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Handheld GPS Receiver
for Hiking or Bicycling

Copyright June 1, 2013 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.

Two GPS Receivers The GPS receivers that are available today are far superior to the simple GPS receivers that were available ten years ago.

GPS means Global Positioning System. A GPS device simultaneously triangulates the signals from several different space satellites to determine your location on the earth.

There are differences between a hiking GPS receiver and an automotive GPS receiver:
  1. Automotive GPS Receiver: It is designed as a hands-free device that can be placed in your vehicle, or mounted in your vehicle, and a voice will tell you how to get from where you are to where you want to go. After you type the address of your destination into the unit, the unit will provide voice directions to guide you to your destination by telling you when to turn, which direction to turn, and the name of the road you should turn onto.

  2. Hiking GPS Receiver: It is designed to be held in your hand while you look at its display screen to determine where you are in relationship to where you have been and where you want to go. There are no voice directions. You need to be able to read and interpret an ordinary map to use this type of unit. It is not designed to be used while driving because you cannot watch the road and look at the display screen on the device at the same time. It is designed to be used when you stop walking, or stop bicycling, and you can examine the display screen carefully to determine your current location.
A handheld GPS receiver could be extremely useful if you are hiking or bicycling through an area you are not familiar with. The display on the GPS receiver will show you how far you have traveled and the approximate distance to your destination (if you have a specific destination that you are traveling to and you are not just out for some exercise and some fresh air.)

If you decide to use a GPS receiver then you should also have an ordinary paper map of the area you are traveling through. In my opinion, an ordinary magnetic compass is also an appropriate item to take with you when you are hiking or bicycling. If the GPS receiver should fail to work for any reason, then you could continue your journey using your paper map and, if necessary, your compass. If you have never traveled off a road into a wooded area then you may not realize that when you come out of the woods and you see a road then you may not know which way to travel on the road you just found. But if you have a compass then you can make a much better guess about which way to travel on the road you just found.

A GPS receiver should never be used as a substitute for your brain. When you are using a GPS receiver you should still pay attention to your surroundings and make mental notes of important landmarks so you can find you way back to your point of origin if your GPS unit should unexpectedly stop working.

The GPS receivers available at our local sporting goods stores were relatively expensive. They also had fewer features and they were of a much lower quality than the units available for purchase on the internet. Therefore two different handheld GPS receivers were selected and purchased over the internet. I intentionally selected and paid for these two units myself. Neither of these units were sent to me as a free complimentary unit in the expectation that I would write a review article about the unit and post it on my web site.

The two GPS receivers I received were removed at random from the supplier's inventory and shipped to me. Therefore each of the two units I received probably represents the average quality of those units. There is no reason for me to believe that the average quality of the other units made by these two companies is any better or any worse than the quality of the units that I received.

A comparison of the two models I purchased and tested is below.

A Comparison of the Handheld GPS Receivers Manufactured by Garmin and by Magellan

