Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dual use GPS for road and trail


UPDATE: The Magellan eXplorist 710, introduced in the fall of 2010, is another dual-use unit worthy of consideration.

UPDATE 2: Garmin has a new dual use entry with their Garmin Montana series.

I want a GPS that does it all; this has got to be one of the most frequent requests I hear. 

Several companies have tried to create GPS receivers that will work well on the road or in your hand — for backcountry use, geocaching or what have you. The latest example is the Garmin nuvi 500 series, pictured above at left.

Yet none of the manufacturers have nailed it, and I have my doubts that they ever will. The main reason is that compromises must be made, either on the handheld side or the auto side. Here are my thoughts on sorting through your choices…

Decide what's more important

Since there are compromises to be made, it’s critical to decide which is more important to you – in the car or on the trail.

If you’ll spend most of your time using it to navigate in your car, I’d recommend the nuvi 500. It does a great job on the road, has preloaded topo maps of the entire U.S., and is set up for paperless geocaching. The downside for trail use is weak implementation of the compass feature, at least that was the case when I tested it. Recent firmware updates may have improved  it.


If you will mainly use it in the backcountry, the Garmin Oregon series is my top choice. These touchscreen units are right at home on the trail, and when you add City Navigator maps they do an excellent job in the car. I’ve been using my Oregon 400t this way for the past few weeks, and I think it may be the best dual-use solution out there. You can see a screenshot to the left.

Two caveats though – don’t buy a 200 series unit; it has no speaker so you won’t get a “beep” warning you of upcoming turns. Also, I don’t recommend it for fixed mount use in the backcountry, such as on mountain bikes. Here’s why; these high-resolution screens aren’t as bright as other models, but I don’t find it problematic if you are holding the unit in your hand, where you can quickly adjust for the best viewing angle. Regardless, the display is very bright when connected to a vehicle power cable.

The DeLorme PN-40 is another option, but its built-in highway navigation database often leaves a lot to be desired.

Consider buying two separate units

A single unit is nice. You can navigate to a trailhead or near a geocache in your car, and only have to load waypoints to one unit. But if you aren’t wedded to the idea of a single unit, two separate models may be the best solution of all.

By the time you invest in one of the devices above, you may well find that it’s cheaper to buy a basic auto unit and a basic handheld. After all, you can get a nuvi 200 series model for your car and a Venture HC for the trail for under $250.

So now it’s your turn readers. One GPS or two? And if one, what do you think is the best dual-purpose unit on the market?

Related posts:

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. I have a Garmin GPSmap 60Cx and I have City Navigator North America loaded. I use it for geocaching and for car navigation as well. It was my first GPS receiver.
    I also have a Garmin eTrex Venture HC. It’ll be donated to a charity auction soon, but I’ve used it some for geocaching.
    If I was going to do it all over again, I WOULD get two. A car model and a handheld.
    I recommend that to anyone that asks.
    I suspect I could get decent models of both for less money than I paid for both handhelds that I have plus the map data (the 60Cx doesn’t come with anything but a basemap).

  2. I agree. I hope this post will help some folks make the right choice.

  3. I have an old GPSMAP 76CS with city navigator (?) that the 76 holds most of California with the 115mb. I was/is my 1st gps. I have used it for geocaching, and now mostly for car navigation. I’ve often wondered why car navigators have horizontal screens and not vertical… I’ve been very happy with my old 76, and just can’t justify spending the money on getting a new one, i don’t geocashe as much, but do hike some, so would still probably would lean toward a portable gps. My maps are getting old, and the gps freaks out on some of the highway changes, but it still gets me around quite nicely.
    thanks for your tidbits..

  4. I use a 60CSx and a 2720 or 2610 on my d/s bike or Gold Wing. The 60CSx is especially important for me because I have the tracking being stored to the micro SD card. For my car, I recently purchased a MIO MOOV 500 and am pleased for its use there.

  5. I am a real estate broke in San Antonio, TX and will operate primarily in San Antonio. However, I own approx. 65 acres in Sallia, MS
    (16 miles SW of Kosciusko, MS)where we grown pine trees and hunt. Would like to know the best unit(s) for operating in both areas.

  6. Doug Stiltner says:

    I belong to an ATV/UTV club in Arizona. We have over 200 members and others that join us on outings. I would like to have a gps that can be mounted on the dash of my UTV but it must show jeep and other trails. The screen should be 4 inches or more in size. I would like to be able to recommend this to other members in the club. Any suggestions?

