What’s New with GPS??     By Keith Nicol   IN: Atlantic Coastal Kayaker   Fall 2004



         About the only sea kayakers who wouldn’t find the new global positioning systems (GPS) useful are adventure racers. And that is because they are not allowed to use them  because it makes navigating too easy.  And having just seen the world’s best teams kayak for almost 100 klicks along Newfoundland’s island strewn south coast and in the Bay of Islands as part of  the World Adventure Racing Championships (August 1-7, 2004) made me think that perhaps these paddlers don’t need a GPS. However, for the rest of us these devises are a god send. So if you can’t navigate like Ian Adamson, the leader of the winning Nike ACG –Balance Bar team, then here is what is new in handheld GPS.


        If you have been out of the loop for a few years and do not know what GPS units are then here is a brief rundown of what GPS is and how it works.  GPS is a space age navigational system that can pinpoint your position anywhere on the globe, usually within a few yards or meters. This amazing technology is available to everyone, everywhere, day and night, and best of all, at no cost for use of the navigational data. GPS uses a constellation of 24 satellites in precise orbits approximately 18,000 kilometers above the earth. The satellites transmit data via high frequency radio waves back to Earth and, by locking onto these signals, a GPS receiver can process this data to triangulate its precise location on the globe.

         GPS operates 24 hours a day, in all weather conditions, and can be used worldwide for precise navigation on land, on water and in the air. It is ideal for sea kayakers who frequently travel in foggy weather or at night or may paddle in island strewn environments. They don’t replace the knowledge of how to use a map and compass but they offer that extra security of being able to pin point your position when for some reason you don’t know where you are.

                                    NEW DEVELOPMENTS     

          One of the new developments that makes these devises even more useful is the introduction of WAAS.  WAAS stands for Wide Area Augmentation System and although it was initially designed for improving aircraft safety, it can improve the accuracy of your GPS unit if it is WAAS-enabled.  So if you are purchasing a second hand older unit that does not have this capability, just beware that the newer WAAS versions are much better. WAAS uses numerous ground stations to provide a correction that your GPS unit can read. It does this using two master stations which collect data from the ground stations which then create a GPS correction message. This correction accounts for GPS satellite orbit and clock drift plus signal delays caused by the atmosphere and ionosphere.

          In the early days, typical units available to the general public had their signals slightly scrambled by the military (called selective availability) and this produced a typical error in location of plus or minus a 100 meters. This is acceptable for most applications but now with a WAAS enabled GPS this accuracy is closer to plus or minus 3 meters. For sea kayakers you don’t need to be any more accurate than that.  

        Another useful addition has been the digitizing of maps on to small memory cards so that now the GPS will not only determine your latitude and longitude (or military grid location), but an actual topographic map of the area will come up on the screen. For sea kayakers this means that your paper map is still very useful but that you don’t need to have it out all the time since the map display on the unit will tell you which island you are passing and how far it is to your planned lunch spot.  These “Freedom Maps” by Lowrance are great since you just plug them in and off you go. Alternately some manufacturers like Garmin have built in memory in their GPS for downloading maps or marine charts from your home computer.

      Lowrance has developed a whole series of “Freedom Maps” which will only work with their GPS units. For people that live in Atlantic Canada then one “Freedom Map” will cover all of the Atlantic Provinces. That means that for my travels in Newfoundland or Labrador where I live I need only one 128 MB memory card. And should I travel to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or PEI to sea kayak (or hike for that matter) then those places are covered as well. To get all the topographic maps for that entire area would cost a fortune and to store them all would require an extension to my house!! If you live in the New England States then again one 128 MB memory card will do it.  Simply insert the memory card into your Lowrance GPS unit and “Freedom Maps” will give you the freedom to go wherever you desire.  Included with your “Freedom Maps” purchase you will receive a unique card holder. This handy accessory will keep up to four Freedom Maps memory cards protected with its shock-resistant, waterproof, floatable, easy-to-find bright yellow case. They seem ready made for sea kayakers. As computer chip memory improves it will likely be no time at all before one “Freedom Map” will cover the whole country.

         Paddlers in the U.S. might also want to look at the Lowrance Atlantis GPS since it includes a 16MB MMC card preloaded with detailed mapping of continental U.S. coastal and Great Lakes waters. Also if you don’t want to use topographic maps for you paddling then you can get electronic marine charts through Navionics which are compatible with your Lowrance unit. For more information on Lowrance GPS see: http://www.lowrance.com.

       Other new developments that might appeal to paddlers includes Garmin’s new Foretrex 101 or 201 GPS which attaches to your wrist. It is worn like a watch so it is always out and ready to be used. It weighs less than 3 ounces so shouldn’t interfere with your paddling stroke. Garmin also makes some combination units which might appeal to sea kayak groups. The Rino 110, 120 and 130 combine a GPS and integrated FRS/GMRS radio which allows for 2 way communication over short distances -2 miles for FRS and up to 5 miles for GMRS. The Rino 130 even comes equipped with a barometer for do it yourself weather forecasts. Also the Garmin GPSMAP 76 CS is not only waterproof but it will float!  For more information on Garmin see: http://www.garmin.com.

     If you are on a budget then have a look at the Magellan Explorist, which they claim is the first GPS to be priced under $100 US. At this price there is no reason why every paddler can’t own one of these devises. It is waterproof and weighs just 4 ounces yet it is still WAAS enabled so is accurate to within 3 meters. Magellan also has several other models that have built in map data bases, barometers, and the SportTrak Pro Marine even has built in tide tables. Check out http://www.magellangps.com for more information on Magellan products.

                                            What to Look for in a GPS Unit

1)      Obviously for a sea kayaker you want a unit that is waterproof like the Lowrance H20 or ones from other manufacturers like Garmin and Magellan.

2)      Most units come with loads of route saving capacity-usually more than you will ever use. But if you are a sea kayak guide and want to save hundreds of routes then make sure your unit can handle it. But for most of us a unit that can save a dozen routes is probably all you will ever need.

3)      You want to have a GPS with a good screen that can be easily read in direct sunlight and also if you plan any night paddling you want good a GPS with a back lit screen. The Lowrance H20 has an impressive backlit screen that is very readable at night.

4)      Be sure that the batteries it takes are easily obtainable. The last thing you want to do is try to locate some obscure battery type just before you head out on the paddle along the coast of Labrador.  For instance, the Lowrance H20 uses two easily obtainable AA batteries and these will last 12 hours. Always carry spare batteries since cold may shorten battery life.

5)      For units that have built in mapping be sure the zoom in and out is variable. That way you can get the over all location map and then zoom in to the region you are currently paddling in. This is great for general route planning. For instance, the Lowrance H20 has 40 zoom ranges-enough to go from 0.02-4000 miles.  

6)       Also depending on your interest you might want to look at a GPS that will allow you to create custom maps. Lowrance has a Plus Package that allows you to create your own custom maps that then can be saved for future reference.

7)      If you plan on traveling to other countries be sure your unit has a wide range of map datums stored in its memory. You need to set this prior to using to it with a map for the GPS to work properly and not all GPS units come loaded with the same datums.

8)      Just remember not to be seduced by all the razzle-dazzle of the new GPS technology. Although this technology is great, in the unlikely event that your GPS fails you still need to carry a back up map and compass of the areas you paddle in. 

9)      A good general GPS web site is:  www.gpsinformation.net.


Contributor Keith Nicol teaches topographic map, compass and GPS use at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College-Memorial University in Newfoundland as part of their Outdoor Pursuits Programme. He is an avid sea kayaker and has explored many parts of Newfoundland by kayak.