GPS Question – Which one for hiking?

Trying to decide which GPS to buy for hiking?
Not sure of what mapping software you need for your Garmin GPS?
What are the best bushwalking maps for Australia?
How good are Shonky maps and Garmin GPS’s?

In this post we compare the use of Mapsource, Tracks4Australia and Shonky GPS maps with a clear winner – Shonky Maps!

We received an email from Paul and Mel with a question about purchasing a GPS:

First of all, great blog! I am after some help on selecting a good GPS to use hiking in Tasmania , something with a good variety of features for a middle of the road sort of price. Any Idea’s?

Hi guys, thanks very much for the question. I have been thinking about writing a GPS piece for a while as it is one of my favourite hiking toys! We have had a Garmin eTrex Legend Cx for about nearly 2 years and absolutely love it. Here is the link too read about it — Garmin eTrex 10 Worldwide Handheld GPS Navigator

Background: Why did we buy one? Well did the South Coast Walk in Tasmania in March 2006 , you can read about it here.
We were much slower than the other two people in the party and were always some time behind (up to 3 hours some days)We did not have a good map with us (our bad, never repeated), nor did we have any idea how long we had left to walk to camp most days. One night we ended up camping deep in the bush, about one hour out of camp because it was quite dark and we did not have a clue how far (or more importantly) how long, it would take us to get to the designated camp site (and the other two sprinters in the party) This created some grief for them with concern about our health, but communication and contingency planning, now THAT is another whole post on its own!!
On completion of the hike Sue suggested we buy a GPS, after I had regained consciousness, I had researched and bought one within a couple of weeks……. strike while the iron is hot I reckon!

Garmin or Magellin or whatever?:
I know this sound pathetic but I never really gave it too much serious thought. My great hiking mate has a older Garmin. By purchasing a Garmin I knew we would be using the same software, he would know how to load stuff on it and because he is a chronic software collector I could pinch stuff off him that would work on my new GPS. Simple decision for me, hard for anyone else.

Which model? It was purely dollar driven but I liked the colour screen, battery life and expandable memory (I have a 1G card that holds all I need with SPACE to spare) in the Legend. My brother in law bought the Garmin GPSMAP 62 Handheld GPS Navigator
which has a bigger display, probably better reception in the bush (with it’s external aerial) but it is heavier, bulkier and uses more battery. Another mate has the same as mine but I reckon he wants the 60.
I am very happy with our eTrex Legend Cx and would not swap it. I am prepared to forgo some reception loss for the smaller size and better battery life…..

Most important stuff…. I have discovered a GPS is only as good as the software that is available for trip planning and setting up tracks, routes and waypoints. I did not know or think about any of this before purchasing my Garmin but have learnt heaps since.

I reckon this is the key to getting the best use out of your GPS.

Garmin GPS’s come with Mapsource as the basic plotting software. In fact, to do anything with the GPS on your computer, you have to do it with Mapsource. This software comes supplied with the GPS. As an interface tool i.e. to get the GPS talking to the computer, it works pretty well, the tools it has are fine and simple to use but the MAPS are crap….

The simplest, fasted and most accurate way of plotting a track or planning a hike is using the map on your PC (via Mapsource) to enter the waypoints, routes or tracks and then upload it to the GPS. It is almost impossible to create complex routes or track directly on the GPS unless you are in solitary confinement for 3-5 years and have HEAPS of time!

The other method of entering waypoints is to buy a 1:25000 or 1:50,000 map and calculate the position manually and then key them into Mapsource on your PC. This method is slow, prone to error and frankly a waste of time (if you have good maps available on Mapsource, otherwise it is the only way)

The story does not stop here. Below is a screen shot of a small section of Hinchinbrook Island and the track we walked showing the Mapsource map i.e. the GPS records, like a pebble trail , your route while you are walking. It is then superimposed over the map. Note the detail on the map, there is none. The Mapsource base map is OK for roads and getting to places or if you mark a waypoint while you are hiking and want to return to it, but is effectively useless for anything else.