    Doug Stiltner
    White Mountain Open Trails Assoc. (Menber)

  7. Doug Stiltner says:

    Is it possible to convert a Magellan RoadMate 1440 to a GPS loaded with Topo Maps?

    Doug Stiltner

  8. Rich Owings says:

    Getting good trail maps is the biggest problem. I suggest getting a Garmin since there are so many free maps and trail maps for them. But don’t expect to find one product with all the 4WD roads and trails you want. The nuvi 500 would best suit your needs in terms of screen size, but you won’t be able to load trails (.gpx tracks) to it. That’s why I would suggest a Garmin Oregon model. I’d stay far away from the Magellan, but yes, you should be able to load Magellan topo maps to it.

  9. Dr Jeckyl says:

    Why limit yourself to two? It’s possible to have enough gps units, but it’s not possible to have too many. 🙂

    But seriously, I think you’re right about needing two, if you want the best of both worlds, but the profiles feature in the Oregons comes very close to being just that, the best of all possible worlds.

    You can customize a profile so it’s near perfect for either application – roads or trails and everything in between. A profile for bicycling, another for walking, geocaching, of course needs its own as well… The possibilities are endless.

  10. Ronald Brewer says:

    In comparing both Nuvi 500 and Oregon 450, I found that SD cards (2) Topo US 100K and City Navigator didn’t show compatible with Oregan 450 and maybe Nuvi 500. What is going on?

  11. City Navigator NT cards work fine on the Oregon and nuvi, as does Topo US 2008. Garmin often leaves out compatible units on their website.

  12. Your recommendation for both road & trail is over a year old now. What would you recommend today?

    Another reason I’m looking for a dual use GPS is because where I live I have to be able to take my GPS out of my vehicle when I’m not in it because of the thieves.

    • Still the Oregon series. Ideally the 450. Though I don’t think they have a night mode, which makes it very bright at night. You would want to crank the brightness down then.

      • Hmm.. sounds great but the Oregon 450 is well over $400. Do you have a more budget-friendly recommendation? I’m looking for a portable road GPS that I can also use for geocaching.

  13. I have a nuvi 500 and the touch screen is a pain for hiking. walking a couple of hundred feet for a cache is fine. but you will have inadvertent touches if you actually hike. I own a etrex vista hcx also, and I don’t see it mentioned as an alternate all in one. you don’t have much screen real estate but it does routing just fine and gives you a beep for turns. the trip computer is better than the nuvi and very customizable. very bright when on the car adapter and quite sensitive chipset for hiking. not a great choice for hiking long distances or trying to keep accurate track of your location due to known issues with low speed odometer. vista hcx is a good low cost option for a dual purpose device that I have used for two years, walking, biking and driving. would recommend it.

  14. Matt M. says:

    Hi Rich, great site! I’m a tech journalist, and I still find the process of selecting a GPS incredibly confusing. Your stuff is finally making some sense out of it all.

    Here’s my question: We’re planning a cross-country trip that will include driving our 4×4 along some Jeep roads in the Colorado Rockies. So I need a “crossover” unit only in the sense that it can handle both highway and topo/trail maps.

    I’ve been looking at the Garmin units because they seem to have great topo map support with their 1:24,000 map series. But I’m still having a bit of trouble deciding exactly which Nuvi models do the best job of displaying topo maps — for example, by supporting 3D terrain shading.

    The 1450 LMT seems like a nice balance between budget and capabilities, but I’m wondering whether there’s an advantage in going with the 24XX series instead. I”m a little confused there because you write that those units have 5″ displays, but Amazon says otherwise. And the 5″ display is definitely a big selling point for me.

    So — do you think the 1450 LMT with optional 1:24,000 topo maps would give me what I need, or should I be looking at other Garmin models, too?


  15. Matt M. says:

    Please disregard my last comment about the 2450LM — Amazon does say they have 5″ displays. So I guess the question for me is what the 2450LM gives (or takes away) versus the 1450LMT. The prices are certainly very similar.

  16. Hi can any one please donate any gps. i would use it for fishing. i do not have money.

  17. Another kind of dual use: bicycling and hiking – hiking needs topo and trail information; bicycling needs roads and street information, and some navigation help. Both need good battery lifetime. I don’t need hard-core bicycling fitness data (such as some Edge models have). Any suggestions for a single unit that does both well?

  18. I’m in need of one or two gps units and am completely new to using them. Any guidance would be most appreciated! I live in Southern Africa and drive to new areas both in the city and off road. I would like to be able to get around new cities without getting too lost.

