By Dan Kidder
As GPS Technology enters the realm of everyday norm, more and more consumers are drawn into the technology while not fully understanding how to get the most from their expensive purchase.
I know that was the case for me when I purchased my first Garmin Rhino a few years ago. Familiar with the GPS devices we used in the military, rugged, bulky, and temperamental as they were, I felt that I would have no problem transitioning to a modern consumer model and using it to track my way through the mountains of Virginia’s Shenandoah. Imagine my surprise when it took me 2 hours of wandering around in the dark to find my campsite following a 10-mile hike through the woods and over a few small hills.
Even though I had a basic understanding of how to use a GPS, I had no concept of setting up a commercial unit and making it work for me. I can’t tell you how many times outdoorsmen have told me stories of leaving their ATV parked in a hollow of a ridge and not being able to find it again even though they had a GPS.
The most common mistake we make is heading out into the unknown with the brand spanking new GPS, still in the box, on the truck seat beside us. Many of us never take it out of the box until we are ready to go use it. Often the device isn’t configured correctly, we are unfamiliar with its operation, and even a few people have wandered out with a handful of AA batteries ready to pop them in to the GPS only to discover that it requires you to plug it in and let the internal batteries charge.
Wouldn’t it be great if their was a way to really learn how to use that GPS before you got your self out into the woods and you had to depend on it to find your Elk, campsite, quad, truck, or home again?
What if while you were learning all of the ins and outs of this device you could involve the entire family in a fun outdoor activity that had them running around the countryside looking for buried treasure, or even better yet, leaving treasure buried for others to find?
Welcome to the world of geocaching, where high technology meets the great outdoors.
Geocaching is a worldwide sport that pairs multibillion dollar satellites with a few hundred dollars worth of handheld GPS receivers to search for dollar store goodies in Tupperware containers or ammo cans stashed in out of the way places.
Those who participate in geocaching use their GPS to find coordinates posted online at www.geocaching.com to locate caches placed by other participants. And don’t think for a second that this is a small group of people with a few caches scattered around the world. A search of the 10-mile area surrounding our home in Cedar City, Utah turned up more than 1,800 caches. In fact there are more than 600,000 caches worldwide listed on geocaching.com. Playing the game can be as easy or difficult as you like. You simply sign up for a free account on geocaching.com, search for GPS coordinates and either download them to your GPS if it is capable of downloading, or print out the caches you want to visit and input the coordinates into your GPS. Once you have them in your handheld unit, you head out and try to get to them.
This isn’t always as easy as it seems, since the GPS tells you which way to go and how far in a straight line to the coordinates. Roads and terrain make you follow often-circuitous routes to get to your destination. Once you have found the cache, you sign the logbook and if items are present in the cache, you may exchange one for an item you brought with you. The toys, stickers, and other goodies in the cache are a great way to keep the kids excited, although they keep my mom pretty jazzed as well when we go out caching together.
Caches will vary in size and shape from ammo cans and large water coolers to as small as a pencil eraser. I have seen sprinkler heads, hollow screws, electrical panels, and every other sort of every day object used to secretly conceal a hidden cache. Some caches are so small that all that will fit is the small rolled up logbook. I have even discovered caches that looked like a cigarette butt stuck to the side of a building.
Even though the consumers took off the shelf GPS units and created this sport, many of the GPS manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and started making their units easier to use for this purpose. The units coming out today have special features especially designed for the geocaching community built right into them.
The latest two units to hit the market, the Garmin Oregon 400t and the Magellan Triton 2000 allow you to download data directly from the geocaching.com website, including the coordinates, hints, comments left by other geocachers, and other data that will make finding the cache fun and exciting. We even placed a geocache in front of the Sportsman’s News office and have been amazed at how many folks have come by to sign our logbook.
For less than the cost of a Sony PS2 or a Game Boy, you can get your kids off the couch and outside looking for treasure. Not only is the sport better for their health, it is a whole lot more fun.
The latest gear for geocaching
We took some of the latest GPS units out and put them through their paces for geocaching. While there are GPS receivers for every imaginable use from driving directions to mapping, we based our reviews of these units on suitability for geocaching and grades reflect their usefulness for this purpose only. What follows is what we found.
