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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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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
GPS Use in Context on 12/10/2004 16:56:52 MST Print View

Generally, GPS's have been little more than a crutch for me. If your map and compass skills are sound - and your compass/map are handy - I think you can navigate pretty much as fast as someone using a GPS in clear conditions. I hike with an exceptional adventure racing team navigator and even with GPS I can't hope to keep up with him, using a map and mirrored compass, in combination with an altimeter watch, he's about as good as it gets.


Now let's take terrain visibility away. Whiteout conditions, in winter, above the treeline. You can bet your bottom dollar I'm using my GPS. It speeds up navigation tremendously.

But generally, I've not found a GPS particularly useful in open, mountainous terrain, and only useful in thick cover cross country hiking (hunting especially) when I get to a clearing, or need to mark a cache or kill or camp or car.

So, my question to y'all is this:

Are these things really that useful for the ordinary backpacker or is this another classic case of "Man, what a COOL gadget!" where technology alone (just because) drives the purchase? (Hey, I admit, I bought one out of the gate!!)

Bernard Shaw
( - F

Locale: Upstate New York
Sooner or later you own general on 12/10/2004 20:49:10 MST Print View

There are no risks in the back country or on the ocean till we take ouselves there. Sooner or later the fomula of big skills and good judgment reduces probability of risk results in white outs and or fog and in those conditions, GPS is not a back up but a likely lifesaver. I have had experiences in the White and Adirondacks, and off the coast of Maine where I was so happy I packed that eTrex. Of course I speak only for myself, but after years of disdaining these things, and priding myself on compass, signs, and map, I am glad to add GPS.

Kenneth Knight
(kenknight) - MLife

Locale: SE Michigan
Is GPS worth it on 12/10/2004 22:03:48 MST Print View

For most backpackers I think you are right Ryan - a GPS unit is not that helpful. There are some other times though when a GPS can be of use. Traveling the paths in the UK working with the UK ordinence maps can be fun but also a challenge. Things are so developed or landmarks are hard to spot that fixing your location using classic means is just a time consuming task. Even when walking a long trail such as a portion of the Penine Way you need to pay close attention to where you are so you don't stray too much. Having a GPS (set to UTM co-ordinates) to help you qickly fix your location is certainly quite helpful. Necessary? No. But certainly useful.

It's ironic that sometimes a GPS may be of more use to a person traveling a trail that is closely associated with lots of private property than someone walking off-trail or at least trails that don't veer near private land. This could be of some concern on trails that mix trails with country lanes and roads and snuggle right up against private property (often a lot of which may be owned by twitchy people). If I were hiking many portions of the North Country Trail I'd probably carry a GPS just to help keep me straight so I wouldn't stray onto private property and get hopelessly confused.

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
GPS moderately useful on 12/10/2004 22:24:11 MST Print View

If someone is traveling on well marked trails or in the mountains where visibility is good (you can just look up, see peaks, and know were you are) then I think a GPS is only a toy. I know some people who like to use it to track the path they took, or to see what their ETA is, or exactly how many miles they have gone. These uses don't seem compelling.

On most trips I don't bother bringing my geko 201. The combination of a map, compass, and reasonable visibility works fine, but doesn't burn batteries, and is extremely reliable. My first 201 would periodically shut down and not come back for hours. [Thankfully REI replaced it.] If I was relying on my GPS I would have been hosed. The other problem I have with the geko 201 is that some of the buttons got pushed accidentally as I was pulling it out of a pocket and the next thing I knew, all my waypoints were gone. Good thing I wasn't depending on the waypoints.

So do I take my GPS out? On some trips. I have found that using the GPS w/ waypoints is much faster than a compass and map, especially when going cross country. So on trips where speed is really important I will use GPS. I believe it has given me at least an extra hour when I can be moving fast. I also bring my geko on trips where I expect visibility might be limited. It has really helped out a couple of time in white-out conditions (e.g. saved my butt), and once when I got lost in a maze of micro canyons. On one desert trek when it was hazy enough that I didn't have any distant landmarks to lock on it was really helpful to have something that confirmed I wasn't off track and I was making progress to my next water drop. I also take my geko on trips for non navigation reasons. I sometimes geocache, and I have found a GPS useful when I am evaluating other items. For example, evaluating how accurate an altimeter is by knowing exactly where I am and what altitude that should be base on elevation according to my map.

