Lost in technology

If you look on the various outdoor forums, nothing seems to raise the heat of debate more than GPS’s. Those that are a few hundred quid out of pocket scream their praises with the conviction of a trash metal singer – they wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for their purchase, they can now do twice as many Munros in each trip without all the hassle of map reading, they now feel secure no matter what the weather does etc etc.

And while all this is going on, the traditionalists are shaking their heads, tutting a lot and reeling off their own stories about how someone, somewhere got into big trouble once because they didn’t carry four sets of spare batteries, or they sat on their receiver and broke its screen, or they tucked into a deeply cloven gorge and it lost reception just when they needed it most.

Both lists are almost ad infinitum.

The sad thing is that while all this is going on, the original poster only really wanted to get an idea of which GPS he or she should go for, bearing in mind the kind of walking/cycling/climbing etc they usually did. The debate continues, claims get made and names get called, yet the potential purchaser is still no closer to finding an answer.

As a gear tester, I get asked all the time what is the best GPS. It’s a question I find impossible to answer. It’s a bit like someone asking me what’s the best car, or the best camera. Before I can give anyone any advice at all on buying a GPS, I really need to know what it is they do and, more importantly, what they want it to do. I suspect it’s the same in every retail outlet in the country too. And knowing how to answer this question could prove to be the perfect reason why the outdoor loving public should go to their outdoor retailer to buy a GPS rather than an on-line GPS store, which I suspect is what most do.

So can we simplify GPS’s? In my opinion, yes – loosely. At the top end, we have all kinds of bells and whistles including mp3 players, voice recorders and cameras. Just below these, we have the upper end of the basic GPS receivers, these have PC compatibility for quick inputting of route and waypoint data, barometric altimeters, electronic compasses, the capability of showing topographic mapping. They also have a few page options designed to make the actual navigation out on hill a bit easier.

Just a little below these are the PC compatible, less functional units that go without the electronic compass, baraometric altimeter and in some cases, sufficient memory to take the topographic mapping.

Finally there are the ‘get out of jail’ GPS’s: cheap to buy units that rely on manually inputted data, usually just waypoints, but will navigate you accurately to these waypoints should the weather deteriorate – much quicker than pacing and leap-frogging with a map and compass . They will also give you an accurate grid reference or coordinate at any time, meaning you can locate yourself accurately on a map if you are in any doubt.

Off to one side of this spectrum is Satmap, the only full OS mapping GPS out there at the moment – more on this in a minute; and off to the other side are a whole load of different gadgets including sport specific running and cycling units, as well as tiny gadgets that record your starting point so you can find your way back to it at any point, and others that allow you to send text messages to your loved ones or call search and rescue if you’re in trouble.

So when somebody decides they want to buy a GPS, they really need to think why, and what they want it to do. If all they want is a bit of security when walking in the high mountains, then all they need is a basic cheap unit that will allow them to input waypoints eg the location of escape routes, short cuts, safe paths off of ridges etc, and will then direct them to these in an emergency. These will also give them an accurate grid reference and a GPS elevation reading and will usually record statistics such as distance, average speed etc

If they want to make following a predetermined route a bit easier, perhaps a walk around a more urban region, where the route taken is actually a combination of lots of paths, or a mountain bike ride, which by definition needs to follow legal trails rather than open ground, then they are definitely better off trading up a bit.

Computer compatibility will allow them to mate their unit with some mapping software such as Memory Map, and they can then trace out the exact route they plan to follow on an on-screen map, and then download it to the unit. Then, using a variety of pages, they should be able to follow the exact line of the route the whole way round, with perhaps one hundred or more waypoints making sure they don’t take any wrong turnings. They can of course, also download waypoints and use this receiver just like the one above.

If they want a barometric altimeter – more accurate as long as it’s regularly calibrated – and an electronic compass – again needs calibration but will help navigation when standing still, unlike the GPS one that only works when moving; then they should go for the higher end units in this category.

And if they want the dog’s, then fine, they can splash the cash; but I’ve yet to be convinced of any real benefit of some of the features of the latest generation of Garmin, Magellan and Lowrance.

Then there’s Satmap. It’s in a league of its own in many ways – you look at the screen and you can see your exact position marked on an OS map, taa daaah! And if you want to plan a route to follow, you can do so on the unit, rather than having to use a PC.

But it has downsides too: the maps are expensive – perfect perhaps for exploring your home area, or usual haunts, if you’re that kind of walker/biker etc; but I can’t see me wanting to spend the best part of a hundred notes on the Lake District map just because I was going there on a week’s walking holiday. And then there’s that trip to Scotland next year… It also suffers from horribly short battery life – again perhaps fine for those half day sorties around your own patch, but you’d want to carry two spare sets at least if you were out on a two-dayer in the Highlands.

So if the buyer knows what they want it for, the chances are, there’s a unit out there for them, and all the retailer has to do is tell them which, and why. But even if it’s the most perfect GPS in the world, it’s still an electronic device, and is still subject to all the usual failings. So before anyone walks out the door clutching their new toy, it might be worth checking whether they need a map and a compass too.