Garmin eTrex H
The eTrex H by Garmin is a very bare bones unit. In order to get data downloaded into the unit, you have to purchase an optional data cord. The monochrome screened unit is inexpensive, lightweight, and very easy to use. This would make a decent starter unit for youngsters looking to get into the sport of geocaching. The eTrexH, as do many of the newer systems, includes the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) which mixes GPS signals from space with ground unit transmitters that provide GPS corrections to compensate for buildings, canyons, and the like. (MSRP $99.99)
Garmin eTrex Legend HCx
The Legend HCx comes with a download cord, features a full color screen, easy to use intuitive controls, and special features for geocaching. Its color screen and micro SD memory card expansion are real pluses on a unit of this size and cost. The preloaded base map provides great detail, but also allows for the expansion of other more detailed topographic, navigation, or nautical maps. Its easy to navigate interface, turn by turn directions, easy to use download of data, and low price ($249.99 MSRP) make this a great unit for a family looking to geocache or for the hunter or backpacker navigating in the woods. The unit offers very fast satellite acquisition and WAAS for increased accuracy. Another great feature of all of the Garmins is that while their software is designed for the PC, they do offer conduits on their website for the millions of Macintosh users out there.
Magellan Triton 300
The Magellan Triton 300 offers an easy to use interface and provides details on downloaded geocache coordinates such as description and logs. The reception was less accurate since the unit does not have WAAS reception. The full color screen was very bright and easy to see and all of the displays featured very easy to read large numbers and data. The rubberized case and waterproof body make this unit a superb choice for exploring the great outdoors in all sorts of weather. In all this unit offers the basics needed in a good field grade GPS receiver as well as some of the more sophisticated bells and whistles geocachers are coming to expect. All of the Magellans use a proprietary USB cord that screws to the back of the unit for data transfer, which can make transferring data difficult should you forget or lose your cord. (MSRP $149.99)
Magellan Triton 400
Like the Triton 300, the identical interface on the Triton 400 was easy to use. The units are the same in every respect except that the 400 offers the addition of an SD Memory slot for expanded maps, waypoints, tracks, geocaches, and images. The size and weight of the units are nearly the same and it is even difficult to tell the units apart when placed side by side unless you look for the SD card slot on the side. (MSRP $199.99)
Garmin Rhino 530 HCx
Since my first GPS was a Garmin Rhino, I have a special fondness for this 14-mile range FRS/GMRS radio and GPS combo. The Rhino 530HCx is a far cry superior to my old Rhino 120. This unit offers a color screen, turn-by-turn directions, built in NOAA weather radio, extended range, WAAS, an micro SD memory card slot, and many more features not found on my old Rhino. However, many features I came to appreciate about the Rhino are still present in the 530HCx. Like the 120, this unit still allows you to transmit your location to another Rhino user with the push of the talk button on the radio. Additionally, the radio feature removes the need to carry two separate pieces of gear when navigating through the great outdoors. Another nice upgrade, but one that could have some drawbacks if care is not taken, is that the 530HCx uses a built-in rechargeable battery pack rather than standard alkaline batteries. This is great if you are near a charging source, but could be unfortunate if your battery dies far from base without the ability to just pop in fresh ones. Although the 530HCx has a special Geocache setting in the navigation feature and is a good tool for this purpose, the lack of the specific description, logs, and other cache info may bother those who seek to practice paperless caching. (MSRP $499.99)
Garmin Colorado 400t
The Garmin Colorado 400t offers an unusual, and very handy, scroll wheel navigation. By turning a prominently placed wheel on the top of the unit, the user is guided through a variety of functions, zoom settings for maps, and even the ability to type in names of waypoints quickly and easily. The Colorado comes loaded with the latest TOPO 2008 map and even allows 3D viewing of the terrain. It includes the ability to download geocache coords directly into the unit from geocaching.com with both a PC and a Macintosh, including logs, hints, and full description for truly paperless caching. Additionally, using the waypoint manager software or one of the many available third party geocaching applications, you can upload found caches and your own notes on each cache to your computer from the unit. The Colorado features a large and brightly lit color screen with few controls to take up space on the unit’s front. A great feature included on the Colorado is the ability to wirelessly share data with other users who have this feature on their GPS. Just hit send on the one unit and receive on the other, select the geocache, waypoint, track, or route you want to send and it transfers all of the data through the air. The Colorado includes WAAS and memory card slot for both a micro SD or SD memory card to round its offerings. For its size, price point, features, and ease of use, the Colorado 400t is an ideal tool for the geocacher on the hunt. (MSRP $599.99)
