can't download any other maps that I'm aware of into the Garmin (you CAN download waypoints, just not maps). So if your desire is to replace the paper map entirely, then the Garmin software is the only viable answer.

The downside to the Garmin software is that all the maps are computerized vector approximations of the real terrain. That technique is a great way to store a lot of data in a small amount of space; but it can lead to some significant errors. As an example, on one trail I'm very familiar with, the Garmin software has the trail actually crossing over a very large river (and without a bridge).

The National Geographic (NG) software is based on actual USGS maps (with many useful features added). I find these to be easier to read and much more accurate. If your plan is to use a printed map with your GPS, then I think the NG software is the way to go.

The NG software is much more expensive; however you can often find the states you need on eBay at reasonable prices. I recently purchased Missouri for (I think) $25 on eBay. The software was the prior version, but a quick trip to the NG website brought the software right up to the most current version.

Check out both websites to compare map images and see which will work best for the way you hike.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Garmin or National Geographic software. on 11/10/2005 22:37:05 MST Print View

> Based on experience, are they really equivelant? If not, which is the preferred software to use?

These two products are quite different, and serve different purposes. NG Topo! specializes in maps, while Garmin MapSource just does contours (but is required to load contour maps into a Garmin GPSr). I use both, for different purposes.

NG Topo! provides 7.5' (1:24,000) USGS topo quads for the entire state (plus 1:100,000 and 1:500,000 for continental US states; AK and HI are different). These are the graphic equivalent of paper maps I would recommend for cross-country travel, since they show surface features as well as contours. It's easy to trace out routes for a quick elevation review or to print on a map, it's easy to load routes and waypoints to and from my Garmin (serial) GPSr, and it's especially easy to print the maps I want, at the scale I want, without stitching together TIFF files or screen snapshots. It also allows me to easily save sketched trails, notes, and other stuff for reference on future trips. I've found that NG's topo maps are often more recent than the topo maps on the free sites (15 years newer in some cases). Whether it's worth $75/state depends on what your time and effort is worth, I guess. I use free USGS quads too, but mostly for states I don't have in NG Topo!. Here's a map I made with NG Topo! (the numbered patches are live links to my map annotations).

Here is the same area in Garmin MapSource. These are the highest resolution contours available in MapSource.

There are no UTM collars on MapSource's printed maps; it's just what you see on the screen. You can poke in waypoints and routes in MapSource, but I use NG Topo! for that. The sole advantage of MapSource is that you can load these contours (not just waypoints and routes) into a Garmin GPSr; the GPSr's built-in database only has roads and other objects. No other product can load contour data into a Garmin GPSr. These contours on a tiny GPSr screen aren't really useful for cross-country navigation, but they certainly help when you're trying to get a quick orientation or are sketching a route from a trail book. I hope this helps you in your decision.

>FYI, I had discussed learning good navigation with some well traveled hikers and they all suggested a simple GPS, map, compass, Vector combination.

I agree. I carry a paper map and compass even if I have the contours and routes in my GPSr; I don't like to rely on anything with a battery. However, when hiking through jungle with no reference points visible, a GPSr makes it much easier to track your position.

There's another product that looks good, but IMNSHO isn't: DeLorme Topo USA 5.0. It has maps for the entire US on one DVD. You can plot contours as tight as you like, but that doesn't avoid the fact that the underlying grid is spaced too far to be useful for cross-country travel. I compared the resolution on some features, and found that the actual resolution was no better than MapSource's contours. Cliffs look like smooth hills, that sort of problem.

Phil Barton
(flyfast) - MLife

Locale: Oklahoma
Re: Garmin or National Geographic software. on 11/11/2005 07:49:59 MST Print View

Douglas, thanks. That is an excellent oversight of the difference in the mapping SW products.

Fred Engel
(fredengel) - F
Re: Re: Garmin or National Geographic software. on 11/11/2005 10:45:24 MST Print View

Many thanks for the insights and adice. I am opting for the NG Topo for now.

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Garmin or National Geographic software. on 11/11/2005 10:57:28 MST Print View

Actually, I don't think any of the existing mapping packages are particularly good. I've found maps in the NG Topo State series (for Washington State) that are at least thirty years out of date. And there are USGS 7.5 minute quads that were produced less than ten years ago. The reason for the discrepancy is a mystery to me.

The garmin package is useful for a Garmin GPS, but there are resolution limitations in the data representation and the display that make me cringe.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Re: Garmin or National Geographic software. on 11/11/2005 16:20:37 MST Print View

>. I've found maps in the NG Topo State series (for Washington State) that are at least thirty years out of date.

Yes, some quads are very old: Laramie, WY, and Disque, WA, are both circa 1976/1978. However, I went to and verified that their digital version of these quads are also dated 1978. Disque, WA, in the REO collection also appears to be the same edition (free WA and OR collarless quads are available at ). Some quads just aren't updated very often.

