The Ultimate Geocaching GPSr Field Test
If there’s anything to get a discussion going amongst Geocachers it’s the subject of GPS units. With so much choice out there, knowing which one to buy can be difficult. And geocachers have a very narrow focus. We don’t care about all the added features, we just want to be able to navigate to geocaches. And so with that in mind a few geocachers and I had an idea to have a field test and crown one of them the best for geocaching.
But how to adequately test them against one another? Whilst environment plays a part, it’s not the total picture. What you need is a large series of geocaches including puzzles and multis, where the route might mean that the next nearest geocache might not be the next in the series. And you want to do this on the sort of day where weathermen are telling you to stay at home.
For the next ten hours we would be battling through mud and flash floods over 20 miles to find over 100 geocaches on foot.
And so it was that we found ourselves traveling to the countryside just outside the south-east boundary of London on the first day of the year, armed with every single GPSr we could lay our hands on. We would battle the elements, find a ridiculous number of geocaches and crown one GPSr the winner! Joining me on this fool’s errand were extreme geocachers: Westie Walker, PhilMyBoots and 70C
Enter (and exit) the Magellan
The drama, however, started the day before. It had become very apparent as we planned this trip that our collection of GPSrs was very Garmin centric. Part of this is just down to retail. Here in the UK if you go to an outdoor specialist it’s pretty much Garmin or nothing. They also have a pretty good reputation amongst the Geocaching community. Even so, I managed to track down a Magellan eXplorist 610 and got it delivered the day before our field test.
I have to be honest and say that in the little time I played with it, I was very impressed. At $400 it’s not a cheap GPS but there were little things, like being able to swap between clue and map easily, that made me feel this was designed with geocaching very much in mind. I was excited. I thought I might have found a David amongst a collective Goliath of Garmins.
But I made a point of ensuring the firmware was up to date first. Just a download of an executable from the website. The install seemed to go fine; that is until it went to reboot. Then the loading screen decided to freeze. Given that I’d just had a corrupted GPX file do the same thing to my old Garmin Oregon 300 I wasn’t too worried. On the Oregon, I’d just held the power button down so it booted into USB storage mode and then cleared off the GPX file. Surely I could just do something and reflash the firmware?
But alas no. After three frantic communications with Magellan technical support I was informed there was no reset, no way to reflash the firmware and that I would have to wait for a returns number and send it back to them. This was a brand new retail device, not some prototype or battered press loaner. I had used the device for all of twenty minutes before it broke on me.
On the road
As we drove to our start point the next day, there wasn’t a lot of sympathy from our group of geocachers.
“If that was your only GPSr and you had to send it back it could stop you caching for weeks,” Westie said. The rest of us agreed.
That we decided was the main thing we all wanted from a GPSr – reliability – and it was a point that was brought up time and time again over the course of the day.
The Garmin Oregon 650 got some early points when we stopped to fuel up on our way to our destination. At just under $500 at retail it’s the most expensive (and newest) GPSr in our test. Because of the new .ggz compressed format it uses to store geocaches, it had meant that I could add everything for fifty miles from our starting point and could tell whether there was a geocache at the fuel stop.
Let the testing begin
We arrived at our destination, parked the car and started walking a little after 8am. Phil was using the Garmin Oregon 550t, Westie was using the now obsolete Garmin Colorado, 70C had the Garmin GPSMAP 62s, and I was using the new design Garmin Oregon 650.
It wasn’t long before the heavens opened and the wind picked up to gale force. For the next ten hours we would be battling through mud and flash floods over 20 miles to find over 100 geocaches on foot. During that time we would compare GPS units and discuss their pros and cons.
Methods and madness
To better understand our demands, here’s how we cache. Upon replacing a geocache we will start walking in the direction we think the series is following. Whilst doing so we will log the find we’ve just made, enter any user note (usually an initial to indicate who made the actual find), and click next closest. We’ll then bring up the map, check we’re heading in the right direction and to the right geocache and make use of the geocaching dashboard to gain extra information (such as distance). When we get to within several hundred feet away, we’ll check the clue, before swapping back to the map for the last hundred feet. When you are doing over 100 geocaches in a day you cannot afford to lose time standing around. If each geocache only takes three minutes to find, log and replace, that still amounts to 5 hours of your day. That means, all battery changes, all drinking, all eating, all GPS functions have to be done on the move. We are constantly pressing buttons and staring at those screens. We depend on the GPSr to guide us to our next find quickly and efficiently.
