GPS Beginners Buyers Guide
I always carry a paper map and compass when I’m out and about, but it’s an increasingly rare thing for me to refer to either of them. Instead, I use my phone for all but the most life-threatening of navigation decisions.
Turn the clock back just 3 years and my OS Explorers were always well thumbed. But then I installed Viewranger on my iPhone and it changed things. It transformed mapping into something so immediately accessible that my very relationship with it has blossomed. I’ve planned impromptu walks in the pub and I’ve even bought a house on the basis of green dashed lines within a kilometre of me.
Navigation software – whether it be developed for smartphone or dedicated handheld SatNav – has evolved. And there has never been a better time to buy in to the well-charted unknown. Interfaces for SatNavs are becoming like smartphones, and smartphone hardware is becoming as reliable as a SatNav.
Where will we see this middle-ground merge, and what is the best choice for your lifestyle right now? Read on for some inspiration.
Buying Guide Part 1: Features to look for
How long will the batteries last and is there a power-save mode? Do you need a device which can have its batteries changed on the trail or are you happy charging it up at home? If using a smartphone for navigation, you may need an additional USB battery pack which will add weight and cost. But most dedicated handheld SatNavs can take AA or AAA batteries even if they have their own rechargeable battery. And if you match battery size to your torch you can even swap them in an emergency.
Do you need mapping, or do you just need a grid reference for your location and a direction to get home? The cheapest SatNavs won’t have in-built mapping, but will give you a location which you can then refer to on a paper map. You generally pay more for more-detailed mapping, and for full OS mapping you’ll need to consider the cost on top. Larger screens are needed when using more detailed mapping, so you can see more context around you.
If you’re happy with your SatNav, you’ll want to use it more. But can it be upgraded to take new maps? Will it work abroad? Can you plug it in to your PC and plan or share routes? Can you clip it to your bike? If you’ll only ever use it as a ‘where am I?’ tool, then a basic device will be fine. But some more expensive devices can multi-task as in-car SatNav, geocache logger, camera or social tool.
SatNavs are getting tougher with some devices being waterproof and drop-proof. And some come with dedicated pouches to protect them between uses. Look for at least some degree of rainproofing and a lanyard to tether to you. Battery life will benefit from some winter insulation too. Smartphones are usually the weakest link, and you’ll probably want to beef yours up for outdoor use with a waterproof or ruggedized case… but check it doesn’t affect GPS reception.
The simplest SatNavs will have a single button menu system and an interface that requires some getting used to at home before you stray outdoors. More expensive devices will use an interface which is more like a computer or a smartphone, and many users may find these familiar and friendly. Bigger screens are easier to use in poor weather, and show more mapping, but they use more battery power.
“Routes” are pre-planned and programmed in to the SatNav by you. Very basic devices require you to actually walk that route to record it or enter a set or waypoints, but they don’t show obstructions like fences, roads or rivers. More expensive devices allow you to draw it in on-screen on a map and spot those hazards. A great advantage is the ability to draw a route on your home PC’s nice big screen, and then download it to your SatNav.
“Tracks” are the opposite of routes; they tell you where you’ve been rather than where you have to go. Handy so you can record your footsteps for posterity, or find your way back to the car. Tracks are extremely important if there’s a chance of being fogged-in or disorientated because if you can retrace your steps you know you’re on a safe route home. Tracks are also a great way of recording progress when using a SatNav during keep-fit training.
I know a Lowland Rescue search-dog handler who uses a full-sized iPad with ViewRanger in an Aquapac case as her primary navigation tool, and it works for her really well. But I’m not sure I could put up with the weight of a full iPad around my neck for hours on end so I’ve always stuck to using my phone rather than anything larger.
I’ve often heard it said that you should never rely on a phone to navigate in the hills. Reasons given are because of poor battery, fragility, inaccuracy and poor reception. But with the growing market in Phablets (big phones like the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note) and 7-inch tablets which are filling the gap between phone and iPad, we’re seeing a much more practical range of devices for navigation. I’m seriously considering adding a small tablet to my own kit and a straw-poll of my SAR colleagues says I’m not alone.