Manufacturer Garmin Magellan
and Prices
etrex 10 sells for approximately $105
etrex 20 sells for approximately $169
etrex 30 sells for approximately $249
eXplorist 110 sells for approximately $115
eXplorist 210 sells for approximately $129
eXplorist 310 sells for approximately $149
eXplorist 510 sells for approximately $179
eXplorist 610 sells for approximately $249
eXplorist 710 sells for approximately $359
and Tested
etrex 30 etrex - cost $249
Garmin's Most Expensive GPS Receiver
It does have a slot for a microSD memory card
eXplorist 310 - cost $149
Magellan's Mid-Priced GPS Receiver
It does not have a slot for a mircoSD memory card
Memory 1.7 GB 2.0 GB
Screen Size 2.2 inch color 2.2 inch color
2 AA Batteries -
May Use Alkaline, Lithium, or Rechargeable Batteries
2 AA Batteries -
May Use Alkaline, Lithium, or Rechargeable Batteries
Outstanding Very Poor
Marginal Outstanding
Poor -
It can be held comfortably in one hand, such as the left hand. If you only need to access the joystick control with your right hand then it is easy to do and your right hand does not block the display. However, if you are left handed and you are holding the unit in your right hand then your left hand will partially cover the display. The two zoom buttons are on the top left side of the unit and you have to rotate the unit in your hand to push either zoom button. The menu button is below the zoom buttons and it has the same shortcomings as the zoom buttons. The back button is on the top right of the unit and you have to rotate the unit in your hand so you can access the back button.
Superior -
It can be held very comfortably in either the left hand or the right hand. Then the index finger on the other hand can easily access the 4 buttons and the joystick on the bottom of the unit below the display screen. Since the controls are below the display screen you can still clearly see the display screen on the top of the unit as you manipulate any of the four buttons or the joystick. You do not have to rotate the unit in your hand to access any of the buttons or the joystick. This unit was ergonomically designed so that a left-handed or a right-handed person could easily use the unit and the person could clearly see what is happening on the display screen when any of the four buttons are activated, or when the joystick is used.
3 Manual Sequences -
Requires 3 different calibration sequences while you rotate the unit in your hand.
Self-Calibrating -
When you first install the batteries and turn the unit on, it takes the unit several minutes to automatically calibrate its position in relation to several space satellites.
Low Quality United States Map -
Sold and shipped with a low quality map of the United States highway system already installed in the unit.
The map had all the major highways and interstates and most of the major secondary roads. But it did not have any of the minor secondary roads or other smaller roads, such as dirt or gravel roads. In other words, it shows the type of detail you would see on a map of an entire state and nothing more. The dirt road that I live on was not on the map. The paved roads near my home were not on the map. The forest roads in a nearby major national forest were not on the map.
Remarkably Accurate World Map -
Sold and shipped with a World Map already installed in the unit.
When you first turn it on it automatically finds exactly where you are located on the world map in just a few minutes.
The United States Edition of the World Map includes all the roads in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia. It also includes all the major roads throughout the rest of the world. The installed world map shows all the primary roads and interstates in the United States, plus all the secondary roads, and all the other minor roads including forest roads that are open to the public. I was able to verify the accuracy of all the minor roads in my area because I have lived here for more than ten years and there were no map errors in the area in which I live. There are only two houses on the dirt road that I live on, but my dirt road was clearly visible on the map and my dirt road was accurately labeled.
Average Quality -
The 100K map of the United States did not meet my expectations. It had several errors related to the roads in the area where I live. After I installed the map memory card, the Garmin receiver would not let me to look at the original preloaded U.S. map. I had to manually remove the map memory card before the Garmin receiver would allow me access to the preloaded United States map that was still in its memory.
Extraordinary Quality -
The 24K map of the southeast United States is outstanding. It showed elevations and forest trails and every stream and creek in my area. It does not show all the tiny 10 inch wide side springs that lead to a spring head but it does show the streams that are at least 2 feet wide. The Magellan receiver allows you to switch back and forth between the original preloaded World Map and the local area map by simply selecting the map you wish to view.
The roads are shown in gray.
All water is shown in blue.
The ground is beige.
As you zoom out the map details merge together and they are hard to interpret.
The roads are shown in white.
All water is shown in light blue.
The ground is light green.
As you zoom out the map details adjust to each view and they are easy to recognize.
The coordinates are not shown anywhere in the display when you stop moving the pointer. I could not get the coordinates to display on the screen when the map was being displayed. The map coordinates are automatically shown on the map screen when you stop moving the pointer. When you press straight down on the joystick the coordinates disappear so you can see all the details on the map.
Unacceptable Quality -
On the unit I purchased the position marker appears approximately 800 feet west of my true position. This means I have to mentally estimate approximately where I am whenever I look at the display. This is not how a unit like this should work.
Extraordinary Quality -
When you are on a two lane road the marker appears at your exact location on the same side of the road that you are traveling. When you are at the intersection of two roads the marker appears at your exact location at the intersection of the two roads.
The on/off button protrudes out the left side of the unit and it could be accidentally activated unintentionally. The on/off button is also the display brightness button. The on/off button is recessed in the top of the unit and it cannot be accidentally activated. Neither the package instructions nor the online manual tell you where the On/Off button is. The On/Off button is a small round button that is mounted flush on the top right of the unit. If you look carefully you will find it. If you simply look for a button that is protruding, or something of a distinctive color, then you probably won't see it. Push the button and hold it in for a few seconds and the unit will turn on. Turn the unit off by holding the same button in for a few seconds.
The buttons are identified on the face of the unit above the location of the button. The button name is engraved in very small lower case letters into the surface of the unit and the color of the engraving is the same as the surrounding unit. Therefore you must look very carefully at the face of the unit above each button to determine what that button is. After you have used the unit for a long time you would not need to read the button labels but when you first start using the unit this increases the time it takes to learn how to operate the unit. All the buttons are always visible on the front of the unit directly below the display screen. The function of each button is clearly printed in white on the surface of the button in capital letters that are easy to see and read. This makes it very easy to learn how to operate the unit.
The two zoom buttons are on the top left side of the unit and you have to adjust the unit in your hand to use your left thumb to push the buttons and this generally involves rotating the unit sideways so you can't see the display while you are pushing the buttons. The two zoom buttons are below the display screen and you can watch the details change on the display screen when you push either of the two zoom buttons.
The menu button is below the zoom buttons and you have to rotate the unit in your hand to press the menu button. The menu button is below the display screen and you can easily read the information on the display screen each time you press the menu button.
The back button is on the top right of the unit and you have to shift the unit in your left hand to use your left index finger to activate the button or you have to rotate the unit in your left hand so your right index finger can access the button. The back button is below the display screen and you can easily read the information on the display screen each time you press the back button.
The joystick is too sensitive.
When I did my very best to push straight down on the joystick to select a function, about half the time the joystick would barely contact the side of the slot and the unit would switch functions instead of selecting the function I desired. Sometimes I had to scroll back to the function I wanted several times before the unit would recognize that I was pushing straight down on the joystick so I could access that function.
The joystick allows you to easily highlight any function you desire and when you press straight down on the joystick the unit activates that function the way it should.


