by Alan Dixon | 2004-12-10 03:00:00-07
The author field testing the Geko 301 in the Uintas
The Geko 301 is my favorite GPS unit. When used in combination with custom waterproof maps and waypoints from National Geographic Topo! (or similar mapping/GPS interface software), the Geko 301 is a superb navigational tool for the ultralighter. Yeah, I can do the map and compass thing and navigate fine (and one should be able to do this in case of GPS failure). But why not travel smarter? I do a lot of off trail-travel, and the Geko 301 more than makes up for its 3.5 ounces by aiding in more efficient travel and better decisions.
The Geko 301 has all the functions I need, comfortably fits in any pocket, and runs for about a half season (my use) on one set of batteries. I love the accuracy, speed and simplicity of the point and sight to a waypoint feature of the 301's magnetic compass. In almost a year of use, the Geko 301 has already saved my butt in the featureless winter terrain of the Beartooth Plateau, and in the maze of mangrove channels and islands of the Everglades. And that doesn't count the number of times I've used it to navigate in whiteout. Finally, while the Geko 201 costs less, I advise most buyers to pay more to get the magnetic compass and barometric altimeter of the 301.
The 201 retains most functions of the 301 but excludes a magnetic compass and barometric altimeter. It also lacks the point and sight to a waypoint feature of the 301. If used in combination with a wrist mounted compass/altimeter or a simple magnetic compass, the 201 will get the job done. Similar in features and price to the 201, but smaller and lighter is the Foretrex 101 reviewed here. Both the Geko 301 and the Foretrex 101 use a new and more efficient processor for great battery life. The Geko 201 uses an older processor with higher battery drain and about 40% less run time than the 101 and 301. The Foretrex 101 is the same price as the Geko 201 but is lighter and more compact (without wrist strap), has the option of wrist mounting, has longer battery life, and an improved display format. The only disadvantage of the Foretrex 101 as compared to the Geko 201 is that the Foretrex 101 is harder to operate single handedly if the wrist mounting option is not used. It can be operated with a single hand but you need to either pinch it between your fingers and thumb or palm it and look at the screen sideways.
The Gekos: the 301 on the left in leave-it-on-a-rock-and-forget-it gray, with magnetic compass and barometric altimeter; the 201 on the right in never-lose-it yellow. My favorite: the 301 with its magnetic compass and newer processor resulting in less battery drain and more run time.
|Geko 301||Geko 201|
|3.3 oz (94.5 g) as weighed by Backpacking Light||3.2 oz (90.4 g) as weighed by Backpacking Light|
|3.9 x 1.9 x 1.0 in (100 x 47 x 25 mm)||3.9 x 1.9 x 1.0 in (100 x 47 x 25 mm)|
• Battery Life*
|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."||Normal mode (GPS always on): 11 hr 10 min (tested); Battery Save mode: 15 hr 12 min (tested). Manufacturer reported 12 hr in Battery Save mode.|
• Battery Type
|2 AAA||2 AAA|
• Barometric Altimeter
• Electronic Compass
• WAAS Enabled
• Screen Resolution (H x W)
|100 x 64 pixels||100 x 64 pixels|
• Screen Size (H x W)
|1.4 x 0.9 in (36 x 23 mm)||1.4 x 0.9 in (36 x 23 mm)|
• Display Type
|black and white LCD with backlighting||black and white LCD with backlighting|
• Auto Locate GPS Fix**
|5 minutes||5 minutes|
• Cold GPS Fix**
|45 sec (manufacturer); 42 sec (tested average)||45 sec (manufacturer); 42 sec (tested average)|
• Warm GPS Fix**
|15 sec (manufacturer); 16 sec (tested average)||15 sec (manufacturer); 16 sec (tested average)|
• GPS Accuracy
|Normal GPS mode, less than 49 ft (15 m); WAAS mode, less than 10 ft (3 m)||Normal GPS mode, less than 49 ft (15 m); WAAS mode, less than 10 ft (3 m)|
• Waypoint/Route Memory
|500 waypoints/20 routes with 125 waypoints per route||500 waypoints/20 routes with 125 waypoints per route|
|10,000 (10 tracks)||10,000 (10 tracks)|
• Additional Memory
• Additional Memory Type
• Computer Interface
|Yes, Windows PC, Macintosh with third party cable||Yes, Windows PC, Macintosh with third party cable|
• Additional Maps
• Water Resistance
|IPX7 (International Protection Code 7) - submersible in 1 m of water for up to 30 minutes||IPX7 (International Protection Code 7) - submersible in 1 m of water for up to 30 minutes|
|12 parallel channel GPS receiver||12 parallel channel GPS receiver|
|Built-in patch||Built-in patch|
• Celestial Info
|Sunrise and sunset||Sunrise and sunset|
• Included Equipment