Magellan Triton 2000
While all of the Triton models we tested provided identical navigation of the various menus and maps, the 2000 does offer more fine control by including a touch screen and stylus. Additionally, the Triton 2000 includes a built in 2-megapixel digital camera allowing you take photos or video of yourself at some of the more interesting cache sites you visit without having to carry a second piece of gear. By saving these files to an SD memory card, sharing images is as easy as plugging your memory card into your computer and e-mailing or downloading them through the included data cord. The unit also has a built-in MP3 player so your music is always close at hand while you are hiking to the next cache. The GPS reception on this unit was very accurate, thanks to the addition of WAAS. None of the Magellan units we tested offer a Macintosh interface. (MSRP $499)
Garmin Oregon 400t
Sportsman’s News Pick
My favorite GPS receiver for geocaching, out of all of the units we tested, is hands down the new Oregon 400t from Garmin. With its completely touch screen activated controls, ease of use, wireless sharing of data, standard batteries, 3D Mapping, full function paperless geocache capability, light weight and small profile, the Oregon 400t takes the cake for this purpose. As do all of the Garmins we tested, the Oregon features WAAS for improved accuracy. Additionally, the Oregon features a micro SD card slot for expansion. The only beef I have about this unit is that you have to remove the batteries to get to the card slot, but if that is the worst issue I have with this unit, I still have to give it a strong A+ for all of the other wonderful features with which it is packed. I was especially impressed with all of the points of interest already loaded into the Oregon’s spacious memory. Things like hiking trailheads, springs, old mines, churches, schools, and other interesting places all appear right on the detailed map included out of the box. Of all of the units tested, the Oregon 400t was the easiest to use with the shallowest learning curve. Within minutes I was navigating to strange new places right in my own back yard. On a recent road trip, the Oregon took me easily to many new geocaches as well as interesting places I may have missed with another unit. I even appreciated the included carabineer clip that comes with the Oregon for attaching it to your pack or belt loop. Garmin has really anticipated the user’s every need with the Oregon 400t and that is why we have selected it as the Sportsman’s News Choice for Best Geocaching GPS Receiver. (MSRP $599.99)
Make someone’s Christmas very merry and not only get them a cool gadget, but the even better gift of your time as you explore the world around you searching for geocaches. And remember to practice Cache in, Trash out and pick up any litter you come across as you explore. Happy hunting, and maybe I’ll run into you on the trail. Just look for the logbook signed Presto.
While not made for geocaching, or even heavy-duty navigation, a new item from Bushnell should help those trying to return to their camp or ATV. It even works great for those who forget where they park at the mall or stadium. The Backtrack offers three stations, marked with a house, a car, and a star. The user simply marks his location by pressing one of the two buttons on the unit and then goes about his business. To return, he selects the station he desires and follows the arrows for the displayed distance. The unit uses a combination of GPS and a magnetic digital compass to lead you back to where you started. This would be great to hand to the kids while they play in the woods near camp in case they get turned around. They just go in the direction of the arrow and keep going as the numbers get smaller. (MSRP $74.95)
|WAAS Enabled||Paperless caching||Easy Data Transfer||Mac Compatible||MSRP||Extra features|
|Garmin eTrex H||✔||✔||$99.99|
|Garmin eTrex Legend HCx||✔||✔||✔||$249.99||Micro SD slot|
|Magellan Triton 300||✔||✔||$149.99|
|Magellan Triton 400||✔||✔||$199.99|
|✔||✔||✔||$499.99||FRS/GMRS Radio, turn by turn directions|
|Garmin Colorado 400t||✔||✔||✔||✔||$599.99||3D TOPO Map, Scroll Wheel, Wireless Data|
|Magellan Triton 2000||✔||✔||✔||$499.99||2MP Digital camera, MP3 player|
|Garmin Oregon 400t||✔||✔||✔||✔||$599.99||Touch screen, Detailed Points of Interest, Wireless Data, 3D TOPO Map|