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To GPS, or not to GPS
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Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

To GPS, or not to GPS on 10/23/2013 14:04:07 MDT Print View

I recently inherited a Garmin eTrex Vista H, a neat little B&W GPS unit. I've been playing around with it and having a good time. It's an older device, looks to be from 2009 or 2010, but it's pretty new function-wise and I'm not sure if I want to keep it or not.

I'm about to head out to the Southwest for a bike tour and I'm debating on bringing it. I read through the BPL thread on iPhones vs. GPS devices, but I'm still having a hard time deciding whether or not to bring this GPS.

Questions and Info:

1. Is there any merit to bringing a GPS as a backup when I am out of cell phone reception on Verizon? I have good coverage, but I do lose signals from time to time in the northeast.

2. I get lost very easily, and I'm "new" to the outdoors in comparison to a lot of you, so I haven't completed meaningful paper mapping training. It's on my list next to my WFR course and NOLS. Is it wise to bring this just because of the potential consequences of getting lost, or am I letting irrational fear guide me?

3. I don't see many roads locally on my Garmin. Is there a way to update the road map in it to include smaller roads and backroads?

4. WWBPLD? Would you carry it or sell it or save it for a different kind of trip?

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Which phone do you have? on 10/23/2013 14:08:39 MDT Print View

I have the iPhone 4s which has a built in GPS. It doesn't require a cell phone signal to work.

I don't use a GPS too much so the iPhone covers it for me. I recently purchased one off of Gear Trade for SAR work and for mountain climbing and hiking in unexpected white out conditions. As long as you use it as a tool and not a crutch (read replacement for map/compass skills), I'd keep it just to increase your skill set.

Edit to add:

From quick googling, it looks like that GPS doesn't have GLONASS. No big deal but nice feature to have.

It does have WAAS. Google what that is and I'd shut it off. The level of precision it offers typically isn't worth the loss of battery life.

Looks like you can download an upgraded map for it if need be.

Barometric altimeter is a plus as I find the GPS ability to guestimate elevation is typically poor. Just remember to calibrate it from time to time.

Never really worked with an electronic compass but it's my understanding that Garmin will automatically adjust declination.

Edited by IDBLOOM on 10/23/2013 14:19:57 MDT.

Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

iPhone 5 on 10/23/2013 14:12:08 MDT Print View

I have an iPhone 5. I'll try to find out more info on the iPhone's GPS. Do I need to download some other program besides Maps to use the GPS when I don't have service? (I'd love to do this and turn off my service to save battery).

I am sort of using it as a crutch. I know how to spot landmarks in elevation and find river valleys thanks to some Geology training, and I carry maps when I am in unfamiliar territory away from civilization, and I don't even try to go off-trail since I don't have the experience. I'm talking about biking on roads in potentially remote areas, and using a GPS as an enabler to, say, take an obscure logging road just to explore.

The only skills I'm really, really good at are not being stupid in the woods, and staying warm. I'm great at those.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
question on 10/23/2013 14:13:00 MDT Print View

heres a simple question ...

assuming you are using your cell for GPS duty normally .... is it your primary method of communication for emergencies should there be reception ...

something to consider if you should need the full battery life in a rescue

this gentleman is with coquitlam SAR ...’t-use-smart-phones-for-backcountry-navigation/

and a real life example ...

“For whatever reason, hikers go out and they keep their cellphones on the entire day, and when they need it the most, they’ve got very little battery life left,” said Yochim. “What we had him do was shut off his phone, and turn it on every half an hour.”

its your call, but you already have the GPS


Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

Hmm.. Maybe no right answer? on 10/23/2013 14:19:16 MDT Print View

I guess at the end of the day, it's a weight question. Will I get a meaningful amount of "insurance" or just plain peace of mind for my 5 ounces?

Steven Hollifield
To GPS, or not to GPS on 10/23/2013 14:19:51 MDT Print View

I have this unit myself. It took me two weeks to download the correct software and find the most up to date maps. On top of that I had to buy 3 converters to get this from its 7 pins to USB. It didn't take 3 together, just 1, i just went through 3 until I got the drivers to work with one of them. Probably my own lack of computer smarts. 99% chance this will interface with your computer without a converter.

After all of that, it was great. Tough, light, boots up quickly., The maps I put on it for my back country area were very detailed and helped me out greatly. It was a trail blazing trip. I believe you can get road maps vs back country maps.

I'm not familiar with phone GPS units and how the function outside of signal range, but my garmin worked beautifully in thick cover, in the shadows of mountains ect. I don't have a phone with GPS so that has not been an option for me.

Megan Webb
(meganwebb) - MLife
Take it, but... on 10/23/2013 14:32:03 MDT Print View

Take it this time... Find if you use it or not, and if it is useful, or just another gadget that is nice to have..

A lot would depend on the trip. You don't provide any information about your trip - one day, multi day, on roads, cross country, so hard to say.

Anything with a battery can always die when you need it. Depending on how it chews batteries, multi days could need a ton of batteries to run it. Electronics typically don't mix well with water. Hard drops can also see them in trouble.

