Tuesday, 1 September 2009

My GPS Sucks

A few years ago, as a safety precaution for my time on the trails, I bought a Garmin Vista Cx handheld GPS unit. I've lived with it for about 3 years now. Way back when in 2007 in this post I complained about the stupid user interface and functionality problems. Over time I have grown even more weary of the device. Last weekend on Tent Ridge, just when I needed it most to follow a track to get off the mountain, it got confused and "lost me". It does that a lot.

Here, for instance, is the track from this hike up to Rummell Lake.

According to this track log, the hike is over 90 km long, and I managed to climb Mt. Galatea, and bore a tunnel through The Tower to get to the other side of the peak. Here's a track from this hike up to Paget Lookout and Sherbrooke Lake.

This hike was just over 80 km long. I apparantly repeatedly crossed the TransCanada, and crossed the lake (people have always told me I walk on water, now I can prove it). My favourite part is that you can't actually tell where Paget Lookout is, and yet that's the most exposed part of the hike, where I sat & had lunch for an hour, and where the trail ended.

The tracks the Vista generates are useless. They can't be followed. They barely even suggest where the trail might be. Making critical, life saving decisions based on them -- or the positioning the unit says while standing in the bush -- is potentially deadly.

Because I realize that I hike in the mountains, and a GPS is only as good as the unit's ability to see sattelites, I understand that it might occasionally have it's locating challenges. But when I'm standing on the top of a mountain, you would think that the Vista would actually be able to see the best. You would be wrong. Look at the above messes as proof.

The crappy reception does not result from how I carry it. I carry it clipped to the top of the shoulder strap on my daypack. The only thing blocking it from the skyward view is my big fat head. I am aware and accept that if I put my pack down the wrong way, it gets lost. But by contrast, I am always puzzled that if I forget to turn it off, and I lock it in the trunk of my station wagon, it makes a perfect track home every time.

I bought a bike mount for it. The $25 bike mount Garmin sells for it (with Vista Cx clearly marked on the box) doesn't fit the unit. Do you need one? I wrecked the packaging and tossed my receipt so can't take it back. I'm not sure exactly what it fits.

I'm a Mac guy. Garmin and Mac barely speak. To get a topo map into the Vista, you have two options.

The first is to buy a Garmin topo map SD memory card and put it in the unit itself. Great, but you can do no route planning on the computer.

The second option is about as convoluted as you can get. First, you need to buy the MapSource maps on CD and a PC (yes, a different computer). Then you access the maps in MapSource on the PC, and create an export file. Then you use Garmin's Bobcat software to import the maps into the Mac (where you still can't see them) and export them to the Vista. This is assinine. If you have access to a PC to use MapSource, why not just connect the Vista to the PC and be done with it?

Recently, Garmin tried to make it better. Last month they released BaseCamp, which is software that allows you to use certain maps on the Mac. The maps you can use for Canada? Topo Canada V4. All $155 of it. Covers the whole country. Great for those weekend getaways to Iqaluit (actually, I think my Vista has mapped me there already) or Trois-Rivieres. At least BaseCamp is free.

So to make the Vista useful with my Mac, I run a little free program called LoadMyTracks. All this allows me to do is upload and download .GPX and .KML files. Fortunatly, my friends at MMHikes have their files in .GPX format. Occasionally, I find other tracks in .GDB or other formats so use a little free program called GPS Babel to convert to .GPX format.

In short, I think the Garmin Vista Cx verges on useless. If you're a PC person who lives on the bald flat prairies, maybe. But for me, it's deadweight, and misleading deadweight at that.

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