Choosing the Right GPS

Global Positioning Systems for Canoes and Kayaks

From time to time, readers contact me to ask about GPS units for paddling. Inevitably, the same two questions arise:

  1. Does any paddler really "need" a GPS, and why?

  2. Which GPS features are "necessary" or "convenient" for paddlers?

Here are the short answers:

  1. Strictly speaking, no paddler "needs" a GPS, but most paddlers (even day-paddlers who only paddle on the local lake) can benefit tremendously from owning one. GPS units are extremely useful not only for simple, "push-button" navigation, but also as a diagnostic tool for honing and tweaking your stroke, pace, logistical planning, endurance, and advanced navigation skills.

  2. "Necessary" features depend on your paddling habits. Virtually any GPS unit from a reputable manufacturer (Garmin, Magellan, etc.) will provide adequate, accurate information, but the physical design of the unit (size and layout) can have a substantial impact on convenience and ease-of-operation.

Keep reading to discover what a GPS can offer you, and which features are particularly useful or convenient for paddlers.

GPS Benefits

What exactly can a GPS do for your paddling? The answer may surprise you: Aside from the obvious benefit of providing you with accurate, detailed information about navigation (the "classic" benefit of a GPS, particularly helpful when paddling unfamiliar waters), a GPS can also serve as a wonderfully effective training aid for improving and tweaking your repertoire of paddling techniques.

[Garmin GPS Map 76S]

Most paddlers who don't own a GPS (and many who do) never realize how useful a GPS can be on a day-to-day basis, but it's true: Even if you're strictly a day-paddler, a GPS can be a serious asset when it comes to developing your skills. For multi-day, hardcore expeditioner, the benefit is even greater. Why? Because a GPS doesn't just show you where you've been and where you're headed. Used properly, it also indicates how well you're paddling—how fast, how straight, how efficiently, how consistently, and so on.

Even the most basic GPS units on the market are chock full of useful information—in particular, "speed," "heading," "moving average speed," "speed made good," and "trip odometer" or "total mileage." To clarify, "speed" tells you how fast you are traveling at any given moment in time; "heading" tells you what course (compass direction) you're paddling, and how well you're holding that course without wandering; "moving average speed" calculates your average speed over a period of time whenever the kayak or canoe is in motion, not counting rests or other stops; "speed made good" calculates your average speed in terms of total progress over a period of time including rests and stops; "total mileage" or "trip odometer" calculates how many miles you've covered since you last reset this value to zero.

With a proper understanding of this data, you will quickly discover that minor changes to your pace, your paddling technique, your diet, your sleeping habits, your cargo load, your paddle, or a host of other factors can add up to substantial differences in endurance, control, speed, and progress. If you log this information on a regular basis and compare it often, you can also identify and refine your paddling habits: how often you need rests, how long those rests need to be to maintain a regular pace, how frequently you need to eat to maintain endurance, how much water you consume over a given distance, how effectively you counteract wind and currents, how fast or rigorous you can paddle for a given period of time, whether you tend to wander off course in a particular direction, and so on. Really, it's astonishing how much a GPS can tell you about your paddling habits if you record the data and examine its trends and variances with a critical mind. Simply put, it's an outstanding diagnostic tool—even apart from all the useful navigation functions it can perform during a long trip.

Desirable Features and Design Elements

So what exactly should you look for when purchasing a GPS for your canoe or kayak? Since virtually any GPS unit you buy (from the top to the bottom of the line) should be capable of presenting the data I mentioned above, here are the basic design features which make one unit preferable to another:

  • Raised, well-spaced buttons — Make sure the buttons are raised (not recessed) and spaced far enough apart that they can be operated easily, even with neoprene-gloved hands or cold, clumsy fingers. They are also easier to operate "by touch" in the dark, once you become familiar with their layout.

  • Front-mounted buttons — Some GPS units have buttons on the sides, but these buttons can be hard to operate without physically picking up the unit. They are even harder to operate if, as I recommend, you keep the unit inside a protective waterproof case. Buttons mounted on the front of the unit can be pressed quickly and easily, with one hand, between paddle strokes, without taking the unit out of its protective waterproof case, making it very convenient.

  • Mapping capability — Mapping capability is not absolutely necessary if you're just using the unit for diagnostic purposes, but if you plan to take a few extended trips in unfamiliar areas, a good base map and some reliable mapping software can be amazingly useful and reassuring—especially when you want to quickly check your course in violent conditions that don't permit you to unfold a conventional paper map across your lap. Of course, you'll also need to verify that the unit you purchase offers enough built-in or add-on memory to store detailed map data for your trips.

  • Configurable data fields — Make sure the unit allows you to choose which data fields ("speed," "speed made good," "total mileage," and other such values) are displayed on a particular screen. Paddlers will want to be able to set up their GPS so that all or most of this data can be displayed simultaneously, on a single screen, rather than needing to scroll through menus or submenus. The less you have to fiddle with buttons, the less often you need to take your hands off your paddle.