• Optional Equipment
|PC interface cable (RS232), USB to RS232 converter cable, selected Garmin MapSource products, various mounting kits, cigarette lighter adapter, lanyard, belt clip||PC interface cable (RS232), USB to RS232 converter cable, selected Garmin MapSource products, various mounting kits, cigarette lighter adapter, lanyard, belt clip|
|*||Battery life tested using Energizer e2 AAA alkaline batteries|
|**||Auto Locate Fix = GPS movement over 500 miles (800 km) since last fix and/or more than 30 days since last fix. Cold Fix = More than four hours since last GPS fix and/or significant movement since last fix (you'd need to use a car or something faster to get far enough). Warm Fix = Less than four hours since last fix without significant movement (you can't walk or run far enough in four hours to lose a warm fix).|
In addition to the features specified above, the Geko 201 has five main pages or screens including: Satellite, Map, Navigation, Trip Computer, and Main Menu. The Geko 301 has six pages with the addition of an Elevation page.
The Geko 301 and 201 have the same fast fix times and reliable reception as the rest of the Garmin lightweight GPS units, including the eTrex and Foretrex series. These lightweight units all use a similar GPS receiver, antenna and circuitry. Manufacturer reported fix times corresponded well with field tested fix times, as reported in the specifications table above. In most situations I got a warm fix in 10 to 15 seconds from power on. Plenty fast enough for even an impatient hiker like myself. Most of the time I acquired a GPS fix while on the move.
Both the Geko 201 and 301 can receive WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) satellite correction signals to increase positional accuracy. However most hikers and climbers do not use WAAS because it decreases battery life and, since the WAAS system uses one of two geostationary satellites, WAAS reception can be difficult in all but open land and marine settings. Canyons and forested or mountainous areas frequented when hiking often do not receive strong WAAS signals. Also, increased positional accuracy achieved with WAAS does little to aid backcountry navigation where position accuracy is normally less than 15 meters without WAAS.
The Geko units comfortably fit in just about any pocket without feeling bulky or weighing clothing down. (The Garmin eTrex units are just a bit too large and heavy to be considered pocketable.) The Geko units boot and acquire position quickly so it's a breeze to pop one out of your pocket, turn it on, get a fix or point and sight to a waypoint (301 only), and put it right back in your pocket. At this point you can continue to navigate using your compass or wrist computer. Using this system you can go for months without changing batteries. Since using the GPS unit is fast and easy it does little to disrupt your hiking.
In cold weather, a pocketable GPS makes for warm batteries and long run times which is an advantage over wrist-mounted GPS units. I used the 301 on a five-day backcountry ski trip in below freezing temps. I did the navigation for the whole group, including manually loading scaled waypoints from the map each night. (The map, torn and coffee stained, was the last one in town but that's another story...) At the end of the trip, the 301 was still near full battery capacity using alkaline batteries!
The Gekos maintain good satellite contact on trail runs and hikes in not too densely forested areas. Fast movement of the units, antenna position, and clothing layer coverage do not appreciably affect reception. The Gekos easily acquire signal while hiking so there's no need stop to get a fix. I've had good success using the Gekos for canyoneering. That you can't use a GPS unit in canyons is largely a myth. Unless you are in long and continuous slot canyons like Buckskin Gulch, with some smarts and care, you can get reception at enough points to navigate canyons with GPS. This does involve waiting for confluences, junctions, and other widenings, along with the advanced sky view screen to optimize reception. But it can be done! I've found a GPS exceptionally useful in canyons since they can be very confusing and entry and exit points are critical.
The Navigation screen on the Geko 301. Line up the pointer to the top center of the screen and the GPS is pointed in the direction of the waypoint you've selected. No walking needed with a built in magnetic compass. The data field at the bottom allows you to scroll through 12 data points including elevation, location, bearing to the waypoint, speed, estimated time of arrival, etc.
