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Nuts & Bolts: GPS Recommendations

Posted in How To: Tech Qa on December 20, 2018
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What GPS units do you guys use on the Ultimate Adventure? What size screen? I need a completely sealed unit of fairly decent size for my old eyes. I would also love one that accepts my Garmin maps.
Jeep P.
Via facebook.com/4wheeloffroad

We have used a variety of GPS systems to plan and execute the UA over the years. Magellan (magellan.com) sponsored the UA a couple of years ago and was kind enough to equip the staff and cronies with the TRX7, which is specifically geared toward off-roaders and off-road exploration. The unit allows you to do things like record off-road tracks, flag obstacles and points of interest, add waypoints, take pictures of the waypoints, and more. The unit also includes access to Magellan’s Trailhead app (trxtrailhead.com), where you can upload your tracks and share them with friends, and also download other tracks to follow.

The TRX7 is fairly robust with rubber corners and sealed input jacks while being resistant to dust and moisture, so it’s tailor-made for a vehicle without doors or windows. We have found it extremely useful for recording tracks, and also following tracks that we and others have made. We also like that fairly accurate topographical maps are preloaded, so you’re not relying on a data connection to download maps of where you are. You can also import .gpx files (the common, open-source GPS data format) via a micro-SD card or the Trailhead app.

That said, the TRX7 is not without its limitations. Maybe we just think differently than the designers of the unit, but we have found the TRX learning curve to be pretty steep. Some things just aren’t where we would have put them, and some of the functions are downright counterintuitive. Magellan has made several significant improvements, including adding turn-by-turn directions, but we’ve found it doesn’t do that nearly as well as more street-oriented units. And the Trailhead app, while handy for some things, is also a bit unreliable due to the crowd-sourced nature of the marked off-road tracks. We’ve noted some fairly well-known trails that are missing, and we’ve run across several bogus or inaccurate tracks that were presumably uploaded by other users. Still, it’s a powerful unit that spans the gap between pure navigation-based GPS units and more street-oriented versions. Magellan’s frequent software updates have fixed a lot of bugs and added several more features, so there’s reason to think that the unit’s capabilities and usability will continue to improve.

For this year’s Ultimate Adventure, we used an iPad equipped with a GPS app called Motion X-GPS (gps.motionx.com). There is a free version, but we vaguely remember paying a nominal fee for the pro version that offers quite a few more features. Overall we found this app did just about everything we needed it to do with ease. It can record tracks, easily mark waypoints, import and export .gpx files, and a whole lot more. Map choices include road, topographic, or even satellite images. There are a bunch of social media sharing functions we’ve never used, and there’s even connectivity to Wikipedia so you can learn about points of interest on your route. It does rely on a data connection for real-time maps, but there is a download function where you can download maps of an area you know you’re going to be in advance. For the money it’s an extremely powerful app that we think is right at home with outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. It will not do turn-by-turn directions (you have other apps for that anyway), and we’re not big fans of the readability of the road maps (not enough contrast in colors and symbols at times), but we considered it one of the more valuable tools we had on the trip. Add a waterproof case and a sturdy mount, and it would probably do everything you need and more. Best of all, you can enjoy all the other features of a tablet when you’re not using it as a GPS device, and if you already have a tablet, the investment is nearly free. As of this writing it appears that Motion X-GPS is only available for Apple products, but a similar app for Android called Backcountry Navigator (backcountrynavigator.com) has equally useful features and appears even more tailored to outdoor enthusiasts.

One last thing worth noting is a company called Cartotracks (cartotracks.com), which offers a growing number of highly accurate maps for many popular outdoor areas, including Moab, Sand Hollow, and Uhwarrie. In all of these places navigating without an accurate map is almost impossible. The maps are purchased individually from the company’s website and are then run on a free app on your mobile device of choice, and the built-in GPS of your phone or tablet means your position on the map isn’t reliant on a data connection. The routes are accurate within a meter, and the maps are extremely well laid out and easy to use. Best of all, the company is owned and operated by off-road enthusiasts.

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