GPS for Sea Kayakers [68]


Being lost can be disconcerting. Being kilometres from anywhere or just finding yourself in an unfamiliar waterway can make the best of us feel uncomfortable. Been there? Knowing how far away you are from something familiar or how many more kilometres you need to travel to reach shore or help can certainly go a long way to put you at ease.

Carrying and being able to read a map and having some navigation skills can make a big difference between having a trip that you’ll always want to remember and one that you can’t wait to forget. GPS are a great aid to navigation and can tell you “exactly where you’re lost”.

Simply put, a GPS knows exactly where you are at all times. GPS units are small electronic devices that receive signals from a group of satellites orbiting the earth. If you have a view of the sky then these devices will know where you are anywhere on the Earth’s surface, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

GPS units come in two basic styles; those that display your location numerically in latitude and longitude, and those that have inbuilt maps so that your position is displayed graphically over the top of an electronic map.

Like kayaks, GPSs come in different styles, with different features and varying prices from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand. Lower priced units, like the Garmin eTrex (RRP$257) or Magellan’s eXplorist 100 (RRP$250) will provide the basics. These include the ability to record locations (launch ramps, fishing spots etc). These are called waypoints. It will record your travels, like a snail trail, handy if you need to back track along the way you came. This feature is called the track log. It will give you an “as the crow flies” indication on how to get to a recorded point and lots of other numeric information like current speed, max speed, estimated time to get to your destination, elevation, trip meter, and the list goes on.

These style of units are ideal for kayaking and general outdoor use (small, lightweight, waterproof). When considering one of these units look carefully at screen readability — how easy is it to see and button location — can it be easily operated and can it be easily mounted (if required).

The second group of units add additional features; in-built maps, longer track logs, more waypoints to name just a few. More features generally mean more dollars, but I’m sure we’re familiar with this concept! Specific units in the range include the eXplorist 400, 500 and 600’s (RRP$675-$950), Garmin’s eTrex C range (RRP$529-$619), GPSMAP 60 range (RRP$539-$899) and GPSMAP 76 range (RRP$439-$899). The prices quoted are for the units only and options like mounts, carry cases, detailed maps all come at an additional cost.

The type of maps that you can load into a GPS is restricted to those provided by the manufacturer of the GPS. That means, for example, Magellan Maps can only be loaded into Magellan GPS units. Similarly Garmin maps only into Garmin GPS units. Magellan has BlueNax XL3 (RRP$399) marine charts covering all the east coast and Garmin has BlueChart covering either all of the east coast (RRP$249) or half of the east coast (RRP$145). Having maps this detailed that cover all the marine charts in your region in the palm of your hand is quite remarkable.

So what things should be considered in purchasing a GPS unit for kayaking? First off the unit should be easy to use, there’s nothing worse than buying something that turns out to be frustrating to use. It will soon get relegated to the gear bag. Operating buttons should be easily accessible. The screen should be clear and easily read in bright sunlight. These are all characteristics that have to be seen before a decision can be made. No amount of reading can substitute for a good “hands on” visit to your local GPS dealer. In addition, the unit should be waterproof. Most outdoor units are waterproof to IPX7 (able to be submersed to a depth of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes) and we would recommend a small piece of tape over the unit’s data port to minimise corrosion. Remember, waterproof does not necessarily mean it floats!

Mounting your GPS in a safe but convenient location is important. An Aquapac tied down or a RAM mount bolted on are good options. Both companies have extensive ranges of products.

Connecting a GPS to a computer has a number of advantages so this ability should be towards the top of your “must have” list of features. Like most software companies, GPS manufacturers from time to time release new versions of the software that runs inside a GPS unit. These updates are provided free on the Internet and can be easily loaded into your GPS unit via a computer cable attached to your PC. In addition, waypoints and track logs and more detailed maps can be easily uploaded and downloaded to and from your GPS. This makes it very easy to record your trip on your GPS, download it your computer and email it to a fellow kayaker. “Here, load this into your GPS and have a great trip!”

Trip mapping with a GPS requires the use of a laptop computer or Pocket PC, loaded with a mapping program and electronic maps. But then again there’s always paper with a hand drawn mud map.

Buyers check list

  • easy to read screen
  • easily accessible buttons
  • computer connection

Common terms

  • Accuracy — recreational GPS units are accurate to about +/- 5m
  • Waypoint — a location that has been recorded in a GPS, eg camping spot, fishing hole, turnoff
  • Track log — electronic snail trail of where you have travelled
  • DGPS (Differential GPS): A system of land-based radio beacons that broadcast signals to help increase the accuracy of GPS positioning. Available in Australia in coastal areas only.
  • NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association): NMEA developed the standards allowing GPS units to communicate with other electronic devices, eg Laptops, radar etc

Specific product information

Garmin eTrex (RRP $257)

Small light-weight unit, suitable basic navigation. Has tracklogs, waypoints and numeric information display.

Garmin eTrex Legend Cx (RRP $529)

GPS unit with bright colour screen Has ability to load more detailed maps.

Garmin GPSmap 60CSx (RRP $899)

Advanced GPS unit with bright colour screen, electronic compass, altimeter, sunrise and sunset times. Has ability to load more detailed maps.

Magellan eXplorist 600 (RRP $950)

Full colour unit with vibrant easy to read screen, rechargeable battery, electronic compass and barometer. A basic map is included but has the ability to load detailed maps via SD card.