Beta on GPS units?

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phylp

Trad climber
Millbrae, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 14, 2011 - 07:26pm PT
I'm considering getting one. Of the people who own one, a few questions:

Would you buy one again?
What is good or bad about them?
Any brand and model that you think is better than the rest?

This is not meant to replace a good map and a compass. But especially this year, with all the snow and so many trails still under snow, I would have used one a few times already if I had one.

The last post I could find on this is 2 years old. Technology changes so quickly I thought it would be worth asking again.

Thanks, Phyl
jfs

Trad climber
Upper Leftish
Aug 14, 2011 - 08:19pm PT
I'd take a different approach than Rokjox's. GPS units certainly can be useful but I avoid anything with the newer and/or fancier features. Basic GPS technology has advanced to the point that the "improvements" now seem to be limited to gee-whiz stuff. The top end models (with things like touch screens, satellite comm., satellite imagery - a la Google Earth, 3-axis compasses, geocaching and games preloaded, radios, etc.) all add nothing appreciable to the real functionality of the unit. I will admit that the Rino units add some utility for a few user groups (like SAR and hunters/fishermen) but otherwise just add complication, bulk and weight to the unit.

After using GPS units by DeLorme, Magellan and Garmin I still think Garmin has it figured out the best. Either one of two Garmin models meet my criteria. Garmin eTrex Vista HCx or the Foretrex 401. I find onscreen maps occasionally useful so I lean toward the Vista. The Foretrex offers full capability in the most compact unit possible.

My basic list of "needs":
 light weight and compact size
 solid reception
 good (replaceable) battery life
 pressure altimeter
 magnetic compass
 easily readable screen
 robust construction
 mapping capability a useful "nice-to-have"
 computer based pre-planning and waypoint entry/editing capability

The above two units meet those criteria.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Aug 14, 2011 - 08:48pm PT
I've been carrying a GPS Dongle around in a series of experiments making tracks... it takes a reading every 5 seconds, up to 250,000 of them (347 hours capacity, don't know how long the battery would last).

I get home and read out the unit, I can plot tracks and all that.

Even when I take it on my ride to work where I am on a known path with relatively little tree canopy, the track can be very different than the actual ground covered.

I can filter a lot of this for my purpose, but if I were depending on it to know where I was there are many times when I'd think I was somewhere I wasn't.

This is much more of a problem in the mountains where the sky can be obscured by topographical features.

If you use one of these for the purpose of knowing where you are, it should be one of many redundant tools you use to determine your location.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Aug 14, 2011 - 09:01pm PT
I was forced to buy the Garmin 62ST- their top-of-the-line. The wife wouldn't
do the cross-country trek with me across Tierra del Fuego without one. OK,
didn't have to buy the best but I did. What a POS! There's virtually no
instructions worth a damn, nothing about it is intuitive, the N American topos
it comes loaded with doesn't know a road from a trail, and there's a crapload
of superfluous features I'll never use. That said it does the job probably
better than any other hand held and it floats and is relatively waterproof.
I would buy it again but, boy, would I love to spend about 30 minutes with
their engineers.

One cool thing is I was able to download sat photos and plan my routes with
them as there are no topos worth a damn for down there. The sat photos aren't
great either but they are ok and a year's subscription is only $25.
HighTraverse

Trad climber
Bay Area
Aug 14, 2011 - 09:03pm PT
If you use one of these for the purpose of knowing where you are, it should be one of many redundant tools you use to determine your location.
Bingo!!!
Don't trade in your common sense for the tenuous security of trick technology.
And you'd be well advised to have a POPTM in your pocket (Plain Old Paper Topo Map)
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Aug 14, 2011 - 09:08pm PT
We have a couple of Garmin eTrex H units which were given to our kids and are apparently fairly good.
You can borrow one to try out if you'd like.
It might be easier to find an app which uses the GPS on a modern cell phone.

For returning from a climb after dark, we usually just build cairns in the daytime.
Larry Hamilton's example of using one to navigate the desert floor at Red Rocks sounded like a useful application, though.
They might be good for recording locations of remote / obscure climbs, but a map may be better.
I've never needed to carry one to locate a climb.
If I was more of a hiker I might be interested.
WBraun

climber
Aug 14, 2011 - 09:51pm PT
One time I was deep in the bowels of Tenaya Canyon and the helicopter asked for our GPS position for the victim extraction.

LOL I had 1 satellite, so no position coordinates.

So we fired a orange smoke canister. Duh!

