Wandering the Whiteout of Life — Garmin Fu

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | July 20, 2012      

(Editor’s note: Following is written as a how-to for Garmin GPSmap 60 series models, but the concepts work with nearly any handheld GPS. This is an attempt at a simplified and intuitive style of using GPS for navigation with no defined trail under your feet, and near zero visibility — and no pre-marked route or track.)

GPS, schmesh! I’ve been known to utter that neologism on occasion. Usually after I’ve nearly walked off a cliff in a whiteout while depending on the baffling readouts of that oh-so-geek-perfect icon of the millenium, the Global Positioning Unit.

In the egg, intuitive use of the GPS is a nav method that could save your behind.

In the egg, intuitive use of the GPS is a nav method that could save your behind.

“Lou,” you say, “you’re acting like an idiot, those things are super easy to use!”

Maybe so when you’re on a defined trail tread and can see the sun or mountains above. But fly with that instrument rating hood (otherwise known as a whiteout) over your face and no route indicator on the land under your feet, and you may discover that staying close enough to your optimal route may be a bit confusing.

Forewith, a few things that’ll help you use your GPS intuitively, as if you had a paper topo map in front of you that was always perfectly aligned with the land under your feet, and showed your exact location. (Following is specific to low visibility navigation — a poorly addressed subject in most GPS how-tos. For the hundreds of other things you can do with your GPS see your manual and web sources).

Assuming you’re on a Garmin GPSmap 60 type handheld (other units have similar settings), rig it this way:

Prepare at home. First, you’re not going to be safely navigating mountain terrain in a whiteout or at night without a topographic base map installed in your unit (as in “wow, we’re walking 40 feet from a 1,000 foot cliff in pitch dark, follow me or die!”).

If your unit comes with preloaded topo maps, test at home to be sure they’re fine grained enough for real world navigation. If necessary, find free or purchase the best topo maps you can get for your area of interest, install in Garmin Mapsource software on your computer, then download relevant map sections to your handheld.

Next, at home, at the least create a few accurate trip waypoints in your Mapsource Software, then download to the GPS. (You can do this in other software environments if you want to geek out, but I’ve found sticking with Mapsource is much simpler (remember, this is a guide to using your GPS intuitively, if you’re interested in doctorate level GPS navigaiton tips, look elsewhere).

(I do plot and grab waypoints from Google Earth now and then, using the aerial photography to locate something better than could be done on a topo map. Likewise, I still use my USGS type topographic map software when I want the information that you can sometimes only get from those amazingly detailed maps.)

Optional: Create a route or track if you know the exact way and know your software well enough to do so, or download a trusted route or track. Caution, lots of routes and tracks on the web are made for summer navigation, or simply are done poorly. And remember, this blog post is about using GPS when you do NOT have a pre-installed route or track.

To be clear about GPS navigation, learn the diffence between a “route” and ‘track.” A route is usually an approximation of a trip, connecting points on the map (waypoints) with fairly long line segments that might work well on an ice cap or ocean, but are somewhat useless for mountain navigation. A “track” is virtually the same thing, only the points are numerous and the line segments tiny, thus making a breadcrumb trail that serves as an actual on-the-land way you can go.

Still at home, be sure your computer software is set to Datum WGS84. Geek alert, but important. Hundreds of “datums” exist, which are simply mathematical models of the earth’s sphere. What you’re using to work in Mapsource needs to match what your GPS is set to, which leads us to:

GPS settings (Use with Garmin GPSmap 60CSx but applicable to nearly any GPS handheld, menu directions for the Garmin included below.)

1. Datum setting on your handheld. on Garmin 60 press the Menu key twice to make sure you get to the main menu, then Setup/Enter/Units/Enter, scroll down to “Map Datum” and click Enter to pick your Datum. Again, usually WGS84 but could be something different if you’re working with data that exists under a different Datum spec.

2. While you’re in the menus, set your “Position Format” to something simple you can communicate over the phone or by texting, probably hddd.ddddd or UTM. (I prefer UTM.)

3. If you travel much in metric countries the arcane and confusing option of setting feet or meters labels for your maps is important to know. Perhaps it’s easier on other GPS models. For the Garmin 60 use the same menu sequence as above to reach the “Units” screen. You’ll see an option for “Elevation (Vert. Speed).” Confusing because you think it only sets your vertical speed readout to feet or meters? Confused me, anyway. But yeah, this is where you set things so your maps display elevations as metric or ‘Merican feet.

4. IMPORTANT. For no-vis navigation, set your map so north is always up on the LCD. Otherwise, as you walk the map will be constantly bouncing around on the LCD, making it difficult to visually reference what you need for direction of travel on the actual land.

GPS settings for backcountry skiing map work.

