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Today’s GPS Navigation Options

Posted in Features on August 25, 2016
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These days it's harder to get away from civilization and truly get lost in remote areas. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, or something in between. Fortunately, for those who choose to, we have options of exploring some great backcountry without going in completely blind.

Paper USGS topo maps were what many of us used to follow routes and find our way in the past. Today, we can use handheld GPS units, smartphones, tablets, and dedicated navigation solutions. Each option has its benefits, and in a case where you already own a compatible device, you may only need the map software solution to be up and exploring.

Many software apps are available at a reasonable cost—just be sure to check that they can provide access to the types of maps you're likely to use. Some are targeted more to hiking or camping use, but often work well for motorsports activities. One software solution we used recently while racing in Baja was Gaia GPS. It's an app we used on both iPad and iPad Mini tablets. Like similar GPS apps, it allows users to access a number of mapping databases and use them for location and navigation. You can decide if you want to use street maps, topo maps, satellite images, or some other map database to navigate. Options are varied and many.

While Android and Apple iOS apps perform similarly on smartphones and tablets of various sizes, keep in mind factors that limit the physical size you can accommodate on, or in, your vehicle balanced against trying to use a large display screen that is easily readable, especially if you're bouncing around and need to navigate in real time. Depending on your intended use you may need to protect your tablet in a weatherproof housing, so consider that added expense.

Realize too that depending on your chosen solution, such as that of using a tablet, you may need to download detailed topo or satellite imagery via wifi prior to heading into areas away from wifi or cellular access. In any case, the wide variety of GPS solutions today means we have great choices for navigation while exploring.

In racing circles, the Lowrance GPS units have enjoyed great popularity. Their proven ruggedness and mechanically ergonomic interface make for a good navigation unit while bouncing across the desert under all manner of weather conditions. We've seen these units mounted on a bracket or fitted for in-dash install. Their latest unit is the Trophy-5m Baja chartplotter that uses an external GPS antenna that can be mounted on the roof for clear satellite reception. The units are water and shock resistant, so are made to withstand the beating in a race vehicle.
Today, one can take a tablet and use it for a mobile GPS unit. Many Android-based wifi tablets come equipped with a built-in GPS receiver, so you can be up and running easily with an appropriate GPS app suitable for your needs. For wifi-only iPad or iPod Touch devices you can add GPS capability by using an external GPS receiver such as a small Bad Elf module that plugs into the dock connector (older iPad) or lightning connector. There are also Bluetooth-compatible GPS receivers on the market that can be used with your personal devices.
Numerous GPS apps allow users to pick an interface display that works most clearly for them. Many offer user-defined data fields on the screen so you can display moving speed, distance travelled, and more. We've used Gaia (screenshot shown here) and found it to be a quality GPS app. The software allows you to access a number of different map sources that have been created commercially or by government entities. You can view where you are on a topo map or view your location within satellite imagery, which can be especially handy when trying to easily match visual sites with your corresponding location on the GPS map.
Recently Magellan introduced the eXplorist TRX7 GPS unit. It's a weatherproof 7-inch touchscreen tablet designed specifically as an OHV navigation tool. It comes pre-loaded with generous map and waypoint information, but also includes a database of over 44,000 trail routes from forest and public lands. Additionally, you can interact online with other similar users to upload and share off-road routes. A backtrack feature allows you to quickly access a route back to your starting point. The software displays detailed 2D topo (with contour lines) and 3D terrain-view maps for the USA and Canada.

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