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Leon's Blog

How to choose your first GPS

How to choose your first GPS

What do you need in a GPS? A navigation expert helps you decide.

By Blake Miller

Recently, I was in a local and large sporting goods store and watched a clerk recommend a very expensive and complex Global Positioning System receiver to an elderly gentleman.  The prospective customer simply wanted a GPS that would “get him back to the rig,” yet the clerk kept pushing the latest, high-tech, touch screen – and very expensive – GPS.

These are basic navigation tools: compass, emergency whistle, map and GPS. Don’t leave home without any of them.

The customer would have been satisfied with a basic starter model, and it would have served him very well.  Instead, he went from prospective customer status, to disgruntled prospective customer and left the store very frustrated. He didn’t buy anything.

Buying your first GPS  is like shopping for your first car.  In a vehicle, you want it to provide transportation from Point A to Point B. In a GPS, you also want it to take you from Point A to Point B. There are many models that will fill your needs exactly, but before you put the money down, you need to shop intelligently.

Here is what you need to know:

Start with a quick education on common GPS terms, and why they’re important.

  • Coordinates: This refers to your geographic grid system and this pinpoints your position in the world.  The most common is Latitude and Longitude, though most hikers quickly shift to UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) because of its simplicity.
  • Waypoints – These are your navigation coordinates that you have saved to memory within the GPS.  Most receivers will hold 500.  That said, you only need to keep a few on your GPS all the time.
  • Compass –  The GPS compass is dependent on batteries, like the rest of the system, so don’t leave leave your magnetic compass at home.
  • Find/Go To – This is the navigation function of the receiver.  It is this function that will “steer” you to your destination.

Every GPS has these basic features.  All the rest are bells and whistles. And it will be up to you to determine which ones are important.

For example, I like a GPS with a Barometric altimeter.  I use that function to monitor atmospheric pressure at high elevations; when the pressure drops I look for cover. An altimeter can also be used to help locate where you are on topograqphical maps. For example, if you know your location is where a stream crosses a elevation line on a map, then you can be sure where you are.

When looking for your first GPS receiver consider the following:

  • Decide how much you want to spend. If you don’t know what a GPS might cost, visit www.walmart.com and www.rei.com to get a good price baseline.  Check the manufacturer’s web site for rebates offers.  Then research the web for reviews on specific models.
  • Decide the best model. The more expensive models will most likely have a better receiver and antenna.   Yet it doesn’t have to be expensive to be accurate.  All receivers will be accurate to at least +/- 15 meters and some are accurate to +/- 3 meters.  That said, giving any receiver the time to adequately calculate position information is essential.
  • Ask friends with GPSs what they use theirs for and what their recommendations would be.  One size definitely doesn’t fit all! An avid geocacher would have different needs than a hunter.  A hunter might opt for a model with a two-way radio such as the Garmin Rhino series. Garmin GPS Rino 130
  • Older folks and those not “tech savvy” seem to do better with a GPS that has buttons on the front (GarminMap 60 series or the Lowrance IFinder Hunt C);  it seems to be more intuitive.  As an instructor, I’ve found  has that buttons along the side can become frustrating for people with less steady hands.

In the store, pick up the receiver, look at the controls and hold it as you would when using it.  Ask yourself:

Make sure the GPS fits your hand well, and that you can easily use the controls.

  • Does it feel like a good fit?
  • Can I read the buttons and comfortably push them?
  • Is the screen size adequate?
  • Is the GPS simple or just too complex for me?
  • Mapping programs are nice, but expect to pay $100.00 or more.  Ask a friend with a GPS and see for yourself if the mapping is an asset.  Can you read what is presented on the screen, or is it just clutter?
  • Find out what the store’s return policy is on electronics and what their return rate is with various models.
  • Whatever you buy, hang on to that receipt and register the product soon after purchase.

Once you buy a GPS,  keep fresh batteries in it.  Don’t put it in the closet,  or store it in your survivl kit. Take it out and use it; now.  You can’t break it, and when you practice with your GPS, you are practicing one of your wilderness survival land navigation skills.

Visit the manufacture’s  web site once every six months or so.  The manufactures frequently offer free up-grades allowing the GPS’s internal software to run more efficiently.  It is usually a simple download to make your GPS current.

A good way to learn is to take a GPS class where you will learn the basics and how your receiver works.  Check with your local Community College’s continuing education program or at sporting goods stores to see if they offer classes.

And don’t forget: a GPS is no substitute for a map and a quality compass and the knowledge of how to use them.  The most expensive GPS on the market is only as good as its batteries.  Anything electronic can fail and they do so at the most inconvenient time!

About Blake Miller:

Blake Miller

Blake Miller has made a career out of staying found and knowing where he is at all times. His formal navigation training began when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1973.  He served as an officer aboard several Navy ships over his  twenty-year career; many of those tours included the duty of Navigator.  Blake began working with satellite navigation systems at sea in 1976, culminating with the then-new Global Positioning Systems aboard the Battleship WISCONSIN in early 1990.

In 1998 Blake started Outdoor Quest, a business dedicated to backcountry navigation and wilderness survival.  Blake has taught classes to wild land firefighters, state agency staffs, Search and Rescue team members, hunters, hikers, skiers, fishermen and equestrians.   He regularly teaches classes through the Community Education programs at Central Oregon (Bend) and Chemeketa (Salem, OR) Community Colleges.

As a volunteer, Blake teaches navigation and survival classes through the Becoming an Outdoor Woman (B0W) program, to students in the local school district, and conservation groups.  He is a member of a Search and Rescue team.

Contact Information:

Phone: 541 280 0573

Email: outdrquest@aol.com

Web: www.outdoorquest.biz

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Leon's Blog

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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