  • Good battery life ("battery saver" mode) — Some manufacturers list the approximate battery life for their GPS units; others do not. Search the Internet and read reviews about the units that interest you. The longer the battery life, and the fewer batteries needed to run the unit, the better. Most GPS units require at least two "AA" batteries to run, but a decent unit should allow at least 8 - 10 hours of operation if it includes a "battery saver" mode to reduce battery drain. For the average paddler, that is sufficient to run the unit continuously for at least one full day of paddling, which is good. You don't want to have to change batteries more than once per day on a trip—the less often, the better.

  • Clear, well-sized, backlit viewing screen — The clarity, contrast, and overall size of the screen is important. Buy a unit with a screen that you can read clearly whether sitting still on a calm lake or pitching violently in tossing waves. I find that a screen which measures 2" x 2" (or larger) is adequate. Avoid micro-sized units which force you to squint to read information on their tiny display. Make sure the contrast of the screen is legible in bright, direct sunlight. Make sure the screen can be backlit for nighttime viewing.

There are literally hundreds of "gimmicky" features that you don't need, but a few may surprise you. Here are some of the unnecessary features that salespeople tend to recommend aggressively to boaters as "vital" components:

  • Color screen — Color can be handy for adding a little bit of visual distinction to certain symbols and areas of the map, but this "benefit" is outweighed by the fact that color screens tend to raise the cost of the unit significantly, and also draw more power to shorten battery life. A black-and-white screen works just as well, for less money, with less power drain.

  • Anchor alarm — The anchor alarm function is useful to a boat at anchor, to notify the user if the boat starts to drift and drag its anchor during the night. For a canoeist or kayaker, this feature is fairly useless, so unless you also plan to use your GPS on a larger boat, "anchor alarm" is unnecessary.

  • Electronic compass — All GPS units include some sort of compass feature. Those with a true "electronic compass" will register your heading even when standing still, while more basic units will need to be in motion in order to register an accurate heading. Neither feature is necessary because your GPS should never replace a reliable, high-quality compass. In fact, I always advise paddlers to carry two compasses: a deck-mounted compass and a smaller, pocket-sized "hiker's compass" (to verify directional accuracy in moments of doubt).

  • Waterproof construction — Waterproof construction promises some degree of protection from the paddling environment, and most compact GPS units on the market are rated waterproof, but realistically speaking, it is not a "necessary" feature. Why not? Because no matter which GPS unit you purchase—even if it is rated "waterproof"—you should never take the naked unit paddling. Always carry it in a waterproof case. Keep reading to learn why.

Protecting your GPS from the Elements

Industry waterproofing standards provide very little "real-world" protection for a paddler. To receive a waterproof rating, electronic devices like GPS units and VHF radios need only survive a simple "dunk test" in a calm tank of water. When you subject those same devices to harsher, real-world variables like wave pressure, water turbulence, and extreme temperature changes, however, they often fail. Protect your investment with a good waterproof case—ideally a soft, see-through case like those designed for PDAs or cell phones. If you've taken my advice to select a GPS unit with raised, front-mounted buttons, you'll be able to operate the unit through the soft case, without need to expose it to the elements. I carry my Garmin GPS Map 76S in a soft, clear PDA case manufactured by Voyageur. It's a perfect fit, and very convenient to operate.

Even inside a waterproof case, there is still one moisture-related enemy to be feared: condensation. When your GPS is sealed inside a waterproof case which is allowed to bake in the sun and dunk in cool water, condensation is inevitable. To combat this problem, I tuck one or two little silica packets inside the waterproof case with my GPS. Silica packets are the little white, moisture-absorbing, disposable packets that often come packaged with electronics equipment. Ask a local camera or electronics store to save some for you. The amount of moisture they can absorb is limited, so before you go on a trip, "recharge" the packets with a hair dryer (to dry them out) and then store them in a ziploc bag or waterproof case until you're ready to use them. They'll suck up condensation inside the waterproof case and protect your GPS.

Another enemy to your GPS is extreme heat. Rubber seals and gaskets can deteriorate quickly if left to bake in the sun. When they do, the chances that your unit will fail from moisture intrusion increase exponentially. Never store your GPS inside a hot car or a similar "harsh" environment. It's fine to keep your GPS strapped on the deck of your kayak while you paddle, but when you get to camp, don't let your GPS bake in the sun any longer than necessary. Tuck it in your hull or set it in the shade. If condensation begins to form inside the case, open the case periodically to let it "air out."

Final Words

Casual paddlers can certainly get by without owning a GPS, but there are many compelling reasons to justify the investment. GPS units are more than an aid to navigation; they also provide extremely useful diagnostic information to help you tweak your stroke and your paddling habits. If you're an avid paddler, keep an eye on the market for basic GPS units that fit your budget. Many entry-level units provide all the information a paddler could need. If you're a die-hard expeditioner, you may want to spend a little extra on a more advanced unit, but by-and-large, most "top-of-the-line" features are gimmicky and unnecessary.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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