The Geko 301 is the smallest and lightest Garmin GPS with a magnetic compass. I find the magnetic compass very useful. I sight with the Navigation page pointer just as if it were a compass needle to get the direction to my next waypoint. Then I can turn off the GPS to conserve batteries and start walking to the waypoint. There's no guessing and no possibility of an error translating GPS degree bearings to a separate compass. Another nice thing - the GPS unit automatically sets the right declination on the internal compass for the location.
Since the Geko 201 lacks a magnetic compass, you have to be moving for the Navigation page pointer to work (and the GPS has to be powered up adding to the battery drain). To get a direction to your waypoint, pull up the numeric degree bearing to the waypoint on the 201 and then transfer that bearing to a separate magnetic compass to sight to the waypoint. That takes time and requires that you keep declination and magnetic north versus true north consistent between compass and GPS. Unless you are alert and careful it's fairly easy to make a mistake in translation and sight to the wrong point. (I have made mistakes when I was tired at the end of the day and rushing to make progress before dark.)
Note: When moving, the 301's Navigation pointer will function the same as non-magnetic compass GPS units like the 201. When you are moving, the 301's Navigation pointer ignores the compass and indicates the difference between the direction you're walking and the waypoint. The speed at which the 301 changes from magnetic compass operation to indicating difference between your line of travel and direction to the waypoint is custom selectable. I usually set it so that the magnetic compass is operating when I've been traveling under 1 mile per hour for over 60 seconds. (That's standing still to most folks.) The direction of travel pointer takes over if I'm walking faster than 1 mile per hour.
An altimeter can be a useful navigational aid. The barometric altimeter on the 301 is more accurate (if you calibrate to reference points occasionally) than GPS based altitude readings that are far less accurate than GPS horizontal positioning. If you are willing to run the 301 continuously, it will log altitude information the same as the history on wrist computers. Note: only in this manner is the Elevation page on the 301 useful. Rather than use the altimeter on the Geko 301, I prefer a watch altimeter like the one on my Suunto Vector, which is continuously readable, relatively accurate, and does not drain the batteries of the GPS.
First, I'll make a big pitch for using the Gekos with electronic mapping/GPS interface/waypoint management software like National Geographic Topo!. You won't realize the full power of the units without it. I like printing custom waterproof maps with UTM coordinates and waypoints. This makes field use of the maps, on the fly navigational decisions, and field waypoint loading a lot easier. See more in the Computer Interface and Software Section below.
The Geko 201 pares the number of main pages on the unit to four screens (if you disregard the useless map screen). For the 301 we'll ignore both the map screen and the elevation screen that requires the GPS be left on for it to be useful. That gets the 301 down to the same four screens as the 201: Satellite, Navigation, Trip Computer, and Main Menu pages. Each will be explained below.
The fast way to select and navigate to a waypoint. I can complete this sequence, from the Main Menu page to the Navigation page in less than 10 seconds.
For me the Navigation Page is the heart of the Gekos. Here's how I use it: After I boot the unit up and have a fix, I pump the page button five times to get to the Main Menu and navigate to a list of waypoints (usually nearest but sometimes list all). I select my waypoint and use the Go To Waypoint option, which takes me directly to the Navigation page. Here I know the distance to the waypoint and when the direction arrow lines up with the mark at the top of the screen it is pointing directly to my waypoint. No fussing around with bearings and a separate compass. When I have a bearing, I sight to it and turn my GPS off. If I'm interested I can also scroll through 12 separate fields on the bottom of the Navigation page including elevation, positional coordinates (I prefer UTM), and degree bearing to the waypoint.
After using the Geko for a while it will be second nature to operate the following sequence: power on the unit, press the page button five times to get to the Main Menu page; press OK and the down arrow twice and OK again to list nearest waypoints; use the down arrow to highlight a waypoint; and finally press OK twice to activate the GOTO waypoint function and end up on the Navigation page with the selected waypoint loaded. I know it sounds complicated, but in the field it's quite easy. I can do this whole sequence in the field in less than 10 seconds. If you include the boot up sequence I can be sighting to a waypoint in 20 to 30 seconds and I can be walking while I do this.
