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Adventure Magazine

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Gear Guide
The New GPS: Better, Cheaper, Simpler

Click to Enlarge.

If you've ignored GPS for a few years, take note: Things have changed. The new world of GPS: cheaper, simpler, and—thanks to the WAAS—more accurate.

1. Magellan SporTrak Pro
2. Garmin GPSmap 76S
3. Lowrance iFinder
4. Magellan Meridian Platinum
(Adventure Recommends)
5. Garmin eTrex
6. Brunton MNS

All prices in U.S. dollars

Do an informal survey of GPS users, and you'll find plenty of motorists, a fair number of "early adopters"—i.e., geeks—and just a handful of mountaineers and backpackers. (Pilots and sailors don't count.)

For many of us, GPS still resides in a gray area: It's either a brilliant innovation or else the equivalent of a boxed set of the complete Leonard Cohen—expensive, confusing, and more than you really need.

To give skeptics their due, GPS is superfluous on marked trails, and it can't replace an old-fashioned compass and a topographic map. On the other hand, genuine nongeeks are now relishing the technology—to e-mail the coordinates of hot springs to a friend, to find gas in Baja, and (most critically) to navigate through a whiteout to an Alpine refugio.

If you've ignored GPS for a few years, take note: Things have changed. The units are cheaper now—as low as a hundred dollars on the Web. And they're more accurate: Those that pick up WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) signals—which provide refined GPS data—can pinpoint a location to within ten feet [about three meters].

Finally, half a dozen companies now make accessories to convert Palm or Handspring Visor personal digital assistants into GPS units. PDA screens are big, and unlike the specialized GPS firms, PDA makers offer an open platform for software developers, speeding innovation. But you need to own a PDA—and people who rely on the devices to run their lives are risking disaster during wet, rocky hikes.

A better solution might be the weatherproof GPS units pictured here. All weigh less than ten ounces [311 grams] and can store at least 500 locations (or "waypoints"). One variable is the mapping software.

Not all GPS models show a map on their screens; the maps make it much easier to orient yourself, though these units are pricier and the maps do have limitations (see "Bit Mapping," left). Downloadable databases can help, as well, to find everything from bike shops to burger joints.

—Peter Flax

1. Magellan SporTrak Pro
Price: $299
Memory: 32 megabytes
Web: www.magellangps.com

An impressive 32 megabytes of memory, enough for a built-in road map of North America and topographic downloads from Magellan's MapSend software package; WAAS-enabled. But … the SporTrak Pro's memory is not expandable.

2. Garmin GPSmap 76S
Price: $482
Memory: 24 megabytes
Web: www.garmin.com

An unrivaled high-resolution screen, a barometric altimeter, WAAS, electronic compass, and 24-megabyte memory with room to spare for topo downloads from Garmin's MapSource. But … the price is painfully high.

3. Lowrance iFinder
Price: $219
Web: www.lowrance.com

Room for a hundred different routes and a thousand waypoints, a slot for reusable memory cards, WAAS-enabled—plus consistent reception under a dense forest canopy. But … only road maps are available, despite this model's ample memory.

4. ADVENTURE RECOMMENDS Magellan Meridian Platinum
Price: $399
Web: www.magellangps.com

Superior maps and ease of use, coupled with an electronic compass, barometer, WAAS capability, and optional topos from MapSend. But … you can't download topos unless you buy memory cards.

5. Garmin eTrex
Price: $145
Weight: 5.3 ounces [165 grams]
Web: www.garmin.com

Feathery weight (a mere 5.3 ounces [165 grams], including batteries), low price (about $100 on the Web), and virtually idiotproof controls. But … the eTrex has only bare-bones graphics, no maps, and some awfully tiny type.

6. Brunton MNS
Price: $359
Web: www.brunton.com

A digital compass, a barometer that generates weather reports and altitude readings, and good reception: The MNS locks on to satellite signals faster than any other unit tested. But … that's a steep price for a product with no maps.

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Bit Mapping

Here's the dream: maps as good as 1:24,000-scale topos from the U.S. Geological Survey that can be viewed on a handheld. With maps that detailed, your paper topo could stay in your pack, along with your extra batteries.

Unfortunately, the closest you can get today is 1:100,000 proprietary topographic software from Garmin or Magellan. It's cheap (up to $150 for the whole United States), ingenious—and not detailed enough for navigation.

However, there is GPS-compatible software that features authentic USGS maps. Products sold by National Geographic Maps (www.nationalgeographic.com/topo), Maptech (www.maptech.com), and DeLorme (www.delorme.com) include a complete set of maps for one state or region and cost from $50 to $150—a tidy sum if you want maps for many states. They let you download waypoint coordinates to your GPS and print topos with custom navigational data.

But let's be clear: You can't see these maps on your handheld—and you're out of luck if you own a Mac.


Related Web Sites

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More Adventure From nationalgeographic.com

*National Geographic Adventure & Exploration

*Expeditions: Vacation With National Geographic Experts

*Adventure & Exploration News

*TOPO! mapXchange: Create and Post Your Own Maps

*Trails Illustrated Map Catalog

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August 2002:
In the Magazine | Excerpts | Peyote Photos | Wildland Firefighting | Iceman Runneth | Forums | Gear Guide: GPS | Gear Guide: Ultralight Tents | Adventurer's Handbook | Travel Calendar

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