Help me find a handheld GPS that feels like it's from this century.
July 4, 2014 6:15 PM   Subscribe

I want a GPS for geocaching and hiking in areas with no cell phone coverage. The ones I've seen so far look about as up-to-date as my Handspring Visor. Please advise.

When I'm geocaching in the city and suburbs, the app on my phone does a good enough job. When I get to rural areas and wilderness it does poorly. I'm looking for a handheld GPS to carry in dense woods and into the Cascades.

Qualities my ideal GPS would have:

- great reception in woods and mountains
- good for geocaching, trail running, hiking
- topo maps for Washington State
- waterproof
- rugged
- carabiner clip
- easy to use
- easy to get geocaches from onto it using a Mac or iPhone
- standard batteries
- pleasing to the eye and hand
posted by The corpse in the library to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Phones with GPS will still do GPS fixes even if there is no cell coverage.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:17 PM on July 4, 2014

Response by poster: Yes, but not very well, and if they lose their thought they can't get it back.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:19 PM on July 4, 2014

Would you consider something like a Bad Elf GPS Receiver that allows your phone to get true satellite GPS data? Then you could continue to use whatever mapping apps you like best.
posted by bcwinters at 6:32 PM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

if they lose their thought they can't get it back

Not sure what you mean by this.

If you mean that they need a data connection to plan a route and display maps, there are numerous GPS apps that use offline maps (no data signal is required on the phone). Protip: turn off all the radios on your phone to avoid it wasting lots of battery trying to connect to cell towers that aren't there.
posted by kindall at 6:53 PM on July 4, 2014

Response by poster: Yes, I mean that they need a data connection to display the map. I didn't know about offline ones, thanks.

The Bad Elf looks interesting but I worry about battery life -- I could bring along my external battery but by then we've got something pretty awkward to carry while hiking through woods.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:02 PM on July 4, 2014

Remember that the GPS in smart phones (at least the iPhone) has the same precision as dedicated consumer units. They have gotten plenty of flack because they are a-GPS, which has been interpreted as sub-par to "real GPS". This is not the case at all. a-GPS means that the phone can find it's position much faster if there is a cell network, nothing else. They work exactly as normal GPSes without reception.

I assume that you don't need differential GPS...
posted by brorfred at 7:25 PM on July 4, 2014

Response by poster: So the GPS is just as accurate and the reception is just as good with an iPhone 5 as with, say, Garmin 62s or something along those lines? If so, it sounds like what I really need is:

- offline topo maps of the area
- a rugged case for my phone
- to remember to bring the external battery I already own

Is that right?
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:49 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a Garmin Oregon, pretty much what you describe.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:14 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think any of the lower-end handheld Garmins with the appropriate topos for your area would suit your needs.

I have an older one and, although the screen is small, it's very accurate, durable, and much better than a smart phone at, well, being a GPS. You can drop it on the ground, splash water on it, and generally not worry about it. It can sit in your backpack or pocket while it does its thing and you don't have to worry about draining your battery.

Maps are built in and load instantly, it's always on so there's no need to constantly unlock a screen or go to the map application. I know there are ways around those things with a phone, but with the GPS it's a no-brainer.

There are plugins that work with that will load the caches right onto it from a Mac or PC.

Aperture, and probably iPhoto, will let you upload a track from the GPS and then it will sync to your photos and geotag them.

They're not going to be much more accurate than a phone, that's true, and it's true that just about anything you can do with a GPS you can do on your phone, but if you do more than just casual geocaching I think it's worth it to have a dedicated unit.

