Hiking GPS Receivers
The GPS is not necessary to be used with traces from this site. One can just download and print these traces using Topo! or other programs and then do the hike following the printed trace. Having a GPS receiver is obviously better, because it tells the hiker his current position, speed, sunrise and sunset, direction, etc. It helps not to get lost by matching the waypoints uploaded to it with the ones on the printed maps or shown on the GPS screen.
What GPS to buy?
Three features that are the most important in the GPS are the quality of reception, the battery life and the ruggedness of its case. The first feature consists of a good antenna (quadrifilar helix) and a sensitive highly parallel receiver chip (usually made by SiRF), which can process a lot of signals at the same time, making locking faster, and interruptions fewer. Unfortunately, with SiRF receivers available, most companies are sacrificing on antennas (Garmin's Dakota, Oregon and Colorado fall into this category). Battery life should be 15 hours or more. That will typically mean 12 hours on a brand new HiMH rechargeable battery set, and 8-10 hours on a set not so new, which is just what we need. Ruggedness of the case is self explanatory. The fourth feature which I shouldn't be mentioning, but unfortunately have to, is firmware without bugs. Magellan Triton is a good example of a great concept killed because of bugs (this is the only model which supports Topo! State Series).
With these features in mind, only 4 models were worth buying until recently: Garmin GPSMAP 76Cx, Garmin GPSMAP 76CSx (additional built-in barometric altimeter), Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx or Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx (additional built-in barometric altimeter). "x" on Garmin models represents a high sensitivity receiver. In 2010 Garmin Released the GPSMAP 62(s) and GPSMAP78(s) which are upgrades for models 60 and 76 respectfully. Topo! does not officially support them as of this time, but they say that their software may work with the new units. Garmin's new aerial photo software works with them, but not with 60, 76 series.
Total Cost of Ownership or GPS in Only Part of the Purchase:
You bought a GPS. It comes with no maps, case of battery, so get your wallet out again.
Case: GPS Outfitters makes the only case rugged enough for the bushwhacking and it also has a few extra pockets.
Batteries: gps usually takes 2 AA batteries. To record the trace, GPS should be on all the time although some people only turn it on when they are lost, in which case any batteries will do. Regular alkaline batteries will only last 3-5 hours, which is why HiMH rechargeable which go 8-12h are much better. Duracell which is sold in any store is cheap and decent enough. Do not buy its charger. Li batteries will last you ~24 hours and they are light, but they are expensive and not rechargeable.
Battery Charger: Battery chargers that cost very little are only good with the brand new batteries. Since batteries deteriorate differently and the charger chares them in parallel, charging is not complete for some of them if the batteries are different. Good battery chargers charge each battery separately and have a charging indicator. Since I have a camera that uses AA batteries as well, and since I like to charge a few spares, I bought an 8 battery charger. It's called Maha MH-C800S. I've used it for several years and am very happy with it. It has good reviews on the web as well.
Mapping Software: I will not discuss the mapping software here (see the Mapping Requirements page). I will just list what is worth buying and why. Prices range from $50.00 to $120.00:
Garmin's Software - the only software which allows maps to be uploaded to the unit. Not very good software. Vector Maps:
1) TOPO U.S. 24K
2) TOPO - covers the whole country, but has 100,000 scale
3) BirdsEye - shows satellite imagery on the GPS. Works only with 62 and 78 models
4) City Navigator - shows the road names, while other programs don't. The only program with current information.
National Geographic Topo! State Series and Topo! Back Roads Explorer - the best product out there still, but not for long. NG doesn't update it and pretty much buried the whole project. Allows to upload only waypoints to the GPS. Raster Maps:
1) Topo! Mid Atlantic - covers VA, MD, DC, DE, WV with 24,000 scale. (about $50)
2) Topo! Pennsylvania - same for PA.
3) Topo! Backroads Explorer - covers the whole US with 50,000 scale. Same management software as above. (about $50 for a dozen plus CDs)
Memory Card: MicroSD Cards. I believe, the maximum size is either 2 or 4 GBytes. These cards are used to store Garmin Maps. Kingston and Sandisk brands are good and inexpensive (less than $15.00).
Sony Digital Voice Recorder: Voice recorder is used to describe waypoints. Later at home this description can be put into a text file. It's much better then creating a long abbreviations with the waypoints which are easy to forget and which block the map. Sony makes the best ones and they only cost $40 - $50.
If you pay more, you'll get an option of saving the voice files to computers.
Driving GPS Receivers
Some people asked me about what car gps to buy. Even though it's not related to this site, I will give my thoughts.
There are 3 real players in the Car GPS units game now: Garmin, Magellan and TomTom. Each of them has top of the line models and inexpensive models. http://www.gpsmagazine.com/ is a good site to read reviews. I learned a very good way to determine a good unit from one of its articles. Buy all potential candidates from a store that allows returns. Plug them all in and ask them for a direction to different specific places. Compare the directions with the Google Maps Directions (always best results). The unit with the most close-to-Google directions wins. The rest go back to the store.
