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HomeHomeDiscussionsDiscussionsGeneralGeneralMapping GPS: Toy or Tool?Mapping GPS: Toy or Tool?
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11/3/2010 9:48 AM

First off, I am a reluctant user of electronic technology in the back country. I certainly didn't jump on the GPS bandwagon when they first came out. I finally broke down a few years ago and put a Geko 301 on my Christmas list figuring it would aid in identifying position when used with a map as well as marking key locations, most importantly where to go to get home. It was small and light so I didn't mind bringing it along. It had two drawbacks IMO, first it took a long time to get a signal and had trouble doing so in heavy cover, which oddly enough is where I frequently end up while hunting elk and is also the place where I most need to double check position without visible landmarks. Second, it seemed to really burn through the batteries so I only turned it on as needed and then had to wait a while to acquire satellites.

Not too long ago, I came across the opportunity to buy a like new Garming 60cx for the same amount of money I was able to get for my Geko and made the swap simply for speed and accuracy rather than mapping. The 60cx did not disappoint. It can sometimes get a fix in my house and has never had a problem in the woods. Score a few points in that regard over the Geko. Accuracy was consistently closer (as measured by the unit) than the Geko as well. At nearly twice the weight of the Geko, it obviously suffered in that regard. Overall a win in my book because if a 3.5 ounce item doesn't work half the time, it isn't worth being half the weight of one that works all the time -- so far.

On to the mapping. That was really a frill as far as I was concerned. I really didn't want to blow $100 on Garmin's Colorado topo maps so I figured it wouldn' t get much use for mapping. However, I came across www.gpsfiledepot.com that has a multitude of free downloadable maps including an excellent topo for Colorado. What the heck, I loaded it on my GPS and start using it.

I rapidly became sold on it for a quick fix on where I'm at and where I'm going. It matches up nicely to the much larger view maps I carry and for much of my navigation, reference to the maps is superfulous. I only need them for the "big picture". The 60 is much easier on battery life so I'm able to run it all day as needed. In short, it has rapidly become very useful to me, particularly in hunting situations where I really don't want to stop and take out a flapping map but can discretely check position and direction with a GPS strapped to my shoulder strap.

No, it is not a replacement for map and compass. I frequently have two of each of those essential tools -- actually always two compasses. But I do find myself using the GPS as a first line navigation tool and have become a convert from thinking them toys.

How does this crowd feel? As long as you aren't dependent on such electronics, is leveraging their abilities as your primary source of navigation the way to go? Just curious as I've seen different schools of thought on this.

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11/5/2010 1:28 AM

Just as you said, as long as you don't get too dependent on the electronics.  My map and compass skills atrophy much quicker than my GPS skills.  For this reason, I try to exercise my map/compass skills and other techniques (terrain association, handrailing, etc.) more often than the GPS.  GPS serves as a good check.  I still pull out the GPS and mark points periodically on my route.  A couple years ago I did a full moon snowshoe hike back into a yurt.  Nav in was easy with moonlight reflecting off the snow.  However, an unexpected storm rolled in on my trip out.  I was glad to have saved periodic waypoints going in because the storm made visibility very poor and terrain association impossible.  Also, my tracks were buried with fresh snowfall.  The GPS saved me many miles and frustration.

I taught landnav for several years and would tell the students to embrace the technology.  I would also tell them that a GPS is like a calculator.  A calculator is a great electronic tool that simpifies much of math.  But if the batteries die or the thing goes down, you need to know how to do math the old fashioned way.  I also noticed in observing many students that they could actually over embrace the technology and, with head down the entire time, follow the arrow on the GPS to a destination.  These students were taking this class in preparation for a deployment to a hostile environment.  Their safety depended very heavily on their head being up looking for potential danger rather than looking down at a GPS.  I think we hikers/hunters need to do the same but for different reasons (spot game or just to enjoy the scenery).

So, although we vary slightly in how we do it, we both are leveraging the abilities of the electronics but maintaining our backup skills.  It makes our time in the backcountry safer and that much more enjoyable.

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11/8/2010 8:34 AM

Please note that previous reply was not me talking to myself, not that I don't do that.

I totally agree. When hunting you can't take a head down approach either but for that quick confirmation of location and direction, I certainly find it handy. My gps seldom actually makes it farther than slipping out of its pocket with my left hand for a quick look and then back in.

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11/8/2010 1:20 PM


Post #2 is mine.   I don't know what happened when I originally posted it, but it seemed to have locked the thread for a couple days.  I contemplated contacting Evan but figured he would eventually find and fix the error.  I am sorry if I did anything wrong.  And for the record, some of my best conversations are with myself.


New Post
11/8/2010 1:35 PM

Most of my posts are sort of cursed that way. I suspect you can blame me. I don't mind the talking to myself so much as the arguing. That gets old sometimes. ;)

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11/8/2010 2:05 PM

So your the one Kyle. We should have known.... Just kidding there is a glitch that Evan is trying to hunt down.

I have always carried a compass, and in a class room environment have done excellent using one and in the field following a heading has been fine. However, in the only real world instance that I needed a compass it was next to worthless for pinpointing a specific spot that I needed to find. In that case it was a trail forking off that I need to clear (working for the FS) that was heavily overgrown.  It was overgrown enough on the one end it was not visible, and I tried to use my compass to do a V ( I forget the term transection?) I still couldn't find the trail.  Turns out that I was about 150yds off on my location. Whether the map was wrong or I was I don't know.  Other than that I have always just used terrain association and even on orientering courses have never needed to pull out a compass.

I like the gps for the reasons you have stated, but tend to only use it for waypoints and to check distance traveled or yet to travel or stuff like that. I seldom run an entire trip with one on though.