7-inch tablets have a screen size of around 150mm x 90mm. If you’re looking at an OS Explorer map at ‘actual size’ on screen, that gives you a view of some 6 full grid squares plus a little bit of context around them. Compare that the even the largest of our SatNavs and you start to see the advantages. Of course, the disadvantage of any screen is that it’s not as large as a paper map and if you’re trying to sight off a distant object you’ll have trouble on a tablet. But then, if you’re in the kind of conditions where you’re having to navigate using objects more than 2km from you, you’re probably best off taking a paper map and compass as your primary navigation tools and using electronics as a backup.
I’ve just measured one of my OS Active Maps at 245 x 135 x 15mm, which is bigger than a 7-inch tablet by some margin. And it seems to be one of those happy coincidences that jacket manufacturers have been incorporating waterproof pockets for OS maps in to their designs for some years now. So the idea that a 7-inch tablet is too large to take out on the trail just doesn’t hold weight. And speaking of weight, a Google Nexus 7 comes in at under 300g, which is the same as an OS Active Map and one of Aldi’s finest flapjack bars. Not exactly back-breaking.
I lost my own iPad Mini during the tests for this piece, but it was faring well after a day on the hills with regular use of ViewRanger and a constant track over 4-5 hours. Battery life had reduced to something like 60% before I lost it. One of the keys to prolonging battery life outdoors is to remember to turn all of the in-civilisation functions like wifi off, using only those apps which you need.
Most 7-inch tablets have a battery capacity of around 4000mAh, which is significantly larger than those found in smartphones. As a result, you’ll generally get significantly more life out of a tablet before it needs a recharge. The flip side of that is that if you do go on an extended outdoor adventure with a tablet you’ll need a larger capacity recharging solution than you would for a phone, and forget solar chargers unless you’re somewhere really sunny and only need a top-up.
Out of the box, a tablet isn’t something I’d take in to the great outdoors. But just as there is an industry for clothing and equipping you to survive in the outdoors, there’s one built around protecting electronics from the elements. The cost of these range from a few pounds for a simple map case up to the cost of a slap-up curry for an armoured waterproof case that will fend off rocks, rain and rucksack interfaces. Depending on how vital a piece of your kit the tablet will represent, you have myriad options for protecting and providing a means of securely carrying it.
Early smartphones used cheap GPS components and cellphone-mast triangulation to give their position, and it was unreliable to say the least. But the latest smartphones and tablets use GPS chips that are just as good as those in your handheld SatNav. The difference is sometimes in the size of the GPS antenna, which can translate in to a tablet losing a signal more easily under tree cover than a dedicated SatNav.
Poor reception is a big problem outdoors, but only if you are running software which needs reception. Offline mapping is available via ViewRanger, Memory Map and even Google maps. If you take the time to install the relevant map ‘tiles’ before you go on a trip, your tablet won’t need access to the phone network to function correctly. It’ll only need a clear path to the sky in order to pick up satellites.
So, what are the disadvantages?
You can’t really use a tablet when wearing normal gloves. Their touchscreen interface usually relies on the tiny electrical impulses between the screen and your skin, so gloves and a rain-soaked screen will knacker that. And in bright sunshine a tablet’s screen can be harder to see than a dedicated GPS, unless you fit it with an aftermarket anti-glare screen.
And of course there’s the cost. Whilst the cost of second-hand tablets like the Nexus 7 have come down to around £100, that’s still a fair few OS maps worth of technology investment. Perhaps look at the purchase of a tablet as a more holistic experience and consider it as a tool to plan, navigate, record and share your experiences.
And lastly, there’s the unforeseeable problems associated with technology. It happened to me last month. My iPhone 5, which I used heavily for navigation, died. It just stopped working with no warning at all and can’t be restored. Fortunately I was at home when it happened rather than on a rescue. But that’s precisely the reason why, despite the ability to protect any device from the elements, you can’t rely on them as your only source of navigation.
Tablets can, and probably will, become a more mainstream form of outdoor navigation. But I’d never, ever rely on one without the backup of a paper map, compass and decent navigation training.