Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Navigating Away from the Crowds

Gary, top No Crowds reporter and resident geek enlightens us all on the why and how of using a handheld GPS on our travels.

So, you are a confirmed no-crowdite, unwilling to spend vacations within sight of more than a dozen other members of homo sapiens. When the traffic turns left, you turn right. When others queue at the airport, you take the train, or better yet, a tuk-tuk. When there is a fork in the road, you take it, just as Yogi Berra famously advised. You, my friend, had better own a handheld GPS.

You may already have a GPS (or Satnav, as they call them in the UK) either built in or added on to your car. But chances are it’s big and clunky or even physically built in, and goes catatonic when you take it a few feet away from a paved road. Enter the handheld. About the size of an iPhone, these units are wildly useful for all travelers, although you wouldn’t know that from the marketing literature. Are you going to be hiking? Biking? Driving? Boating? Traveling by train, bus or rickshaw? These babies have capability to support you in all of these modes, and among many other services, they can always answer that most important of all questions:

“Where on earth are we, and how do we find the hotel?”

A selection of things you can do with one of these units:

· Get turn-by-turn highway directions to the destination of your choice, wherever you are in the world (like your car GPS, but with a beep instead of the voice)

· Find gas stations, speed cams, hotels, restaurants and other important things

· When hiking or mountain biking, identify trails in geographic and topographic detail (i.e. how steep they are) and where they lead, as well as keeping a record of where you have been in case you need to retrace your steps.

· Plot boating trips on detailed nautical charts, with complete details about buoys, lighthouses, ports, obstacles and water depths. Boaters will also appreciate anchor drag and shallow water alarms.

· My particular unit even has information like “water temperature” and “depth”, which, although completely undocumented, make me think that it could be used while scuba diving.

· …and, if you are taking pictures, regardless of your means of conveyance, the unit will be able to encode each photo with information about exactly where in the world it was taken.

One example: The Garmin Oregon 300

As a confirmed iPhone lover, I couldn’t imagine using buttons and wheels to navigate around a map, so the Oregon seemed like a good solution, since it is completely touchscreen driven. It set me back about $350 from Amazon in the US, along with another $100 for a detailed road map and high level trail map and marine chart that covered all of Europe, from Poland to Ireland and Finland to Malta (detailed topographical maps are also available, if you’re an avid hiker). I gave this thing an unplanned test on the first day out when I slipped on a hiking trail, and managed to break my fall on a rock outcropping with the Garmin – smashing it on the rock screen side down, with all my weight behind it. End of story, I thought. As you can see, it came away with some impressive scratches (as did I), but nothing else, and continues to work perfectly. I think of the scratches as proof that I really used the thing, and wear them proudly. Try that move with an iPhone and see what happens…

It’s all about the maps

Once you choose the right GPS (or even before you choose it), make sure you can get the right digital maps, either on CD, a chip that goes in the unit, or downloaded from the maker’s website. Frankly, the unit is completely useless without them. Garmin, for example, has a dizzying array, but they let you view each map online to see whether it has the information you will need. The maps also need to be compatible with the actual unit, and that’s not always easy to figure out. But in the US and the UK especially, the available maps go to and beyond the detail of the old USGS topo maps we used back in the day when we were hiking the Appalachian Trail. The map specification is open, so for example, the Norwegian Trekking Association sells its own Garmin-compatible detailed trail and topographical maps on chips that can be loaded into your unit. And of course, there are a wide range of detailed nautical charts from around the world to make any weekend sailor happy.

There is also no end of things you can do, post holiday, with all of your GPS memories. EveryTrail (http://www.everytrail.com/) allows you to upload your trip information and photos to create a photoessay and map of your travels, and you can even let others “fly” your route in Google Earth and have your photos pop up like road signs, showing the sights along the way…
A century ago, John Masefield, the English poet laureate, just needed “a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. It may be a lot less poetic to be able to have that star in your pocket today, but hey – if it helps us each find our version of the “lonely sea and the sky”, who can blame us?

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