Mike Storesund
(mikes) - F
Topographical Software and GPS on 11/14/2005 10:17:34 MST Print View

I have and use Garmin Map Source U.S West, National Geographic Colorado, NG Western USA, NG Northeastern USA, and Delorme TOPO USA.

With all of these products, I find the trails, roads and elevation contour lines are not always accurate and the discrepancy will exceed the accuracy reading of the GPS. I upload on my different GPS units (I use Garmin, RINO, Geko and eTrex or Magellan Meridian) and find this issue with all software packages and different units. I do find the Delorme 3-D package really useful on road trips by connecting my GPS to my laptop and keep the application running. However, I feel the 3-D presentation is lacking even for trail usefulness. I do like the many updates Delorme offer free of charge. The problem is you will not know you need an update until you try to use a function or map sectional. I agree that many of the quadrangles used in making all of these applications are older, some more than others, but at least you get the general idea of the landscape.

They all help in low/no visibility, but then you also have to consider overhead cover. Many times I am with a friend and their eTrex cannot obtain a signal while my Geko can or my Magellan Meridian cannot while their eTrex can. I believe this has to do a lot with the type of antenna (patch for Garmin Geko/eTrex or Quad Helix for Garmin RINO/Magellan Meridian), condition of the battery, operating temperature and of course line of sight to the sky above. I have found that units with a Quad Helix antenna offer better accuracy than units with a patch antenna, but then you have more weight.

What I have found works best for me is to upload portions of maps for the area I will be in (Map Source for my Garmin or NG for my Magellan). I then print out hard copies of the NG map for where I will be. I find the National Geographic maps are more user friendly and detailed when printing them out.

I make sure both the GPS unit and the map are set to Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) and my grid lines on the map are set for every 1000 meters. IMHO, UTM is by far the easiest way to find your location on a map and beats the old Long/Lat readings hands down. I can also better approximate my destination by entering the UTM map coordinates (East and North) into the GPS and use the ‘Go To’ feature. If I change the scale on the computer I can get a more accurate coordinate and enter that into the GPS and resize the map for printing before leaving. You can find many articles online for learning to use UTM.

With map and GPS (and standard baseplate compass) in hand, I can go to a clearing, get my coordinates on the GPS and transfer them to the map and know within a few meters, or less of where I am exactly. Then I use my good old compass for following a bearing until my next GPS reading. This also extends the battery life in the unit. I find that trying to use a GPS for tracking my route is not acceptable. Too many times the overhead cover prohibits a valid recording and it uses up batteries faster, meaning I need to carry more.

I never get lost… everybody tells me where to go!

Edited by mikes on 11/14/2005 10:23:08 MST.

Gerry Brucia
(taedawood) - MLife

Locale: Louisiana, USA
Looking for Very Small Basic GPS on 09/21/2009 14:25:42 MDT Print View

This thread goes back to 2005 and now that we are wrapping up 2009, I am wanting to know if there is a more up-to-date "miniature" and "reasonably priced" gps than the Garmin Foretrex 101 that fits in with my desire to go more lightweight.

I'd like a very small gps, weighing one to two ounces, has good battery life, and uses replaceable batteries. The only feature needed would be UTM readings to verify my location on a topo map on those occasions when I am not exactly sure if I am where I think I am or if I am on the right trail!

Does such a unit exist or is this a pipe dream?

Edited by taedawood on 09/21/2009 14:27:13 MDT.

Kevin Babione
(KBabione) - MLife

Locale: Pennsylvania
Very Small Basic GPS on 09/21/2009 15:17:29 MDT Print View

I don't have one of these (I still use my Garmin 60CS), but I grabbed this link off another posting here...

Sounds like exactly what you want...

Good luck!

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Very Small Basic GPS on 09/21/2009 17:33:32 MDT Print View

Don't think the Wintec shows UTM coordinates?

Willem Jongman
(willem) - F - M
gps in cell phones on 09/22/2009 01:46:47 MDT Print View

Many modern cellphones have basic gps built in these days. Assuming you already take a phone, these smart phones may be marginally heavier, but not much. I now have one, and my early experience is that battery drain is their biggest problem. So I think they are useful as an extra backup system to help if you seem to be lost, but no more.

Edited by willem on 09/22/2009 01:49:45 MDT.

Gerry Brucia
(taedawood) - MLife

Locale: Louisiana, USA
Re: Re: Very Small Basic GPS on 09/22/2009 06:13:29 MDT Print View

The Wintek would be perfect if it had UTM coordinates. Now to find the "holy grail", something like this with UTM! Most areas in which I hike do not have cell phone service so I do not bring one beyond the trailhead.

Edited by taedawood on 09/22/2009 06:15:11 MDT.

Johann Burkard
(johannb) - F

Locale: Uhm... Europe?
Re: Re: Re: Very Small Basic GPS on 09/22/2009 14:19:57 MDT Print View

A colleague has this one. If you want, I can ask him if it supports UTM.