Review: How useful are GPS’ for Navigation?

Early I touched on the merits of using topographical maps while planning multi-day trips in the wilderness. Here I thought I’d answer a question I often get in classes regarding the usefulness of GPS in regards to kayaking.

I remember when I saw my first Garmin eTrex handheld GPS. I was absolutely floored. In my era navigation on larger vessels was done with Loran C and that is what I cut my teeth on, both in the Coast Guard and then later commercial fishing boats. Here was something the size of a deck of cards that had the same functionality. Amazing. I was quickly seduced by the technology, and was filled with glee while attaching the unit to my foredeck for a multi-day trip in Clayoquot Sound.

It didn’t take me long to realize it’s limitations in a purely wilderness situation where the only landmarks where headlands, island boundaries, etc. Sure it showed me the direction, distance, and ETA but that limited unit didn’t help much in determining passages, or dead ends. Of course, the more modern units features available with some having marine charts and topo maps integrated within in the unit.

But even with those advances I’m not sure I’d use them as a navigation tool while paddling. Batteries seem to discharge quickly with continuous use and, as I found out 3 days into that first paddle with the eTrex on the foredeck, units can fail all together.

However, that’s not to say I don’t use them or that they are not useful. Where I found them to be a great tool is marking campsites, water sources, and scenic landmarks. I’m fortunate enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, with miles and miles of coastline with primitive camping. I’ve got off-the-beaten-path campsites from the Queen Charlotte Islands all the way down to Oregon.

A program like expertGPS allows you to organize and share your waypoints. We use it to share water sources, rate campsites, and scenic interests.
A program like expertGPS allows you to organize and share your waypoints. We use it to share water sources, rate campsites, and scenic interests.

Then using a program like expertGPS, I can sort, add detail notes, and export them out in a text file to be shared with my colleagues. We rate our campsite on a 4 star system that measures, ease of tidal access, view, facilities if any, and privacy. Planning a trip to Nootka Sound? I can give you campsites, and water sources from a previous visit to the area. Another benefit of expertGPS is that it ingrates with both marine charts and topo’s so you can make your own custom charts with all of your waypoints and routes printed on the charts. We’ve also marked homesteads, historical graves, petroglyphs, waterfalls, sea-caves, and the occasional great BBQ restaurant.

Having said all that there are two instances where I find GPS’ useful while paddling. One is when training; like when I need a refresher on getting a feel for how fast I’m paddling. And on my unit (currently a Garmin Rino 120) I find the cross-track feature useful during long open water crossing where a ‘Natural Range‘ is difficult to set up and I’m not sure if wind or current is going to win out on pushing me around.

Lastly, I like the battery life of the monochrome display of the Rino 120 which uses 3 AAA rechargeable batteries. Also with the 120’s Family Radio Service (FRS) radio capabilities, I can hand off my second unit to clients if they want to go for a hike while I prepare dinner. Should they need my assistance I have a waypoint to follow when the call comes in.

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