Exploring GPS with Trailspotting

For many folk GPS (Global Positioning System) devices are just nifty toys used in the car to avoid getting lost. Useful, but kind of expensive and limited, right? Nope. Today’s handheld GPS devices allow you to do much more — from finding the best scenic drives and nearest coffee shops to marking your favorite hikes and fishing spots. It’s surprisingly cheap and easy to make GPS a part of your travel toolkit - without the expensive car attached.

Are you receiving me?
Handheld GPS receivers look like chunky 1990s cell phones, but don’t let that put you off. These rugged receivers are designed to withstand life in the backcountry as they direct you to campsites, mountain summits, or in-the-know urban boutiques. Magellan and Garmin have captured the lion’s share of the handheld market with devices starting under $100.

Trailspotting's current GPS receiver is a Garmin eTrex Venture HC (shown above) which serves us well with its color screen, waterproof casing, USB connectivity and superb reception. You can pick one of these up from Amazon for around the $100 mark.

Alternatively you could pay a litle extra for more feature-rich receivers like the Legend HCx or the Vista HCx but be sure that these are features that you'd actually use. Compare features of these devices here.

Unboxing and exploring
Unwrapping a GPS receiver, only to be confronted by thick manuals and unfamiliar knobs, is a daunting experience. Forget about connecting to a computer and uploading maps at first, and just step out your front door. Go for a bike ride or a walk round your neighborhood and watch the screen as the device reorients itself with every turn. After a while you’ll see a trail of digital breadcrumbs in your wake. The receiver records your positions, creating a trail of your movements, so you can see where you started, and how far you’ve come, and save that route for next time. You can even place virtual markers at locations en route so you can remember a fork in the trail, where you lost the ball on the golf course, or a favorite restaurant.

Maps want to be free
Most GPS receivers have basemaps built in, but their detail is usually limited to major highways, rest stops, and little more. Substantially more detailed maps are available to purchase (like Topo 2008 for Garmin devices), but there are free alternatives if you have the time to trawl the internet for sources. Take a closer look at our article Cheapskates Guide to Free GPS Maps for more on these.

Share the fun
Half the fun of a journey is reliving it, and your GPS records enable you to retrace your steps and share details about your trips. The no-fuss Everytrail site makes it easy to upload your routes for all to see. The site also provides links to view your journeys on Google Earth and, if you upload photographs, it will locate them along the route by comparing electronic timestamps. Toposhare offers similar features and is more outdoors-focused. Naturally, these sites are also a superb resource for finding hidden hiking trails, savvy city walks, and exciting road trips.

GPS marks the spot
If you’re the kind of traveler who thinks getting there is half the fun, a GPS unit provides just the excuse you need to explore places that you might not otherwise think to visit. The key is a scavenger hunt-style game called geocaching, in which players use GPS devices to track down any of close to half a million "treasures" stashed in unusual locations all around the globe. Begin your search at Geocaching and choose a cache you’d like to find in the area where you’ll be traveling. The website will provide the GPS coordinates of your bounty as well as extra information to help you home in on the treasure (typically a few trinkets and a logbook). From caches hidden atop windswept mountains to one tucked away inside Rome’s Colosseum and another hidden on the bottom of the ocean, geocaching can turn your travel into an adventure.

Next: First Steps with your GPS

- Trailspotting: Cheapskate's Guide to Free GPS Maps
- Trailspotting: More Special Features

Garmin eTrex Venture HC GPS Receiver