Belmont Club


Many people already have a GPS that is attached to the car. But a handheld GPS also has many uses and may in some cases be the more flexible alternative. Recently I retired my old Magellan for a Garmin Etrex 20. In some stores it comes bundled with a street and topo map that make it the equivalent of a car GPS on the road as well as on the trail, not bad for a device running to $170.

Of course the display is tiny. Nothing like a car GPS. But you can take it with you on overseas trips. Even if you don’t want to buy the detail maps for your overseas destination that go outside your bundled topos and street maps, the little Garmin comes with a “World Map” which identifies the highways and major roads of overseas cities. Don’t expect to find the smaller streets on it. But there’s a killer feature that largely overcomes this deficiency.

It is the ability to tie it into Google maps. If you’re in anyplace that Google Maps covers, you can transfer a found point by “sending it to your GPS”. And boom: it’s a waypoint on your Etrex 20 over its waterproofed USB cable. You can create your whole itinerary of waypoints in that way.  This can be a tremendous advantage in a place where nobody either speakers or cares to speak English.

The data will go both ways. If you leave your GPS on (a pair of AAs last 25 hours continuous) you can play it back your route on Google Earth to see where you’ve been.

One interesting thing about the Garmins is that they read GLONASS satellites. So unless both the Russians and the Feds decide to shut down the world, you ought to get some signal from the heavens. In comparison to my old retired GPS the Garmin almost instantly gets its fix where the old device would chug along for 10 minutes. In literally seconds. So while it’s not one of these thing with a supergiant high gain antenna you don’t expect something about the size of a computer mouse to do that.

Eventually you’re going to run out of power for your elecronic devices. So the next thing I’ll get for trip to the woods is a solar charger. I haven’t tested any, but some models strap to a pack (or a car roof, one would imagine) and can run a laptop 30 minutes for every hour in the sunlit open. Either that or charge up your cellphone (or GPS) about 8 times over.

When you’re not in the woods you can use the battery attached to the solar panels as a reserve power source for your electronic devices, charging it instead from the plug and from that feeding your cell phone. That might take the sting off the $340 price tag. One is unlikely to charge up the cell phone in the woods that often. But there is considerable everyday utility to having a reserve power for your laptop, cellphone and oh, yes, the GPS, especially in places hit by hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.

Of course the real benefit to having these devices they let you imagine yourself to be a 21st century Richard Hannay, pursued by sinister agents of a foreign power across the moors of Scotland. One man against the world. That may not or ever have been true. But then, what’s an imagination for?

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