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Garmin eTrex GPS

I originally was going to purchase one of these as something of a safety net. As I was spending a lot of time out on the moors, I figured it would be a good idea to have a backup to rely on when the rain starts and the mist descends, that would help guide my way back to the car at the end of the day when I've totally lost my bearings. It'd help give me a bit of clarity if my brain goes fuzzy - a useful thing indeed, because being lost/stuck on the moors in bad weather is no fun at all.

I'll admit that before I bought one of these, I knew very little about GPS systems. The problem is that when people (myself included) hear of such things, they probably confuse it with the likes of a TomTom - and a TomTom this is not. You won't find a single town, street or house marked on it. It's not a car sat-nav system - it's a device that tells you where you've been and which way to go - but you'll need to program in the places first. Sure, you can buy versions with additional mapping support, but that's far more than I actually need - and nearly double the price.

Garmin eTrex Handheld GPS

You don't get much in the pack - just the GPS, strap and manuals - you'll have to pay extra for data cables to the PC and such like. It takes two AA batteries to run. I initially used some spare disposables, but I'm currently testing the unit with rechargeables to see how it fares - I'll let you know later. Battery life is quoted at 22hrs, although that number will vary by how much you use the different features.

The unit is about the size of an older Nokia mobile phone. The screen is fairly large and the buttons/serial port are all underneath rubber, namely because the device is waterproof to one metre. I've not tested this (yet) and I don't plan to. I'll just hope it functions after I drop it in a puddle or if I'm out in the rain.

When you power it up, it starts looking for a satellite signal - which obviously means you won't be using the device indoors. The search screen is quite animated and shows you how good the signal is. The better the signal you get, the more accurate the device will be. At its best, I've been able to record and track positions down to less than two metres, which is impressive enough for me, although it all comes down to how accurate you need it to be, combined with how long you want your batteries to last. If you put the unit in power-saving mode, it'll still report your position down to about 5 metres, which will generally do the trick. I use the power-saving mode for general navigation and the battery-gobbling WAAS mode in short bursts for when I need to find something very specific indeed (i.e. down to the metre).

Once you've got a signal, you can either navigate to a landmark you've programmed in before, or enter some new ones. The entry screen is simple enough and allows you to enter locations in a multitude of different units, although I seem to end up entering locations in latitude/longitude for geocaching sites and Ordnance Survey grid references for letterboxing. You can allocate different icons to different types of landmarks. Once you've decided on your destination, simply use the "goto" option and the unit will tell you which way to go, how long for and what the distance is. It displays this as a compass screen, so it's always as-the-crow-flies, not with a set of streetmaps, so it might not be a good idea to blindly do exactly what the unit tells you. You can store 500 locations on the device - which is more than enough for most people, I would have thought.

Once you've set up lots of locations, you can set up entire routes by linking the locations together. You can store up to 20 routes. Select a route and the eTrex will happily guide you along. It'll also calculate the combined distance and allow you to save a reasonable amount of routes. As well as that, if you ask the unit to tell you the nearest locataion in you've programmed, it'll tell you and navigate you to it.

As you're walking, your path is recorded (like virtual breadcrumbs), along with details such as your altitude, how long you've walked, how far you've walked and will draw a little map for you as you go. There's shedloads of stuff it can tell you. You can also save your path too - useful if you want to follow a route you might have done before or backtrack your steps. The distance counting usefully means you can use it as a pedometer, although it won't count your steps.

From my testing of the device so far, I know it's accurate. I've programmed in lots of geocache locations and it's taken me to them so accurately that I was virtually standing on the thing when it said I had arrived at my chosen location - quite impressive really. In all, it's a simple to use device, that is built to last. It also has a couple of additional features such as a backlight for night usage, information on when the sun rises/sets (useful if you want to plan to be back before a certain time) and hunting/fishing tables - but I doubt I'll be using that feature.

It works for me, anyway - if you want a good basic navigation tool, this will do nicely. It costs between £60 - £70. (Many places are selling it for £79.99, but you can easily get it cheaper). *Link to website of manufacturer*

Here's a bullet-point summary for you:

  • Robust, small solid unit.
  • Good as a basic GPS - accurate.
  • Waterproof.

  • By having an internal antenna, you'll occasionally lose signal. (Although a high-sensitivity version is available)
  • Can be time-consuming when having to enter lots of waypoints. (And the PC data-cable is somewhat pricey)
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