All that said, I hardly use mine much. It adds nothing to hiking and I don't geocache much these days. I do take it kayaking so I can get a plot of where I went and to geotag photos.
posted by bondcliff at 8:14 PM on July 4, 2014

I also have one of the Garmin Oregon line, and it's more than sufficient for the task. The only thing it doesn't come with is a proper instruction book, but you can download that from Garmin's site. On the mobile phone side, there've been many recommendations recently for the OSMand offline maps for the android platform; you might look to one of the alternatives for iOS. Also - remember that GPS devices are generally built to be rugged and resistant to a lot of wear and tear that would be fatal for most mobile phones. Don't mistake robust with outdated.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:34 PM on July 4, 2014

I have tried geocaching with a smartphone once, and it was not very successful. The battery life is a constant worry, dropping it another and the screen goes off whenever you want to sneak a glance. I used in the past a basic Garmin Etrex unit and it does all of the above. And you can always pop in a new set of batteries . . .
posted by nostrada at 11:59 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

We geocache with an older Garmin eTrex Vista HCx which is a ~2007 era device. It looks like the eTrex 30 has since replaced this model. While I have cgeo on my Android phone, when we're heading out to the woods we find that the Garmin unit gets more reliable signal, and we don't need to worry about draining phone batteries.

Note that these units don't support full paperless geocaching, they'll just let you send the coordinates of the cache, the name, and the GC code. So things like cache description, hints, etc. you'll either need to print out or use your phone for backup.
posted by reptile at 6:27 AM on July 5, 2014

Just chiming in - I occasionally use my iPhone 4S for geocaching with the app and it seems to be very accurate and reliable.
posted by lungtaworld at 6:38 AM on July 5, 2014

I use a 7" Samsung Galaxy tab with Back Country Navigator. It's works OK well - the screen can be hard to read in sunlight. And BCN isn't the most user friendly, but it is a very capable program that can use Topo Maps from a variety of sources.

Earl is designed as a backcountry GPS tablet. It's behind schedule, but should be available later this summer/fall. Here's hoping, because it's potentially awesome. 300 bucks though.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:00 AM on July 5, 2014

An iPhone with Gaia GPS will do what you need.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:25 AM on July 5, 2014

> Remember that the GPS in smart phones (at least the iPhone) has the same precision as dedicated consumer units.

They don't, really. There's no room in a phone case for a large ceramic block antenna, or a helical antenna. They're good enough for most folks, though.
posted by scruss at 10:12 AM on July 5, 2014

My Garmin eTrex 20 seriously rules. I know it has the same screen has my cellpone circa 10+ years ago, and it's a bitch the learn how to use (getting tracks on, putting tracks on, loading up maps), but it's got some major pluses:

* Takes AA batteries and lasts for > 24 hours on one pair

Bringing along an extra pair of AA batteries, particularly lithiums, means I'm going to be set for days. DAYS. The whole thing is optimized for battery life and having a UI that's as responsive as you could have. It shows my positive, the track I'm following, and the topo map and refreshes it every few seconds. I don't need turn-by-turn directions and it doesn't have it (I don't think?)


It's like $150

I was able to download topo maps for the entire state of Colorado and plug them into the unit.

* I haven't destroyed it

I've used it to navigate the entire Colorado Trail, from Denver to Durango. The thing has seen all sorts of weather and abuse. It's flown off my handlebars. It keeps on ticking.

The only lame part of it is how it connects. The slider connector thingy is super super lame. You can get handlebar attachments that cost $9 for 9 cents of plastic. When hiking, I just put it in some sort of pocket.
posted by alex_skazat at 2:52 PM on July 5, 2014

The iPhone GPS resolution is quite accurate, but when you have no cell reception your battery life will be greatly reduced as your phone turns up the power trying to find a cell tower to talk to.

I have used an offline map app plus a lightweight battery pack with good results.

The Bad Elf receiver sounds pretty cool. You can turn on Airplane Mode, then turn on Bluetooth to talk to the Bad Elf unit; that will really extend your battery life.
posted by overleaf at 8:45 PM on July 6, 2014

Response by poster: It turns out I was missing something: I didn't realize that I could save maps for offline use within the Geocaching app. My phone and a spare battery are doing the job.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:19 PM on September 19, 2014

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