And I Can't Find My Way Home...
August 23, 2006 10:42 AM   Subscribe

How much should I spend on a GPS?

Want to use it to learn geocaching with my 12-year-old son. Also, to help me find my way around the woods of New England. I see units as low as $120. What would I give up by spending this little? Would it be able to reliably see through typical New England foliage? Not planning on needing it as a survival tool.
posted by ZenMasterThis to Technology (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Even though I'm an engineer by training, I'm not a super gadget-head and tend to take a very utilitarian/pragmatic view of techie tools.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:51 AM on August 23, 2006

You can get the Garmin eTrex for less than $90.

Absolutely all you need for Geocaching is to be able to enter coordinates as a waypoint and then get an arrow pointing towards that waypoint, which is very basic GPS functionality. With a cheap unit, you're giving up all the features that have no Geocaching utility, like massive waypoint memory, detailed maps, street routing, etc.

You probably also won't end up with a SiRFstar III unit if you go super-cheap, and that can help with accuracy in reduced signal conditions. That said, any unit will still be reasonably competent under foliage, and a lot of the fun of Geocaching is finding the cache once you're in the right general area; being led to the pinpoint location kind of defeats the purpose, actually.
posted by trevyn at 10:52 AM on August 23, 2006

The low-end units don't have maps built-in. That doesn't matter much for geocaching or hiking. Also, they might not have a data connection, so you can't view your tracks on a computer. (And if you do want the data, go for a unit with USB rather than serial.)

Personally, I own a Garmin Geko 201. It is a pretty good unit, but I am not particularly impressed with its performance under tree cover here in CT. It will usually get a position given enough time, maybe a minute or two, but it can't maintain an accurate track while you're moving. Just has random points with gaps in between. So I probably wouldn't suggest this unit (or its smaller brother the 101).
posted by smackfu at 10:55 AM on August 23, 2006

Garmin eTrex series offers several options. Spending a little more will get you an instrument with better satellite receiver and higher quality display. After using both Magellan and Garmin I find the Garmin much easier to use.

I don't know about your tree canopy density in New England but here on the West Coast even in the California redwoods with a small opening through the trees I have been able to access enough satellites to get a good Lat/Lon reading.
posted by X4ster at 11:22 AM on August 23, 2006

I've got a Garmin eTrex Vista that I picked up refurbished online. It has been more than adequate for geocaching, and its built-in highway/major road map is good for supplemental navigation on bike and for roadtrips. Prior to that, I had the next model down in the eTrek series, a Venture, and it was also great for geocaching.

In terms of reception, both were generally good in most conditions out here, hiking around Mt. Hood and some of the trails on the coast.

Both also do data transfer, so it's easy to download gpx files from sites like and upload them into the unit. If you plan to do a lot of geocaching, you'll want to be able to transfer data that way. Keying in coordinates is a pain.

Whatever you buy, you'll probably want some supplemental software to manage it. I really liked the stuff TopoGrafix made when I was a Windows user. EasyGPS is good for basic waypoint management, ExpertGPS offers easy downloads of public domain topo maps and aerial photography.
posted by mph at 11:43 AM on August 23, 2006

You can probably get a Garmin Rino for around $100, that has a pretty darn good GPS unit as well as being an FRS and GMRS radio.

If you get more of them they can plot the position of other units on the map, which makes them incredibly useful.

I can personally vouch for their build quality too.
posted by Skorgu at 1:34 PM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Generally speaking, the cheaper ~$100 GPS units should do you fine. The new SirfSTAR III chipset really does rock the house in terms of quick lock-on times and better signal and accuracy in 'troublesome' areas (e.g. under foliage), but then again, people did survive without it until recently.
posted by adrianhon at 4:05 PM on August 23, 2006

I have cached with an etrex and currently use a Garmin gpsmap 60c. The etrex was ok and served to get me into caching. I seem to get a better signal and be able to keep it longer in the woods with the 60c.

Either way, I second being sure that you are able to use a data cable to download the coordinates.
posted by busboy789 at 5:52 PM on August 23, 2006

If you want to spend even less, you can also geocache by using just a map and a compass. Or use photographic maps like what google offers to make it even easier ;-)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:04 PM on August 24, 2006

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