There was also one trip when I wasn't really paying attention to navigation because the trail was really easy to follow and I was thinking about other things. Then the trail disappeared and I had not idea what I was. Turning the GPS on was a really easy way of figuring out where I was. This is a use I wouldn't recommend, we should be careful to know where we are. I typically don't have my GPS on. I turn it on to confirm where I am and get a read distance and direction to my next waypoint.

Long story short... sometimes a GPS can be hugely valuable (if not a lifesaver), but I think most of the time it's a toy.

Edited by verber on 12/12/2004 22:41:15 MST.

John S.
(jshann) - F
geko 301 runtime on 12/12/2004 08:17:47 MST Print View

It is interesting that, on your gear guide index, the geko 301 has the lowest battery life at 9 hours, yet Alan is able to get a much longer effective battery life in the way he uses it with his Suunto Vector. He mentions about half a season on one set of batteries. Should the battery life in battery save mode be added to the gear guide index so that non-members won't be disuaded from considering the geko 301?

Edited by jshann on 12/12/2004 08:35:08 MST.

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: geko 301 runtime ON 12/12/2004 on 12/12/2004 08:41:45 MST Print View

>It is interesting that, on your gear guide index, the geko 301 has the lowest battery life at 9 hours, yet Alan is able to get a much longer effective battery life in the way he uses it with his Suunto Vector. He mentions about half a season on one set of batteries.

I would take the manufacturer’s run times, which is what we report in the gear guide, with a grain of salt. For the 301 our tested run times in battery save mode were much greater than the manufacturer’s spec’ed run time (assumed to me in normal GPS mode and with the compass on). I discussed this in the review of the 301.

“Normal mode (GPS always on) with compass on: 10 hr 01 min (tested); Battery Save mode with compass off: 25 hr 48 min (tested). Manufacturer reported 9 hrs "typical use."”

With intermittent GPS use as described in “Guide to Selecting and Using Ultralight GPS Systems” and the 301 review, I may only use the GPS 10 to maybe 30 minutes in a week long trip. Turn it on get a fix/bearing to next waypoint and turn it off. This is where I can get ½ season use on one set of batteries.

This saves my batteries for whiteout, after dark navigation, and other contingencies. For winter/climbing trips, since I use an AAA batt, headlamp and an AAA batt GPS unit, I may also carry a spare set of 3 lithium AAA batteries that will work in either unit.

I would still use the GPS in the same sparing manner unless conditions warrented something like night navigation off a mountain with the GPS unit and backlight constantly on.


Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
GPS? Si! on 12/15/2004 14:56:30 MST Print View

Nice to have? Much of the time, yes. Necessary? Most of the time, no. The superior tool under certain circumstances? Absolutely.

The conditions where one doesn't benefit from a GPS are generally the same ones in which the map stays in the pack and the compass in the pocket: a clear, properly marked trail and a well-planned itinerary.

The hair shirt brigade is fond of noting they would never rely on anything that requires batteries. You know, the folks cooking dinner by the light of a road flare, who drove the oxen team to the trailhead ;-)

Yes, I've broken a compass or two in my time.

Alan's (excellent) review notes more than once that GPS technology doesn't really come into its own until married to appropriate mapping software. This has been my experience as well, borne out on trips where I've set waypoints on map and in GPS at home, then used them to guide me through complex X-C routes. I've found there are times when a map and compass simply can't do the trick and GPS can.

It's also interesting to download "actuals" at home, and compare with the map. For areas I return to, I find that a corrected map can be pretty handy at times.

I'm still deciding how helpful map overlays are on a GPS with a smallish screen. I've often found I suffer information overload and have to switch some layers off. Eventually, PDA-size color screens may make the pairing really click.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Fly in the GPS ointment? on 12/16/2004 09:58:46 MST Print View

Perhaps one should not leave their compass at home,as witness the following news brief--

"Bush Prepares for Possible GPS Shutdown
AP - 2 hours, 8 minutes ago
President Bush has ordered plans for temporarily disabling the U.S. network of global positioning satellites during a national crisis to prevent terrorists from using the navigational technology, the White House said Wednesday."

