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Buying a GPS? Here are some questions to consider before buying a GPS

Buying a GPS is a bit like purchasing a car: there are SO many considerations! Am I best suited with a bubble car just for shopping, or a people mover that will fit the kids’ friends, or a 4WD to tow the caravan? When purchasing a GPS, the first question you should ask yourself is the same as when buying a vehicle: “What do I intend to use it for?” Do you primarily want a GPS to backup paper maps, or as a major navigational tool? One user or several?

Generally, you get what you pay for. More GPS features = more cost; greater position accuracy = greater cost; larger screen = larger cost; better maps = yep, higher cost. If you want a device that will connect you with emergency services in a crisis, you’ll pay more and a subscription to a satellite service is also required. If a walking club wants to purchase GPS’s for walk leaders to borrow, then cost and ease of use will be important considerations.

This series of questions is a good place to start:

Do I need a GPS at all?

If you only want to confirm your location, a good navigation app on a smartphone will do what you want.

Is a smartphone or a handheld GPS better for navigating in difficult conditions (e.g. dense canopy; bad weather)?

A high-quality GPS with good maps will trump a good smartphone app with good downloaded maps. A smartphone is made to be a smartphone; a GPS is made to be a rugged outdoors navigation device.
Personally, I get the best of both worlds and carry both devices, as well as a paper map and compass.

I do want a GPS, but how do I research which features I really need?

There is an excellent, detailed article referenced in the Bushwalking ManualBeginners guide to choosing a GPS device. It is written by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and explains all the various features of a GPS in detail. As it’s designed for the British market, there are a few minor differences to the devices available in Australia.

What GPS brands and models are available in Australia?

Garmin is really the only brand relevant to bushwalkers, as Magellan devices now seem to be off the market. Garmin has numerous options: you can compare all the models and their features on the Garmin Australia website. There’s also a recent, good review on GearLab.

So many models! How do I choose?

We are back to our very first question: “What do I intend to use this GPS for?” What features are essential to you? Who will use it? If you only need a GPS to check your position occasionally, then a Garmin eTrex 10 (about $120 at Anaconda) would be fine. At the other end of the scale, if you want a full-featured GPS to plot routes, track your walk, with a detailed mapset and which can communicate in emergencies, then a Garmin GPSMAP 66i ($729 at Johnny Appleseed GPS) may be what you want. There are lots of models in between.

I’ve heard that GPS maps are poor. Is that true?

All GPS units come with base maps. These are not very helpful to the bushwalker who likes detailed topographical maps. Garmin offers three different mapsets for Australia: ‘TOPO’, ‘TOPO Light and ‘TopoActive’. The ‘TOPO’ version is equivalent to maps of about 1:24,000 scale ($199); the ‘TOPO Light’ version, at half the price, is equivalent to maps of about 1:100,000 scale. Of these two, the ‘TOPO’ version is preferable. Some GPS models come with pre-loaded ‘TopoActive’ maps which are based on OpenStreetMap data; currently, ‘TopoActive’ maps are not available to be purchased separately. ‘TOPO’ and ‘TOPO Light’ mapsets can be purchased and added later, but it’s always cheaper to purchase your GPS with your preferred maps pre-loaded. It’s useful to note that good, free maps – also based on OpenStreetMap data – are available from the third-party site OpenTopoMap for Garmin. These maps are updated regularly and an optional contour layer is also available. Installation instructions are provided on the website.

Who can I talk to about purchasing a GPS?

Chat with a walker who regularly uses a GPS on bushwalks. The sales staff in large outdoor stores seldom know enough about these devices; you may do better at a specialist outdoor store like Bogong or The Wilderness Shop. The staff at specialist GPS stores like Johnny Appleseed GPS are usually friendly and extremely knowledgeable.

OK, I have chosen the features, mapset and model that’s best for me/my club: where can I purchase?

if you know exactly what you want, shop around. There are plenty of discounts available. Some outdoors stores, including GPS specialists, will price-match.

Thanks to Ian Mair of Melbourne Bushwalkers for the info on free OpenTopo maps.

Written by Andrew Robinson (September 2021)