Geography In Your Palm

Global Positioning System receivers have made life easier for outdoorsmen in the South, yet the GPS revolution is just beginning. Here's what is headed our way now. (December 2005)

Compact, handheld GPS units now provide extensive built-in maps.
Photo by Bud Reiter

If there is a single phrase that invariably identifies an intrepid outdoorsman who strayed a bit too far from the beaten path, it would be "Where the heck am I?"

No one truly knows when that phrase was first uttered, but the chances are good it originated with someone wearing animal skins and carrying a stone-point spear. From that humble beginning, the refrain has achieved worldwide usage.

It is likely that Daniel Boone muttered it at least once, and was no doubt echoed by Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson, and an untold number of other early explorers. It is still in common usage today, and a phrase that tends to roll readily off the tongue when you think you know where your feet are planted at the moment, but have absolutely no idea of how those planted feet relate to the rest of the world at large.

Getting lost is not fun, and a number of tools have been developed to reduce the possibility. Accurate topographical maps were a start, and compact and reliable compasses added to their usefulness. If one could identify a couple of prominent terrain features, take a compass bearing on two or three, intersect those bearing lines on a map, a rough idea of one's location could be achieved and the proper bearing to the destination figured.

That worked on land, but did not serve sailors well, since recognizable landmarks are few and far between on the open ocean. They had to rely on bearings from stars and planets, which took a lot of training. The advent of the LORAN system was an improvement. Signal sending beacons on shore provided fixed reference points that could be intersected to determine an approximate location if the sailor had the proper receiver.

All of the above were improvements. But, it was not until the U.S. military decided to use modern satellite technology to provide a definitive answer to the question of "Where the heck am I?" that true precision became available.

The Global Positioning System utilizes an array of task-specific orbiting satellites -- each sending continuous signals back to earth -- that allow a GPS equipped user to determine with a tremendous degree of accuracy, exactly where the heck they are. If the receiver can locate a clear signal from just three of the orbiting birds a precise longitude and latitude in degrees, minutes, and seconds can be achieved.

Using those same divisions of latitude and longitude a user can not only figure out where he is, but also how to get to where he wants to be. If the GPS unit has the capability for the input the destination's numbers, which are easy to determine from the proper map, the satellites will then inform the user of how far that point is and what compass bearing to follow to reach it.

The biggest drawback to the early GPS units, however, was they could tell you where you were and could mark where you had been, but had limited ability to get you to where you wanted to go, unless you also had a quality map and a separate compass. On-screen maps could be downloaded into some of the better models, but that needed to be done in advance from a computer -- assuming the proper software was installed and the appropriate maps could be obtained. Only the most sophisticated military-grade units had those capabilities.

The end result, for most users of the early units, was that only part of the GPS possibilities could be utilized. One could mark any spot they had been to and return to it later. But, if you had not been there before, GPS by itself was not going to get you there now.

That limitation led to the next GPS advancement -- user inserted map chips. Purchase the proper map card, insert it into the newer units possessing that capability, and life got easier. In addition to marking where you had been, users could now scroll up the proper map section, move a cursor to their destination point, and be guided to it. The course on the map would be a straight line, but with the on screen map it was easy to navigate around intervening obstacles while receiving constant course updates.

That was a major improvement, but the drawback was that you needed the proper map cards, and they were not cheap -- nor were maps available for all areas. That has changed today.

The latest GPS technology provides a built-in hard drive that is pre-loaded with full map capability. Push a few buttons and up pops any coastal area, lake, inland terrain, and even city streets! Navigation has never been so easy, and it is not limited to the woods and water. More than a few professional tournament anglers have a GPS unit in their tow vehicle to help them find boat ramps, motels, and all the other amenities they require while traveling the fishing circuit. In many cases, it is the same unit they use in the boat. They just slip it into the vehicle, plug it into a dashboard receptacle, and require only a separate vehicle antenna.

