GPS for hiking
April 29, 2007 9:38 PM   Subscribe

What's a good GPS unit for hiking?

I'm fine with a compass and topo map, but would like to track more detailed information like how long it actually took to get from point A to point B, what the elevation profile looks like, where I stopped for a rest, remaining distance back, etc. There are so many units on the market now it's hard to figure out what the real differences between them are.

Features I'm looking for:
  • Set some small-ish number of waypoints based on current position or known coordinates and track direction/distance to those points
  • Water-resistant
  • Take a location reading every N minutes and save these data points for use later (maybe even download to a PC?)
  • Battery life should be at least 6 hours
  • Elevation readings stored and displayed
  • Good reception under moderate tree cover
  • Smaller than a 1 liter water bottle
Things I don't really care about: fancy display, car mounting, maps, or driving directions. Any price under ~$300 is fine.

Things I'm not sure if I care about: Is WAAS useful in remote areas? Why do some units have a barometric altimeter if GPS provides elevation data anyway?
posted by 0xFCAF to Technology (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've been pestering everyone I know about this same problem, and have seriously been considering the Garmin Foretrex 201, or a similar unit.
posted by SirStan at 9:58 PM on April 29, 2007

Is WAAS useful in remote areas?

Apparently WAAS is not useful in any areas anymore, thanks to the Sirf Star III chipset, which mostly gets just as accurate a fix without it. Make sure whatever device you choose has this chipset, then read some reviews so you make sure you like the usability and features of the device, and you should be golden.
posted by kindall at 11:03 PM on April 29, 2007

Why do some units have a barometric altimeter if GPS provides elevation data anyway?

Because GPS elevation reading is notoriously inaccurate.

The features you ask for are available in most modern handheld GPS units. I'm mostly familiar with the Garmin products, so I think you would be very happy with any of the eTrex Cx units. I recommend the Cx series over the non-Cx version not because of the color, but because they have faster CPUs, so the unit is smooth and responsive when you try to use it.

The ForeTrex that SirStan recommends is also a good product, although I think the antenna won't work well in tree cover. (At least, my ForeRunner has trouble, and I assume they use the same antenna.)

The free program Easy GPS can take care of a lot of basic GPS needs back at the computer. Google Earth Plus (the $20 per year version) can also plot your GPS tracks quite nicely. Here's an example of one of my personal favorites.

P.S. You're going to be a hiker with a GPS unit. The next logical progression is Geocaching!
posted by IvyMike at 11:31 PM on April 29, 2007

I've used the Garmin 3+ for what you arer using it for. Is not WASS although not needed in the deep woods. Fairly good under tree cover and provides elevations. Used on e-bay about $75.00. Get Maptechs "Terrain Navigator" and load in the topo of the area you typically hike to map routes, make custom maps of your area. Have fun.
posted by orlin at 5:27 AM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just as general advice, I got my first GPS unit last December, and I recommend that you get yours used off eBay. The older models still kick ass, and you get to learn all the GPS receiver jargon and tradeoffs with a lot less outlay. When I first got the idea, I was looking at a very expensive model, but then dropped down to a middling unit and then further to a used one and I couldn't be happier.

I got a Garmin 60C, which has the slower CPUs, less memory, and I'm not sure if it can do the elevation profiling, so it's probably not for you, but by now the Cx's are probably cheap used too.

Elevation accuracy and profiling might be the key differentiator for you. All the other desires are covered in pretty much all models. I was surprised, actually, how capable the basic units were. Yay capitalism :)

You'll find all the GPS nerds over at .
posted by intermod at 5:33 AM on April 30, 2007

It all depends on where you hike. If you hike near large bodies of water, near canyon walls, under heavy canopies of trees, any GPS unit will have errors. Satellite signals either bounce (water, rock) or degrade (trees) in those conditions.

I took a Magellan GPS on a hike near Indian Arm some years ago (Dilly Dally trail). The hike featured a 5,000 climb near a large body of water, in a very cliffy or overgrown area. My altimeter watch and my GPS were 1,000 feet apart in altitude measurement.

I learned last year during a municipal project with my company that even city-grade very expensive digital GPS systems do not work well in some areas of the city where I live (despite repeaters, etc). So please be careful about trusting your GPS too much when you go hiking.

Even if you hike with your GPS, please bring a topographic map as well as a compass. In any circumstance, the GPS unit does not replace either.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:00 AM on April 30, 2007

I'd just like to second the Garmin eTrex units. I had an old Magellan (GPS 300 -- nothing like 7-segment displays) and the little yellow eTrex just blew me away. It's cheap, it's reliable, it's waterproof, it does pretty much all the basic stuff you'd want from a GPS, including creating a track at sub-minute intervals from the moment you turn it on and it establishes a sat-lock ... oh, and with a fairly inexpensive cable you can interface it to your PC via the serial port and download everything off it, with freely available software.

I had a blast with it the first few days, just driving around with it running on my dashboard, and then downloading the resulting routes into Google Earth. Since then, the S.O. and I have used it to map and calculate the distance of our walks and bike-rides ... pretty good for under $100.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:33 AM on April 30, 2007

And for the record I definitely agree with seawallrunner -- if you're going off into any real wilderness (where you could not walk in a straight line in any direction and hit civilization pretty quickly), you should have a good USGS map and a non-electronic magnetic compass, and know how to use it to find your position.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:36 AM on April 30, 2007

I once ran a Magellan Sportrak through an Amoco car wash outside of Philly (it was sitting on top of my car - not intentional). It still works great.
posted by kuperman at 8:55 AM on April 30, 2007

I like the Garmin Summit because it has a built in altimeter and compass, both of which work way better than those which derive the data from gps.
posted by Manjusri at 10:08 AM on April 30, 2007

Nthing the comment that if you're going to go into any serious wilderness areas etc, you absolutely need to have a map and a compass and know how to use them. A GPS unit, no matter what quality, is no substitute. Simply having a GPS unit doesnt mean you wont Pull a Stolpa.

I work in the field (GIS/GPS/Survey) and I can say that most recreational GPS units are more than sufficient for anything less than survey-grade mapping and recordation. Garmin makes many decent models, as mentioned above. Still, bring a map and compass and please please follow some basic survival tips like letting people know where you're going. Also be aware that most GPS units, even survey-grade ones, dont record elevation/altitude very well, so dont rely on that.

Then again, I need sub-meter accuracy, sub-foot preferably, for my job, so maybe my standards are a bit high for recreational hikers.
posted by elendil71 at 11:09 AM on April 30, 2007

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