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GPS questions for noob paddler

Started by dsa, March 06, 2016, 02:55:46 PM

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Hello everyone, I am looking to learn more about GPS and this looks like the perfect site!
I am a paddler who lives in SW Florida and would like a handheld GPS to help me navigate the many, many tangled webs of mangroves we have here. I can use free apps on my iPhone like Wikiloc, and honestly it does the job fine. But what worries me are two things: losing reception and running out of batteries. Thus I feel it in my best interest to buy a GPS.

I'm looking at buying an entry level GPS like the Garmin eTrex 20x. After that I guess I would need to find myself some maps. I just have a few questions before I even consider buying something. This is where I hope to get some help from you guys!

1) My biggest concern is the quality of the map. When I kayak, I use Google Earth to chart a course, print several screen shots, then use landmarks to navigate myself. While paddling I reference the maps and also use Wikiloc and/or Routie to help me keep my "real time"  bearings. If I buy an eTrex 20x, are there maps that are comparable to Google Earth (not Google Maps  ;)) that will show me every single creek, bay, river, mangrove tunnel, etc. in my area? I don't want Google Earth type satellite imagery, just a map--like Google Earth--that will show me everything.

2) The second question is probably a dumb one. Does the GPS track you in real time, showing you where you are and where you came from? This would be useful because you can reference where you are, look at the map, then decide where you'd like to go.

3) Before I purchase a GPS I would kind of like to have an idea of what map(s) I need to get and where to get them. Obviously this site has a lot of free maps and that is awesome, but what type of maps do I need for my needs? If there are some fellow paddlers on this site that know from experience I would greatly appreciate you sharing your knowledge with me!

I'm sure you guys tire of answering questions like these over and over, but I would greatly appreciate any insight you are willing to give. Thanks for your help in anticipation!


If you are happy with the phone, you might look at waterproof battery cases. That would probably cost less than the eTrex 20x and you have lots of apps to choose from. Coming from a smartphone, you may find the eTrex user interface and software kind of clunky. ;)

The eTrex 20 series does not have a magnetic compass (like your iPhone), so the only way it knows which way you are headed is based on the satellites and that is not as precise. It also will not know which direction you are pointing if you're stationary.

If you want satellite imagery similar to Google Earth, Garmin has Birdseye. Cost is $30/year for unlimited downloads. But you can keep what you download forever, so just get everything the first year and you won't need to renew.

Yes, the GPS tracks you in real time and shows your position on the screen. Garmin devices update your position once per second.

Garmin has (apparently intentionally) made it difficult for normal users to create highly detailed maps from aerial imagery. If you use one foot per pixel images (comparable to Google Earth), the largest map you can make for the eTrex would only cover an area about 2 miles x 2 miles. But there are not limits to the size that can be covered with their Birdseye product.

There are some maps in this format at GPSFiledepot, but not very many. I posted a number of them several years ago, but lost interest because of the limitations. Use "search by map features" here and check the box for "Garmin Custom" to see what is available:

I have not used the new eTrex devices but by all reports, they perform rather sluggishly when you use Birdseye or Custom maps. Evidently these models have less powerful chipsets. So if you primarily want to use this kind of map and plan to keep the GPS for awhile, you might consider upgrading to the Oregon series. Of course that costs more though. ;)

You might also look for Garmin factory refurbs. GPSCity usually stocks them and so do other vendors. They are fully reconditioned and have the same warranty as new.


Good information to digest there Boyd. I appreciate the thorough answer!