A handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver can be an extremely useful piece of navigation gear when paddling through unfamiliar areas or when traveling alone. By communicating with a series of 24 different satellites that are constantly orbiting the earth, these cell phone-sized devices can pinpoint your location on the globe (via latitude, longitude, and altitude) to within several meters. A nifty trick for sure, but what good does that information do for you when you're out on open water? Won't a map and compass provide more useful info about landmarks, courses, and your destination?
In a word: yes.
On their own, GPS coordinates are nothing more than a bunch of numbers. But consider the power of using those numbers in partnership with a map and compass. You'll be able to pinpoint your location on the map, plot a course that translates into the real world with your compass, and track your progress with the GPS and the map. Even better, you can enter the coordinates of your destination into the receiver for turn-by-turn directions (although this wouldn't substitute for a good map, especially in those instances where the shortest, most accessible route between two points is not a straight line). Ferdinand Magellan would be so jealous.
These days, many GPS receiver manufacturers are taking this concept to the next level by incorporating mapping software, digital compasses, waypoint features, and a host of other navigation tools right into the units themselves. So I guess this means that, for the technologically inclined paddler, there's no need to carry the outdated map and compass combo anymore, right?
Not so. As useful as GPS can be, it's crucial to remember the limitations of the technology. Batteries die, electronics fail, signals get lost (and since receivers have to "see" the GPS satellites in order to get their signal, buildings and tall mountains can render them useless by blocking their view of the sky). Remember, you're not going to be sitting at home with this thing, plotting points around the backyard; you're going to be out on the water. And no matter how durable or waterproof it is, or how careful you are with it, use will eventually take a toll. GPS is certainly a revolutionary technology, but it is in no way a replacement for good old-fashioned common sense, solid chart-reading skills, and a smart paddler in the cockpit.
So what should you look for when buying a handheld GPS receiver? Like everything that you use on the water, durability is the key. A feature-packed receiver is all well and good, but if the slightest splash renders it useless, it has no place in your gear bag. And remember, this is not a cell phone that you'll only be using at convenient times on dry land. You're going to want to pull the GPS out while you're paddling, when you're lost and frantic, and when you've got a storm bearing down on you so don't plan on stashing it away deep in a dry bag. It needs to be able to handle the elements.
Fortunately, most handheld receivers these days are built to withstand what the hikers, hunters, bikers, and boaters of the world dish out. Keeping overall durability in mind, make sure you get one with a solid waterproof case to ensure that it won't wash out on you, and a nice long battery life so you're not always swapping out fresh sets of AAs (an expensive and environmentally unfriendly practice). Also, be sure to take size into consideration. Get something that fits comfortably in your palm, is easy to operate with one hand if necessary, and can handle a little knocking around.
From there it's just a matter of choosing the features that you want (on-screen mapping, memory for loading extra data from CD-ROMs, additional points-of-interest information, etc…) at a price you can afford. A quality unit may cost a little more now, but it'll be worth it in durability and overall quality in the long run.
Since its introduction to the civilian world over 20 years ago, GPS has emerged as a powerful outdoor recreation tool. Accurate, up-to-the-minute navigation info no matter where you are or what you're doing it's almost too good to be true! And it's a life-saving technology as long as you remember to respect its limitations, always keep a map and compass for backup, and don't expect your receiver to save your hide. Your brain is still the most important tool in your paddling safety arsenal.
Tim Sprinkle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Seakayaker, Paddler, and other publications.