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By: Jason Giacchino

GPS: Don’t Leave Home Without It

Garmin Colorado 400t
Garmin Colorado 400t

You can almost imagine the scene--sometime in the distant future a history teacher addresses his bored class.  He unfolds a brightly colored piece of paper and says, “These relics were all that early humans had to rely on for navigation purposes.  They were called maps.”

The kid in the front row will reply “My great grandfather told me about those things, but I never pictured them so low-tech. I mean it’s just a drawing!” And the class will erupt in laughter at our primitive nature.

Don’t feel too bad, though; we stand at the crossroads of future technology today.  GPS or Global Positioning Systems have been around for a few years now and have finally become affordable enough to earn acceptance by the masses. What’s more is that companies are producing units compact and specialized enough to be marketed for specific applications. The GPS receiver in your car no longer has to serve duty as the unit you would take hiking, cycling, or in our case, ATVing. We can’t be certain future generations of spoiled brats won’t be laughing at our expense one day; but thanks to GPS, it’s getting much more difficult to get lost today and there’s nothing funny about that.

While today’s GPS units are typically no larger than a cell phone, the technology can be traced back to the early 1970s through a series of Air Force experiments intended to duplicate the effects of global positioning using ground-based satellite receivers. It wasn’t until 1978 that the first GPS satellite was launched into earth orbit. By 1985, ten more such satellites were launched into orbit. 1993 witnessed the initial operational capability of the system and by 1994 a total of 24 satellites orbited the globe. In 2004, the US signed an agreement with the European Community to establish cooperation with their upcoming satellite network (Galileo). That was also the year that Qualcomm successfully integrated GPS receivers into their mobile phone systems. The most recent GPS satellite launch took place in December of 2007 bringing the total to 31 actively broadcasting satellites.

Magellan eXplorist 100
Magellan eXplorist 100

So how do 31 satellites high above the planet determine exactly where you (or more specifically, the little gizmo in your pocket) are located? A typical GPS receiver (the little gizmo itself) calculates its own position using incoming signals from four or more GPS satellites. Why four? At least this many satellites are needed since the process needs a very specific local time, more accurate than any clock can provide. What this means is that the receiver internally solves for time as well as position. In English the GPS receiver in your pocket collects four measurements (one from each of the satellites above) which it then translates into more understandable values such as latitude/longitude coordinates or your location on a digital map. This is what appears on your screen. GPS receivers are every bit as essential to the process as the satellites themselves as it is the receiver that is responsible for taking the satellite information and using triangulation to calculate the user's exact location. Essentially, the GPS receiver compares the time a signal was transmitted by the satellite with the time it was received, and it is this time difference that tells the GPS receiver how far away the satellite is.

Believe it or not, there are literally dozens of different GPS receiver types to choose from. Among these are aviation models, handheld, automotive, PC cards, marine, surveying, etc.  For our specific purpose (off-roading) the handheld unit is the most practical for its portability, lightweight construction, and durability. Additionally, handheld GPS receivers are used because they are battery powered (often rechargeable) and feature a built-in display. The display is usually LCD (liquid crystal display) for low power consumption and can be either alphanumeric or graphical.

Often times we associate automotive GPS with in-dash technology (such as On-Star) but equally popular of late are handheld units that can be easily mounted to the vehicle’s dashboard for travel but detached and carried upon arrival. These units typically make worthy ATV companions because of their bright screens and easy to follow navigation tools (such as full graphical maps).

This day and age has actually witnessed technology advances that make it possible to fit a GPS receiver into a device wearable on the wrist! For runners, bikers, backpackers and ATV riders, these units offer another popular method of navigation. The drawback is that due to their much more compact screens, these devices don’t usually support GPS mapping capabilities. Instead they do offer route tracking, as well as distance, altitude, speed and location data. Of course, should the user become lost, the receiver would point rescuers directly to the wristwatch.

What to Look For
When getting ready to buy, you will likely discover that there are two specific types of receiver to consider:  Parallel Channel and Multiplexing. The most basic of today’s receivers will support 8 parallel channels. What this means is that the unit can scan for a total of eight orbiting satellites to determine its position. The more channels a receiver can support, the more accurate its triangulation of position becomes. Currently the best receivers can scan 16 channels, which provide 95% accuracy.
Multiplexing models are slightly different as they can switch between tracked satellites on the fly. Because multiplexing receivers lock onto a satellite signal for only a short amount of time, they tend to be less accurate than parallel channel receivers.

Garmin GPSMap60csx
Garmin GPSMap60csx

Water Resistance
Let’s face it. Those of us who ride in swampy conditions, through creeks, and get caught in the rain have to consider a unit that is fairly water resistant (and shock proof). While few receivers come completely waterproof, there are many that offer some degree of water resistance.  This is accomplished at the factory by encasing the delicate electronics in a plastic or rubber-based shell.  Read the box and don’t be afraid to ask questions before purchasing.  Running a fragile unit in rough conditions will quickly destroy the receiver.

Many units proudly boast WAAS Technology Equipped across the package. What does this mean? While GPS receivers have an accuracy of roughly 10 meters, a WAAS-enabled receiver can be accurate within 3 meters! WAAS stands for Wide Area Augmentation System and in addition to an array of satellites,WAAS offers connection to nearby ground stations to provide GPS signal corrections. These correcting signals literally improve the accuracy of the GPS receiver’s position. This technology averages up to five times more than a non-WAAS equipped unit.

Battery Life
ATV epics often lead riders far from civilization and since all receivers require electricity to operate, battery life is a serious consideration when selecting a receiver. Most of today’s GPS receivers offer some type of battery-saving quality to keep you from having to constantly swap batteries. Many handheld units use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack (like those found in cell phones and PDAs) that actually shows a battery-life meter on the display. With this line of thinking you could shut the unit down when it is not needed in an effort to conserve energy.  If you decide on a non-rechargeable model, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get into the habit of carrying spare batteries on long rides.

Most standard GPS receivers come with only a base map. So how do you acquire additional maps or specific maps of your particular area? Some manufacturers charge extra to unlock maps from their web sites or sell actual map CD-ROMs that you install on your computer (then download into the receiver). Many quality units have a USB port that allows you to connect the receiver to your PC, where you can download the latest maps as they become available.  Some even come packaged with a free CD full of maps as part of a sales promotion.

Garmin Rhino 530
Garmin Rhino 530

Many models boast spoken voice navigation abilities (whereby the unit actually speaks step by step navigation instructions) but keep in mind that this is quite an unnecessary feature for most ATV applications as its main benefit involves street navigating (not to mention with helmets on and revving engines, it will likely be difficult to hear).

In summary, ATV riders have some pretty unique needs when it comes to selecting a GPS unit.  While many various specializations could be made to work (automobile portable & automobile pocket models), the better choices for our unique needs come from the camping and hiking market segment.  These are the GPS units specifically designed to be lightweight and rugged for the types of abuse outdoor use can dish out. Many of these units are offered in waterproof options as well.

Although sometimes difficult to find, some companies do produce motorcycle-specific GPS units, which work exceptionally well for ATV use because of the fact that they are most often waterproof, vibration resistant, and best of all come with unique mounting hardware designed to clamp down to a motorcycle handlebar.

Finally, if all else fails, fitness and cycling GPS devices commonly used for walking, jogging, running, and bicycling can be made to fit the needs of an ATV rider. While usually cheapest in price, these tiny units are usually worn on the wrist (like a watch) and can track variables such as your speed, distance traveled, pace, and location. Cycling-specific variants of these units often come with the mounting hardware that allows fitting directly to the stem or handlebar of a bicycle (which can work on many quad bars as well).

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