If its your only navigation and it stops working, you're up the creek. Also, the GPS will not contact anyone to call help if you need help, so, you need something else for that if that is what your thinking off.

Myself, cycling, I have paper maps, and a phone with a GPS that doesn't need reception to work, and offline maps. Only because I've always got my phone with me. Only used the phone a couple of times to check if it worked. It does, but I make more use of paper maps.

Planning the trip - know where help is, and know where the best bail out points are.

scree ride
maps on 10/23/2013 14:33:53 MDT Print View

Put the GPS away until you learn your maps and how to triangulate.
A phone is only a back up safety device and a GPS is only a toy for entertainment.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
To GPS, or not to GPS on 10/23/2013 14:34:42 MDT Print View

I'm very much a GPS user and like to have one with me when I'm in the backcountry however, it sounds to me like you should save the weight (and hassle) and just use your phone.

Make sure you download a good GPS app like Gaia GPS that allows you to download maps to your phone (for when you can't get a connection) and you'll be good with just the phone.

One of the things that is often overlooked is that having a GPS is great for finding out exactly where you are but if you can't read a map, it's not going to get you home. Especially if you rely entirely on the GPS map screen... it's way to small for navigation. Take a paper map and learn how to transfer your coordinates to the paper map.

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Re: Hmm.. Maybe no right answer? on 10/23/2013 14:47:56 MDT Print View

Added some googled data about your GPS above.

If you have the iPhone, download Gaia. I've found it to be very precise.

You can use the ap to download Caltopo maps to your phone. I don't know where the file is stored on the phone but I don't see my memory bar move after downloading a large map, even when I downloaded all of Rainier NP.

There are a few videos on YouTube by its developer which will help get you started.

As far as use goes, I keep my phone in airplane mode and with the SIM card still in. When I need to plot a coordiate or see where I am on the map, I take it off airplane mode just long enough to do this and then return it to airplane mode. I can go ~ 4 days this way. Forget about trying to track your movement with it as your battery can't handle that level of processing.

Edited by IDBLOOM on 10/23/2013 14:57:08 MDT.

Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

Good Info on 10/23/2013 15:13:30 MDT Print View

I think a non-cellular GPS program is going to be best for me.

Trip info: Multi-day, by bike, in unfamiliar territory, on roads in the American Southwest (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, maybe California).

I don't want to sound like I'm a complete novice with a map; I know how to read it, I know how to find coordinates, I just don't have a lot of experience translating what I'm looking at into useful information. It's almost, almost irrelevant, though; I'm not going to be off-road or off-trail unless I'm sure I know where I'm heading.

I always carry a Brunton compass.

If anyone wants the Garmin, I'm listing it on Gear Swap. I can get another one in a few years if my iPhone proves inadequate, but I think it's going to be fine.

Edited by mdilthey on 10/23/2013 15:14:29 MDT.

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Re: Good Info on 10/23/2013 15:29:57 MDT Print View

"I think a non-cellular GPS program is going to be best for me."

Hopefully I haven't muddied the waters too much but just to make sure I explained it correctly, the iPhone doesn't need a cell phone signal for the GPS to work. The only reason you need to take it off airplane mode is to activate your GPS and not because you need a cell phone signal.

There are other things you can do to optimize your battery life when using it for this purpose (which you can find here on BPL) but I've found that just toggling airplane mode on and off works fine for me.

Happy trails.

Billy Ray
(rosyfinch) - M

Locale: the mountains
Re: Re: Hmm.. Maybe no right answer? on 10/23/2013 15:30:03 MDT Print View

It's actually a fairly complex topic. Not having thought this out to form any kind of complete response, here are some off the top of my head comments:

1 it's easier to learn a map and compass than a GPS

2 A GPS can break if you drop it, batteries go dead, there are places where there is no reception, the software inside can screw up, you can screw up because you don't know how to use it...

3 A dedicated GPS like the Garmin is less likely to break than your phone if you drop it.

4... The safe way is to learn and take a map and compass and then take a GPS as a backup to your map and compass skills

5... If you're going to rely only on GPS to keep you found, there should be two in a group... minimum... redundancy in case of failure.

6 Extra batteries are a good idea

7. The single most useful safety feature on a GPS is a feature that allows you to retrace your route...

8 If you have detailed top maps on your GPS it is still a good idea to have a paper map and know how to use it... the GPS will tell you where your are at on your paper map... the paper map will give you the bigger picture of where you are at in relation to the general, larger area...

9 I know a friend that went out and bought an expensive mapping GPS before his trip... did not take the time to learn how to use it... he got lost first day out... didn't take paper maps and doesn't know how to use a compass... Moral of the story, a GPS is not and easy short cut to staying found...

Bill D

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: To GPS, or not to GPS on 10/23/2013 15:32:54 MDT Print View

1. redundancy is worth something, especially if your cell phone battery isn't charged when you need it.