Some of the GPS settings for backcountry skiing map work, be sure to play around with the 'Detail' options to make your maps more legible in the field. Also, the 'Lock on Road' feature can be incredibly annoying, so keep it turned off unless you actually need it. 'North Up' makes the GPS behave like a paper map. Dozens of other important settings are available. Experiment. Practice.

Set north-up by punching the “PAGE” button till you see a map, then hit the “MENU” button. On the screen, go SetupMap/Enter. You’ll see an obvious scroll/up/down menu on the LCD, but what you actually want is to rocker move your cursor up to the funny icons at the top of the screen, which are actually sub-menus not just pretty decorations. Scroll left to the tiny “N” icon, then use the resulting menu to set North as Up.

Now, with “north up” your Garmin will behave more like a paper map, instead of a digital go-go dancer who looks pretty at the trade shows but requires medication.

5. Another gross obfuscation with GPS maps is how the map labels and shading can obscure the actual topopgraphic land forms like blobs of mud you’ve tracked onto you living room carpeet. When you see how poorly this is executed with most GPS maps, it makes you appreciate the art and craft of charts such as USGS or Swiss paper topos all the more.

Ah, but carpet cleaner exists. First, try running your map with “Declutter” turned on. Hit the “PAGE” key till you have a map displayed, then “MENU” and scroll to the menu option “Turn Declutter On.” Another thing I’ve found helpful is to turn off what is usually an effort at shading the map that simply looks stupid and makes it even harder to read. This is done by again going to that “Setup Map” menu, then using the icons at the top. I’ll let you figure out the details for a bit of brain exercise. Same place, you can tune the size of map labels, or even turn them off entirely.

6. Believe it or not, despite a zillion dollars worth of satellites racing through the heavens, a GPS that’s effective for blind navigation still needs a lowly compass. The one in the Garmin 60CSx model is lame but works just well enough to not cause you to gaze at the plastics recycling bin and think murderous thoughts. Later models such as 62 series are better, for example working without the unit being held horizontal, having less lag time and approaching the accuracy of a magnetic hand held compass.

7. One of the most confusing things about Garmin map navigation is the triangle shaped Position Marker. It seems to often point in random directions, especially when you’re stationary. As mentioned elsewhere here, the Position Marker generally points north and you can rotate the unit to match (with north set to UP), thus orienting your map. But not always. Our theory is that most of the reason for this is that the unit is switching between magnetic and GPS compass, with lag time that makes the Position Marker act funny. So, some IMPORTANT SETTINGS for that — and for some strange reason these are NOT located in the compass menu you get from the Compass Page. Weird? You bet. But here is how to get to those arcane options with a 60 series Garmin. Go to your main menu page by pressing the MENU key a few times, then use the rocker to SETUP, press enter, then rocker to HEADING and press enter. At the bottom of the resulting screen you’ll see “Switch to compass heading when below:” — leave the default 10 mh, but change the “for more than” to 15 seconds or less. That should take care of some of the weirdness. What you’re ending up with is the unit using its magnetic compass most of the time. That does take battery life (if desired you can turn mag compass off and on by pressing and holding the PAGE key), but when doing blind navigation you may be stationary quite a bit, so you want your unit to be using the magnetic compass most of the time to prevent lag and jitter of the compass based pointers.

The infamous GPS compass. A couple hundred dollars and it's less accurate than something you can get a the dime store.

The infamous GPS compass. A couple hundred dollars and it's often less accurate than something you can get a the dime store.

As it were, the most frustrating thing about the Garmin GPS compass in my GPSmap 60 is how slow it is. In a critical situation, you need to know where north is NOW so you can quickly orient your LCD map with the land under your feet, then exit stage right, or left, or wherever the map tells you to go. Thus, I still see people who use a stand-alone magnetic compass in concert with their GPS. I’ve even considered taping a mag compass to my GPS (which wouldn’t work, because the GPS electronics’ magnetic field would mess with the accuracy of the stand-alone compass.)

Whatever the case, you and the GPS need to know where north is, and I mean _really_ know where north is. First, that means any time you move more than 100 miles or change batteries in the unit, you MUST calibrate the compass. Assuming you are on the Compass page, hit “MENU” then pick the “Calibrate Compass” option. You’ll be required to stand with the compass held level, then do two complete body rotations. Don’t click your heels. Do notice the funny looks you’re getting.

IMPORTANT: When the GPS compass is in magnetic mode it’s easily influenced by ferrous metals and consumer electronics. For example, in one test I held an operating digital camera next to the unit, and watched the GPS compass pointer swing nearly 90 degrees off true! An ice axe can do this as well, or other electronics and metal objects. For example, if you’re attempting to navigate while carrying an ice ax or whippet, you must keep those objects about 12 inches or more from the GPS to be sure they have zero influence. Of course, you really have no 100% certain way of knowing when the GPS compass is in magnetic mode as opposed to using the satellites for direction, so just assume you should never hold any object close that could malf the compass.

