This page explains all about your GPS; how it works, the features on it, satellites and coordinates and how to decide which one to buy. You'll also find information about the maps the GPS can use as well as using a smart phone for caching.
There are 4 broad types of GPS available. With the exception of the car sat nav they all provide basic navigation functions allowing you to enter and save waypoints (caches for example), navigate to waypoints and create and navigate routes. They all have a compass allowing you to see which direction to go. The radio receiver that picks up the satellite signal varies between models so some are more sensitive than others which means they pick up the satellite signal faster and work better in poor signal areas (under trees for example). The number of waypoints and routes available and how the compass works differs between the types as does the amount of internal and external memory in which you store waypoints and maps.Please note the GPS devices shown are just examples and not a complete list. For that please refer to the comparison table at the bottom of this page.
|Basic Handheld GPS
These provide basic navigational functions and have a compass. They do not support maps. Limited number of waypoints and routes. Can be connected directly to a PC but may need a special serial cable (eTrex H). With the exception of the eTrex 10 these GPS's are not 'paperless', that is you cannot download all the cache information to them other than basic cache GC number and coordinates.
Examples: Garmin eTrex, Garmin GPS60, Garmin eTrex 10
|Mapping and Paperless Handheld GPS
Same navigation functions as the basic models but support maps allowing you to see in varying detail where you are. You can display routes and waypoints on the maps. They have the ability to download cache information so you don't need to print out cache pages. The information is the same as you see on the web page, description, hints, logs and waypoints*. The paperless GPS receivers nearly all have greatly increased memory (external microSD card) allowing more maps to be stored and a considerable increase in waypoints (caches). They mostly have an electronic compass and usually an altimeter. Some models are 'touch screen' which makes entering data much easier.
PC connection is easy via a USB cable so you can transfer cache information from the web page quickly.
Examples: Garmin eTrex 20, Magellan GC, Garmin GPSmap60, Garmin GPSMap 62x, Garmin Montana 6xx, Oregon 6xx, Garmin Oregon 5xx, , Magellan eXplorist 710 (also 610, 510, 310)
*Paperless features are only available to Premium Members.
Many phones have a built in GPS receiver and you can install software to let you use the GPS for geocaching. You may also be able to store/run maps as well. Generally they behave as a 'handheld' GPS receiver but there are limitations such as poor battery life and ruggedness.
Certain smart phones have specific apps available for geocaching. These are explained later on this page.
Examples: iPhone (IOS), HTC (Android)
|Car Sat Nav
These are specifically designed for use in a vehicle. They can be used for geocaching but it is not always easy. For example a handheld GPS (or phone application) shows you a compass arrow to follow and a countdown of the distance to the waypoint. This may not be available on a sat nav. Battery life is another issue as you can only expect a few hours time outdoors.
Examples: TomTom and Garmin Nuvi
Connecting to a PC: To transfer data to your GPS from your PC you need to connect it. The basic models (Garmin eTrex H and Geko) have a serial connection which needs a special cable - not usually supplied with the GPS. The other Garmin and Magellan units all use a simple USB connection. With a suitable program you can enter waypoint and geocache information on your PC and transfer it simply and quickly to the GPS. If you are a premium member with a Garmin or Magellan paperless GPS then you can transfer the data directly to the GPS in one simple operation - up to 1000 caches at a time using a Pocket Query.
Serial cable used on the eTrex and eTrex H and Gecko
USB connection used on most other GPS receivers
The iPhone, Blackberry, Android and Windows 7 phones all have dedicated in-expensive applications you can buy to find geocaches and allow you to download cache information, navigate to caches with the built in GPS and compass and view maps all with the phone. Full details are on the Geocaching website.
Smart phone GPS receivers are usually quite sensitive and suitable for geocaching. Adding waypoints and navigating to them may be less easy than with a dedicated handheld GPS. Don't forget your 'smart' phone is also your MP3 and video player, web browser, email application and much more. The compass and GPS are just additional applications. A handheld GPS on the other hand is designed for really only one job, navigating.
Geocaching.com page for Smart phone applications
The geocaching applications are fine for finding caches but when you place a cache you need to record the coordinates accurately. The smart phone uses both the GPS and the mobile radio signal to determine its position (triangulation). If you have a poor GPS signal you may not know how inaccurate it is. This is determined by the GPS chipset in the phone.
When you open the geocaching application your current position is displayed on the main screen so you can use this to record the coordinates when placing a cache. Please be aware though that when first opened the application will NOT be accurate. Leave the phone with a clear view of the sky for a minimum of 5 minutes to ensure it gets a good satellite lock. When recording coordinates you should walk to the cache site from several directions and from about 30 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) away each time and then average the readings to get them as accurate as possible.
A much better way is to use a dedicated GPS application like MotionX GPS which turns your iPhone into a handheld GPS receiver. It uses the GPS to record your location and warns you if the signal is weak and it is using the mobile signal. It will show you GPS accuracy and position, allows you to add waypoints and record tracks and enter waypoints to navigate too. The application is one of many but I've used this one and found it works very well (I've found caches with it!). The coordinates can be set to HDDD° MM.MMM. MotionX GPS is free.
