Since our last update of this page in 2020, technology has continued to advance, and software prices and licensing conditions have in some cases changed, so this is a further update of the information (early 2022).
Why learn about GPS at all? For a start, there are several hundred GPS files (and Google Earth kml files for many of these) in our GPX Map Files collection, covering walking tracks and routes from the mundane, close-to-home places (good for practising your skills) to some of Tasmania’s most challenging wilderness locations. Don’t always expect to find a track, but the gpx file might lead you through what might otherwise seem inpenetrably rugged and scrubby terrain.
Hand-held GPS or Mobile Phone with GPS?
This discussion started as something of a debate between two schools of thought – those who prefer the wider range of features and on-screen maps available on mobile phones, and those who feel that the rugged construction and different ways of operating make the hand-held GPS a safer option. Of course, you might carry both, and use one for basic navigation, and the other for checking the map!
HAND-HELD GPS UNITS
Like mobile phones, hand-held GPS devices have improved over time. The most noticeable improvement in the current generation, such as the Garmin Etrex 10 and its more expensive stablemates, the Etrex 20 and Etrex 30, is antenna performance. One of our walkers was comparing tracks created by his mobile phone and a slightly older Garmin GPS, and noted that in forest areas, the hand-held GPS gave a poor track accuracy compared with the phone. Another walker had the later Etrex 10 and when both tracks were uploaded to a computer, the accuracy was a) the same as that of the phone, and b) very good indeed for both devices, even in marginal conditions such as forest and valleys. Older models, including earlier Etrex models, perform poorly in forest and deep valleys, and even earlier ones suffer from a lack of a USB interface. [they have “serial” interfaces, which are obsolete, and not found on modern computers and laptops.]
Ease of Use:
CLICK HERE for some notes on how one Boots N’ All leader uses the Garmin Etrex 10.
More recent GPS devices such as the Etrex 10 and presumably rival brands such as Magellan, can be simply hooked up to your computer with a USB cable, drop the .gpx file into a particular folder, and the track and waypoints accompanying this email are loaded and ready to use. [gpx files are the most common way of saving and sharing tracks and waypoints, and are usually included on this website to help people prepare for forthcoming walks.]
The more up-market models allow maps to be uploaded and viewed on their screens. However, the screens are quite a bit smaller than those on smartphones! We would need some additional comments from people who are familiar with using uploaded maps on GPS devices, instead of the basic track and waypoint method described in the linked page. If you really need a detailed on-screen map, you are probably better off using a smartphone, perhaps even a retired one in conjunction with a “power bank”, because you don’t even need a SIM card to use satellite navigation.
It is possible to use a hand-held GPS without ever uploading tracks or waypoints. To do this, you to read your position off the GPS and then plot it on a paper map to see where you are.
· waterproof and rugged: will withstand being dropped and mistreated, to a good degree.
· Good battery life (usually 14-24 hours per set) and most use readily available AAs or AAAs
· Can be used in any weather without risk that a touchscreen might behave erratically when wet or when fingers are very cold.
· Cost might be hard to justify if you are only an occasional walker. See Cost below.
· Can be complicated to use. See Ease of Use above.
· Although even the cheaper ones without micro-SD card slots will still accept some uploaded maps, the maps available for Tasmania are not very detailed and are very slow to load and use.
· Older models do not give good satellite reception in thick forest, and at times in deep valleys.
The entry-level Garmin Etrex 10 is priced at about $160, but (in early 2022) can be bought locally from about $130. It is a good while since it could be bought (discounted) from below $100! Other Etrex models have now been superseded by touch-screen devices and more advanced communicators, with a range of devices that include satellite communicators (yes – text message updates were received from a party on a rafting trip down the Franklin early in 2020!) See Garmin website for their range, and perhaps look at alternative brands such as Magellan. They can be bought from outdoors outfitters and Tamar Marine in Launceston, or from on-line sellers.
SMART PHONES WITH GPS
All modern smartphones have an internal GPS chip. This makes them superb for turn-by-turn navigation when driving, but they are just as useful for wilderness navigation, provided the user has installed suitable maps and software enabling the loading and saving of tracks and waypoints. On that basis, they can be even more useful than hand-held GPS devices, especially if a change of plans during the walk has resulted in visiting an area that was not covered by waypoints and tracks pre-loaded into the device before setting out.
