Handheld GPS units buying guide

A handheld GPS makes it easier to find your way in the wilds of city or bush, but don't rely on it alone.
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01 .Introduction

Handheld GPS

An 'adventure' handheld GPS can reveal your position if you're lost, or record every step you take so you can find your way back.

Also, if you know the co-ordinates of a destination, anywhere in the world, it will show you how to get there on foot.

CHOICE findings

  • Handheld GPS devices can help you get back from a long walk in the bush, but take along a compass, a good map and some common sense - just in case.
  • Saving points along your journey can be invaluable for future visits, whether it's a dangerous cliff face to avoid, or a fantastic restaurant you stumbled upon in Bahrain.

Handheld GPS work by collecting information from a group of at least 24 satellites that constantly orbit the earth. A fix on three satellites is all you need to get a 2D position, with a fourth needed to calculate height. So unless you're inside a building or at either the North or South Pole, most units will help you find your place in the world.

Unlike some of the latest mobile phones with inbuilt GPS features, handheld GPS units don't need a mobile phone network to work, and unlike a car navigation device, they don't need an electronic map to be useful.

A handheld GPS continually monitors its own position and speed, ready to give you information on where you've been while you're carrying it, and where you should go. They are portable and designed to be carried for extended hikes.

Some units are similar in size to a rugged-design mobile phone, with several small buttons and a joystick to control the various settings. Some units are larger, with a bigger screen and wider buttons.

Saving a waypoint — such as a river crossing, interesting rock formation or even hard-to-find bookstore — is an ideal way to record any route markers or points of interest when you're out walking (they're called points of interest on car GPS units). Simply press a button or two on the unit. If you want it to record the entire journey, a tracking feature creates a snail-trail that evolves as you move. Once a track is created, you can save it as a route to use later or to guide you back to your original position.

Most units also have an alarm to let you know when you've arrived back at the starting position and if you move too far off the saved path.

If you have large hands, or are off to a colder climate and plan on using the GPS with gloves on, a larger unit could be a good option.

Some Handheld GPS have no mapping capabilities, but have a very good electronic compass and could indicate not only the barometric pressure but also the rate of change effectively giving you a portable weather station. This will probably lower the battery performance compared to other units due to the fact that they will be constantly collecting barometric pressure information, even when turned off.

Mapping at home and in the field

Handheld GPS come with a basic world map, but you can't get a detailed electronic Australian topographic map without shelling out a bit more cash.

Some units have only one option: the DiscoverAus Topo SD map. This isn't cheap, at around $400, although it does provide impressive contour details, accurate to 5m. Some units use the Tracks4Australia ($180 with 20m contour intervals) or Topo Plus ($129 with 10m contour intervals). Some units have some fantastic US topographic maps — but that's not much help for us down in Australia.

Electronic topographic maps are contained on a removable flash memory card and provide very good detail on surrounding areas and contours, but the small screens of some units make it difficult to gain a wider view of the area. Higher-resolution screens on the provide the best readability of the compact units.

Some units claim support for additional marine navigation maps for those with a nautical bent. These give good depth information as well as details of buoys, lighthouses and anchorages.

You can also use a map program on a PC to set waypoints and routes at home before you head out, and if you want to show off what a hardy bushwalker you are, you can upload routes back to a map on a PC to show where you've been. All units we looked at can use mapping software on the PC, but while it's standard on most, it's an optional extra for some. Check before you buy.

All the units we looked at performed accurately when getting a fix on the required number of satellites, with differences ranging from around 3m to 12m. A wider range was observed when trying to calculate altitude, with some out by a significant 42m. However, it's generally more important to know where you are than how high you are.

Under a clear sky, you should expect handheld GPS units to take no longer than a minute to locate their position. However, when confronted with dense foliage, they vary in the time taken to get a fix.

Some units are powered by a rechargeable Li-Ion battery, which initially caused concern due to the inability to get spares out in the field. However, a AAA battery adapter that comes standard in the box is seen as a good all-round solution.

Most of the other units can use either rechargeable AAs or normal alkaline AA batteries. While a handheld GPS provides very accurate recordings of individual waypoints and treks, we recommend carrying and learning to use a compass and paper topographical map as backup for anything longer than a short hike.


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When choosing a handheld GPS, these are some of the things you should look for.

  • A high-resolution and preferably colour screen is necessary if you want to use detailed topographical maps.
  • The unit needs to be comfortable in your hand, with well-spaced buttons that allow you to select functions more easily.
    A battery compartment that accepts standard batteries (AA or AAA) means you can use either rechargeable or normal alkalines in an emergency.
  • PC mapping software allows you to select a waypoint or route at home and download it to your GPS to use in the field.
    A connectivity cable allows your GPS to connect to a PC to download and upload information. But beware — these cables can be expensive if they use a proprietary connection.

Google tie-in

Google Earth (http://earth.google.com) accepts latitude and longitude figures to zoom straight to any spot on earth. So you can just enter stored waypoints from your handheld GPS to show lucky friends spots along your last trek.

Some products provide the option to take the experience further; Google Earth Plus (annual subscription $20) allows you to export tracks from your GPS onto Google Earth, such as a treacherous ravine crossing in Kosciusko National park or a perhaps even more treacherous literary pub crawl in Dublin. Connect your unit to the PC, upload your route information and the complete journey will be shown on a Google Earth map for all to see.

Did you know?

Soon after it was created, the civilian GPS was doctored by the US government, which incorporated an artificial inaccuracy (up to 100m) to counter any potential terrorist threat. Bill Clinton removed this restriction in 2000, arguing that the public good to be gained through using as accurate a system as possible would outweigh any security concerns.

However, the US government still reserves the right to introduce selective availability if it feels its national interests are threatened, for example, during the war in Iraq where the civilian GPS was made inoperable within the war zone.

Jargon buster

Fix: A successful connection with a group of orbiting satellite.
GPS: Global Positioning System.
Topographic map: Shows elevation through the use of contour lines and altitude markings.
Waypoint or POI (point of interest): An exact co-ordinate marked to show a position.

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