Another time in Sequoia Nat. Forest on a search we got lost in the snow every 15 minutes.

I looked at the GPS and found the way back to the trail in a minute.

This went on all day long that day in the snow.

So the Garmins have a huge selection. The etrex with maps on the display are awesome.

Best of luck with your search for a GPS ......
jfs

Trad climber
Upper Leftish
Aug 14, 2011 - 09:59pm PT
A couple comments:
Do ANY of them ACTUALLY have a MAGNETIC compass?
Yup they do. Many of them. Using them in the same way you do for precise REAL compass navigation is not necessarily advised (i.e. sighting and plotting) but they make the process of navigating to a pre-entered waypoint easier and faster. Where a GPS alone is unable to tell which way you are facing, one with a compass can.

I seen GPS built into a wristw#tch. It looked totally useless except for showing the body recovery team
Those are fitness and workout GPS's. They are NOT intended to be used for navigation. They are for tracking your run/bike ride/whatever and typically come with heart rate monitors, cadence sensors and other peripherals. Not a nav tool but great if you use them as intended.

What a POS! There's virtually no
instructions worth a damn, nothing about it is intuitive, the N American topos
it comes loaded with doesn't know a road from a trail, and there's a crapload
of superfluous features I'll never use.
There are a lot of clubs that offer basic GPS classes that are pretty useful to people just starting out. I'll agree that some of the newest GPS's are getting cluttered up with extra features that make them confusing but the basic nav functions are still pretty easy to figure out. All those goofy geocachers and photo-taggers are screwing things up for the rest of us...

No cell phone GPS will be worth a damn.
I agree. Never rely on one into the backcountry.

BUT I had to eat my words a little when a friend's smartphone nearly matched my GPS's capability on Rainier in a whiteout sh#t-storm this year. I would NEVER rely on one OR trust its maps OR battery life OR operating system OR durability OR anything else about them...BUT I was at least impressed with it's accuracy, signal retention, and functionality on that occasion.
HighTraverse

Trad climber
Bay Area
Aug 14, 2011 - 10:04pm PT
It might be easier to find an app which uses the GPS on a modern cell phone.
Cell phone GPS apps drain the phone battery too fast to be useful for more than a few hours.

Most cell phone GPS's use combination of cell tower triangulation for a quick fix while the GPS receiver in the phone takes its time to get the satellite fix. My iPhone is as accurate with the GPS fix as a real GPS. But the cell phone receivers don't have as much gain so they don't get fixes as quickly and have bigger dead areas in steep terrain.

GPS is a great way to retrace your path, especially in bad weather. But another caution: what if you want to return by a different/quicker/safer path? Speaking of Rainier, you'd be foolish to be watching your GPS to retrace your path across a glacier rather than working out the new best path on your return.

It's a great way to share a path or the location of a route with others. I'll bet within a few years, most climbing guide books will have GPS coordinates for the stars and finishes of climbs, especially tricky ones in big mountains. The 3d Pillar of Mt Dana comes immediately to mind.
jfs

Trad climber
Upper Leftish
Aug 14, 2011 - 10:06pm PT
I'll bet within a few years, most climbing guide books will have GPS coordinates for the stars and finishes of climbs
ugh...i hope not. I LIKE getting lost.

Sometimes.

Or at least I like having BEEN lost.

Sometimes...
HighTraverse

Trad climber
Bay Area
Aug 14, 2011 - 10:08pm PT
agreed on both points. So leave your GPS in your pack or better yet at home. ;-)
rhyang

climber
SJC
Aug 14, 2011 - 10:19pm PT
I have a garmin foretrex 301. No compass, no barometric altimeter, but it's light, has a good chipset and relatively fast satellite lock. Talks to your PC via USB.

I usually leave the thing off unless I am taking waypoints. If I want to navigate to a waypoint then I turn it on, transfer the bearing to my orienteering compass, then turn it off again. That saves juice.

The wrist strap thing is kind of silly though. I used to have a garmin geko 201 but it used a serial port (not many PC's have those anymore) and an older chipset (slower to lock). Same idea though.