Note: you can also follow a route and the Geko will automatically go to the next waypoint without you having to select it. There are pros and cons to both the single waypoint and route methods. User's choice.
I can't see any useful purpose to the Elevation (301 only) and Map screens on the Gekos. To use the Elevation screen properly, you need to have the GPS on. I just skip over it and use my Sunnto Vector to handle all my altitude needs and to save GPS batteries. The Map screen seems to be some version of a video game rather than a useful navigation tool. I'd recommend skipping over it as well.
The Satellite page in Advanced Skyview mode is helpful for getting a fix in difficult locations. It conveys far more information than the default Normal mode.
Trip Computer page showing the four data fields displayed. Each of these data fields can be customized from a selection of over 30 possibilities. Choose carefully! These customizable fields make the Trip Computer a powerful navigation tool. The screen shown is a custom setup for use paddling our kayak in the Everglades.
The Satellite page gives the user the option to choose between Normal and Advanced Skyview. The Advanced Skyview displays the satellites oriented in the sky with signal level bars for each satellite and an accuracy indicator. This allows you to make decisions on how best to orient the GPS for best reception. I've used this screen with good success to get a fix in difficult situations like canyoneering. The Normal mode has only one signal bar and an accuracy value. We think that Garmin should have scrapped this Normal Skyview page and simply used the Advanced Skyview, which provides more useful reception information. The magnetic compass of the 301 makes the Advanced Skyview screen a bit easier to orient, with an option of keeping the screen oriented to the north. This makes it easier to figure out what may be blocking your view to that last satellite you need for a good fix. Sometimes it can be your body! Without a compass in the 201, you'll need to know where north is to effectively use the Advanced Skyview screen.
The Gekos have five buttons: Up, Down, OK, Page, and Power. These buttons are designed to be operated by your thumb while cradling the Geko in your palm. The Power button is slightly receded into the case to prevent an accidental power-on. Holding the Power button turns the unit on and off while a quick depression toggles the backlight on and off. Press the Page button to go to the next page or screen. This only advances to the next page in one direction, so if the Page button is accidentally depressed at the wrong time, you'll need to scroll all the way through to get back to your page.
To Mark a waypoint with the Geko, hold the OK button for 2 seconds. This brings up a waypoint window letting the user type a descriptive name (six characters maximum selected using a scrollable alphanumeric list) as well as choose a symbol for the waypoint. If default names and symbols are accepted, marking the waypoint requires only two button presses. Custom naming is a bit more cumbersome and the six-character limit is a bit of a challenge but I usually manage to give some sort of name I can remember to a waypoint. Waypoints are stored in a list that can easily be browsed to by either name or by listing the nearest waypoints. Nine times out of ten, I will locate a waypoint using the nearest list.
The Gekos will record a track while hiking or climbing if left powered on. This is useful if conditions warrant leaving an electronic bread crumb trail to backtrack later (for instance whiteout, featureless terrain, or a complex route up a mountain). I really wish I had done this once on a Mt. Rainer ascent on a late season crevasse ridden glacier!
The menus on the Gekos generally do not extend past two sub-levels, which makes operating the units fast and straightforward. One gripe is that the process to turn off the GPS receiver (not the unit, just the GPS portion of it to conserve batteries) requires at minimum six button presses. Manually loading waypoints in the field is an example of when the GPS receiver can be turned off to conserve battery power. The compass on the 301 is easily turned on and off by pressing the Page button for more than 2 seconds. We'd like to see a similar way to turn off the GPS receiver quickly and easily.
Battery life for the Geko 301 is impressive. In Normal mode (GPS always on) with the compass on, the Energizer e2 AAA alkaline batteries lasted 10 hours and 1 minute. In Battery Save mode (intermittent GPS operation) with the compass off, the batteries lasted an astonishing 25 hours 48 minutes. Both these exceeded the Garmin reported 9 hours for "typical use." The Geko 201 with its older less efficient processor did not last as long although it still did creditably - in Normal mode (GPS always on) 11 hours 10 minutes; and in Battery Save mode 15 hours 12 minutes. Now that there are lithium AAA batteries, AAA based units like the Gekos are on equal footing with AA battery based units for cold weather operation.
