Monday, February 26, 2018

Navigating in the Backcountry With Garmin's eTrex 10 Handheld GPS Unit

Navigating via compass, topography map and basic understanding of the terrain and how to read it helps you trek your way through the backcountry or along a trail. But sometimes you will get lost.

Sometimes when you're venturing through an unfamiliar area, where the trail becomes faint or conditions change for the worse, an GPS that links to an array of satellites up above, is your best option. That's where the eTrex 10 from Garmin comes in.

Let me paint a scenario for you where having an actual GPS, well, saved my ass when things on a backpacking trip became a bit risky. Rewind back to October, a few months ago, to a three day trip up into the Never Summer Wilderness area,  bordering Colorado's majestic Rocky Mountain National Park. My first day on the trail, I was hiking west up Baker Gulch to a secluded alpine lake called Parika Lake, sitting in the shadows of towering wall of mountains the circles it. Final elevation where I ended up pitched tent along the shores of the frozen lake at a heavenly 11,371 ft. But getting to camp one, tested my risk management skills and confidence on my own in the backcountry. 

An hour or two before sundown, the Parika Lake Trail I had been following from the trailhead in Rocky Mountain Park, slowly became innavigable. Paying 150% attention as I closely followed it upwards in elevation through tall pines, the falling snow came down even harder and at one point the trail disappeared, completely. I've gotten turned around before on hikes by myself, but this time I stopped fully. Looking around in all directions, there was zero indication of which way to go. Just deep, fresh fallen snow everywhere. 

I kept my cool, put my backpacking pack down and pulled out my topo map I bought at REI and studied before this endeavor. I had to be close, judging by the mileage I had already hiked and various terrain around me. I had probably another two miles or so to go until I reached Parika Lake, wherever it is. Risk management came into play and I thought to myself three things: it's getting dark, I'm all alone in a thick wooded area in the mountains, and the snow and visibility is getting worse by the minute. Do I head back down the trail? Had I gone the wrong way at some point through all these snow-packed switchbacks? Should I stop here, set up tent, and wait till sunrise the next morning to continue? 

Thankfully I pulled out the Garmin eTrex 10 I was carrying, turned it on, and got a reading of where I was, what time it was, the elevation and how long I had until the sun was down. Even below a roof of thick lodgepole pines, the Garmin connected to its team of satellites and I was able to cue-up the coordinates to Parika Lake and continue on. Orienting myself with the GPS, I followed the black arrow on the screen as it directed me closer and closer to the foot of the lake. Looking up through the sideways snow, I could make out the profile of a mountain that I had seen while doing my pre-trip research. I knew I was almost there, and sure enough I could see the frozen surface of Parika in the distance.

The eTrex 10 helped me out tremendously, and for less than $100 I think it was a solid purchase. 
This unit is the base, entry level model in Garmin's handheld GPS lineup. It's simple and quick to operate, rugged, and incorporates many useful included features. The 2.2-inch monochrome screen lights up bright (adjustable of course) and while it's not a touch-screen, a black rubber joystick below allows you to scroll through menus, move the map around and plug-in coordinates by tapping down on it like the mouse on a laptop. 

It's efficient too, as you'll see a long 25-hour batter life from two AA batteries. Even in freezing,  temperatures above treeline in the Colorado mountains, the Garmin worked perfectly. Never failing, never glitching, never operating slowly. I like the fact it runs on batteries too, eliminating the anxiety of having to plug it in to recharge. The unit itself is durable too, as exposure to snow didn't shake it. The eTrex (and other Garmin units) can use both GPS and GLONASS satellite systems to track your location and guide you. When both systems work together, eTrex 10 links up to a total of 24 different satellites. 

In the eTrex 10, an easy-to-read trip computer shows you your current elevation, time till sundown and sunset, how long and how far you've been hiking and the time. There's even a cool GeoCache mode. Buttons on either side of the device respond well to input.

Sadly, the biggest let-down with the eTrex 10 is the lack of any kind of traceable route to follow, on the screen once you enter-in a waypoint or set of coordinates. Sure, a tiny flag indicating a waypoint will show up on the screen and you'll see the big arrow (you and your position) that points to the direction of where you need to go, then it's simply a game of keeping an eye and referring to it every once in a while to make sure the gap between your arrow and that waypoint flag gets narrower and narrower. There's no topographic map built into the eTrex's display or route line to follow. It's kind of a guessing game until that arrow meets the flag. That's why you also carry a printed, paper topographic map, like you always should anyways. As you progress towards the waypoint, a digital bread crumb trail of tiny pixel dots gets left behind, allowing you to track your path should you need to turn around.

Before getting on the plane to Denver, I was able to download Garmin's free mapping software, called BaseCamp and program my eTrex 10 with all the necessary and back-up coordinates for my backpacking trip. I found descriptions of my route in a guidebook, then copied the coordinates from their into BaseCamp, where I could map the route (with layers). When ready, I just exported the waypoints (Parika Lake Camp 1, Trailhead in RMNP, Baker Pass Split, etc) to my eTrex 10 via the included USB cable. That simple. For curiosity's sake, I cross-checked the coordinates for my waypoints I entered into BaseCamp with Google Earth, and everything showed up correct. BaseCamp even allows you to measure distances between certain waypoints you plot.

So while the Garmin eTrex 10 may lack a color screen, two-way communication, an SOS function and a route on-screen you mirror to get to your waypoint; it's a cheap, reliable, minimalist and accurate way to navigate in the backcountry should you require more than a map and compass. I bought my eTrex 10 to use as a "last resort," but if you want to crack open your wallet a little more and buy a Garmin eTrex GPS you will constantly rely on with a screen that shows an actual topo map, do it.


Price: $75-$109