Wednesday, August 4, 2010

GPS for the Bug Out Bag

I generally tend to stay away from electronic gadgets and other high-tech devices when it comes to gear for wilderness travel or the bug out bag.  Modern hand-held GPS receivers are a notable exception, however.  Although any electronic device can fail, some of the proven units on the market are tough as nails and not likely to let you down.  When I recently needed a handheld-unit that can handle both road, trail and marine navigation, I chose the well-proven Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx. This unit has all the features I need: waterproof, expandable memory via micro-SD cards, the ability to utilize a wide variety of both Garmin and free maps, and self-contained power via disposable AA batteries.  Although Garmin has recently released a newer version of this unit, called the Garmin GPSMAP 62, it is unproven, more expensive, and doesn't have any features I need that are not on the 60Cx.

For many years all of my handheld GPS needs have been met by the simple Garmin eTrex, and it will still go with me on any significant trips, especially as a back-up on the water.  When sailing or kayaking, I never leave the paper charts behind, and with a simple unit like the eTrex to give you accurate coordinates, you can navigate just fine with paper charts. Where they become a hassle is in bad weather, especially driving rain and high winds.  A chart-enabled GPS eliminates the need to have the paper charts out in the weather.  And in the bug out bag, a hand-held unit pre-loaded with detailed topo maps of the area eliminates a lot of unnecessary weight in maps, though I would still carry a large overview topo map of the main area I planned to bug out to.

As I've mentioned in my book, the real value of a GPS unit in the bug out bag is that it will enable you to go exactly to your pre-planned location or pre-loaded waypoints, even if you are forced to travel at night or under other unfavorable conditions for traditional navigation.  Although the battery life is limited and the number of spares you can carry is as well, used conservatively, the GPS receiver will likely run long enough to get you where you need to go and to move on to other locations if necessary.  Of course this is the reason I prefer a unit like the eTrex or 60Cx that can use disposable batteries, as some units for more civilized use, such as the Nuvi vehicle navigation units, have built-in rechargeable batteries that you won't last long in a bug out situation and will leave you with no way to recharge them.

I plan to use the 60Cx unit for overland navigation on foot, bicycle and on my dual-sport motorcycle, as well as for on-the-water navigation in my kayaks on aboard my catamaran once it's launched.  Garmin's Blue Chart software for all U.S. waters is now available on a single micro-SD card that will work in the unit and cost around $160 (less through some online retailers).  On the KLR 650, loaded with City Navigator and topo maps, it will facilitate exploring remote forest service roads and logging tracks without having to stop the bike and get out a paper map at every unknown intersection.

I'm expecting the 60Cx to arrive today, and after I have a chance to use it I will be posting more about the specifics of navigating with it, as well as sources for some of the free mapping software that is available for it.


  1. Very cool information. My boss and I had a road trip yesterday in a distant city, and during the drive, got to talking. He pulled out his Etrex unit, and told me he had marked a spot where he had found a lot of evidence of arrowheads (he enjoys arrowhead hunting). 153 miles thataway - impressive!

    I'd be leery about marking cache spots with it, better to devise a system with nearby landmarked spots and keep the real location to yourself or those you trust.

  2. I have been looking into getting a gps unit so I hope you post again to let us know what your real experience with your new unit is like. I have all of my cache spots mapped out by compass readings and land marks. Also would a GPS work after an EMP strike if it was safe in a faraday box?

  3. I've had the GPSMap 60CSx for several years now. I think the only difference is the addition of an electronic compass and barometric pressure sensor (for the altimeter) on the 60CSx. I've used, and still have, an original eTrex and an eTrex Vista (both went to Afghanistan with me years ago), and I the 60CSx is a HUGE improvement. The color screen and driving directions really help, but the biggest improvement is the sensor. I'm amazed at how I can get signal indoors, and how it acquires signal so much quicker.

    I think you've made a wise purchase.

  4. Anon., Regarding marking cache spots, you can easily name the waypoint something anyone who gets access to your GPS could never figure out. These units allow you to save hundreds of waypoints and you can bury your cache spot in all that data. But, it's still a good idea to cross-reference off of landmarks as well, in case you have to find the cache without the GPS.

    Outlander, I will be posting more about the unit. So far, I think it's going to be great.
    I think in the event of an EMP strike, regardless of whether your unit survives due to proper shielding, the entire system could go down if enough of the orbiting satellites are taken out by the pulse.

    Josh, Good to know you like the 60CSx and that it served you well in Afghanistan. I opted for the base model without the electronic compass and barometer, because my Casio Pathfinder watch already has those features. I agree, the sensor is much better than my old Etrex, and it seems good at plotting an accurate course even among waypoints just a few feet apart. I'm looking forward to putting it to some challenging tests in the future.

  5. Casio Pathfinder??? Eh... Nah, that's OK I guess! I've been wearing a Sunnto for years (with an altimeter and compass); I guess I have a little brand loyalty. The Suunto Vector and Advizor were the preferred watches when I was in the Army anyway (by those in my line of work). I almost never take it off my wrist.

    To each his own though. I hope the GPS works well for you. I'll be curious to see if you have an update on what you think of it.


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