Edited by kdesign on 12/16/2004 10:11:09 MST.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Switch GPS off? on 12/16/2004 10:11:33 MST Print View

VERY interesting, especially given that civil aviation is embracing GPS technology in a big way. I wonder whether they'll let everyone land first before switching off?

Anybody know how the Europeans are progressing with their competing system?

Tony Burnett
(tlbj6142) - F

Locale: OH--IO
Altitude with GPS... on 12/20/2004 11:54:41 MST Print View

I'm not sure I understand the aversion to using the altitude provided by the GPS. While it may be 50% less accurate than the location signal. Do the few feet make that much of a difference?

Ex. Typically I get 12-30' "accuracy" on my eTrex Legend. Knowing your altitude could be off by as much as 45' make that much of a difference?

Kim Skaarup
(skaarup) - F

Locale: Cold, wet and windy Scandinavia
European GPS = GALILEO on 12/20/2004 15:09:44 MST Print View

Try to look at (its in english!)

or the main home page:

John S.
(jshann) - F
Map question on 01/15/2005 01:49:40 MST Print View


In your article I read

"When printed on letter sized paper an area of 5.5 by 7.25 miles is shown for the 7.5 minute USGS series, while an area of 11.5 by 14.5 miles is shown for the 100K series."

A 7.5 minute USGS is 1:24000 which is 2.64 inches/mile. A 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper can only show 3.2 by 4.2 miles. To get 5.5 miles (in 8.5 inch paper) on that sheet of paper would require a map scale of about 1:40000. Am I wrong?

Edited by jshann on 01/15/2005 01:52:45 MST.

Mike Storesund
(mikes) - F
GPS vs. Map and Compass on 01/17/2005 17:22:35 MST Print View

I always take a GPS with me to mark parking spots, cool camp site(s) for future reference, water locations not on the map. They are nice to obtain coordinates in case of emergency.
Having the ability to upload maps into your GPS is a great feature too.
As a scoutmaster, being responsible for many young people, I like the Garmin RINO series. While these are a bit heavier, you can send / receive locations to other users on same frequency and use the 'Go To' feature. A real life saver when someone is lost or groups become separated.
In smaller groups I carry my Garmin Geko 301 at 3.1 oz (w/ Lithium batteries). However, batteries do die, so it is essential to still know how to use your map and compass.
GPS or Map and Compass - Don't leave home without them (both).

obx hiker
(obxcola) - MLife

Locale: Outer Banks of North Carolina
GPS/ Mapping on 02/07/2005 19:50:16 MST Print View

For John Shannon:

Not that I'm trying to sub for Alan Dixon, but I think the quote below from his article on using a small gps unit like the geko 301 along with mapping software answers your question; though speaking precisely I believe you are correct. The article also addresses power/battery conservation; and is very informative about the issues/equipment needed for successful/simple and lightweight backcountry navigation.

"Note: National Geographic suggests using a 1:24,000 scale map reduced 50 percent for printed maps. An inch on the printed map now represents 48,000 inches (4,000 feet) on the ground. If you have used a UTM grid, you can still eyeball distances to within a few hundred meters. Map details are still readable; in fact, you can go as low as 40 percent of the original size and still read the map."

Re-reading your first post it looks like you read the article, and maybe just missed this sort of a footnote towards the end of the article.

Edited by obxcola on 02/07/2005 19:55:48 MST.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Reply to Cola on 02/15/2005 09:49:14 MST Print View

Cola, thanks for responding. Under the "Preparing Maps" section, my interpretation of the second paragraph shows the following numbers for paper size and scale (no borders):

8.5 x 11.0 inch paper at 1:24,000 scale = 5.5 x 7.25 miles shown
8.5 x 11.0 inch paper at 1:100,000 scale = 11.5 x 14.5 miles shown
8.5 x 14.0 inch paper at 1:48,000 scale (~50% reduction of 1:24k) = up to 7.5 x 13.0 miles shown

My numbers come out as follows according to this scale calculator (no borders):

8.5 x 11.0 inch paper at 1:24,000 scale = 3.2 x 4.1 miles shown
8.5 x 11.0 inch paper at 1:100,000 scale = 13.4 x 17.3 miles shown
8.5 x 14.0 inch paper at 1:48,000 scale (~50% reduction of 1:24k ) = 6.4 x 10.6 miles shown

A simple way to calculate the scale is to measure the distance between the UTM gridlines after printing, and plug that number into the above website. Having a border would further reduce miles shown.

