How to Choose an Angling GPS Unit

garmin-oregon-300.jpgSome anglers never have any use for GPS; they fish well-marked rivers in areas with excellent maps. But not everyone’s local water fits that profile; in the Appalachians from Georgia to Maine, in the Bighorns or the Wind River Range, and in large swathes of our national parks, it’s still extremely possible to get lost. The worst places for losing one’s sense of direction are forested mountains; the trees keep you from getting your bearings, while practically every little creek looks the same as every other little creek. In those situations, GPS is very useful.
Deciding on GPS units can be complicated: Do I need a radio? What about a color screen? Will I use the voice navigation? Should I get a trail model only, or a road/trail model that can do double duty? Here’s a quick run down, drawn from my experiences with my GPS units, the Garmin Nuvi series ($100-300) and the Garmin Rino 520HCx ($450).

First things first, leave the road navigation to the cheaper car units (Garmin Nuvi, TomTom, etc.) With spoken voice commands and big, bright screens, those models are great for road driving and terrible for trail navigation. With rugged builds, powerful receivers, long-lasting batteries, and the ability to make custom tracks, trail units are the exact opposite (terrible for road driving, great at everything else).
Second, unless you’re navigating wide-open areas, you can skip the radio feature. My Rino 520HCx has a theoretical walkie-talkie range of over 8 miles, but it can’t punch through more than a few hundred yards of forested Appalachian woods (testing with Motorola walkie-talkies of similar advertised signal strength). Next, you WILL use the waterproofing, whether you plan to or not, so choose your unit accordingly. Some units, like the Garmin Rino and Astro series, can track the location of other units, including those mounted on a dog collar, which is nice in hunting season (but very expensive, since you need multiple high-end units). Finally, choose a GPS that communicates easily with Google Earth (unquestionably the best mapping software out there, full stop, and free to boot), and learn to upload your tracks.
RINO530HCx-thumb.jpgFor my money, doing it over again, I would skip the Rino (left) and choose one of Garmin’s Oregon or Colorado models. Their smaller profile and updated color screens (with higher-res maps) make them the better buy. Currently, Garmin remains the clear leader in the trail GPS unit market. But, if your ex-wife works for Garmin or you just can’t stomach the purchase, take a look at the Magellan Triton or the Bushnell Onix series. Or, if you are willing to risk the loss of an expensive smartphone, consider the iPhone or a GPS-equipped Blackberry. Just don’t expect these units to accept topographic map uploads or know the location of trails in the backcountry.
For more about using GPS while fishing, check out my American Angler article “Googling the Backcountry.”
Have a recommendation or a word of caution about buying a GPS unit? Share it in the Comments section!

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  • While I have been using my GPS and Google Maps more and more for finding my way (by road) to fish new waters, I have only recently starting researching trail based GPS units – your article will help.
    One thing to consider that is not mentioned in your article is battery life. Obviously if the battery dies when you are in the backcountry the GPS is of little use.
    I reviewed the battery life of the GPS models you mentioned and have summarized them below for your readers:
    Garmin Nuvi (500 & 550) – up to 8 hours
    Garmin Colorado Series – 15 hours
    Garmin Oregon Series – 16 hours
    Garmin Dakota Seris – 20 hours
    Magellan Triton Series – 10 hours
    Bushnell Onix – 12 to 30 hours (model dependent)
    Bear in mind the actual battery life will vary depending on which features of your GPS you use and may be less than advertised.
    So when selecting a GPS you’ll want to factor in the duration of the trip you intend to use it for and of course bring back-up batteries!
    I’d also add a reminder for folks to not rely solely on their GPS and make sure they bring a good topo map with them when they head out into backcounty in search of those virgin trout that have never seen a human before!

  • I have the Garmin 60CSx and love the unit. And for this unit as well – BRING BATTERIES! I am on the coast and inland lakes, so I added the micro card that has those charts – a must. One downside; the little compartment that holds that card (behind the batteries) comes loose and the card disconnects from its contact (causing the charts to disappear). Solution: Cut a piece of the thin gurgler foam in a rectangle that fits that slot, place it under the batteries, and that pressure will keep the door closed. The Garmin Roadtrip software for Mac works great and allows me to download and upload with ease. I recently had to update software (when it just quit acquiring satellites) for the unit (from the Garmin site) and the unit now acquires faster than it did when it was new.

  • Robert Johnson

    One other feature that’s important around water is the unit should float. Waterproofing does you no good if the unit is at the bottom in water deeper than an arm length. I have the Garmin GPSmap 76Cx and the floating feature has saved me more than once. As for batteries, nothing beats Rayovac Hybrid or Sanyo Eneloop rechargeables; they have great capacity and a relatively long shelf life.

  • But beware of rechargeable batteries that have higher output (than typical non rechargeable) as they may damage the GPS – according to their manual.