In all cases you need to wait for 5 minutes or so to ensure the iPhone GPS has a good signal. The MotionX application gives you a GPS signal strength and accuracy figure, the geocaching application only gives you an accuracy figure.
|Latitude and longitude have been around a long time (since people first started to sail the oceans basically) and refers to the lines going from pole to pole (longitude) and round the equator going up to the north pole and down to the south pole (latitude). Longitude is measured from the Greenwich Meridian which is 0 degrees east and west and Latitude from the Equator which is 0 degrees north and south.
There are several different formats to use and different countries produced their own version including the United Kingdom with the Ordnance Survey British Grid. To get some standardisation various countries got together to produce the map datum World Geodetic Survey of 1984 (WGS84) which is currently still valid. Have a look at this Wiki article which explains why we have and use this standard.
So based on WGS84 we use Lat and Long which can be written in several different ways. Why? Because we can and you can use whichever you want!
To give you an example, this is the junction of the M4 and M5 motorways near Bristol in the various formats:
British Grid ST 61785 83780
They all get you to the same point but for consistency its best to just
use one. Geocaching use Degrees and Decimal minutes on the WGS84 map datum
and this is what your GPS should be set to.
See the screenshot below from an Oregon GPS. So if you are talking geocaching to a fellow geocacher wherever they
are in the World they'll understand where you mean because we all use
the same coordinate notation.
If you want to use your GPS with the position format of British Grid (Ordnance Survey) then make sure you change the Map Datum to Ordnance Survey. Similarly if you change from Ordnance Survey back to Lat/Long HDDD° MM.MMM then check the map datum is WGS84.
If you end up with the coordinates on one format and the map datum on the other you'll find your GPS is incorrect by about 300 feet (100 meters).
This is the settings screen from an Oregon GPS. From the settings menu, open the Position Format menu then you can change the Position Format and Map Datums. Screenshots of both settings (Lat/Long Degrees and Decimal minutes and the British Grid Ordnance Survey) are shown.
Geocaching.com have a simple to use coordinate converter
This site also supports the Ordnance Survey Grid references
This is a more comprehensive site
|The newer receivers in the GPS (SiRFstarIII for example ) have more channels which allows them
to process signals from multiple satellites and so get a faster 'lock'. When you switch it on it starts to download information from the satellites it can 'see'. It will remember their locations for the next time you switch it on and get a lock much faster. If you've not used it for some time or have traveled a long distance then it will have to download this information again which may take a few minutes.
Look at this display from a Garmin Oregon. The satellites being received are shown in the circle in the middle of the display, the outer circle of the satellite display is the horizon, the inner circle is 45 degrees above the horizon (imagine it like a circle drawn round the sky half way between the horizon and directly overhead). The centre of the circle is directly overhead. Any satellites below the 45 degree circle and near the horizon circle may be difficult to receive if your horizon is obscured by trees, hills or buildings.
The green bars below show the signal strength of each satellite, the numbers show which satellite is which. So in this display, satellite 3 is almost directly overhead, 19 and 5 are quite high in the sky whilst 22 and 24 are about 45 degrees above the horizon. 8,18 and 16, are very low but still being received but 11, 7, 28, 15 and 21 are too low and the light gray colour shows they are not being received. It may seem odd that 22 and 8 have a similar signal strength but 8 is much lower in the sky. Many things affect the signal, including the way the GPS is being held, obstructions such as trees or buildings and so on. Satellite 37 is one of the WAAS/EGNOS satellites which corrects the normal signal to improve accuracy. You know the signal is being corrected by the letter D's that appear in the normal satellite bars (see more on WAAS/EGNOS later).
Finally, with all these satellites being received the GPS is showing an accuracy of 9 feet. The figure 31 feet on the right of the display is the altitude above sea level.
WAAS and EGNOS
Wide Area Augmented System and European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service. These provide a 'high resolution' signal that improves the accuracy of your position. Typically from around 15 to 20 feet (5 to 7meters) to about 10 feet (3 meters). You may need to enable it from the GPS setup menu. It will not significantly affect the battery consumption.
Both Garmin and Magellan produce maps for their GPS receivers. There are 'Topographical' and 'Street' map versions available. The topographical maps (also referred to as 'topo') show features of the countryside such as rivers, woodland, footpaths etc. Street maps are just that with few topo features showing. On the more expensive GPS receivers these maps usually support turn by turn routing for navigation by car, bike or on foot. Maps may be included with the GPS model or available to purchase separately.
All Garmin and Magellan GPS's that support maps, come with a Base Map which in the case of Garmin is very basic and not much use. The Magellan Base Map is much more detailed.
