Since our last update of this page in 2018, 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 2020).
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.
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.
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 now priced at $160, but can be bought from about $135. 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 next to no 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 2020). 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 cell network reception is NOT needed for GPS satellite reception, as they are completely unrelated. Most smart phones now do not have removable batteries so you need to carry power banks for extra power, which weigh more than AA batteries. (e.g. a Comsol 4400 mAh bank, purchased a few years ago for about $30 from Officeworks, weighs 110g and will charge the same leader’s late model phone, which has a 4000 mAh battery, from 33% to 100%).
How to use a smart phone as a GPS at next to no cost. (Notes by Phil Andrew)
An easy and cheap way to quickly set up a system for tracking walks and for navigation is to install Viewranger on your smartphone. Go to http://www.viewranger.com or Apple Store or Google Play store.
The free Viewranger app can use all the Google maps (Street, Physical, Hybrid and Satellite) but also includes Open Street maps, Open Cycle maps and Viewranger landscape maps. The latter two are quite detailed and very good for bushwalking. The Open Cycle map area you need for your walk can also be downloaded onto your phone in advance, before you get out into the bush and possibly lose the data connection on your phone. Open Cycle maps cover the whole world. For example, I have used them on the Australian mainland, in many different parts of the USA, and even in rural Nigeria and found that they show minor streets, buildings, landmarks, walking tracks and 10 m contour intervals in all those places. A couple of Boots N’ All people have found Viewranger and the Open Cycle maps very handy when travelling in Europe.
Running Viewranger while you walk will allow you to see exactly where you are on the map. It can also track your walk and then save your track for later reference. You can also add Points of Interest (called placemarks or waypoints in other apps). You can then sync all this data to the Viewranger website or export it in .gpx format to send to others. You can plan your walks in advance on your phone or computer or import data from elsewhere (such as Boots ‘n’ All .gpx files) to follow as you walk. Although it does have a limited range of features, Viewranger is fun to use, very useful and, best of all, is free of charge. It is a great way to try out the smart phone navigation system and decide if you would like to continue using it.
The next level:
(Phil A’s notes cont.) If you want to move beyond the free Viewranger app on your smart phone the next step is paid software. The cheapest way to do this initially is to purchase a premium Viewranger subscription at $20 per year (after a free 7 day trial). In addition to the free maps discussed above this includes a base map of the whole of Australia and detailed 1:25,000 (25K) quality maps of Tasmania, Victoria, NSW (incl ACT), Queensland, New Zealand and several European countries. It also has an outdoors map for the whole world. This would provide excellent maps for walking all over the world.
Alternatively you can switch to either of two other apps commonly used in Tassie, Memory-Map or OziExplorer. Both of these are very powerful and allow you to plan your walks in detail, see where you are, distances and times to your destination and a host of other useful information, just like a Garmin eTrex. They will also record your walk so you can store and review records of your walks.
Phil Dawson has used Memory-Map extensively and highly recommends it. Information he provided some years ago is out-of-date in terms of devices and models, but Memory-Map is still one of the better mapping options.
I (Phil A) personally use OziExplorer so have more knowledge of that. The Android version of Ozi costs $32 to buy and the licence allows you to use it on any of your Android devices – phone, tablet etc. The PC version costs $130 and this will allow you to exchange information easily between your computer and your phone. 25K (1:25,000) TasMaps need to be purchased separately and these are $2.00 per map (see: https://www.tasmap.tas.gov.au/do/category/25000DIG ) or $250 for the whole state, 414 maps. (see https://www.tasmap.tas.gov.au/do/product/BUNDLE/STATE25000DIG). The newer 1:50,000 maps are $5.95 each or $330 for the whole state, 79 maps (see: https://www.tasmap.tas.gov.au/do/category/50000DIG ) .
Because of the costs of maps, Ozi is more expensive than Memory-Map so I would have to agree that Memory-Map makes more sense as a purchase for a new user.
One final note about Ozi 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.
Some uploaded gpx map files on our file repository, when you right-click on them to download and “Save target as” to your computer, identify as xml files due to our 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.