As mentioned in the comparison test above, modern mobile phones have a GPS component which is highly accurate.
As many people these days already have a smartphone, any associated cost will be in relation to maps, software and accessories that assist in protecting the phone and using it under adverse weather conditions.
· No extra cost, if you already have one. (See How to use a smart phone as a GPS at minimal cost below.)
· Easy to pull out and see exactly where you are on the map on a beautiful clear colour screen.
· They do a remarkably good job maintaining satellite reception even in thick forest
· Not as rugged as hand held GPS receivers, although many smart phones are water resistant or even waterproof. You can purchase protective and waterproof cases from places like www.gadgets4geeks.com.au which are a great help. Phil Dawson uses a Sea to Summit floppy plastic sleeve, from Paddy Pallin, costing $25, to make his smartphone fully waterproof. Phil Andrew purchased a simple waterproof phone case for $12 at BCF in Launceston. .
There are a number of ruggedized Android phones about (in 2022). Telstra sells a couple, but do a web search (limit search to Australia and past year) and read the specifications and reviews carefully. MemoryMap UK sells the Defender 2, a 4.5” screen very rugged droppable waterproof phone. Unfortunately MemoryMap Australia doesn’t sell it (but Phil D suggests one might ask MemoryMap UK if they would sell it preloaded with Australian maps rather than UK, as you get a good discount on the maps when you buy together.)
· Battery life can be a concern, though less so with newer phones and their better batteries. Phil Andrew says his phone uses about 1% battery per hour of walking if he is just recording his track, that is, it lasts for days on end. Even if it is used for active navigation with frequent activation of the screen it will only use about 3% per hour and so will still last several days. It is very important that flight mode needs to be turned on because if the phone is “hunting” for a network, it will use a great deal more battery power. Please note that cell network reception is NOT needed for GPS satellite reception, as they are completely unrelated (so using a retired phone with a power bank is an option if you are worried about scratching, dropping or drowning your expensive smartphone). Most smart phones now do not have removable batteries so for longer trips, you need to carry power banks for extra power, which weigh more than AA batteries. (There are numerous makes and models, for as little as $14 from Officeworks and other retailers. The trade-off appears to be weight. A Comsol 4000 mAh bank ($14) weighs 130g, stores to 4400 mHA and will charge a late model phone, which has a 4000 mAh battery, from 33% to 100%. A Keji 10000 mAh ($20) will give double the capacity, but weighs 70g more.
HOW TO USE A SMART PHONE AS A GPS AT MINIMAL COST.
(Notes by Phil Andrew)
There are a number of mobile phone applications available at the moment which will serve well for navigation in Tasmania. Many of our regular Boots ‘n’ All walkers already use them. Examples include Memory-Map, OziExplorer, Maps.me, Organic Maps, Google Maps, OS Maps, Outdoor Active, Polaris GPS, All Trails, Back Country Navigator XE, Gaia GPS, Australia Topo Maps, Avenza Maps, GPS Waypoints Navigator and several others. All have advantages and disadvantages over one another, but any one of them is a reasonable and workable choice for navigation in Tasmania. However we will try to give you some helpful advice as you choose.
These apps come at a variety of costs. Understandably, you might be reluctant to outlay a large sum until you are sure you will find the app useful in practice, so it makes sense to begin with those that are available for free. The problem is that, to the best of my knowledge and as of early 2022, there are no free apps that offer the ability to use high quality detailed maps and that also allow you to access these off line when you are out of mobile range. Some allow use of maps offline, but these are not really good enough quality for bushwalking in Tasmania. Others allow use of good quality maps but do not allow offline use, meaning they would not be useful for wilderness walks out of phone range.
You may already use Google Maps for car navigation and finding businesses etc. The “terrain” view is actually not bad for basic navigation in easier areas, with very up-to-date road and track information, that can sometimes be more useful than the TasMap 1:25000 maps, which can be up to 40 years old. You can download map areas of interest for offline use. See “how to” HERE. Just remember that the maps will need to be renewed on your device after 1 month. (You wouldn’t want the map to expire half-way through a major expedition, though!)