Co-Owner Hill People Gear "If anything goes wrong it will be a fight to the end, if your training is good enough, survival is there; if not nature claims its foreit." - Dougal Haston
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11/8/2010 2:49 PM

Whenever someone gets logged out before they are finished typing up their post, the forum gets messed up. This is a lame bug, but out of my control for the time being. I do have a workaround planned that I'll probably automate to run every 15 minutes. The post will get attributed to "unknown", but better than the whole forum becoming inaccessible. Glad you identified yourself in this case Kyle so I could properly attribute the post.

Regarding compass and GPS -- I was musing over this yet again when I was on the wet (and heavily forested) side of the mountains this past weekend. I taught orienteering merit badge one summer myself. Not exactly as high speed as Kyle (unless he was also preparing boy scouts for midnight depredations against girl scout camps, thus qualifying as a "hostile environment"), but I do know how to use a map and compass some.

What is the value of a compass? A compass plus the ability to accurately measure distance traveled (a skill I've never developed) will get you from known point A to known point B. A compass will allow you to orient a map more precisely than the sun will (or in cases where the sun isn't visible). If you don't know exactly where you are, but you do know that there is a really long handrail in the vicinity, and roughly where you are in relationship to it, and know that there aren't any other similar looking handrails that you might bump into first, a compass will take you from unknown point A to an unknown point on the handrail, which is better than having no idea where you are. Beyond that, I think compasses are mostly worthless:

  • If you're lost in heavy enough cover (like where I was this weekend) that you can't see landmarks, a compass won't do a thing to pinpoint your location on a map.
  • If you're in a situation where you can see landmarks and identify them on a map, a compass isn't going to pinpoint your location on a map any more precisely than terrain association.
  • Most everywhere I've ever been, you travel according to landforms and terrain association. Traveling according to a compass would just be silly by comparison.

As you can see, I'm a terrain association guy all the way. I think a GPS is a great complement to this. Unlike a compass, a GPS will allow you to pinpont your location on a map when you don't know where you are, and it will also pinpoint your location more precisely than either triangulation or terrain association. I find both of those very valuable.

I don't use a GPS with basemaps though. I haven't splurged (both weight and money) simply because I can't see myself being happy with looking at maps on a 2x4" screen, and I'd still want paper backup anyway. At some point I'll probably give it a shot, but for the time being a higher sensitivity receiver foretrex is higher on my list.

Oh... we have used a GPS for lake navigation and river navigation in Alaska to keep us in a previously scouted channel. That was handy, but I'd classify that as water navigation which seems to have a whole different set of rules than land navigation.

We are fortunate in this matter that your conduct will be your marker and, thus, your reputation. The conduct of others on this forum has been, and will continue to be, their marker, and thus, their reputation. In the west, a person invests in one's reputation carefully. - 112Papa
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11/24/2010 1:59 PM

Toy vs. Tool...technological advancements have nearly always been looked down upon by old-schoolers throughout history. That is, until the advancements are found to be meaningful and productive.

I hear what Evan and others are saying with regard to a lack of interest in a mapping GPS with a relatively small screen.  I totally get it. I've been there. I was in the exact same boat for a long time until I discovered/realized how much better off I was with the convenience and safety of a new-fangled mapping GPS during my off-trail adventures than I ever was with map and compass and the relatively featureless Foretrex 101.
I remember asking myself, “Why do I need a mapping GPS since I terrain associate almost all the time anyway?” And, “When weather, darkness or undergrowth obscures my take on things, just lock onto a UTM coordinate with a GPS receiver and cross reference that with my map and take a bearing with my compass, right?”
Well, I can assure anyone that occasionally glancing down at a wonderfully backlit colored topo map that indicates one's real-time progress towards the safe confines of a shelter, while shuffling through a genuine white-out blizzard in the dark with temperatures plummeting, is a FAR superior way to go than the ol' GPS coordinate and paper map flapping in the wind routine.  Having the wind/rain/snow/sleet trying to destroy your map and/or rip it from your hands while you are trying to navigate is a thing of a bygone era, IF one simply adopts the ease and simplicity of the newer mapping GPS technology (while retaining the fail-safe backup of compass, paper map and know-how).
The screen of a newer mapping GPS, while admittedly smaller than a larger, more detailed paper map, allows for more than enough visual aid to safely roam around at will, especially when one's mind can automatically reconcile the details of the small-screen map and immediacy of terrain association with where one is on a large detailed laminated paper map anyway.
One might say that this navigational aid advancement is akin to moving from iron sights (map & compass) to a scope (GPS) to a scope with an illuminated reticle and built in range-finder (mapping GPS).
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2/20/2012 10:17 AM

This is an old thread, but has lots of good information. My own prefrence is similar to Evan's. I mainly use terrain association. I don't find myself using a compass a lot, although there was one time when rain turned to snow and fog, that by when I climbed back up to the ridge top, I had no idea which way to go. If I had a compass, it would have been a simile decision. Instead, I went several miles the wrong way, until I found a familier landmark, as visibility wasn't much more than arm length. I have never gone out without a compass since then.

As far as GPS units go, the high sensitivity unite's are the way to go for sure. I have had mapping GPS and non mapping GPS and have come to the conclusion that even though the map is very small, it doesn't hurt anything except your wallet when purchasing. If you can afford a mapping GPS, I'd say that is the way to go. Just make sure, as others have said not to rely on it so much that you can't navigate if the GPS craps out.

The most important navigation tool is your head. If you pay attention to where you are, where you are going and where you have been (I have found that a lot of people that become disorientated, do so because thay haven't taken the time to look back where they came from) most of the time looking at terrain features in conjunction with a map will get you where you need to go.

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