Garmin GPS Receivers: I do not recommend the purchase of the Garmin GPS receivers. The units have a poor ergonomic design. The buttons are not easy to use. The joystick is too sensitive. The map position marker is several hundred feet away from your current location. The maps available for the Garmin units have missing information and sometimes they have incorrect information.

Magellan GPS Receivers: I highly recommend the Magellan GPS receivers. If you would prefer a GPS receiver that will accept map memory cards then you should consider a more expensive Magellan GPS receiver than the Model 310 that I purchased. I also strongly recommend that you look for a "bundle deal" that has the World Map already installed in the memory of your receiver, and the price also includes the detailed area map (or maps) that you also want and those maps are already installed on microSD memory cards that you can plug into your GPS receiver.

Additional Information

Display Settings: I recommend that you adjust the default settings on your GPS receiver as follows:
  1. North: I prefer North to always be at the top of the display screen. The default setting is that the top of the display will be the direction you currently traveling. This is confusing to me because I have spent my entire life reading maps where north was always at the top of the map. Therefore I set my GPS receiver to always show north at the top of the display regardless of the direction I was traveling.
  2. Turn Off Display: I prefer for the display to be visible for 2 minutes before the receiver turns off (or dims) the display.
  3. Type of Battery: The receiver may automatically detect the type of battery you have installed. But it is a good idea to verify the battery setting because the receiver software will attempt to conserve battery power and maximize the total operating time on one set of batteries based on the type of battery that it believes you are using.
Operating Manuals: The small manual that is shipped with the GPS receiver is not very useful. You will need the complete operating manual that is available for free download on the manufacturer's web site at the following web addresses:
  1. Garmin Manuals: http://www.garmin.com/en-US
  2. Magellan Manuals: http://support.magellangps.com/support/index.php?_m=downloads&_a=view
Advance Planning: You can move the pointer to any position on the map and then zoom in to see the details of that position. This allows you to look at the details of any area even if it is thousands of miles away from your current location.

GPS Satellites Not Working: If for any reason the GPS satellites are not working, such as the United States government deactivating them for everything except for the use of the U.S. military, then your GPS unit will still allow you to move the map pointer around the map and look at the details of every road that might be on your intended travel path. If the satellites are working then the GPS pointer would show your exact position along your planned route. But even if the satellites are not working, the map function on your GPS receiver will still work but it will not show you exactly where you are on the map. In other words, it would be similar to having a detailed paper road map of the entire world in the palm of your hand -- but you would need to know how to read a basic map and follow basic directions.

Magellan World Map: The Magellan world map is really nice. At my age I probably will not travel very far or very often. But it is nice to have a complete detailed road map of the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia. I actually looked at Paris, France on my world map and the details were excellent.

Magellan Southeast United States Map: The area map of the Southeast United States is extremely valuable to me. It has detailed road maps, and detailed maps of the national forests in all the southeastern states, including campgrounds and water sources. If I ever had to leave my home unexpectedly then these maps could prove to be extremely valuable to me.

Types of Optional Maps: There are two ways you can purchase additional maps:
  1. Map download into the memory of your GPS receiver: However, the memory of the original receiver limits the size of the map that you can store on that receiver. If you travel to another area, then you will need to transfer the map of that area into your receiver and this will overwrite the map you had previously stored there. However, if you have all your maps saved on your computer, then you can reload the correct map each time you are in that area.
  2. Preprogrammed map on a microSD memory card that you plug into your GPS receiver: You purchase the map from the company web site and when it arrives you plug it into your receiver. This option allows you to purchase a wide variety of area maps. When you travel to a different area then you can insert that memory card into your GPS receiver and you will have a detailed map of the area you are currently visiting.
Geocaching: This is a game where you travel to the GPS coordinates provided for a specific geocache. When you arrive at the coordinates you then follow a few additional clues to locate a hidden treasure cache left there by another player. The cache will usually be some type of weather-proof container that can be easily opened and it will contain a logbook and some small trinkets. You enter your name in the logbook and remove one of the trinkets and then you return the cache to the exact spot where you found it for other players to find. The "treasures" or trinkets can be anything that is small, amusing, but of trivial value. The trinket is just a souvenir or reminder of your success. If you wish you may hide your own "treasure cache" and then upload information about its GPS coordinates plus some specific clues to help other game players find your cache. I have never played geocaching so I can make no comment about the game other than this brief summary about the game. Additional information about geocaching is at this link: http://www.geocaching.com

If you would like to read a simple explanation of the GPS coordinate system the please click here.

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Grandpappy's e-mail address is: RobertWayneAtkins@hotmail.com