Until early 2022 we were recommending ViewRanger which, in the free version, allowed the use of OpenCycle maps, detailed and of good quality which could be downloaded for off line use. However ViewRanger sadly was switched off at the end of February 2022 and replaced by Outdoor Active, which does not allow use of offline maps in the free version, and at $48 per year for the PRO version is relatively expensive. This means we have to look elsewhere. Therefore, I have downloaded and tried out all of the above listed apps. I will now share with you my recommendations, from cheapest to most expensive.
The first option for someone who wants to try out using a navigation app for walks in a few areas is Avenza Maps. It is available on both the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. The free version of Avenza allows access to a range of maps worldwide and it is easy to see those available for your particular area on the Avenza Maps website. Although many are free, these are very basic and would not be adequate for bushwalking in Tasmania. You would need to purchase 1:25,000 maps of Tasmania, that correspond with the Tasmanian Government TasMaps 1:25k series, for $1.49 each (confusingly shown as “by nswtopo” on the website). There are over 400 of these to cover all of Tasmania, but if you only want to use Avenza in a few selected areas you can try it out quite cheaply. The latest free version does not allow the import of data in GPX format it will allow importing of KML files. It will export data as GPX or KML files and allows recording of tracks, setting of waypoints (which it calls placemarks), navigating to waypoints or tracks and so on. There are some very good video tutorials on the website (https://www.avenzamaps.com/help/tutorials/) and very good written help files as well (https://www.avenzamaps.com/help/tutorials/). Avenza Maps therefore is a good place to start and will serve you well anywhere in Tasmania, or the world for that matter, just as long as you keep forking out for each map as you need it. (The Pro version is a quite expensive annual cost).
However if you think you will need to use more than about 6 maps it may be better to consider my suggested second option which is GPS Waypoints Navigator. A once off payment of $12 will get you a perpetual licence to use the app and access a range of maps not only for Tasmania but anywhere in the world. You will also be able to download quite a number of these maps for offline use. One of these is the Open Topographic map, which although not the TasMaps 1:25K series still has sufficient detail, such as 10m contour lines, and so is usable for bushwalking in Tasmania. The app also allows you to import tracks and waypoints from gpx files, and in turn to export the tracks and waypoints that you record as you walk or ride. For someone who plans to do a lot of walking in many different parts of Tasmania or elsewhere, this is probably the cheapest option.
There is a free app by the same company, called Polaris GPS, which is very similar and allows offline use of maps, but these only have 20m contour lines. It also only allows a maximum of 3 tracks and waypoints to be stored and does not allow import or export of gpx data. Therefore the free version is quite limited but you can at least get an idea of how it works for no cost before forking out the princely sum of $12. Both apps are available on the Google Play store, however to my knowledge are unfortunately not available for iPhone.
The third level option to consider is Back Country Navigator XE, which is available on the Google Play store and the Apple Store. There is a free version which allows use of a number of maps such as OpenStreetMap, and in particular also the topographic base map from the Tasmanian Government ListMap website. It also allows import and export of data in gpx format. Although it does not allow offline use of maps it can be good for learning how to use it around your home or in areas where there is good internet or phone network. If you are careful you can even load a map for a proposed wilderness walk into memory before leaving home, leave the app loaded and the phone turned on, and then, if you are lucky, once you are out of phone range you might still have the map for your actual walk (… or not). In any case, once you are satisfied with the app you can pay the US$15 annual subscription fee and you will be able to download maps for offline use. For a one year trial, that is quite a good deal.
An alternative option at this third level price point is Australia Topo Maps. This uses Tas Topo maps similar to GPS Waypoints Navigator with good detail. It allows you to add waypoints and record tracks, and also to export this data. However the free version does not allow importing of data so you would not be able to follow or use externally sourced tracks or waypoints, such as those on the Boots ‘n’ All website store. It is also not available on the Apple Store as far as I am aware, but is on Google Play. Because of this it might not be as good a choice as Back Country Navigator XE for some people. Annual subscription is similar, namely AU$20.
