Fun with GPS

Our adventure habitually takes us outside the boundaries of regularly traveled roads as well as along everyday commuter routes. On our journey it helps to know where we are, where we’re heading and to document those travels. Stumbling upon interesting history and culture along the route and even finding hidden geocache treasures can be an extra-added bonus. Several GPS-enabled devices help make this all happen and are invaluable tools in our arsenal.

The vast majority of the time the first device I reach for is my Nexus 5 phone running the latest version of Android “Marshmallow” (OS 6.0.1). In the car it sits in its windshield mount where it is front & center. It’s easily accessible and used for general travel mapping, POI (Points of Interest) and gas station lookup as well as the rare phone call, email or text message we have to deal with. Its built-in GPS capabilities are good enough for those things and those apps we run on it. Sometimes though we want more screen real estate or need more pinpoint accuracy. For our bigger screen needs we use my trusty Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 tablet running “Lollipop” Android OS 5.1.1.

Like the “10.1” in its name would suggest it has a 10.1″ screen which does wonders for more expansive map viewing and for my tired eyes. At night I can even use it to read books, browse websites, watch movies and much more. The tablet does not have a cellular data connection, it uses Wi-Fi only, but it does have a GPS chip in it. If we find the need to get online with it we just tether off the Nexus 5’s cell data. When on the move it regularly is showing the MVUM (Motor Vehicle Use Map) of where we are or where we are headed. There are thousands of miles of roads we’ve traveled on where no cell service is common. With a properly configured GPS-indexed offline map reader and accurate GPS you can see where you are on the map without any data connection. The Nexus 5 can obviously do all this as well but the extended screen size of the tablet makes it all so much easier and is a nice relief on my eyes as well.

For those time we need a higher degree of GPS accuracy or so that Willow can carry her own GPS and keep a record of her movements for posterity I reach for my Garmin eTrex 20x. I had the first Garmin eTrex model and it worked well for over a decade. It had a small, plain grayscale screen but it recorded tracks, logged waypoints and showed our location and all collected data was downloadable. That’s all I really needed and not much has changed. The new Garmin has a bit larger screen and it’s in color which is nice. It has 3.7 GB of internal memory and microSD card slot which lets us save exponentially more tracks and waypoints than before and load a huge variety of maps and POI data. Willow carries it merely for the fun of seeing her hike stats (GPS track, length, average and top speed) as compared to her human’s WAY slower/shorter stats. A 3 mile hike for me is, on average, 50% longer for her. My track is relaxed and smoothly contoured while hers looks like a spastic lightning bolt on amphetamines.

While geocaching is fun it is not at all a driving force behind our travels. We don’t go somewhere to find geocaches. We sometimes look for geocaches where we find ourselves. If we happen to see the existence of a geocache near us and if it sounds interesting and if we’re in the mood for a hunt our eTrex has much better signal acquisition and retention (gets a much better fix than the phone) which makes actually finding the geocache more probable. In some informal experimentation I have tried to locate a known geocache with the phone and have found the GPS accuracy swinging wildly +/- 70′. When we’re trying to find objects that are regularly the size of an old film container, that have been purposefully hidden and are also camouflaged… well then that inconsistency is problematic. Hunting for that same know geocache with the eTrex is substantially easier. The stable GPS fix makes both the distance, direction and the compass behave far more predictably which results in more successful hunts.

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