The other issue is spare batteries .. my headlamps all use AAA's and so does the 301. It would be annoying to have to carry two different sizes of spare batteries on a trip.
HighTraverse

Trad climber
Bay Area
Aug 14, 2011 - 10:21pm PT
and you can buy a very good compass for $15, battery not included.
JLP

Social climber
The internet
Aug 14, 2011 - 10:30pm PT
Claiming you use a compass to navigate around just tells me you don't get out much. You need an altimeter, too. Nobody uses that sh#t anymore. It's really slow, error prone and incredibly innaccurate. A GPS with mapping is the way to go. It's been pretty popular for the last decade - another sign you must not get out much if you are still talking about compasses and paper maps. I'm a Garmin fan, myself. Really, though, in the summer, when following trails, it's rarely needed. In winter or on snow, I think it's mandatory. When visiting new areas, it's extremely helpful.
HighTraverse

Trad climber
Bay Area
Aug 14, 2011 - 11:10pm PT
JLP
don't be so condescending. I get out plenty in all weather and all kinds of terrain. I've also navigated from the foggy coast of Northern California through the Pacific Ocean in all weather in a small sailboat. I'm well versed at map and compass and sextant navigation. I'm also a software engineer, not a luddite.
When the sh**t is hitting the fan and your knickers are in a twist you'd better have your brain engaged and not be totally reliant on technology.
I didn't say a GPS was worthless or even silly. I said you'd better be aware of the limitations.
Don't get me started on the GPS equipped sailors who lost their boat on an island in the Tuamotus on a clear night, while I was about 8 hours behind. Or how my iPhone battery died when I was using the GPS about 3 hours out on a ski tour. Or last week on the Grand Teton when my two partners' altimeters disagreed on the altitude by 200 feet.
By the way, the best hand held GPS altitude accuracy (NOT sensitivity) is about +/- 100 feet.
Other posts here have also described the limitations.
rhyang

climber
SJC
Aug 14, 2011 - 11:18pm PT

>:)
JLP

Social climber
The internet
Aug 14, 2011 - 11:28pm PT
don't be so condescending.
Excellent advice for the knob with 5 posts to this thread talking down to the OP like he's some lost boy scout.
mongrel

Trad climber
Truckee, CA
Aug 15, 2011 - 12:25am PT
I have used two kinds of Garmin (eTrex Vista and GPSMap 60CSx) and two kinds of Trimble (Juno and GeoXH). Trimble is by far the best for actual work in the field (mapping, recording info about patches or lines, etc.). Probably not what you are interested in.

I've used both Garmins in widely varying terrain and vegetation in the western U.S., Florida, Indonesia, and West Africa, almost entirely off trail. The eTrex works poorly (in my estimation) in dense forest cover, often losing fix entirely, and is not very intuitive, quick, or convenient to use. But the 60 CSx absolutely rocks, even in very dense multi-story tropical rain forest. It is also much easier to use and more intuitive, but a little bit larger object. Still, I would highly recommend that model for recreational navigation use. You can upload maps to it too, and it has a nice auto-lighting feature that determines whether the screen can be seen in the ambient light, if not it automatically switches to the (backlit) night screen so you can still navigate even if your headlamp is toast. I don't run the "track" function all the time (an approach that was rightly criticized above) but instead store a few judiciously chosen waypoints en route, some are spots I figure I might want to find for the return journey, others might be high points that are likely to be visible from many places and therefore are useful for orientation. You'll quickly get the hang of best use and battery power conservation.

If you have the money for it, Trimble Juno is excellent too, also works well in trees, and is a size and weight that's plausible to carry recreationally. Downside: it uses only a Trimble battery (expensive to have a spare), but if you are savvy about settings the battery will last a week or more without recharging (much less if recording a lot of data). Expensive, plus you have to buy even more expensive software to run it. But this would be the gold standard for small size and weight GPS.

Garmin has a newer GPSMap model with color screen, I would definitely not get that myself, because it seems that it would just run the batteries down faster, and a colleague who has one reports that this is indeed the case. Personally, I am not jazzed about the radio idea, I regard a GPS as a tool you use to get yourself back home on your own, not a means of soliciting rescue or re-uniting a split-up party (never do that anyway). For rescue backup or reassurance to family, I would buy and use a personal locator beacon - another expensive clunky object to carry.

And anywhere I might possibly need to navigate, I ALWAYS carry extra lithium batteries (ordinary alkaline burn out in no time in a GPS), a good compass, and map. Also altimeter once in a while.

Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
Aug 15, 2011 - 12:27am PT
yes, my GPSMap 62ST eats batteries voraciously.
jfs

Trad climber
Upper Leftish
Aug 15, 2011 - 12:34am PT
Mongrel is your eTrex Vista a basic "Vista" or a "Vista HCx"? Big difference in the antenna sensitivity. I've never had a problem with reception on mine...granted, I don't frequent multi-tiered jungle canopy locales. But plenty of PacNW rainforest canopies. =)
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