8. Simplify what you’re seeing on the GPS and how many pages are available. You could set one of these bad boys up in a way that it displayed so much data you’d want to throw it in the nearest crevasse before your cranium exploded. Instead, hit the “MENU” key a few times till you see the main menu screen, then go setup/enter/page-seq/enter. Nix any pages you don’t need to cycle through every time you use the page key, e.g., do you really need the “Hunt & Fish” page, or the “Calculator?”

My Garmin handheld GPS page sequence looks like this:
1. Trip Computer (set up so it only displays elevation, time and heading, in large sizes)
2. Map
3. Compass
4. Active Route (doesn’t show unless a set route is being followed.)

The idea is I only have to punch the “MENU” button a few times to reach any given page — instead of standing there like a mind numb savant grooving on all 15 pages one can have available for no reason other than to feel intimately connected to a constellation of sputnicks.


Ok, now you’re ready for instrument rating. The key to accurately following a complex route on land, without landmarks or a trail under your feet, is to use the GPS as if it’s a paper map oriented perfectly to the land under your feet. You then take visual bearings off the GPS as it gives you nearly instant feedback by showing exactly where you are with its moving Position Indicator icon. (Even better, if you have a track pre-loaded, you can stay literally feet from the ideal of the track as shown on the LCD map.)

In situations without hazards, you can move fairly quickly. Just roughly visualize your direction of travel by watching the Position Marker move on the LCD map.

If hazards exist or your route is intricate, you move a bit slower, carefully watching how your movements conform to what’s on the GPS map. Doing this well is a bit more involved than just hacking your way along. Here is my method (written assuming you don’t have a pre installed track or route, but if you do you’ll still use the basic idea presented below):

1. Turn the unit on and hit “PAGE” till you have your map. Note how you can scroll the map by moving the cursor. Note the triangle shaped “position marker” icon. This is the key.

2. Know that your Garmin 60 series map has two “modes.” When you see the position marker, you’re probaly in “navigation mode.” If you use the rocker key to pan the map, the unit switches to “Pan Mode” and you can loose the position marker off the side of the map, thus breaking your navigation. Don’t panic, don’t cuss, just hit the “QUIT” key and you’ll bounce back to nav mode.

Above is one of the main reasons you don’t want a lot of pages to cycle through, since as far as we know the only ways to get the map to return back to nav mode is to cycle the map using the “PAGE” key, or turn the unit off then back on. If anyone has a shortcut for this, we’d appreciate hearing, as one of the biggest problems with this model Garmin is that the rocker keys get accidentally pressed while the unit is stowed, and you pull it out to find your map totally whacked and have to sit there pressing the Page key multiple times to get it back to showing your location.

3. During field practice, fool around with rotating the unit and watch what the triangle shaped Position Marker does. Depending on how your mind works, it might drive you crazy — or make sense. What the Position Marker does is eventually point exactly north as you rotate the unit, though it has a lag and other weird behavior that I’ve never been able to figure out.

4. So, to actually navigate blind, hold GPS horizontal like a paper map. Since the LCD map is stationary on the screen due to your settings (always has north up), as you rotate the unit the north pointing Position Marker will rotate over the map. What you want to do is rotate the unit till the Position Marker is pointed UP, then as you move, keep rotating to maintain that orientation.

By doing this, you’re using the north pointing Position Marker to help force the GPS map to stay oriented with the land under your feet. Thus, you can easily visualize which way to move to further your intended route.

Position Marker on Garmin GPSmap unit always points north.

Position Marker on Garmin GPSmap points north if you rotate the unit horizontally. In this case, the map is not oriented (aligned with the land) but that can easily be rectified by rotating the GPS so the Position Marker points directly up (north) on the screen. It's quite obvious when you try it, but a bit difficult to explain.

Oriented GPS, map, pointer and the antenna end of the actual GPS housing all point  north.

Oriented GPS, map, pointer and the antenna end of the actual GPS housing all point north.

Practice this anywhere. After a while, you’ll gain an intuitive feeling for rotating the GPS and getting it pointing north by lining up with where the Position Marker is pointing, or by using the compass page.

5. If in doubt about how well oriented the LCD map is, say, if you’re near a hazard or the Position Marker is driving you insane, stand still and switch to the compass page since it’s easier to see the compass in detail than the Position Marker (even though both work the same way in terms of how they point north). Rotate the unit so it’s pointed exactly north using the compass dial, hold steady, and flip back to the map page.

