My new GPS and digital red-lining

I’ve spent the last few weeks playing with GPS receivers, initially with Craig‘s old one and very basic Garmin eTrex which he loaned me. (Thanks Craig!) A basic eTrex was certainly nothing flash at all. Having only a low-sensitivity antennae, it barely works when there’s a tree on the horizon let alone being under bush cover. This aside, it was great having something to play with to simply get an initial idea of all the basic GPS terms and ideas. A little over three weeks ago, I finally bought my own more sophisticated Garmin eTrex Vista HCx. This new extension to my tramping hobby has also manifested itself on this blog, which is why several of the trips now have Download GPX and Load map links. (The former downloads a GPs eXchange Format file, and the latter opens a Google Maps box with the described route overlaid.) I’m hoping to keep this up in the future, and I suppose time will tell how it works out.

It’s been a surprisingly difficult decision for me to get a GPS receiver, and not strictly because of the cost. I’ve been putting it off because I’ve really wanted to get a good feeling of how to navigate without one, and I’ve not wanted to have the temptation lying around that would encourage bad habits of using a GPS without understanding the surrounding land. I definitely think that understanding maps, compasses and (sometimes) altimeters is the way to go, perhaps with a GPS to fall back on when things get unexpectedly bad or chaotic. I certainly don’t ever want to get myself into a situation where I go out relying primarily on an electronic device that runs on batteries. There’s a stigma in some tramping circles that’s attached to openly carrying a GPS receiver. To some extent I do even agree with the origins of this stigma, I think, though mostly because there do seem to be some people out there who really are relying primarily on a GPS to get them through a tricky situation without necessarily having the more fundamental navigation expertise and experience to back it up. I suspect it’s asking for trouble, which is why I’m hoping I don’t fall into the trap myself.

All of this aside, I did still take the plunge as I mentioned earlier, despite not yet fully backing my own navigation skills. I guess now I’ll have to take care to avoid relying on it. The reason I made this decision actually had nothing to do with navigation or safety whatsoever, at least not in a way that I’ve consciously identified. Put simply, I just decided I want to track where I’ve been. I guess since I bought my GPS, I’ve been playing with it quite enthusiastically to figure out all the cool stuff I can do with it. Beyond the short term, however, I really just want something I can shut away in my pack, give minimal attention to, and let it track where I’ve been.

It’s a red-lining thing. Red lining is a term used to describe the drawing of lines on a map to record where one’s been. I’ve no idea if it’s a local term or if it’s international. Some people have maps covered in lines, but it’s never worked for me. I started trying to do this early on so I could remember where I’d been, and so I could more easily discover where I still hadn’t seen, but lent my map to someone and it was lost. (Left in a hut somewhere, I think.) Then I started drawing on maps again, but a few months later the map was caught a storm and quickly became tatty. It’s easy enough to buy a replacement map, but I didn’t feel like drawing the same lines over it all over again. I know at least a few people who keep separate maps at home which they never take into the field, strictly for drawing lines on, but I don’t think I’m organised enough for that. Not to mention, I’ve never quite figured out how to represent being in the same place multiple times. I like to match a place where I’ve been with an experience I remember, which might be linked with the time of year or the conditions or other people involved. Maps aren’t well designed for this — a good map represents the land well, but there’s little space for meta information about whatever you might happen to draw on them.

This is why I eventually decided that I really want to track where I’ve been digitally, as a variety of people already do, of course. The easiest, most accurate and lowest maintenance way to do this seems to be to use a gadget to do it for me, which is why I ended settling on buying a GPS. I began by looking at simple GPS data loggers, which are essentially miniature things that do very little except record tracks, often not even having a display. They’re often used on combination with digital cameras, so geographic information can later be added to photos. I never really found one that suited what I wanted though, which was a long battery life, replaceable standard batteries and high sensitivity antenna, and at the very least a simple display so I’d be able to get a positional coordinate if I really needed it. At least, I couldn’t find what I wanted readily available in New Zealand (where the market is limited) and within my price range.

So I tried asking some helpful people on the NZ Tramper website, and was eventually put in touch with Tony of Kiwi GPS. Tony runs his own business in Christchurch, importing and selling GPS equipment. He was a pleasure to deal with, put absolutely no pressure on me to buy anything, and during an exchange of several long and detailed emails, he even directed me to a good deal he’d noticed going on Trademe, which would have been no benefit to him whatsoever if I’d gone there instead. (On this topic, I absolutely recommend getting in touch with Tony if you’re looking to purchase any GPS equipment within New Zealand.) The discussions were useful, especially once I discovered that I might need something slightly further up-market to store tracks to a level of accuracy I wanted over the lengths of time I was thinking of with minimal maintenance. The consequence was that I had to up my budget a little to reach the ranges that included external memory cards, and I ended up getting a mapping GPS as an indirect result.

Apparently one of the most popular hand-held GPS models for tramping in New Zealand is the Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx, and (to my understanding), this is also the model generally used by New Zealand’s Search & Rescue teams. It’s a mapping GPS that also has a built-in barometric altimeter and electronic compass. In the end though, I settled on a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx, which is about the most sophisticated of the (usually basic) eTrex range, although looking at the specs it seemed to be very similar to the 60CSx. Tony told me it’s not as popular because it has a smaller screen, and the 60CSx is only slightly more expensive, but the deciding factors for me were that it weighs less, and supposedly has a longer lasting battery life, which is really what I want for tracking. Even better? I get what seems to be a very nice barometric altimeter. The party trick will be to pull out my GPS in front of other people during a navigation exercise to use it entirely for the altimeter, without them thinking that I’m cheating by using the GPS functionality. I fell into that trap last weekend, but I guess that’s part of it.

Getting this GPS thing to interface with my home PC has been challenging to begin with, mostly because all the software is designed to work with Windows, rather than my chosen Linux-based operating system. I don’t run Microsoft Windows on my home PC for various reasons that are difficult to describe in a paragraph, so getting the software to work has been quite an exercise. It’s the sort of challenge I’m used to given that I’ve been doing this for some time, however, and it’s beginning to behave. Of course, it would have been far nicer if Garmin would support non-Windows operating systems to begin with, but I guess you can’t win everything.

What now? Well I suppose I’ll keep using it, and see what comes out of it. The biggest thing that concerned me at purchase time, not having actually seen and played with it, was whether the smaller screen would be an issue for me. Fortunately I haven’t found it to be any problem whatsoever. I’m also looking forward to taking the data that it produces about tramping trips I go on, and see what I can do with it.

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