For Hinchinbrook Island all you see is a “representation” of the area as a white blob.

I then discovered Tracks4Australia. (I pinched the following off their website to help explain)
It provides an alternative free map set that can be used both with Mapsource on a PC or uploaded to a map capable Garmin GPS unit. The aim is to provide a high quality map set for all of Australia with a focus on non metropolitan areas. The set will NOT be adequate for marine or aeronautical navigation.The Tracks4Australia group seeks contributions of track logs & waypoints from both members & non-members.

I purchase Tracks4Australia Pro for about $50 and found it to be excellent. It shows a LOT more detail and is an evolving product. Their focus is mainly on rural areas and it seems most of the contributors are 4WDers. There are some hiking tracks on it (e.g. the Overland Track in Tasmania is on it and spot on compared to our GPS readings). There are great people behind it with an excellent philosophy. It is well worth purchasing to add to your selection of GPS maps and significantly cheaper than commercial maps developed for Garmin.

Below is the SAME track over the Tracks4Australia Map. Note, we were not walking on water and you can see some swamp (in green)

More recently I discovered Shonkymaps. They are available FREE from GPS Australia , a forum where GPS desperate’s from across the country congregate to share maps, trip information etc. It is a great forum and well worth a visit. You will learn heaps and can receive much more sound advice regarding GPS’s than I would ever be able to convey. This is the link to Shonkymaps on the Forum. Register and get involved, it is well worth your time.

I downloaded Shonkymaps and they installed really easily and work a treat with Mapsource and my GPS. Note the screen shot below where I have used the Shonkymap for Hinchinbrook to show the increased detail. In this case the track on the Shonkymap is not that accurate but it gives a reasonable approximation. The detail is much better and many features are named. There was no track on Tracks4Australia and hardly an Island on Mapsource.

The “Shonky” map, note it shows the Thorsborne Trail, landmarks, a mountain, mangroves etc.

I have had a look at the Shonkymaps for Tasmania and the Victorian Alps and believe the tracks that “Shonky” has added to the maps are relatively accurate. They may be off at times but are accurate enough to use for creating your own route or waypoints. And, the significant winner is that they are FREE, yes FREE. Their disadvantages are that upgrades, modifications etc won’t occur but not many tracks or landmarks move….

Conclusion A GPS is a fantastic hiking resource. It should not be your only navigation tool. You still should always carry a good map and compass and know how to use them as the GPS could die at any moment!! The additional resource of Tracks4Australia and the suite of Shonkymaps are what makes the GPS so much more usable and effective when planning a walk and seeing where you are. The “trackback” function is also very useful as it saved me losing a $450 Gortex jacket in Tasmania recently, got me within 10 metres of it in thick scrub. The 45 minute “trackback” in mud was not very pleasant……

Check out the GPS Australia forum, suss out other post on the Web and talk to suppliers.



  1. Anonymous says

    Hi. Thanks for the post about ‘Which GPS for Hiking’

    I have had a GPS60 for a few years, but wanted mapping, so I’ve given it the flick and upgraded to the Etrex Vista HCx which is a more sensitive version of your Cx. It’s great with shonkymaps. Bought via ebay from US. It was so much cheaper than local retailers, that I could just about to throw it away if something goes wrong and buy another: $AU300 in delivery.

    Stop buying stuff, I can’t keep up!


  2. Mark fraser says

    I am looking at purchasing a gps and have been looking at the Garmin 600t with the topographic maps preloaded. Has anyone used one of these units for hiking. I would also like some feedback on alternatives



  3. Pogglesgrandma says

    WE are looking at buying a gps, what should we buy, we hike Australia, Uk and Europe. Want something really good but at the same time not too hard to operate.


  4. Robin says

    I’ve just purchased a Garmin Oregon 700 and you get 1 years subscription to BirdsEye – it’s the Bee’s Knees!

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