The range of GPS receivers out there is truly mind-boggling. You could very easily spend days and days looking at different units and still not be any closer to a final decision on the one that would be best suited to your circumstances. A good way out of this conundrum is to begin by listing the characteristics and functions that you are looking for and then making your decision based on this.
I regard the following features as basic and non-negotiable. You should therefore strive to make your purchasing decision based on these attributes:
Accurate and reliable readings: Accuracy is not generally considered to be a major point of difference between different GPS receivers since they all get their readings from the same set of satellites. Of greater concern is the issue of reliability. You need a unit that will not suddenly freeze, die or ‘go slow’ on you! Read some product reviews before making a final decision as these will make it clear if there are any issues in this regard.
Good battery life: Nothing is as frustrating as having to abandon your search because you ran out of battery power. Good battery life is more than a convenience issue. If you are in particularly rugged terrain you will need your GPS to get you back to safety. It is therefore in your best interest to choose a unit that uses power sparingly. (It is also recommended that you always carry spare batteries with you)
Base map: A base map is simply a map stored in the GPS’s memory. This is not (in most cases) a high-definition and high detail map, but it does allow the unit to link its readings with the physical environment. This makes the task of finding a specific location so much easier. Units without base maps simply display the following information (without plotting them on a map):
- Bearing (Direction of travel, usually presented as a degree value out of 360)
- Distance travelled
- Distance to your destination
The fact that a base map places all of this information (and more) in their proper context makes it an invaluable aid. I recognise, however, that not everybody will agree with my assessment of a base map as a non-negotiable feature. Some people believe that not having access to a base map make the sport more challenging as its absence will add another layer of complexity to the hunt.
Computer interface ability: Most new GPS units can be linked up with a personal computer through a USB cable. Some can also link up through a wireless network or Bluetooth. I regard this function as very important if you plan to do serious geocaching as it will allow you to download cache coordinates directly onto your device at the click of a button. Going paperless in this way is not only very convenient; it also reduces the possibility of serious errors arising from inaccurate manual entries. (A single digit entered incorrectly due to ‘fat finger syndrome’ can leave you hundreds of metres off the mark!)
Ruggedness: Geocaching is an intense outdoor activity that takes place in all kinds of weather. Your equipment should therefore be able to withstand extreme conditions. It is also quite likely that a GPS unit will be dropped several times during its ‘career’. Do your best, therefore, to choose a unit that does not look as if it has to be constantly wrapped in cotton wool!
Waypoint saving: The ‘waypoint saving’ function allows you to store a specific location within the unit’s memory. Regular storage of waypoint can enhance your safety in challenging terrain as it will enable you to retrace your steps back to your original location. Most modern units allow you to store waypoints. The only real difference between receivers is how many of these points can be stored. A unit with a larger storage capacity is somewhat easier to manage as you will not have to constantly delete old waypoints to make room for new ones. Your unit should also ideally include a ‘Track Log’ feature that will allow you to use previous waypoints as ‘breadcrumbs’ on the way to safety.
Water resistance: If you go geocaching for long enough it is almost certain that your equipment will get wet at some stage. Your unit should be able to deal with wet conditions without ‘giving up the ghost’ immediately. Just how wet depends on what you intend to use the unit for. If you are simply worried about an occasional bit of moisture water resistance should be sufficient. If, however, you plan to use your unit in marine environments you should perhaps opt for one that is waterproof (i.e. it can be submerged in water for a certain amount of time without dying)