Sunday, 3 January 2016

Using a GPS for Navigation

Using a GPS for Navigation

I consider myself to be a skilled navigator, a bit of a nerd when it comes to map reading and using a compass along with all of the skills and techniques that make up navigation. At Peak Navigation Courses we are teaching map reading and navigation most weekends throughout the year. On almost every course I am asked, ‘do you use a GPS?’  Well the answer is, “yes sometimes.”  (This blog is part 1 of 2. In the 2nd blog we willwrite about which GPS to choose).

A range of GPS devices: Garmin Eurex 10, Garmin Oregon 650, Garmin 64s and Satmap Active 10.

Walk Highlands GPS Planner on my lap top
I liken it to having a.b.s. or powered steering in my car. I wouldn’t drive a car without if I had the choice. For me, owning and being able to use a GPS device is another tool in my toolbox of navigation techniques. If I am working in remote places, big mountains or going out in poor conditions them I’ll put my GPS in the top of my rucksack.  It goes further than that though.  I like to plan all of my walks in advance using a map.  Often I’ll use online versions of Ordnance Survey mapping to plan my route. That way I can see the detail of the map clearly (the computer screen is well lit) and I can use a mapping programme that measures the distance of my route, tells me how much ascent there is and just how long it might take me to walk the route! Once out on the walk I’ll be using my map and compass.

View Ranger with mapping of Gran Canaria on my iPad
Last year I visited Gran Canaria with a view to developing a new walking holiday there. Having downloaded the details of some walks from the local walking guru “Rambling Roger” I was able to install his routes onto the mapping I had on my ipad and use the ipad as my map!

The other nice thing about using a GPS is that you can make a track of where you have been. This means that once you have finished your route you can see how far you have walked and where you have been on the computer screen.

There have been some memorable moments where I have resorted to using a GPS from my map.

Leaving the Refugio Poqueira, no need for a GPS!
I remember as part of a two day trip up to a mountain hut in Spain’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, we had left the hut on day 2 and ascended to a ridge that we could use to snowshoe along back to the valley. We left the hut at 2500m in beautiful sunshine and spent an hour ascending gently to the ridge at 2700m. However as we reached the ridge, the mist was swirling in from the far side, and it wasn’t long before the visibility was down to around 20m. Knowing exactly where I was it would have been possible to use a compass bearing and a combination of pacing and timing to keep track of our location along the ridge. But as we were guiding two people it was much easier to get the GPS to do the work for us and so we could snowshoe where the snow was best rather than go in a straight line following a compass. With the GPS doing the work we had a great day playing in the snow!

An hour later, time for the GPS!
Having and using a GPS doesn’t detract from being able to navigate.  Going walking in the hills and mountains using a GPS still requires you to have good map reading and navigation skills. The GPS might tell you the direction but it will not tell you that you are about to walk over a cliff.  A map will describe the terrain and your knowledge and experience will enable you to plan a route safely and how long it will take you. In October 2015, the British military were training in the North West Highlands of Scotland and were using devices to block the satellite signals rendering GPS navigation devices useless. Recently a friend of mine was on Ben Nevis, it was so cold that the batteries of his GPS froze and wouldn’t work. It would be dangerous to have a total reliance on a gadget!

Another question I am frequently asked is what type of GPS should I get? Well that’s the content of another blog. However I’ve been using a GPS for over 10 years. In those days they didn’t come with mapping. Even when they did and although we have several with mapping I hung onto my basic old Garmin Etrex as all I wanted from it was a grid reference of where I was. It’s only been in the last 12 months that I have gradually changed my opinion. Most devices now have the ability to install mapping onto them and they have generally got a lot easier to use. I no longer want to spend 5 minutes typing a grid reference into my old ETrex as I now have the choice of touching the place on the map (with a touch screen device) that I want to go to then pressing a button to navigate. 2 presses of a finger taking only 2 or 3 seconds! It’s a similar process with the new button press devices, move the cursor using the joystick to where you want to go to then 2 presses of the button and you are navigating. Slick.

Electronic devices may let you down, so keep up to speed with using a Map & Compass

Garmin 64s a good device
Of course it is essential that you have your device set up correctly and know how to use it. We meet lots of people who are not using their device correctly and to be honest using a GPS not set correctly can be hard work an inaccurate.

If you are thinking of getting a GPS but are unsure which is the right one for you, you can book a session with us and we’ll show you how they work and let you try them out. These popular 1:1 half day sessions cost only £60.  They are also suitable for getting started if you have just acquired one but are uncertain about using it.

The course is called: Making the most of your GPS.

Garmin Oregon 650 a good device
•    What is GPS and how does it work

•    What the buttons do and the menus are for…..

•    Finding out where I am and relating it to the map.

•    Creating waypoints and making a route.

•    Making a track of where I am walking.

•    Getting information about where I have walked and plotting it on your P.C.

