Friday, April 2, 2010

GPS and Backroads

GPS & Backroads

GPS have gone mainstream, but they haven't gotten to the backroads.

So, should you get one for backroads travel?  Absolutely!

In a previous article, I talk about cell phones and their use in contacting help in an emergency.  At some point, we are all found in this type of situation. The first thing the 911 operator will ask you, besides your name, is your location.  The quickest, easiest and most accurate way is to read the coordinates from your GPS. Your phone GPS will work if it gets its' location from satellites, rather than cell towers.  Check it.  In the backcountry, cell towers are rare.

Another reason for getting a GPS is they are handy while driving interstates, state highways, and county roads on the portion of the trip before you get to the backroads.  In areas without data, the GPS unit will still drop a breadcrumb trail showing the way you are driving into the area.  That will then show you how to get out the same way you came into the area.

Ok......convinced?  Which one should you buy?  GPS units now come with lots of bells and whistles.  You can get photo viewers, MP3 players, bluetooth for your phone, and on and on it goes.  My recommendation is to skip all that stuff, and focus on the items that will help you while driving.

Get the 4.3 inch wide unit or larger.  Measure the distance from your eyes to the windshield where you will place the GPS unit.  Usually it is placed on the left side of the windshield, or in the middle.  Now, while in the store look at the screen from that distance.  Does it work for you?

Make sure you can input Latitude and Longitude as a destination.  Your backroads destinations do not have mailing addresses!  Look deep in the instructions for this feature.

Spoken street names are important.  The unit will say "turn left on Burch Mountain Road", instead of turn right now.  The reassurance of the spoken street names will help you find your destination and make driving easier and safer.  When streets are very close together it is easy to turn early or late; and you won't know you made the wrong turn until the unit says "recalculating".

I really like the option which displays the speed limit on the road your driving.  No more speed traps for this kid.

Points of Interest is a handy item.  Make sure your GPS has this feature.  It will give you gas stations, motels, restaurants, shopping and everything in the yellow pages.  It will show address, phone number and distance from where you are.  Pressing GO will immediately start the GPS unit and give you directions.  Handy, very handy for travel.   I use it for all travel stops.  Backcountry points of interest are very limited. 

Almost all GPS units will give your time of arrival, computed without stops or breaks.  It is almost always on target in predicting when you will get there.  This is a very handy feature for campground reservations, friends, and other times when you need an ETA (estimated time of arrival).

All the GPS companies get their information from government sources.  The original files were based on the Census Bureau Tiger files.  The Census maps the entire country to verify return of census forms, so these maps are really poor if there are no homes along the road.  Seems like backroads are not mapped by the census.  The GPS companies also get data from state and county sources.  Backroads are not county roads or state roads.  You get the picture.  We will cover maps for backroads in future articles.

But for now, remember all GPS companies get their maps from the government.  They probably update them for urban areas on their own, but otherwise forget it.  They do not reveal the dates of the source maps in the GPS units, so you can only guess when they were last updated.  Some people will argue one company's maps are better than another.  I'm skeptical about these claims.

So what do I recommend?  After a long and painful analysis I bought the Garmin Nuvi 255W.  It offers all the important features, but is missing all the bells and whistles.

Amazon has it.  Good price.  Good unit.

Get a GPS unit. You will not regret the purchase.  Next to cell phones, it's the best thing for travel in a long, long time.

During hunting season I follow this guy, Bugaboo, a German Long Hair Pointer.  The rest of the time I use my GPS,  computer mapping programs, Forest Service and BLM maps on the backroads.

The next chapter will cover how to use your GPS and how it compliments working with paper maps and other information. 

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