Garmin Oregon 650
And that can cause problems. For example, on my Oregon 650 if the next geocache in the series is not the next closest, I may have to try and select the right geocache from the map. But numerous times when I did this, my walking motion caused me to create an additional waypoint rather than select the actual geocache. And if you go into the Geocaching submenu and get it to list all nearby geocaches, the .gzz format means it sometimes takes its time to unravel everything and present you the information. I’m a hundred feet from the geocache and I still cannot select it because the processing circle is still spinning.
However, at least the newer GPSrs have paperless caching. I brought my old Garmin Etrex Legend HCx with me. You can pick these up on eBay for under a hundred dollars these days, but the absence of clues or descriptions made me wonder how I had ever managed with it. GPSrs have definitely made massive improvements in the last couple of years.
By geocache 80 we’re cold and starting to shiver. At geocache 90 we have to wade up to our knees in flood water.
The one thing that can be said about the Etrex is that it is rugged. My device has fallen off a car at 40mph. My Oregon 300 has been to the bottom of a river. Westie once accidently put his Colorado into the washing machine. All still work. Which is why the group is a little dismayed at the Oregon 650. When signing a log, we’ll put our GPS down on the first available spot: a fence post, a nook in a tree. They’re not always stable and GPSrs often tumble off of them. The Oregon 650 has its glass so close to the edge that we all agreed it didn’t feel rugged.
“You drop that face down on a footpath, you’ll smash it or scratch it,” says Phil.
Worse still the 650 does not handle rain. I tried to get video of it glitching but it can’t even be consistent at that. Get water on the screen and after a while it’ll start acting as if it is possessed. A quick wipe on your trousers to get the droplets off often (but not always) helps, however you inadvertently press menu buttons in the process. And so as the rain buckets down I find myself getting increasingly frustrated with it as I try and perform the myriad of operations I need to do in the short time between caches.
It gets so bad that I turn it off and get out my Oregon 300. There’s things we like about the 650 though. Big buttons are a bonus when you’re walking and operating a GPSr at the same time. We like the software even if it requires coming all the way out to the main menu to get from the hint back to the map. But the simple fact is that even the old Etrex is more reliable in the wet.
Westie, in the meantime , is enjoying the Garmin Colorado. They are now obsolete but you can pick one up on ebay for under $200. It operates via a clickwheel rather than a touch screen but he shows me the dashboard he has overlayed his maps which give all the pertinent cache details: size, difficulty, terrain. It was missing from the subsequent Oregons but makes a reappearance in the Oregon 6xx series software . However, when it comes to multis and puzzles the need to wheel to input every letter and number makes the Colorado painfully slow to operate.
70C had similar issues with the Garmin GPSMAP 62s. You can still find this at retail for $350. We all think it’s a great device – the GPSMAP series has some of the best GPS accuracy of any GPSr – but like the Colorado and Etrex it doesn’t have a touchscreen. That can make the interface a little cumbersome. It’s enough to make 70C swap to the easier to operate Oregon 300 over the course of the day.
Crowning the winner
We press on. By our 60th geocache of the day our boots are soaked and morale is low. By geocache 80 we’re cold and starting to shiver. At geocache 90 we have to wade up to our knees in flood water. Both Westie and Phil slip over in the mud. And it just continues to rain and the wind continues to howl. But by the end of the day, we’ve found 110 geocaches over the 20 miles we’ve walked and are ready to crown a winner in our field test.
The only person who doesn’t swap their GPS during our day is Phil, sporting the Garmin Oregon 550t. It continues to work, and his only complaint about his GPSr is to do with old rechargeable batteries. It’s reliable, it’s rugged, it’s easy to use and most importantly it works in the rain. At its heart it’s essentially the same machine as the Oregon 300 but it has some extra features like a camera and can hold more geocaches.
And it’s for the reason of capacity we decide it knocks the Oregon 300 into second place. The only trouble is that they’ve been replaced at retail with the much inferior Oregon 6xx series. Don’t make the mistake in thinking all Oregons are alike. The newer designed 6xx series are major step backwards in everything but software. However, with a lot of geocachers now upgrading to the new models, you can pick one up second hand Oregon 550 for around $250. Don’t bother paying extra for models with cameras; most people have a phone with more megapixels. And if your budget won’t stretch that far, you really are only compromising on capacity by going for a lower model.
And so we come to the unanimous conclusion after we drive home with the heater on full after a long, wet day, that the best GPSr for a geocacher to buy is one that is no longer in production. Which is a bit of a worry. Not everyone wants to go out in a storm and spend ten hours caching, but a geocacher wants, needs even, a device that is dependable enough to be cope with those conditions, or at least not brick itself before you even get there. GPSrs might have come a long way since the Etrex Legend HCx as far as geocachers are concerned but they’ve still got a way to go yet.