Know that (surprisingly) the compass in the 60CSx can be up to 5 degrees off, so be sure to get it as close as visually possible. (Newer models may be slightly more accurate.) In tricky situations, this is why using a magnetic compass as well may be wise, as a properly set up and used mag compass is far more accurate than 5 degrees, or even the 2 degrees of accuracy that some newer GPS compasses are said to have.

To clarify the above, visualize this: It’s pitch black night in a whiteout during a backcountry skiing trip. Your headlamp barely illuminates your feet. You’re standing on the top of a mountain, stationary. Cliffs drop to three sides, with a narrow ridge your only route on a traverse you must continue (thus, you’ve not following a marked return route). You hold your GPS steady. You can see the map and Position Marker, but without orienting the unit to the land under your feet you have no idea which direction to move to access the ridge. In fact, you don’t even know which direction to take the first step.

Unless you orient your unit to the actual lay of the mountain top and visualize which way you need to move, you’d have to move first and watch the Position Marker move. That’s ok, unless you step into the void. Better, use that little triangle or the Compass page to get your unit lined up, visualize which direction to move, then do so.

The best way to practice this sort of “intuitive map navigation” is to do a “GPS walk” anywhere you’re not on a set path (and you have maps loaded for). Use a large athletic field, for example. Keep your head down so you can’t see anything but the GPS, and attempt to navigate to a road intersection or building bordering the fields, as shown on the GPS map. Basically, imagine and attempt to simulate having zero visibility and no path to follow at your feet. At first, you may be surprised at how much random movement you can end up doing. But once you figure out how to keep the GPS oriented to north, so it matches the land under your feet, just go where the map indicates and watch the little triangle show your progress. (Zoom in for easy to see marker movement.) Bear in mind that in normal life, you probably will NOT be traveling a straight line, but rather navigating land forms that (we hope) are shown on the topo map you’ll be viewing on your GPS.

Funny, once you figure this out it seems easy. But for some of us it’s a long process that has to be learned on our own, since nearly all GPS tutorials are oriented to either following existing roads and trails, following “tracks” and “routes,” or else taking long straight-line movements such as done while boating. Practice, enjoy. GPS schmeeeesshhh? Perhaps not.

Shop for Garmin 60 series GPS.

Apology and warning. Sorry if the above is too sophomoric or crude for you GPS mavens out there. Yes, some of the advanced features in these units may allow blind navigation in different ways, but simplicity is gold, and the intuitive “map in front of me is better than a frontal lobotomy” method described above works. The warning: if you do venture into dangerous terrain and depend totally on your GPS unit for low visibility hazard avoidance, always have a backup. Never go without a compass and paper map. Better, be sure someone in your party also has a fully configured GPS. And don’t forget your spare batteries.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


32 Responses to “Wandering the Whiteout of Life — Garmin Fu”

  1. Jack July 20th, 2012 2:41 pm

    I don’t know where this fits in the mix, but orienteering geeks often supplement their main handheld compass with a “thumb” compass, which is a small, liquid-damped compass worn like a thumb ring. It provides a really fast way to orient a paper map….the hand holding the map has the thumb compass right there. Maybe the electromagnetic interference from the GPS would render this a bad idea. This could be a handy item for compass/map navigation. One less thing to juggle.

  2. Lou Dawson July 20th, 2012 2:49 pm

    Jack, something like that would work so long as, yes, you didn’t hold it too close to the GPS. A quick test at home will tell you how far you need to keep the mag compass from the GPS, or your camera, or whatever. Lou

  3. Lou Dawson July 20th, 2012 2:50 pm

    I’m planning on testing the latest Garmin 62 series units, my hope is the compass is at least a bit improved which would be a big step. Amazing how primative these things are. Using Google Maps on an iPhone, with a free app, works nearly as well. Makes me think much of marketing handheld GPS units is BS?

    Lisa just pointed out that for the cost of the super duper Garmin 60 (over $500) you could set up your iPhone of Android pretty nicely for backcountry use:

    1. inReach with its own GPS system
    2. free maps
    3. auxilary battery supply and solar gadgets
    4. free or low cost app for iPhone GPS

    Battery hastles are one of the main deal killers, I really like how the batteries last and last with my Garmin 60 CSX. Also, touch screen can be a nightmare for use in bad weather.


  4. Glenn Sliva July 20th, 2012 4:50 pm

    I always have a backup compass. I always stop at critical points and turn around and eye ball the terrain if it’s an in and out. I always mark or take waypoints for my self question “if the fog rolled in and it’s zero zero I could head to these waypoints to get home. I always carry a map an flashlight with Goggles just in case. I also bring a hand line if in a group to lead the others or give them something to hold to for following. I’ve been there in zero zero 4 hours from the truck and the front rolls in. I’m sure Lou has done it to. It’s an Oh s&%$ski. Not cool. I’m also prepared to sleep “right there” in any weather. I might be carrying a little more weight but if you have been through one these situations- you make it and get to laugh about and say once again -I’ll never do that again. or Cheated death once again (marine pilot friend utters that every time the wheels squeal out on landing of commercial flights). Great guy. Good topic Lou.