Both Garmin and Magellan produce Ordnance Survey (OS) maps for the UK (and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on Garmin). These are based on the 1:50000 scale Landranger maps and 1:25000 Explorer maps (includes national parks). These OS maps are very detailed but can be quite expensive.
There are also free maps available for Garmin GPS devices based on Open Street Maps (OSM) which have been compiled by a UK Geocacher. They are as good as the Garmin 'topo' maps and often show more detail. They are very easy to download and install on your GPS.
Create your own maps
Please note that the Ordnance Survey digital maps with the PC programs Memory Map, Anquet and Fugawi cannot be transferred to a Garmin or Magellan GPS though you can use the maps on the PC to transfer and load routes and waypoints from the map to the GPS. There are software applications available that allow you to 'capture' these maps from a PC map program (or scanned maps) and copy them to the GPS. This can be quite a time consuming process.
Maps on a Garmin GPS
See details of the available maps including screen shots (opens a new page)
How are maps stored on the GPS?
Maps are stored in the GPS memory. Most GPS's come with more than sufficient internal memory and all the newer ones support microSD cards for additional storage. Some GPS's come with pre loaded maps. See the comparison table later for full details of this. Pre-loaded maps use an additional area of internal memory and doesn't affect the normal memory available for you to use. A 2Gb microSD card is sufficient for the free Open Street Maps.
Which are the better maps?
The topo and street maps from Garmin and Magellan and the free Open Street Maps are vector based which means you can zoom in very closely without losing any detail. Both the Garmin and Magellan Ordnance Survey maps are raster based which means they go a bit 'fuzzy' if you zoom in too closely. For the countryside the OS maps are best and for towns and cities the Open Street Maps (for Garmin) or the Magellan Base Map are better. You can have both on your GPS and easily switch between them. Magellan in fact auto-zoom the maps from the OS to the Base Map.
Link to the free Open Street Maps (thanks to TalkyToaster!).
Note: If you are not sure about downloading and installing these maps TalkyToaster can supply them on a microSD card for a small charge. Please see his website.
To load various map types to a GPS/PDA/Phone
All smart phones have map applications available, such as Google maps. The geocaching applications you buy also use maps. These are however run 'online' so you will need a data connection to use them. You can also purchase from Memory Map the application to run Ordnance Survey (Landranger series) maps you have with the Memory Map application on your PC locally on the phone without a data connection. If you don't have Memory Map on the PC you can buy the maps for the phones. See the Memory Map website for details. For the iPhone the Motion-X GPS application allows you to download Open Street Maps to use offline.
Memory Map website
There are a lot of different handheld GPS receivers available with many different options. In the table below I've tried to give the main features as discussed further up this page to help you choose which GPS is the best for you based on the features you want and the price. A great way to find out about different types is to go to a Geocaching event and talk to other geocachers and have a look at what they use and what their preferences are. The Geocaching Association of Great Britain have a Calendar of events coming up.
The 'paperless' GPS units hold both waypoints and geocaches separately. This greatly increases the number of caches you can store and also keeps them separate to make it easier to go geocaching. You should also read the page in this site about paperless caching to understand more about how it works and how the cache information is sent to the GPS units. To get the full benefit of paperless caching you need to be a premium member of geocaching.com. There are also a huge number of forum posts from people trying to compare units and find the best.
Paperless caching page
Forum posts about GPS's
GAGB Event Calendar
The GPS units listed below are all current models. There are other models but the list would be just too long! The ones listed here seem to be the most popular that geocachers use. There are also discontinued models but I've not shown those either. The guide price is just that, a guide. You should shop around for best prices. Be careful of deals that offer maps with the unit. Check which maps are included in the deal. All the Garmin mapping GPS's come with a 'Basemap' which is not a lot of use having only very basic road coverage which isn't very accurate. The Magellan base map is much better.
All GPS's listed have a straightforward USB connection to a PC except the eTrex H which needs a special serial cable which is not supplied with the unit.
Disclaimer: All the information provided here is for information only to help you make a choice and I take no responsibility for any omission or errors. Please visit the Garmin & Magellan websites for full specifications of each unit.
|microSD Card||Maps||Pre-loaded maps3||Compass||Camera5||Wireless6||Guide price|
|eTrex Vista HCx||No||No||0||1000||0||Yes||Yes2||No||2-axis||No||No||£118|
|eTrex Legend HCx||No||No||0||1000||0||Yes||Yes2||No||GPS||No||No||£100|
1 Garmin Ordnance Survey GB Discoverer maps (GB and Ireland - ROI/NI), Garmin topo and street maps, free Open Street Maps
1 Magellan 'City Series Europe' (includes UK). Detailed street level 2D or 3D view, turn by turn routing and Points of Interest database. 710 includes voice guidance.
|Garmin Montana Wiki|
|Garmin Oregon 5xx Wiki|
|Garmin Oregon 6xx Wiki|
|Garmin Dakota Wiki|
|Garmin eTrex Wiki (10/20/30)|
|Garmin 62/78 Wiki|
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