How do car GPS Units differ? Mainly in one thing. When you tell them where to go, the best unit will give the best direction and visa-versa. Plain and simple. Nuvi 750 by Garmin used to be the best out there in that regard when I bought it . The units should have at least 4.3'' screen, better 5''. I don't follow the new models specifically, so I will only give my ideas that I learned while using the car gps units and seeing them in other cars.
* Go with the latest model, because it will have less bugs and more current database. A few times my unit told me to go on roads that were private, blocked and cannot be passed on anything short of an off-road trucks. My unit often freezes when it searches the points of interest database. My unit does not include the new highway near where I live. My unit cannot find the Gettysburg Battlefield. New units typically don't have these problems or have fewer of them. They also have better directions than mine. And that's all that counts.
* Lies, Damn Lies and the New Features. When the manufacturer tells you about the great new features, read the fine print and reviews. I won't go into details, will just give you some examples of the new features that don't do you much good most of the time: 3D views of the houses are only available for very few houses in the metropolitan areas. Lane Assist and intersection only works on very few intersections. Traffic Updates and Accident Reports are subscription services that cost monthly fees unless you buy free lifetime support. They are not updated as promptly as they should and only work in certain areas. Bluetooth is not very useful, since the gps is too far away from you. It's better to use ear plugged Bluetooth. Voice activated navigation - only works for your personal waypoints (what a joke!). I wouldn't want to buy a unit with features requiring monthly fees, like XM navigation and radio (that one is arguable though - some people love their XM or Sirius). FM Transmitter - transmits audio to the car's FM radio channel. This feature simply doesn't work well for Nuvi - the transmitter is too weak. Garmin nuLink Services and/or MSN Direct compatible - both a similar to wireless internet - you can see traffic, stocks, games, etc. It requires monthly fee and is the same as the Smart phone anyway.
* Don't use the voice-guided directions feature. Back in the days GPS units with voice were a great luxury. I turned this feature off on my unit, since it annoys me enormously with useless information every 10 seconds and I can see on the screen where I need to turn anyway.
* Which features I like: lifetime map updates. MP3 Player (Garmin doesn't have this feature any more). Lifetime Traffic updates (if you get a traffic receiver). Multipoint routing - lets you plan your trip with multiple destinations in advance. QWERTY keyboard like on the computer. I like a lot of features from my "Lies" section, but don't think it's worth paying for them until they are covered in the whole US or unless they cost almost nothing, which may be the case. They shouldn't be a determining factor in buying a GPS. Speed Limit - nice feature, but only works on some highways and is sometimes incorrect(!) - it's whatever it was when you bought your unit. Included Map of Europe and/or Canada - one can buy and install these maps separately, but having them in the GPS already saves time and money if you plan to travel there. Battery - some Nuvis don't have one. Don't buy them. You need battery to walk in the city, to program the points and routes at home, etc. Get the unit with longer battery time. Given an option, go with the unit where the battery is not only factory replaceable.
* Additional items to buy: If the unit doesn't come with the case, get one, or the screen will get scratched. Get a sandbag stand for the unit. It's not cheap, but the suction cup mounts should be illegal and are in several states, since they always fall off the windshield and thus can have the gps scratched, not to mention cause accidents.
* Garmin's Nuvi is compatible with Topo! and also you can download the *.gpx trace and waypoints from it's memory using Windows Explorer . It's a very nice feature if you want to know where you have been driving and also if you want to put new waypoints from the PC to the Nuvi GPS and visa versa (backup your waypoints).
Finally, contrary to what Cellular companies tell us, cellular
reception does not work in huge areas, even in the East. So using
smart phones as an exclusive way of navigation is not the brightest
idea. Not to mention that when they do work and navigate, the
screen is tiny and may be impossible to read while driving.
Combo Units (Hiking and Driving)
Short answer - as far as I know they don't make any good ones.
Long answer: GPSMAP 60 and 76 Cx and CSx all have a capability to give you driving directions if you install City Navigator software on them. I tried to use mine once and the directions were horrible. Plus the screen is too small.
I am not sure, but I believe I could put topo software on my Nuvi 750 car GPS. Unfortunately, this unit is not waterproof or even water resistant. Furthermore, its batteries are not replaceable and can only last 3-5 hours.
What about the units specifically designed for both hiking and driving? For instance, Nuvi 500 and 550 ($260.00 at Amazon.com). They are waterproof, have a longer lasting battery (up to 8 hours), the battery is replaceable. What I don't like about them: small screen for driving, no good antenna for hiking. Battery life is too short for hiking (realistically 5 hours of hiking). Only the absolutely basic features for driving. Need to buy non-driving software (same holds true for hiking gps units, so that's a general problem), replacement battery is $31.00 at Amazon.com. No solid case to attach to the backpack. This solution is not bad only for occasional use or when people hike a short time. It may be a good solution for multi-sport enthusiasts - bikers, boaters, motorcyclists, hikers, etc. - just buy one gps and keep changing the brackets and mounts.