I get asked a lot about the wide range of GPS systems that are now available. The recent launch of the eye-wateringly expensive Ordnance Survey Aventura (RRP £499) has really cast a spotlight on the choice facing hillwalkers. Essentially it's a toss-up between an expensive dedicated GPS unit and a relatively cheap smartphone app. In this post I'm going to suggest a sensible compromise which I think is the ideal way forward.
The basic problem is this: even the most expensive available dedicated GPS device has a user interface and processing speed which feels very 1990's when compared to the slick smartphone experience to which most of us have now become accustomed. If you need further evidence of that, check out the comprehensive Trail Magazine review of the Aventura at this link here. Similar comments can be made about the established competitor to the Aventura, the SatMap Active 20.
Balanced against that is the inescapable conclusion that smartphones just are not rugged enough to rely upon when the chips are down. The apps are wonderfully functional and really affordable (it only costs you £5.99 to get going with ViewRanger). But none of these are really going to cut the mustard on the wettest, coldest days, and definitely not if you're staying out in the hills for any length of time. A recent UKHillwalking article lists all the things that can go wrong: check it out at this link here.
There are developments on the horizon which might change things. The Land Rover Explore phone is perhaps worth getting excited about - I'm reserving judgement until it's out next month (check out the amazing beard on their rugged outdoor male model by the way).
However I'm still left thinking about the average hillwalker or runner, the people I meet on my courses and out on the hills. I know we want the functionality of the very popular smartphone apps, but we're also safety-aware and want something that we can rely on in a scrape. And none of us are made of money. For me the answer is actually pretty simple - keep doing whatever you're doing with your smartphone, but also buy a Garmin eTrex 10, stick some AA batteries in it and tuck it away in your first aid kit.
They retail for £99, but they've been around for so long that you can readily get them for half that on eBay. They are absolutely bombproof and have a 25 hour battery life. They take AA batteries so you can easily carry spares. All you'll get is a basic grid reference which you'll need to manually plot onto your map (shock horror...do you still know how to do this!?!), but at least you don't have to worry about subscriptions or map downloads. It's a sensible compromise that won't cost a fortune.
Three "ifs and buts" to finish with...
...if you don't have a smartphone there is perhaps more of an argument for a higher end GPS unit with a proper map display and faster processor
...if you're a trail runner thinking about buying a GPS watch anyway then you might want to think about a Suunto or Garmin watch that also gives you a grid reference
...if you're very safety conscious you might start thinking about satellite messaging capability - this is starting to creep into the market now with the Garmin inReach and Ordnance Survey Aventura. It's very expensive and not for everyone but might sway your decision.