As mentioned earlier, the speed and simplicity of acquiring a fix with the Gekos means that the units is on for only a few seconds at a time. Using the GPS this way, one can go for weeks without needing to change batteries, even in cold weather and with alkaline batteries. Just keep the Geko warm in your pocket when not in use. I can easily get by for a week of navigation in sub freezing weather using alkaline batteries. Both these units compete in run time with many larger and heavier units using AA batteries.
We liked the ability to change the Geko batteries in the field for multi-day, navigation intensive trips. The smaller Foretrex 201 and Suunto X9 units both use an internal rechargeable battery that cannot be replaced. (The Fortrex 101, which is very similar to the Geko 201, uses replaceable AAA batteries.)
You won't realize the full power of the Gekos without some sort of electronic mapping/GPS interface software. Entering navigation information manually from a paper map into the Gekos is tedious at best. The Gekos are capable of interfacing with a PC to download and upload routes, waypoints, tracks, and trackpoints. Computer planning then downloading routes and waypoints from the computer to the Geko is my preferred way to prepare for a trip. This requires some type of waypoint management software or better yet, an integrated waypoint management and electronic mapping software.
The Gekos do not come with a data cable or any software. You'll need to purchase a Garmin proprietary PC cable to connect the Geko to a computer. You'll also need to obtain software to interface with your Geko. There are some shareware programs that allow you to scan paper maps and download waypoints to the Geko. Garmin also offers some inexpensive waypoint management software. But by far the most powerful choices are electronic mapping/waypoint management programs like National Geographic Topo!. These can be on the pricey side - $100 for a set of 1:25K series maps for a state (but that's the whole state of California). Maps at 1:63K scale are usually less expensive but are less useful for navigation and precise GPS work, although for casual navigation in a National Park, they may work fine. I did all right with an Everglades National Park Map at 1:63K.
In addition, I recommend printing custom waterproof maps with your routes and waypoints on them on waterproof map paper like National Geographic Adventure Paper. I prefer the Legal or Tabloid sizes and a UTM grid. Using UTM makes field use of the maps, on the fly navigational decisions, and field waypoint loading a lot easier. An 8.5 by 14 inch map can cover as much as 13 by 7.5 miles on each side of the paper and weighs less than a half ounce.
The Garmin cable that you can purchase is the old-fashioned serial interface as opposed to the more popular USB interface. Serial to USB adapters are available but I did not test this option.
The Gekos use a 100 x 64 pixel screen. There's enough information displayed on each screen to minimize the need for multiple screens and deeply nested menus. A quick press of the power button toggles backlighting on the Geko. A feature that we like is that once turned on, the backlight turns off after a user-defined period of time. When subsequent buttons are pressed, the backlight turns back on, illuminating the display. To turn the backlight off, press the power button quickly. We found the backlighting on the Geko effectively illuminated all parts of the screen.
Size comparison of the Suunto X9 and the Garmin Geko 301. Although the X9 is only 0.7 ounces lighter than the Geko 301 there is a significant size and volume difference between the two GPS units. The 301 is definitely not wearable.
The 301 is light, fast, reliable, and easy to use. It has most functions an ultralighter wants. It excludes most functions you don't want (like sluggish, frustrating, power consuming and almost useless GPS loaded maps). The Suunto Vector wrist navigation computer, which lacks a GPS, is similar in price to the 301. Heavier GPS units with built in mapping and a ton of other stuff you don't want or need can cost $500 to $600 or more. As such we think the 301 is good value.
Compared to the Suunto X9, a wrist-mounted GPS unit with similar functions, the Geko 301 is about $550 cheaper (MSRP). The benefits of the X9 are a smaller size and some continuously readable information. The Geko 301 has much better GPS reception, is significantly easier to operate than the X9, has much longer battery life, and the batteries are replaceable in the field.
I think that the Foretrex 101 is a better value than the Geko 201. Both have similar features and price but the Foretrex 101 is lighter (with the strap removed), smaller, has wrist-mounting convenience if desired, and a newer processor with better battery life. I also prefer the Trip Computer on the Foretrex to the Trip Computer on both the Gekos.
"Garmin Geko 201/301 GPS REVIEW," by Alan Dixon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/garmin_geko_301_201_gps_review.html, 2004-12-10 03:00:00-07.