Life in the hinterlands does not get much easier than that. Thus noted, let's take a closer look at what else is coming from the manufacturers of these navigational marvels.


Eagle's entry into the high-level split screen-color GPS/depth recorder arena is the Sea Champ 2000. This unit features a bright 7-inch color display 480v-by-640h screen pixel display. A dual 50/200 kHz transducer reads at up to 70 mph and provides water temperature/speed/distance displays. Optional transducers are available.

The recorder offers Advanced Signal Processing, Fish track, several zoom options, selective alarms for Shallow, Deep, Fish, and Zone, COLORLINE to separate fish from nearby bottom and help define bottom composition, and it provides precise trolling speed and distance readings.

The GPS side offers 12-parallel channel GPS+WASS reception with position updates every second with the external EGC-12W receiver. A custom, built-in background map covers the continental United States and Hawaii in high detail, with over 60,000 navigation aids and 10,000 wrecks and other structures in coastal and Great Lakes waters. Land-based mapping includes interstate exit services and additional inland navigation features.

Optional software allows the use of MapCreate, to design custom maps, and is compatible with the full spectrum of Lowrance aftermarket maps via MMC/SD cards to locate over 2,000,000 Points Of Interest. This includes a searchable database of streets and addresses, as well

as marinas, restaurants, motels, airports, emergency services and more.

The Eagle Fish Elite 480 is a lower-priced version of the Sea Champ that offers a 480-by-480 pixel black-and-white display, a single 200 kHz transducer and a 5-inch viewing screen. Other than those differences, it offers virtually all of the Sea Champs features, including MMC/SD card capability, the same built-in maps, and compatibility with Lowrance custom maps.

Those looking for a stand-alone GPS unit will find the Eagle IntelliMap 500C is at home in vehicle, boat, or aircraft. It offers a color 5-inch screen with 320v-by-240h pixel resolution, and provides the same software mapping features and capabilities as loaded into the Sea Champ, including MMC/SD compatibility with all aftermarket accessories.


Garmin's offering in the upper-level GPS/depth recorder market is their new GPSMap 198C Sounder. A highly improved version of their popular GPSMAP 182C, it features a brighter, more easily read, 5-inch color screen and an updated faceplate. According to Garmin the unit is ideal for the boater who lacks access to a personal computer to load individual charts onto their plotter. The 198C comes equipped with the highly detailed BlueChart cartography that covers the coastal United States, Alaska and Hawaii. The built-in maps provide detailed coastal features, shaded depth contours, navigation aids, ports, marinas, wrecks, and other items of significance. Pre-programmed MMC/SD cards are also available for many other regions, including Canada and the Bahamas.

In addition to the GPS function, the 198C features dual 50/200 kHz sonar with a 500-watt (RMS) power output, or 4,000 watts peak-to-peak. The color pixel display is 234-by-320.

Additional features include alarms for anchor drag, arrival, off-course, proximity waypoint, clock, and low battery voltage. It also has built-in tide data and celestial tables.

Hand-held users will want to look at the new Garmin GPSMAP 60. At a trim 7.5 ounces with batteries installed, the pocket-sized unit offers 24MB of built-in map base with automatic routing capabilities, as well as the capability to use optional MapSource, 24K Topo software, and BlueChart for saltwater applications. This allows for customizing your map display to fit your specific requirements. In addition, it features both a serial and USB connection for download transfer. With a WASS receiver and built-in quad-helix antenna it provides accuracy to 10 feet under most circumstances.

The waterproof units will operate for 28 hours using two AA batteries while providing a trip computer odometer, stopped time, moving average, overall average, total time, maximum speed, built-in alarm clock, and more.


Designed primarily for boaters, although it also rides well in a truck, the Lowrance LCX-26C HD is their most sophisticated split-screen color GPS/depth recorder. It features a 20GB hard drive pre-loaded with maps that cover U.S. coastal waters, including Alaska, Hawaii and the Great Lakes. It also has over 2,100 inland lakes, and topographical land-based mapping with street level detail.