•    Using online programmes to plan a route and transfer it to your     GPS.

•    Downloading routes from the internet onto you GPS and following them.

•    What is geocaching and how do I do it?

Mike and Jane who run Peak Navigation Courses are both International Mountain Leaders who in addition to running navigation courses lead walking holidays in various mountainous regions around the world.

Which GPS for Hill Walking?

Choosing a GPS (for Hill Walking)

At Peak Navigation Courses we run sessions to help people get to grips with their GPS most weeks. We are often asked which GPS device is the best or which GPS should I buy? Sometimes we are challenged by people arguing that their smart phone is as good or better than a dedicated GPS device. We always try to give an unbiased view, and in this blog we shall attempt just that, however, our experience is limited to Garmin, SatMap and ViewRanger.

The Smart Phone / View Ranger.
I’ve had View Ranger on my Phone and smart phone for 8 years and though I find its functions as good (and possibly even better) as any dedicated GPS device, I’d never rely on it when the chips are down. Most mobile phones have poor battery life and don’t run View Ranger for more than 8 hours. Phone’s are not usually shock proof, dust proof or water resistant. Great in good conditions. If you do decide to go for this option, invest in a good quality case and extra battery pack, so you have the resources to summon help if you need to.

GPS Devices.
You need to make a choice: firstly do you want one that has OS mapping installed or one with out? Secondly if you have chosen to opt for one with OS mapping, do you want one that is touch screen or one that you work by pressing buttons?

If you are a competent navigator perhaps you only need a device in your rucksack for emergencies. If this is the case and you only want a grid reference to confirm where you are and the ability to do a “take me to” function then you only need to go for a bottom of the range model.  For this choice I’d go for the new Garmin eTrex10. A fantastic device at entry level, and so much better than the EtrexH that it replaced. I used to fall into this category and carried a basic eTrex for years only occasionally using it. However the more I’ve used GPS over the years, the more I appreciate being shown where I am and being able to mark a spot on the map (on the screen) and the device pointing the way in seconds. Things have really moved on in recent years and the entry level eTrex with monochrome screen is so dowdy and slow to punch grid references into whilst out in the field.

If you want a device with OS mapping, you now need to decide whether you want a touch screen model or one that requires you to press buttons to make it work. I can definitely use the whole Garmin range using winter gloves though it takes a bit of getting used to so don’t be put off using a touch screen for this reason.

You can attend one of our half dayGPS training sessions and try out a range of devices, touch screen or buttons, big and small (and some in between).

Here are some facts about sizes and battery life:

Of the models listed above, only the eTrex 10 does not have the capacity to use additional mapping.

A lot of retailers will sell GPS devices as a “bundle” with a mapping chip.

At the time of writing GO Outdoors have an offer on most of their GPS devices e.g.:
Montana 600 (becoming obsolete) with full 1:50 U.K. mapping £299
Oregon 650 with full 1:50 U.K. mapping £369
Etrex 25 (touch) from £199 with full 1:50 U.K. mapping
Etrex 20, £145 with full 1:50 U.K. mapping


Touch Screens:
I personally believe that the Montana is too big and heavy and the Dakota is too old a model with not enough memory. 

So given a choice between the Oregon 650’s and the eTrex Touches I would go for the slightly bigger screen of the 650’s, and if you can afford it go for the 650t a great device. 

If you do decide on an eTex Touch, the 35 is the better model having the ability to transfer data wirelessly and with a barometric altimeter.

Button Devices:

If all you want from your device is a grid reference to confirm you position then obviously the Etrex 10 is the way to go.

If you are wanting a device with mapping, I personally believe that the screen on the eTrex is too small.  That said I do need reading glasses and prefer large print!

This leaves us with a hard decision between the Garmin 64’s and the SatMap Active 12. Both of these devices have passionate devotees! I can see strengths and weakness’ in both. 

I love the way the SatMap has a red circle around your position on the Map but it’s direction pointer when navigating is all over the place. 

Conversely I love the navigation compass page on the Garmins but hate the triangle that obscures your position on the map!  One thing I would say is that they are very different devices and some people find the “logic” of the SatMap less intuitive making it more difficult to use.

In terms of robustness, there is no doubt that the Garmins are sturdier than the SatMap which requires an additional cover (purchase) to bring it up to the same standard of water resistance of the Garmins.
In the end it’s a matter of personal choice.  Any of these models will do the job. Read the manufacturers specifications, which are available online. Once you have decided whether you want mapping or not, either come on one of our courses to try them out or go to a reputable retailer and try them out.  Don’t be swayed by pushy sales staff expressing an opinion, go for the one that you find easy or straightforward to use.

If after reading this you still have questions about which device, feel free to email us at Peak Navigation Courses.

Jane and Mike have been running Peak Navigation Courses since 2004. They are both qualified International Mountain Leaders regularly leading walking holidays both in the U.K. and overseas.