Choosing the Right GPS
Global Positioning Systems for Canoes and Kayaks
by Wes Kisting
From time to time, readers contact me to ask about GPS units for paddling. Inevitably, the same two questions arise:
Here are the short answers:
Keep reading to discover what a GPS can offer you, and which features are particularly useful or convenient for paddlers.
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.
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 paddlinghow fast, how straight, how efficiently, how consistently, and so on.
Even the most basic GPS units on the market are chock full of useful informationin 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 tooleven 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:
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:
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 caseideally 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."
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.
© 2006, Wesley Kisting