My GPS broke when I was backpacking recently, and then I had a disastrous trip where at one point I lamented not having a decent compass. It was time to engage in one of my favorite non-hiking pastimes. Research and shopping.
I don’t know where it’s gone but my Silva hiking compass has disappeared. I quizzed the girls, but they not only denied borrowing it, but also confessed that they wouldn’t know how to use it anyway. I think I see some parental guidance in map reading and using a compass in the near future.
My original plan was to replace the missing compass with an identical model. Reading the reviews online I discovered that due to some legal wranglings, the Silva compasses now sold in the US were not of the same quality as those available elsewhere. I didn’t want to wait for my next trip to the UK to buy a replacement, so I started looking for alternatives.
The one I finally settled for is much better (and more expensive) than I need for hiking in the Ozarks, but it is of excellent quality, and had a few bells and whistles that I’d enjoy playing with. I bought a Suunto MC-2G USGS Mirror Compass.
It’s a hand bearing compass, designed for global use (northern & southern hemisphere), and it has scale markings and contour line scales that are set for USGS maps. The mirror is used to set the bezel when taking a bearing, and it’s claimed it can be used for signalling. It has impressive night time illumination — not that I ever intend to use it in the dark — and you can correct the declination for your local area using a small supplied screw driver.
It’s well made, but as per the many reviews I read, the cover is fairly difficult to open. The bezel is tough to turn, but that’s better than it being too loose, resulting in you losing your compass reading before you’ve had a chance to note it down. It has a handy magnifying lens, and the compass incorporates a clinometer. It’s a bit frivolous, but I did use it to check the hanging angle of my hammock straps (I might as well if I can, the optimum angle is 30°). The attachment for the supplied lanyard looked a bit suspect to me (and many of the reviewers), so I fitted my own lanyard to it.
On my last trip I tested it by using it twice to locate myself on the Pees Hollow Trail at Hercules Glades. The first time by sighting on a prominent (but unnamed) knob, and the second by sighting on the fire tower at the Tower Trailhead. I then used the compass to transfer the bearings to a USGS map I’d printed. At the same time I recorded a way point on the GPS, and I compared the results when I got home.
From my knowledge of where I was, and the results, it seems like it (or I) did a good job.
Do I recommend it? Yes, it works well. The needle swings freely and settles very quickly. It copes well with the compass not being held level, which is a fault of mine. Everything is clear and I had no problem taking a bearing and transferring it to the map while on the trail.
Buyers’ Warning, there are many different options available for this compass. Because of my inability to hold a compass level I went for the Global version (hence G2 in the model id). You can purchase one that’s designed for the northern hemisphere only. And, in terms of the baseplate markings, there are options for both USGS and metric maps. So if you are interested in getting one, make sure you get one that matches your needs.
Before splashing out a lot of money on a new GPS I decided to check on what’s been happening with Cell phone based GPS systems. If your cell phone has a built in GPS receiver (and most now do), you can download an app to convert it into a fully functional handheld GPS receiver. Again, I spent lots of time reviewing various products before settling on the GAIA GPS app. This app is backed up by a website where you can create routes and prepare maps to be downloaded and printed.
A quick look at the pictures above (click or tap them to see them full-screen) shows just how clear the USGS maps are on a cell phone screen.
The free option only provides access to their own vector based maps, which are quite adequate, but you can’t download them to your phone to use when your phone has no service. The paid for version includes USGS maps, and you can download whatever maps you want to your phone, which means that you can switch your phone to Airplane Mode — which saves the battery — and use it just like a normal handheld GPS. Except … except it is 100 times better.
Why is it better than a normal GPS?
Well firstly because the phone screen is bigger, and secondly because the user interface is much easier to use. You can quickly zoom in and out by pinching, and scrolling around the map is just a matter of swiping. Want to add a way point? Just touch the way point icon, it’ll be added and then you can type notes quickly and easily using the phone’s type pad. You can see elevation graphs instantly, and when you have a cell phone connection you can share your location online.
All this for $20 dollars a year, compared to the $90 to $200+ for a handheld GPS.
I was skeptical. Firstly of the accuracy and reliability of my cell phone’s GPS, and secondly of the App/website software.
The Website is a bit clunky, and I’ve hit a few limitations, like not being able to copy a route, so you can use it as the basis of a new route. Sometimes the way it decides to add new segments to a route is a bit odd too, but on the whole it’s good, albeit with a bit of a learning curve. Support have been quite responsive with answers within 24 hours or so.
The phone App is very good and easy to use, and it has worked without fault for over four days of hiking in two wildernesses.
Regarding the accuracy, it appears to be just as good as my Garmin eTrex. In fact looking closely at my track, in places I can clearly see where I had to go around fallen trees. It shows the usual ‘GPS Jitter’ when I was stationary, but nothing more than I’m used to seeing. It kept a good lock on my position in the narrow tree-lined hollows of Devil’s Backbone Wilderness. Of course I’ll need to run another test of that later in the year when the trees are in leaf.
Another good thing about using my cell phone as my GPS, is that I’m already carrying my cell phone plus a battery block to keep it (and my camera) charged. Not having a separate GPS is one less thing to carry, and I don’t need to carry more spare batteries. Unlike the eTrex it’s not water resistant, but an Otterbox or the like should fix that for kayaking.
Printing maps from the website was easy. As was downloading maps and routes to my cell phone. If you’ve not bought a GPS just download the App and give it a try, but don’t forget you’ll need the paid-for version if you want to use it where there’s no cell service, or with your phone in Airplane mode.
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