Recommend a GPS for Rivers

-- Last Updated: Jan-08-08 12:27 PM EST --

I want a GPS unit that is water resistant, and will help me determine my exact location on a river at any given time.

I Paddle Illinois rivers and ponds. I have never owned or operated a GPS unit before.


Several Choices
Do you want a GPS that will just give your coordinates and capture waypoints?

For this I’d recommend the Garmin eTrex H.

Or do you want a GPS that contains maps of the area and shows your location on those maps?

For this there are a large number of options:

Garmin eTrex Legend HCx

Garmin eTrex Vista HCx - has electronic compass

Garmin GPSMAP 76Cx - floats!

Garmin GPSMAP 76CSx - floats and has electronic compass

All have the same level of water resistance and all also provide excellent vehicle usage, such as routing. You’d need to purchase the maps separate from the GPS unit.

Personally, I’d recommend the 76CSx. I have the very similar 60CSx (doesn’t float) and REALLY REALLY like it.


define exact location…

– Last Updated: Jan-08-08 6:30 PM EST –

By defining exact location, they all do that, it's what they do. A less expensive GPS will give your lat. and long., direction and distance to "home"(if you marked "home"), and that's about it. Degrees, minutes, and seconds on a screen. If you are using a chart and have some navigation ability, that's all you need. Next step up will give you tracking ability and often a rudimentary map, with icons you can choose to mark areas of interest, along with a "breadcrumb trail" to show your progress. The most expensive type have downloadable charts which show where you are on a detailed map or chart. No homework required.I have 4 GPS', an old Micrologics that is the "step up" I mention above, a Magellin basic model that I am very happy with but must do all navigation beforehand, an ICOM large screen "rudimentary map" model on my sailboat, and a Garmin 60, which also has the rudimentary map/breadcrumb trail. I have found the middle of the road models to be perfectly adequate for my navigation needs. I use topo maps or marine charts for the "big picture", and save money by doing my own navigation, entering my own waypoint, and not bothering with detailed GPS charts($200 each for marine chart, whereas $100 gets me paper charts from Maine to Cape May NJ).

Be careful
Garmin Bluechart covers specific regions.

The coverage for Great Lakes region might not cover enough Illinoise River.

I would like to have one that will have a map showing small rivers and be able to graphically show me where I am on the river.

Pick up an basic e-trex
then do a little homework beforehand.

Find out what river you want to travel on. pick a launch spot. Go to a mapping site (like Mapquest) that will give you lat and long coordinates and preplot your expected travels from there. It will take only a few minutes to manually enter waypoints following the instructions in the users manual. I like to pick off waypoints that are roughly 1 mile apart from each other so I can tell how far I have come and how far I have to go. I also use sites like virtual earth for aerial photos to familiarize myself with new places beforehand. It is amazing the info you can get in just a few minutes on the web that you can apply to a paddling daytrip. Long winter days lend themselves nicely to staring at maps and planning trips I will never go on.

Some expensive gps units have crappy details when it comes to small bodies of water. Small streams and such may not show up on the screen at all.

If you have half an imagination you really wont need a mapping gps. Or should I say I have never really wanted more than the most basic model for planning daytrips.

The first couple of times you manually preplot waypoints it might seem like a pain in the arse but it is easy and doesn’t really take that much time.

Or you could spend more money and get a mapping gps that might not have any details on the area you are paddling in. In which case you will have wasted a bit of money for nothing.

well said, Scott
as mentioned above, 3 of my 4 are “rudimentary map/breadcrumb trail” models. It’s a nice little project on a crappy winters night to dream up that trip, enter those waypoints, create those icons, and look at a real map or chart to get the “big picture.” For the price of a SD card chart, you can buy a Garmin 60 and a weeks supply of food (beany weenies for some.) Still laugh at the story of the captain in Florida relying on his state of the art GPS with the chart downloaded doing a delivery of a 1.75 million dollar yacht last year. Coming in the inlet, he hit the breakwater, tore the bottom off the boat, sank, totalling the boat. Why? He was so engrossed in the detailed chart on his GPS, he didn’t bother looking out the window.

I second the Etrex H.
Just purchased one to replace my original etrex which still works fine. Both are the basic, yellow, less than $100, non mapping units. Rated as water proof to a meter but I bag it when the going gets gnarly.I use a gps mostly on rivers and pretty much just for fun. (I’d mention that I geocache with it, but some ill informed eco-nazi would accuse me of littering). I set waypoints at good campsites, and such. Mileage, speed etc are easily tracked. The new H model is waaay more sensitive, faster to fix it’s location and more accurate than the original. It also has a navigation page that provides 5 user selected fields to show all the info you want without picking it up and scrolling. I also manually add waypoints at home with a commercial mapping program.

GPS accuracy is better than map accuracy
If you are in a fog with a mapping GPS, it will know exactly where you are, but the maps may not have the detail you need to know where you are in the channel. Water levels change and shorelines change, so it may show that you are on dry land which might get confusing if you rely on it too heavily – “Hey, I’m on shore, I can step out of my boat now… (dunk)”

I think I may get one of those etrex H thingies…


I wish I had known…
Highlander_821, I wish I had known Sunday on the Salt Fork! I had a new Garmin Legend HCx. I have the Topo software on my computer and upload maps to the gps. It works really well. If you get a mapping gps, I would recommend a color one. Much easier to tell roads from rivers from contour lines! I will upload a couple of the topo maps to the pictures I posted after the trip. One is a larger area of where we paddled, and one is zoomed in much closer. Check em out.


Thanks, Pat.
That looks like just what I’m looking for. I do try to do my own navigation, but it would be fun to be able to verify position with the device.

gps map 60
I own a GPS Map 60, the base model for the 60 series. It’s VERY durable, as I used it on all my combat missions in Afghanistan, and it’s great on the water too.

If you’re loading river maps onto it, get one with expandable memory (i.e. an SD memory card) and one that doesn’t chew up batteries. Whether you want to go color or monochrome is your call, the color models are vastly more expensive than the black and white ones, but if you have the bucks to spend, go for it.

And always remember, GPS is great, but it never replaces having an actual map to guide you.

Color GPS Receivers
are also better in terms of battery life than the non-color models.

For paddling I’d go with the Garmin 76CX or 76CSX. The big advantage over the other Garmin models is that it floats.

With the 76 you can run mapping software such as Topo, Bluechart or Inland Lakes for your paddling trips and City Navigator to give you turn by turn driving directions in your vehicle.

Where to get maps?
Where can I download maps like the ones that you posted on Picassa?

recommend gps for rivers
I would go with one that has the sirfstar3 chipset. I have one of the original etrex vistas, and it works fine with a clear view of the sky. But if you are on trails or a backroad with trees overhead it tends to loose a signal.

I bought my parents one of the newer nuvos with the new chipset; and that will get a signal indoors.

I believe that several of the garmin handhelds are waterproof and have the street level routing built in.(so you can use if for vehicle navigation as well)

Garmin eTrex Summit HC
I got the Garmin eTrex Summit HC and have ordered the USA Topo map software.

I like the fact that it has the barometric altimeter and the magnetic compass along with the mapping GPS and ability to upload detailed topo maps to it.

Pricey, but I think it is a good buy and will do what I want it to do.

I hope you realize that you can’t load the TopoUSA maps onto your GPS. You have to have Garmin’s Mapsource TOPO to do that.

Garmin Mapsource
Sorry, the Garmin Mapsource Topo USA 2008 DVD is what I ordered.