2. "I got lost very easily" - that will improve with more time in the outdoors. I get turned around in a new setting, myself. When I started caving in the California foothills, it amazed me how someone could remember a route to the cave or in the cave they hadn't been on in 20 years. It all looked like rolling grasslands with oak trees above-ground and limestone below-ground to me. Within a few dozen trips, I had enough familiarity with the landforms and speleothems to recognize THIS hillside, THAT oak tree, and a particular cave passage from all others.

3. addressed by others

4. I'd play with it on local trails and get familiar with it. See if it adds anything to your cell phone capabilities. Many Garmin units are somewhat to very waterproof. Water is hazardous to cell phones and salt is extremely deadly to non-marine electronics. My cell phone goes in a dry box while on the water and my Garmin is used out in the weather.

Somewhat like a compass, a GPS is most useful if you use it on your way IN, before you are lost. (1) you are less likely to get lost, (2) you'll be *less* lost because you'll have some sense of a last known point, and (3) you'll be familiar with the unit in that setting before you really need.

Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

More Info II on 10/23/2013 15:35:30 MDT Print View

I do carry paper maps whenever I'm going into the woods alone or with people who have little experience. I'll practice with them locally this winter and spring. Finding my coordinates with a GPS and then plotting it on a map, then choosing a heading and following it using the compass is something i'm 99% sure I'm completely capable of.

As for my phone, I paid for a waterproof and impact-proof case. I'm not running around with a cracked iPhone screen. I've gone in to optimize battery life in fifteen different ways and I can usually get days out of it, rather than hours.

Ian, I read you loud and clear. Supplemented your points with my own research. I'm going tom sell the Garmin and use the money to invest in a dedicated non-cellular GPS program. Right now, "Navigon" looks to be the best since I'll be primarily on roads. Would love other suggestions. I don't want a "budget" GPS program, I want to download a nice one that will actually help me when my phone is near-dead and I'm lost.

Ultimately, I could probably do fine with Google Maps and street signs, but I'm over-preparing so I don't get in trouble.

Don Morris
(hikermor) - F
To GPS, or not on 10/23/2013 17:51:54 MDT Print View

We're talking bike touring,not wilderness travel, right? All you really need is a good, current road map. The GPS is far from essential in that context.

I have gotten on Google earth and reviewed my planned bike tour - that is at least one good way to preorient one's self.

Dena Kelley

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
"To GPS, or not to GPS" on 10/23/2013 17:59:21 MDT Print View

"Put the GPS away until you learn your maps and how to triangulate.
A phone is only a back up safety device and a GPS is only a toy for entertainment."

While I agree people should get used to using a map and compass, a GPS is not "only a toy for entertainment". I've used a GPS successfully to navigate in heavy overcast conditions (when landmarks were not visible) and in heavy foliage (again, no landmarks visible). A GPS is a tool. It has limitations such as battery life and potential for damage, but it can be incredibly helpful at times. You may know what direction you need to go by compass, but a GPS can keep you from getting into nasty terrain. I carry one, particularly in winter, and it's been helpful to me on many occasions. Some GPS devices can be linked so that you can see the location of other people in your party, also. This is applicable when you're traveling in groups, spread out- think downhill backcountry skiing, or snowmobiling, and someone gets stuck, injured or lost. It's a lot more than a toy then when you know where your injured buddy is and can go get him.

Billy Ray
(rosyfinch) - M

Locale: the mountains
Re: "To GPS, or not to GPS" on 10/23/2013 18:28:38 MDT Print View

Dena, you are right. It is a useful tool... and even does things that a map and compass can't do... in the hands of those who have spent the time to learn how to use it and understand it's limitations.

But I suspect there are many who buy them because they think it's easier than learning a map and compass (isn't that what the original poster said more or less?). Then they go out without learning how to use the GPS and promptly get lost. It's as though they have been hypnotized by all things that sport a colorful screen... as though it's magic or something.

It would be interesting to know how many people get lost the first time they go out with a GPS vs. how many use it successfully to find their way the first time out with it.

Another pit-fall with GPS is that it is then used as an excuse to not learn map and compass... or, worse, to not even take a map... candidates for the SAR boys indeed.

Bill D

Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

Getting Repetitive. on 10/23/2013 18:35:38 MDT Print View

That's not really what I said... I was looking for information within the limitations of what I'd use it for (roads, bike touring).

The prosthelityzing by BPL's GPS experts is appreciated, but the constant safety warnings are not wholly necessary. I am, in fact, aware of paper mapping as the end-all of navigation. I am aware of it's limitations. I am aware of the role of a GPS in navigation. I'm aware (now) of the differences between my phone's GPS and a Garmin. I'm also aware of nuances like magnetic declination, natural magnetism regionally, topographic mapping, etc.

I took a GPS course during my undergraduate and I've read. I always read. All day, all weekend, i'm reading and researching and learning.

So yeah, I appreciate the warnings and the 3+ people who reminded me a GPS has batteries... but let's move on. I did say in the OP that I worked my way through the old threads, too!

Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

For Example on 10/23/2013 18:38:13 MDT Print View

That was kind of a confusing post, but check out David's post... Almost all of it is relevant and useful. He clearly read past the OP before giving out information, and it's super-helpful. Thanks also to Dena and everyone else.