Off the road again: handheld GPS pointers

What your handheld GPS must have

They’re rugged, small and usually quite ugly. Off-road GPS devices remain unfamiliar to most, but they can be useful for novice and experienced bushwalkers alike. Although there aren’t as many players in the off-road market, the product range still remains quite astounding. Picking out the right one can be a mammoth task. Here are the main points to look out for when shopping for your next travelling buddy.

Tracking Basics Even the cheapest handheld GPS devices have basic tracking functionality, providing the user with longitudinal and latitudinal data, speed, bearing, routes and waypoints. Most also provide location-specific recreational data such as sunrise/sunset times and optimal hunting and fishing periods.

One basic feature that doesn’t make it into all devices is geocaching. Geocaching allows you to download data that leads to specific sites nominated by fellow trekkers. We can’t say we’ve ever gone out of our way to actually find one of these things, but it seems the community is large enough to provide endless hours of entertainment for the Indiana Jones in you. Garmin’s GPS 60 provides basic geocaching functionality, but we’d recommend going for the GPSMAP 60CSx.

Maps Quick — give me the longitude and latitude of the Three Sisters… too slow. It will surprise many to know that a lot of handheld GPS devices aren’t actually accompanied by maps. Particularly at the cheaper end of the market, many GPS devices are little more than expensive compasses with a GPS receiver for better accuracy. At best, you’ll find that some of the cheaper GPS devices will carry a base map that offers sparse detail covering an entire country.

It’s likely that the less travelling experience you have, the more you will have to pay for a GPS device. Since it’s not worth shelling out money for features you’ll never use, the best option is to pick a handheld GPS device with expandable memory. This will allow you to purchase optional topographical, street or marine maps later on. Magellan’s Triton 400 provides a fairly decent compromise, with a preloaded base map, low cost and a SD card slot for expandability.

Control Scheme The automotive GPS market has made the complete switch to touch screen; handheld GPS devices are stuck in the Stone Age by comparison. Still, don’t let simple marketing gimmicks fool you: a touch screen isn’t necessarily the best thing when it comes to handheld GPS. Both Garmin and Magellan reserve touch-screen functionality for their high-end models but we’ve found that it’s not always the best control method. Both the Triton 2000 and Oregon 300 do provide decent touch-screen control, but we’ve found that they’re only as functional — if not less so — than units that use alternative control methods.

We don’t condone the million-button method employed by both Garmin and Magellan in their lower-end units, but there is a middle ground in the likes of Garmin’s Colorado 300. It possesses the same screen as the company’s Oregon range but has a rotary dial and quick access buttons; we actually preferred this control method over a touch screen. Given that the two units are essentially identical in functionality, we’d pick the cheaper Colorado any day.

Automotive Navigation Although the idea of combining an off-road GPS with an automotive GPS device is appealing, realistically it’s little more than a pipedream. High-end models like Garmin’s Oregon 300 and Magellan’s Triton 2000 do offer 3-D view modes as well as turn-by-turn navigation, but the effect isn’t really the same. With no voice navigation and screens half the size of the typical automotive GPS device, it won’t be the best travelling partner for when you're on the road. You're better off purchasing separate devices for the two different functions.

Software Any experienced traveller will tell you that preparation is key to a good trip. Of course, while that used to mean that you’d spend hours in front of a huge map with a pencil, these days it means sitting down at a computer and clicking with a mouse. Both Garmin’s and Magellan’s mid- and high-end handheld GPS devices use proprietary software packages to facilitate device syncing as well as route planning.

We prefer Magellan’s VantagePoint to Garmin’s MapSource, primarily because of the level of detail provided. Garmin’s software provides only the bare minimum of detail on its base map, while VantagePoint displays major arteries and basic topographical information allowing for easier route planning.

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