If after using either of the last two apps you feel that it is likely you will continue using them for more than a year or two it may be more cost effective to move on to the fourth option, which is Memory-Map. It is available for both Android and iPhone, however while the iPhone app has improved in recent years it is still not as good as the Android version. The app is free to download and install and includes 1:250K maps for Australia. While these are useful for road driving, they will not be detailed enough for bushwalking. You need to access the online map store from within the app and there, for a $59 outlay for one device, you can download the TasMaps 1:25K topographic maps for the whole of Tasmania and these will be excellent for bushwalking here. Alternatively you can buy a licence for five devices (3 portable and 2 PCs) for $150, which is actually better value per device (however this does not apply for the iPhone version as there is no native Memory-Map app for Mac OS). The Memory-Map phone app allows all the functions that have been described above for other apps, such as importing and exporting of data, recording of tracks and waypoints, navigating to waypoints and so on. The PC version is also a very powerful mapping program enabling route planning, import-export of routes, tracks, waypoints and maps, and naming of same. If you use an Android device in conjunction with a Windows PC or laptop, this is probably the best value-for-money for those who want to invest in paid mapping and navigation software using 1:25K TasMaps for the whole of Tasmania. Having said that, I don’t actually use it myself, however our Boots ‘n’ All leader colleague, Dr. Phil Dawson, has extensive experience with it, highly recommends it. So if you have questions or need help with it it would be best to contact him and he is happy to advise: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally mention should be made of a fifth option, which is OziExplorer. It does similar things to Memory-Map. This is the app I use and I have been using it for over 20 years, so have good knowledge of it. The Android version costs $32 to buy and the licence allows you to use it on any of your Android devices – phone, tablet etc (there is no iPhone version that I am aware of). However the included maps are extremely basic and so for bushwalking you will need to purchase maps separately. 1:25,000 TasMaps are $2.00 per map or $250 for the whole state, 414 maps as a bundle, click HERE. The newer 1:50,000 maps are $5.95 each or $330 for the whole state, 79 maps – click HERE . For mapping enthusiasts it is possible to scan paper maps, even historical ones, and use a calibration process (essentially, plotting the exact coordinates of several known points on the map) to import such maps into the software. This can sometimes be of interest in locating roads and tracks that no longer officially exist. The PC version costs $130 and although you can manage without this (see below), it will allow you to exchange information easily between your computer and your phone. As you can see this is among the more expensive of the available options, especially if you are doing a lot of walking and need access to many maps.
Notes about TasMaps downloadable formats from Phil D:
TasMaps sells each 1:50000 map as a geotiff which requires conversion to use in MemoryMap and OziExplorer, as a geoPDF which imports straight into Avenza Maps, and as a KMZ, which opens in Google Earth, but not Google Maps. I believe there is a way to navigate in the Google Earth app. I have asked TasMap for more information as I can’t find anything about KMZ maps online, only tracks.
Planning Walks on your Computer
Applications such as Memory-Map and Ozi Explorer have computer based versions which make it easy to create and modify tracks and waypoints which can then be uploaded to your phone as gpx files. Several of the apps described above do not include a computer based version to allow easy exchange of data between phone and computer. However by accessing the Tas. government ListMap, you can use a very good topographical map of Tasmania to plot your route at home on your computer before your walk and then export the data in gpx or kml format to your device to use in the field. You can also import your track back into ListMap when you get back for more detailed analysis and to share with others.
We hope this has been of some help to you. If you have any questions or comments, or if you need help or advice about any of the above, please feel free to email me on email@example.com or Phil Dawson on firstname.lastname@example.org.
GPX File Errors
For some of the uploaded gpx map files on our map file repository, when you right-click on them to download and “Save target as” to your computer, they identify as xml files due to the mapping software not adding sufficient information to the file “header”. If you come across this, go ahead and save the file anyway, and then go to the folder where you saved it, and change the .xml to .gpx (you would need to have the View settings for the folder set to show file name extensions). You can then import in to your mapping software or device as usual.
Let us know, because we can manually edit the files and upload the corrected version to the website. We have progressively corrected many of the previously uploaded gpx files.