  5. Glenn Sliva July 20th, 2012 4:53 pm

    PS Lou: for us young old guys always always have backup cheater readers.

  6. Bob Coleman July 20th, 2012 6:44 pm

    To add to your mention of datum.

    1. Datum setting on your handheld. on Garmin 60 press the Menu key twice to make sure you get to the main menu, then Setup/Enter/Units/Enter, scroll down to “Map Datum” and click Enter to pick your Datum. Again, usually WGS84 but could be something different if you’re working with data that exists under a different Datum spec.

    When using a paper map, refer to the datum printed in the legend area of the map and set your GPS datum to same if you want the map and GPS sync. Here in the USA, I see both Green Trails (WA) and USGS using either NAD 27 or 83 depending upon date of map. Swiss skitourenkarte are on Swiss Grid 1903+, and to then navigate on GPS use WGS 84. Same for Landeskarte Der Schweiz.

  7. Troy July 20th, 2012 7:12 pm

    When on the map page, and you’ve panned around, to return to “navigation mode” simply press the quit key. No need to cycle through pages. It’s very quick.

  8. d July 20th, 2012 7:17 pm

    “but the concepts work with nearly any handheld GPS”

    Hi Lou, not so sure about that as most GPS units, as far as I know, do not have an compass function. Mine doesn’t. I have a Garmin eTrex Legend HCx

    I have never been able to make any sense of the direction that little black triangle points either. If I turn my GPS on every morning in my driveway, that pointer will aways point somewhere different to the previous day.

    Besides displaying a small digital map – valuable, telling me my long/lat – useless unless calling for aid, and leaving a breadcrumb trail – valuable, I am not sure what my GPS is actually designed to do very well at all (context mountain GPS user, not urban). It does the three things I listed very well, but that is hardly an achievement in this modern day. I also wonder if GPS units are falling far behind in actual smart functionality that solves problems. Perhaps mine is getting old?

    Anyway, thank you or you post. It seems online GPS chatter is dominated by nav geeks who over-complicate minute detail and are fascinated with coordinates and the like… with little concern for practical simple use of the unit as a nav aid in poor vis conditions.

    [measuring straight line distance travelled is also a handy GPS feature]

  9. Matt Kinney July 20th, 2012 7:52 pm

    Compass work is fast and accurate. The best back up is a magnetic compass. I like spreading my topo maps out at night in the tent or on a forest floor during a daytime lunch break to see where I’ve been and where I’m Iikely to venture next. A stubby pencil is also useful. Many enjoy practicing navigation as an art and solving the triangular math or dead reckoning equations, calculating speed/distance/time versus having someone or something else solve it for you. It’s not rocket science.

    It is likely satellites will fail at some time or for a long time making electronic navigation useless across wide areas of the globe. “Where you are” is the most important thing in the mountains over all things, so pick your tool carefully

    In winter horizontal bearings and exact locations mean little in a world where everything is either up to the top and down to the bottom over a limited horizontal distance, so I don’t carry a compass in winter. There are only two directions, but it’s not like a fork in the road by any means.

    By 2020, if you are lost, you will be able call for help and they will send a drone to find and lead you out versus risking the time of a SAR Team. If you are hurt the drone can fly over and assess your situation for a SAR team or even drop you medical supplies. This program will be based on whether you have a GPS transceiver or not. I would be out of luck staring at my compass knowing where I am, but no one else would.

  10. Lou Dawson July 20th, 2012 11:06 pm

    Troy, that is the secret I’ve been looking for!!! Thanks so much, good example of how blog posts are the sum of their parts, including comments from folks in the trenches. Lou

  11. d July 21st, 2012 2:53 am

    Here is a navigation “trick” I like to use. It isn’t a trick, just a setting that for me seems to aid in conceptualizing my point to point nav in relatively open ground but poor vis due to Wx or veg.

    I’m using an Etrex Legend HCx with a topo map installed.

    Setup :

    First: Setup Menu > Routing Setup > Guidance Method = Off Road

    I don’t like my GPS trying to use tracks and roads as it comes up with some incredibly long routes using them. Between two points I want a straight go-to line in the wilderness, especially on snow.

    Second, and most important:

    Go to your map screen, view the menu, select Map Setup – Tracks and set the go-to line to “Course”.

    “Course” is the direction in degrees from your start point to you target point. “Bearing” is the direction in degrees from your current position at any time to your target point. So as you move, the “Course” reading remains the same no matter where you go, whilst the “Bearing” reading changes if you go off-course (assuming you are displaying these data points on your screen)

    Finally, it helps if you are dropping a breadcrumb trail on the GPS screen, so make sure it is enabled.