    Also, I would like to be able to map off road routes I take – both driving and walking – when I am with someone who really knows the area. Then I can go back and use the same routes without the expert on the area and not get too lost. Being able to download other people’s off-road maps would be a huge plus.

    Am I correct that I cannot download to something like the Nuvi 1490 the .gpx files? Which I assume are tracks recorded by someone and then can be shared… Also, is it correct that I cannot record my own off road route with one of these types of units? Sorry, might be stupid questions, but just don’t know yet.

    I do marketing trips to areas that I am completely unfamiliar with in the UK and Europe, so the ability to download international driving maps would be necessary for the city gps.

    I don’t have tons of money to spend on these, but this is important to my work and play, so good to get the right tools. Thanks for any advice you can give me!

  19. I think you’re confusing tracks and routes. Tracks a “breadcrumb trails” that show exactly where you went. The Nuvi 1490 can record these and you can transfer them to your computer, but you cannot send them from your computer back to the GPS. In fact, none of the Nuvi series can do that. The Nuvi’s also don’t have any ability to control track recording – they are always recording your track and you cannot disable this, although you can clear it.

    Newer Garmin handhelds like the Oregon 450, GPSMap 62s and Montana 600 have much more control over track recording. You can turn it on and off and save portions of tracks which can be named. They also have a feature called track navigation such that a track can be converted to a route.

    Routes collections of points that describe a way to go from a start to a finish. If you are driving on roads that are on the map, the GPS will compute the best roads to use to accomplish this. If the roads are not on the map, then the GPS will just draw straight lines between the points. The 1490 can do this.

    Really, for what you describe, I suspect you would want a Garmin handheld device and not a Nuvi. Either way though, take a look at Garmin’s maps to see what roads are covered:

    Click on the map you want, then click the coverage tab and click the link for the detailed interactive map and you can view it in your web browser.

  20. Hi, can anyone recommend the best GPS for use in a 4×4 car in the middle east. I would need it to follow a route in the desert and would like it to guide around the streets as well (city navigator). I also require it to be removable from the car in the event i get stuck and have to retrieve the car later or take it hiking in the mountains. Many people here use the 276c (in the car) but this is an old and large device and wont handle the hiking.

    I have looked at both the Oregon 450 and Montana 600. The Oregon is a better size but am concerned about the screen readability in strong sunlight.

    any ideas?

  21. graham wood says:

    need a gps for road and track in the citys and out back of north queensland were there are no roads only cattel trails will the 500 do the job and batery time how long will it last

  22. mik ray says:

    i,m currently using the 60 csx and love it.(haven,t got lost yet) here,s the big question. is there a g.p.s that will show sattelite imagery on the screen as well as showing and tracking my ride for the day. i like the idea of ( if your unsure of where you are, where is the nearest main track to get me back to the car. any advice would be helpful. is birds eye imagery the answer to all my prayers. mik

  23. Most of the new Garmin handhelds can show satellite imagery, such as the Oregon, Montana, Dakota, Colorado, GPSMap 62 and 78, eTrex 20 and 30. I don’t know if BIrdseye will answer your prayers though, only you can judge that. The quality of the imagery varies a lot depending on where you are. In my own area, it is excellent.

    I have a 60csx but don’t use it anymore. I currently use a Montana 600 in both the car and on the trail and I love it. The screen is absolutely beautiful, and I think it would be the best choice if satellite imagery is important to you.

    • And here’s our BirdsEye satellite imagery page:

    • mik ray says:

      thanks heaps. am now looking at the montana. i,m impressed. just not sure about gloves, wet weather and touch screens but if a stylus works i could easily make a mount that would keep it close. we do a lot of rocky trails on our trail bikes and often rely on the csx to get us home when the other units put doubts in our heads(scary) didn,t expect a reply so fast so much appreciated.

      • While I love my Montana for its customization options, big screen and nuvi-mode, I actually prefer my 62s for mountain biking, because I can easily change screens without looking at the device. It may be a better model for trail riding, despite the much smaller screen.

  24. Rich, the Montana power button customization options might help a little with what you describe – you can assign specific functions to single and double taps of the button. But your point is valid, there are times when I would prefer physical buttons. For example, when I want to zoom in or out I frequently end up marking a point of the map instead because I don’t hit the screen button “just right”. 🙂


  1. […] Dual use GPS for road and trail – GPS Tracklog – Apr 08, 2009  · I have a Garmin GPSmap 60Cx and I have City Navigator North America loaded. I use it for geocaching and for car navigation as well. It was my first GPS … […]

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