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GPS Buyer's Guide for Geocaching

If you are just getting started in geocaching, one of the hardest decisions is which GPS receiver (GPSr) to purchase. Pretty much any GPS geared towards outdoor recreational use (as opposed to marine or vehicle navigation) works for geocaching. While a simple, inexpensive GPS is perfectly capable of being used for geocaching, many of the extra features available are very desirable. Don’t go too cheap! The GPS can’t be upgraded later. If you buy a decent enough one, it’ll work for auto navigation as well and you can take it along fishing, biking or hiking. Many cellphones include GPS receivers now, while these can be used for geocaching in a pinch or when first trying it out, you'll probably want a dedicated GPS receiver which features increased accuracy. There are constantly new models and features being released and this page might not have the most up to date information.

The two most popular brands are Garmin and Magellan. Both manufacturers have excellent websites with lots of information about the different units available.

The two main things you want to consider are your budget and what else you might want to use the GPS for besides geocaching.

Basic GPS units start at around $100. While suitable for geocaching, you'll likely out grow a budget unit like this very quickly. As you progress up the levels, units include on board mapping, interface cables, colour displays and expandable memory.

Some features to look for:

  • High Sensitivity Receiver so the arrow turns when you do
  • Paperless geocaching so you can get details of the cache listing and description on your GPSr in the field
  • Adequate CPU for map panning and zooming
  • Mapping capability - knowing where you are often isn’t enough - you usually need a map to know how to get to where you want to go!
  • Colour - mapping on B&W is pretty hard to interpret
  • Expandable memory. The built in 64-MB won’t cut it if you start using Topo maps and take road trips!
  • USB interface - for fast waypoint and map loading - it beats the heck out of doing it with the little GPS joystick!
  • Batteries - AA’s ideally - they've got good capacity and you can buy rechargeable and pack your own (non-proprietary) spares
  • Ergonomics - you need to hold one and see if it works in your hands

*This information is currently out of date.*
One of the most popular units for geocaching is the Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx. This is a full featured, top of the line GPS which is highly recommended and gets very good reviews. A cheaper alternative that’s not as fast and has a smaller screen is the Garmin eTrex Legend HCx. The Garmin Oregon, Colorado and Dakota series units are newer models that feature more advanced geocaching functions such as cache and log details. You might want to take a look at them. Geocaching.com provides GPS reviews from fellow geocachers.

On board maps are especially helpful for navigating to a point, instead of following an arrow, you follow the roads. Outdoor orientated GPS with mapping features will include a basemap. This is a general map that covers much of the world. To really use the mapping feature you need to purchase additional detailed maps. These can range from $80 - $150. You can find detailed road maps of North America or regional topographic maps. A Calgary area cacher has been able to provide free topo maps of Canada for Garmin units based on government map data. Similarly MAGic Maps is making available topo maps for Magellan units.

If you want to use your GPS for auto navigation, you will want to make sure you choose a unit that offers that feature. With colour, mapping and a decent sized screen an outdoor GPS is also quite useful for auto navigation. You will require detailed mapping software that supports auto navigation, which is an additional purchase.

If you are available, you might also consider coming out to one of the MBGA events to meet other geocachers. I'm sure anyone would be more than happy to let you see their GPS unit so you can make a comparison and see which one would be right for you. Also feel free to ask in the forums or chatroom about specific models you might be interested in or up to date suggestions on models to consider.

Here are a few terms you might want to understand if you're looking at purchasing a GPS unit:

WAAS - this just means that it tracks an additional satellite to provide higher accuracy.

Electronic Compass - this is a feature of the more advanced GPS units. With a basic unit, you need to be moving for it to configure the compass. If you were to stand in one place and turn the GPS, it would not be able to determine which way was north until you started moving again. If the unit has an electronic compass, then it can determine which direction is north even when standing still.

Expandable Memory - this will give you the ability to load additional maps (purchased separately)

Auto Navigation (Routing) - this will give you turn-by-turn directions when you are driving in a car. It is sometimes referred to as street routing.

Paperless Geocaching - this will give you cache descriptions, ratings, and recent log info stored directly on your device.