    Nav time:

    1. select some feature on GPS map that you want to nav to, drop a waypoint there.
    2. on the waypoint screen, select “goto”

    The GPS unit will paint a straight pink line on your map from your current position to your target waypoint, and that is a graphical representation of what I draw on the ground in my head, so the GPS is aiding me visualize my nav.

    The idea is to walk along that line, but in the real world, terrain forces us off it. By setting the go-to line to “Course” the go-to line will remain fixed between the point where we set our nav and where we want to go. Weaving around this fixed pink line will be your red breadcrumb trail. So it is very easy to see if you have wandered off course as you head towards the target waypoint. This visualization is valuable to me as I see at a glance a map showing where I was, where I want to go in a straight line, where I have been in a breadcrumb and where I am trying to go with the waypoint.

    If you had set the go-to line to “Bearing” then as you move towards the target waypoint so too does the go-to line change with your position, making it impossible to “follow the line”. With this setting the screen does not show you where you have walked (breadcrumb) relative to where you intended to walk (the fixed Course pink go-to line).

    This is best understood by testing outside. Some people have found it a great help when I showed it to them. On my GPS map screen I like the “Bearing” data field displayed as I can use it with my hand compass in conjunction with trying to walk on the pink go-to line.

  12. Oli C July 21st, 2012 3:49 am

    great intro to GPS nav in white-outs,

    does anyone have any links to good articles on more in-depth GPS skills. I don’t use mine much, but I’d like to be really good for Accompagnateurs assessments.

  13. Lou Dawson July 21st, 2012 11:21 am

    Oli, you can come up with lots of stuff if you google, but you will notice very little out there helps with “blind” navigation on land. If you want more skill, I’d suggest going for GPS walks in places with no defined trail. While you do, record a track. Practice doing “track back” as well as saving the track, and downloading it to your map sofware at home. The “track back” is the second part of blind nav, as in reality what often happens is you proceed with ok visibility, record a track, then follow the track back after a storm comes in or something like that.

    Another good learning process with these rigs is to simply go though the manual page by page and play with each and every setting. The manuals are poor, but they do hit most everything in one way or another.


  14. Lou Dawson July 21st, 2012 11:26 am

    I’m wondering if the handheld stand-alone GPS will go the way of the digital camera? Digicam sales have been significantly erroded by phone cameras getting so good.

    What keeps my attention on this is we have both Tomtom automobile GPS and a smartphone here in the truck as we drive cross country. The only reason we’re using the Tomtom is because it mounts on the dash (usually, anyway, when it doesn’t fly off into your lap) and is easy to see. If the smartphone had a mount and bigger screen, Tomtom goes to Ebay.

  15. Lisa July 21st, 2012 1:06 pm

    Besides a bigger screen, the iPhone also needs voice for its maps app before it will be a replacement for the Tom Tom.

  16. Troy July 21st, 2012 3:31 pm

    The iphone doesn’t have voice on it’s mapping apps? My 2 or 3 year old android has since day one. That’s strange.

    Anyway, I would never trust my android gps near as much as my garmin 60csx. The phone GPS seems to work most of the time, but occasionally has problems locating itself. The garmin seems far to be able to find and maintain accurate gps signal far more reliably than the phone. And, as mentioned before, the battery lasts much longer.

    Unfortunately, the user interface and display on the garmin are absolutely prehistoric and woefully obsolete compared to smart phones.

  17. Lou Dawson July 21st, 2012 3:49 pm

    Remember Windows 3.0? That’s Garmin 2012. But one uses what ya gotta, at least my Garmin 60 never crashes like old Windows, or the Magellan POS we tested a few years ago. Lisa said if you jailbreak the iPhone, you can get it talking just fine. As for its GPS performance, yeah, it has a tiny GPS chip and virtually no GPS antenna compared to something like my Garmin 60, which even works indoors sometimes. If they just do a slightly better antenna in the iPhone, it might easily equal the stand alone dinosaurs out there. I’d predict that’ll happen sooner than later, since GPS is just so incredibly useful. As for battery juice, once you figure out an aux battery system that’s compact and can be kept in some sort of case along with the smartphone, I doubt that’s a problem.

    Another issue with using handheld GPS for more than something to look at in your gear drawer is that the LCD is simply too small. What’s needed with that is perhaps new technology that actually gives you a display that’s large, thin, flexible, durable, which works more like a map or chart. Doesn’t have to be huge, but larger than most units presently have is in my opinion super important.