The 7-inch screen makes displays easy to read. If more detail is required the unit also features two waterproof MMC/SD card slots to allow custom map loading and upgrades.

On the sonar side it offers a dual frequency transducer, color readouts, fish ID, multi-zoom options, and all the other features one would expect from a top-of-the-line fishfinder.

For those who do not require land-based mapping, or the ability to install custom maps via MMC/SD cards, the M68C S/Map is a more compact and moderately priced alternative that offers many of the same features as the LCX-26C. It provides a 3.5-inch split-screen color GPS/depth recorder, a 200 kHz transducer with a built-in water temperature gauge, zoom and bottom tracking, fish alarm, and a full screen LCD flasher mode that provides instantaneous readouts to 70 miles per hour.

Special built-in GPS mapping includes U.S. lakes, rivers, the Great Lakes and coastal waters with navigational aids. An Overlay Data feature allows GPS data to be displayed over the sonar screen, and vice versa.

For those who do not require depth-recorder capability and simply want the most detailed GPS unit available, the GlobalMap 7600 HD is worth a look. It features a high-brightness 10.4-inch color display, and a built-in, shock resistant, 20GB hard drive loaded with the same array of maps as the LCX-26C. Designed for boat or car, if offers dual MMC/SD card slots for custom map installation, 12-channel reception, automatic WASS reception, and an impressive 600V-by-800H pixel screen resolution. It is compatible with the optional plug and play Lowrance Lakemaster Pro Maps electronic charts.

If you would rather have a compact hand-held GPS Lowrance offers the !Finder series. Several models exist in this line and one of the most versatile is the Hunt model. This hand-sized unit weighs in at 8.7 ounces and operates for up to 12 hours on a pair of AA batteries. A cigarette plug power adaptor for car or boat is provided.

Designed primarily for hunters the pocket-sized receiver is completely waterproof and includes a built-in compass, barometric altimeter, an antenna port for connecting to an optional external GPS+WASS antenna, and is finished in Realtree Hardwoods HD camo.

The unit comes with detailed continental U.S. and Hawaii background maps installed, including interstate highway exit services. A single MMC/SD card slot offers mapping and recording capabilities. An optional Mapping Accessories Pack has U.S. topo mapping software, MapCreate, an MMC/SD card and card reader, with a USB connector. Although designed for hunters, it is compatible with the optional Lowrance array of land and water maps and provides easy point and map cursor navigation -- making it an excellent choice for hand-held marine use.

The !Finder GO2 is a lesser-priced version that does not accept MMC/SD cards, but does come with a built-in 64MB worth of land based and coastal maps featuring enhanced shoreline detail and navigation.


As a serious player in the GPS game, Magellan's Meridian Marine hand-held unit is designed for the boater who wants a compact, pocket-sized unit. The 16MB storage comes equipped with an extensive built-in mapping base of U.S. waterways, rivers, lakes, fixed navigation aids, buoys, lighthouses and more. Additionally, it includes a map base listing interstate highways, cities, airports and other inland features. That database can be expanded via a Magellan SD card by downloading their street level maps. The WASS receiver system is accurate to within 10 feet.

Seven customizable graphic navigation formats can display map, compass, speedometer, and text readouts of bearing, heading, speed, direction, distance, and estimated time of arrival. Once data is acquired, it can be saved to a

home PC for later use with Magellan's MapSend software.

Rubber-armored, impact resistant, the unit is sturdy and not only waterproof, but also floats.

While all of the mentioned GPS units were designed for outdoor use, they are perfectly at home in a vehicle. In the case of battery-powered, hand-held units, nothing more is required. With mounted units a power adaptor plug and a separate vehicle antenna are needed.

Where will GPS technology go from here? It is hard to tell. But, right now it is more than capable of allowing the user to never again have to mutter, "Where the heck am I?"

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