Edited by jshann on 02/15/2005 09:56:37 MST.

Norman Otto
(gnotto) - F
GPS in winter conditions on 03/07/2005 19:12:03 MST Print View

Whiteout conditions in winter in the mountains is problematic for even lithium battery powered GPS units unless they are kept warm inside the jacket. In the White Mtns on NH last weekend @ 10 degrees, my new batteries indicated 1/4 power & my Geko 101 operated for less than 1 minute before shutting down without acquiring any satellites. Body warmth brought it back, but not for long & I never locked onto a position. Are GPS really reliable in cold/wind and on the move in difficult conditions? Don't bet your life on them. I won't.

Marcus Needham
( - F
Two part unit on 03/08/2005 08:21:34 MST Print View

This reminds of my desire for an "outdoors" version of the Timex "time and distance" system, which consists of a screenless GPS receiver unit (that can be put anywhere on your person) and a watch, with a radio link between them. But the Timex unit is designed for runners and will not even show GPS coordinates, just "distance covered" sort of stats. If there was an outdoors version, you could keep the GPS unit in say a warm-ish chest pocket with a decent-ish view of the sky, then use the watch's user interface without having to expose the GPS part as much to the cold.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Chilly GPS on 03/08/2005 18:07:28 MST Print View

That's an interesting and useful observation, Norman. I'd imagine one could cobble together a remote battery pack and keep the GPS on the outside (I like clipping mine to my shoulder stap). This is a pretty common camera accessory.

Edited by halfturbo on 03/08/2005 18:09:05 MST.

Steven Scates MD
(scatesmd) - MLife
X9 review on 04/26/2005 09:01:55 MDT Print View

I read with interest Alan Dixon's review, as I received an X9 over the holidays and was able to try it out in Yosemite this month.

Although we had originally planned to snowshoe to Glacier Point, the rangers closed the road so equipment could clear the fallen trees and snow from recent storms. I had programmed into the X9 the planned route after calibrating a map from TOPO. Now that I have done it a few times, the calibration is not intimidating, but it would be easier if I could import the routes in from TOPO or Garmin software.

We snowshoed out of Crane Flat toward Gin Flat as a result of the route change. It was done at the last minute, so I did not have waypoints for this route in the X9. I read the first startup for the X9 could be slow, so I did this during breakfast along the way in. I then set the car position as HOME before we started out.

My partner was leading the way and he usually gets lost, even in clear areas. We were in dense forest and he was walking about 180 degree from the planned route, bushwacking thru the trees. I had set the X9 to Activity mode, 1 min updates, but in the dense trees and valleys the X9 did not always find a signal.

Ultimately, we found an area near a creek to camp and I climbed to a ridge for a bearing that localized us and gave me bearings back to the car. As I slept, I recharged the battery with a 9v I brought, but the indicator did not read low at the end of the day.

On the way out, I navigated with the X9 back to the car without difficulty.

After I returned, I downloaded the collected data and emailed the plots to my partners.

Overall, the X9 did well and I likely will continue to use it rather than my larger unit. I agree with Alan that setting waypoints in the field is slow, but using the software at home to do this is easy. At times, I found myself fumbling to find an imbedded menu item, but with practice it became easier. Sometimes, I noted I had accidentally hit a button, so I don't think they are too hard to push.

I thank Alan for a great review. I generally agree with him. My only differences would be that I did recharge the battery in the field for the weight of the 9v battery and charger unit and that I found the buttons were still soft enough to push by accident at times. I read his note on the UTM bug and printed my maps for WGS84 to avoid the issue.



Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
X9 review on 04/26/2005 12:25:04 MDT Print View

Nice job working with the X9 steve. Sounds like you have the hang of working with the X9.

And thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you found the review helpful.

Some others have written in about recharging the unit in the field with the base unit and a 9V battery. My only thought is the weight of the X9 and base charging unit vs. the higher performance (better gps aquistion) and convenience (longer battery life, no need to recharge) of a light handheld unit like the fortrex 101 or gekko 301.

Take care,