  18. Lou Dawson July 21st, 2012 4:00 pm

    D, thanks, that sounds like another method of “intuitive terrain low-viz nav” a person could try. I’ve played around with that, and find that the big fat course line obscures the map and just confuses me, but dropping a “track” as you move is an excellent suggestion, as that gives a person a very good idea of how their movement is trending, especially in relatively featureless and low angled terrain. Louie and I ran into this situation on the Kahiltna Glacier in nearly 0 viz, and due to not using these tips correctly we actually began to circle back on to the GPS track we were trying to follow, very confusing, but we did figure it out pretty fast. Lou

  19. Lou Dawson July 21st, 2012 4:56 pm

    Hey all you folks, if anyone can give a cogent explanation on how exactly the Position Marker behaves, that would be golden. I’ve found that as stated in the post above, if one rotates the GPS the Position Marker fairly quickly starts to point north, but I can also rotate the unit a bit and get the Position Marker to change to say, west, and it just sticks there. It seems to be the kind of thing Einstein would have had fun studying, perhaps someone out there has Einsteinien qualities and can explain? Thanks, Lou

  20. d July 21st, 2012 6:29 pm

    That pink/purple line is too thick and I guess is designed to be easily visible on a road map. A throwback to the fact that GPS units were developed for urban nav, not functional outdoor use? On my etrex I can change the colour, however not thickness. I do not often use it, but when I do, I like it to remain stationary so that I can compare my intended course to my actual path of travel, and get a sense for relative distances and directions regarding origin and destination and off-course ‘error’.

    Pointer: my etrx has no compass, so mine doesn’t do any pointing other than in the direction that I am traveling. But I have to be moving to get it to do so consistently. If I am stationary, my GPS tells me that my position is changing by say 20 feet due to satellites moving overhead I presume. This error causes a jumble of breadcrumb tracks to be drawn on the screen in a tight area. Since the GPS actually thinks I am moving in sporadic random directions, the pointer naturally points in different directions sporadically as well. This only applies to GPS units with no compass.

    I’d be more interested in what others have to say…

  21. fabrizio July 22nd, 2012 1:55 pm

    With the compass on my gps60csx turned on and map set to north up, the position pointer points in the direction in which the gps is oriented relative to map north (ie if the antenna stub on the 60csx faces south, the pointer always points to the 60csx’s keypad, or ‘map south’). with a Topo map on the gps, aligning the unit with your travel direction thus shows you (via the position pointer) where you are heading on the map (but the map is not aligned with the terrain under your feet); aligning the unit such that the pointer points north aligns the map with the terrain which is the operation suggested by lou.

    ps: the compass, which is heavy on batteries, can be switched on/off by pressing and holding the ‘page’ button for ~2sec on the 60csx

  22. Tom Gos July 23rd, 2012 4:58 pm

    I’ve pretty much given up use of my Garmin handheld in favor of my Android smartphone with the Trimble Outdoor Navigator app. The phone battery life is far superior to the Garmin units, the screen is much larger, it is easier to pan and zoom on the maps, and the app cost like $10. Plus, I’m probably going to have my phone with my anyways, so why carry another device? I think that if Garmin wants to stay in business the should start developing software to run on smartphones ane in-car navigation systems. Although the Trimble app is pretty easy to use, I prefer the Garmin user interface on their devices but their for me their hardware is the weak link.

  23. Glenn Sliva July 24th, 2012 5:49 am

    Lou. The GPS should have a spherical compass so it works at any attitude as do the ones in iPhones etc. Calibrate often.

    I’m still amazed when traveling well known back yard terrain and I pull out my GPS to see if I’m near the “bend in the road” or something to find out I’m still 2.5 miles out. Darn that GPS. We used to just keep on keeping on till we got there.

    I overshot the bushwhack trail up to Betty Bear Hut bragging to a group of four that I knew exactly where it was. I ‘gotta stop bragging. Great technology but still map and compass and water.

    Here’s a web page that kind of goes over all of this Survival Gear. And no it’s not an end of the world bunch. It’s a guy that specializes in survival.


    You will find lots of good beta there.

  24. Lou Dawson July 24th, 2012 6:59 am

    Glenn, the newer Garmin 60 models have a compass that works at angles instead of only when GPS is held horizontal. But it’s said to still have 2 degrees inaccuracy. You do need some sort of compass to use a GPS effectively for blind navigation, that’s the main thing. A separate handheld compass would work fine, but be fiddly. We were playing around with the inReach GPS yesterday, and I noticed it didn’t seem to have a magnetic compass, we then verified that it does not have a magnetic compass. The inReach does have a GPS “compass” that displays on the paired device, but only works when you’re moving. Lou

  25. Bob Coleman July 25th, 2012 9:43 am

    I read some of the smartphone vs. GPS comments with interest. I found this broadband map. I don’t understand all the nomenclature, but it seems to show very good connectivity in the mountains. How to interpret? I am still leaning toward dedicated GPS. While not a Luddite, I don’t currently carry a smartphone with data.


  26. Rob July 25th, 2012 9:34 pm

    Great info, Lou. I do have to put in a plug, though, as a retired Air Force guy, and remind everyone that the multi-billion dollar space-based technological marvel of GPS is brought to you FREE OF CHARGE by your very own United States Air Force (cue song in the background…)

    No need to thank us…you tax dollars at work!

  27. Lou Dawson August 4th, 2012 7:41 pm

    Quick update. At OR show I gave the latest Garmins a good going over. The series 62 units (they skipped from 60 to 62) do indeed have MUCH better compass. In fact, it was quite impressive. It swings almost in real-time just like a stand-alone magnetic compass, and works when the unit is tilted due to it sensing on 3 axis — which is even more functional than a classic stand alone.

    Look for a brief review of the 62s, then something more extensive once we abuse one.

    Double this positive impression considering the fact that, for example, the Delorme GPS unit _doesn’t_ even have a magnetic compass, and only a few ot the Magellans do.

  28. Lou Dawson August 8th, 2012 7:23 pm

    Also did some Garmin research at OR show to try and figure out the crazy Position Marker. Even the guy in the Garmin booth couldn’t explain it, but said he suspects the dancing Position Marker on the maps page it has something to do with the unit switching between magnetic compass and GPS compass. Mainly, know that if you are standing still the position marker may NOT point north for a certain amount of time, so be sure to check the compass page to get your real direction. The 62 series unites allow you to put a compass window on the map page. Nice.

    For those of you new to the game, the issue is this: What direction does the Position Marker point when you’re using the map page? Most of the time, north (at least when map is set to North UP), but not all the time. It’s a mystery. This might be tuned by setting the magnetic compass ON/OFF settings which of course are NOT on the Compass menu in the 60 series! Gad, who the heck designs the firmware for these things, compass settings that are not on the compass page settings menu? That’s just weird. Perhaps too much pizza an coke for the programmers, and not enough time outside? Research continues.


  29. Jim July 7th, 2014 6:10 pm

    I can’t even see my Note 2 screen in the bright sun with sunglasses.

  30. Lou Dawson July 7th, 2014 7:06 pm

    Yeah, me too, that’s why I bagged my smartphone-as-gps project. Truly, smartphones are pretty lame as winter backcountry GPS units. They work well in automobiles when cabled to a charger… super disappointing. Heck, when the basic issue is not being able to see the screen!? Lou

  31. See July 7th, 2014 10:58 pm

    iPhone with kindle screen? Maybe someday…

  32. Doug Lippert January 5th, 2017 1:17 am

    It’s best to use a modern GPS in “track-up” mode. The display does not bounce around.

    “North up” mode works (obviously) but you have to do unnecessary mental gymnastics. Which is what you don’t want to do in a real emergency. Just my opinion.

  Your Comments

  Recent Posts

Facebook Twitter Email Instagram Youtube

WildSnow Twitter Feed


  • Blogroll & Links

  • Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free ski touring news and information here.

    All material on this website is copyrighted, the name WildSnow is trademarked, permission required for reproduction (electronic or otherwise) and display on other websites. PLEASE SEE OUR COPYRIGHT and TRADEMARK INFORMATION.

    We include "affiliate sales" links with most of our blog posts. This means we receive a percentage of a sale if you click over from our site (at no cost to you). None of our affiliate commission links are direct relationships with specific gear companies or shopping carts, instead we remain removed by using a third party who manages all our affiliate sales and relationships. We also sell display "banner" advertising, in this case our relationships are closer to the companies who advertise, but our display advertising income is carefully separated financially and editorially from our blog content, over which we always maintain 100% editorial control -- we make this clear during every advertising deal we work out. Please also notice we do the occasional "sponsored" post, these are under similar financial arrangements as our banner advertising, only the banner or other type of reference to a company are included in the blog post, simply to show they provided financial support to WildSnow.com and provide them with advertising in return. Unlike most other "sponsored content" you find on the internet, our sponsored posts are entirely under our editorial control and created by WildSnow specific writers.See our full disclosures here.

    Backcountry skiing is dangerous. You may be killed or severely injured if you do any form of ski mountaineering, skimo randonnee and randonnée skiing. The information and news on this website is intended only as general information. Due to human error and passing time, the information, text and images contained within this website may be inaccurate, false, or out-of-date. By using, reading or viewing the information provided on this website, you agree to absolve the owners of Wild Snow as well as content contributors of any liability for injuries or losses incurred while using such information. Furthermore, you agree to use any of this website's information, maps, photos, or binding mounting instructions templates at your own risk, and waive Wild Snow owners and contributors of liability for use of said items for ski touring or any other use.

    Switch To Mobile Version