It used to be automatic that you would take a topo map and a compass into the wilderness. You’d have some emergency stuff like a signal mirror, whistle, chem sticks, fire starters, and maybe a flare or smoke. A ham would take a radio. You would leave a plan with someone and also a copy visible in the window of your vehicle in the parking lot. It would include contact information of the person that has your plan.
For some reason cell phones make us think that we don’t need to do any of that anymore. There’s no need to plan because we have a cell phone and can reach out to anyone, anywhere. Since we’re well informed Insiders, we know to still prepare in all the non-technical ways. Since there is access to helpful technology now, we should use the resources available to us. We’ll look at some of the tech options that are out there to assist you when lost.
Cell Phone Versus GPS
Most smartphones these days have GPS transponders in them. They receive their location from the same GPS satellites that other GPS units do. Since the iPhone 5 the phones have receivers for both the US and Russian (GLONASS) GPS satellites. They can be accurate to about 8-meters (26 feet) according to a 2009 study. I downloaded an app called Location after searching for GPS accuracy. That showed that my location was accurate to 10-meters (horizontally), 3-meters (vertically), and had 12 decimals (39.78566233538071o). Of course, to be that accurate indoors the phone uses A-GPS for assistance. It uses the cellular and/wi-fi networks to improve accuracy.
Do you remember maps? They used to be made on paper. Nowadays we stare at our phones. We use Google maps or some other program on our phones to tell us where to go and when we’ll get there. If you use an app like Waze or INRIX it reports traffic as well as other hazards, including speed traps. They’ll even tell you the nearest gas station or restaurant.
This is common sense, but the cellular maps won’t work if you don’t have cell service. There are apps that allow you to download and use the maps offline with your GPS. Doing a search on the web using terms like “best mapping apps”’ and “offline maps” came up with a number of articles from different sources. It would be impossible for me to review them all because of time and some are paid apps. Here is my list and I would urge you to research for yourself:
- CoPilot Premium
- iHunt Journal
- Navigator Free
- Gaia GPS
- Trimble GPS Hunt Pro
The apps that I played with that were free all require you to buy them to navigate off road. Other had different plans depending on what maps you wanted. In doing your research, make sure they have the area you want and that the map has sufficient detail to be able to navigate.
One word of caution about using your cell phone as a map, it will kill the battery fast. Even in airplane mode the GPS is constantly receiving multiple signals from satellites and processing it to provide your location. Therefore, you’re going to need another battery source or solar panels to keep your phone charged. Personally, I’m not a big fan of putting all my eggs in one basket. If your phone isn’t in a waterproof and drop proof case then you also run the risk of dropping it onto a rock, in water, in a fast-moving stream, etc.
So, let’s go old school for a minute, remember what a compass looks like and how to use it? Well nowadays you can wear one on your wrist. There are quite a few watches on the market that have a compass built into them.
Some of the top ones, according to a number of different reviews I found are listed below.
The links are one of a number of slight variations, different colors, wrist bands, etc. I also found different vendors with price variances, so do your own research. I have a plug-in on my Amazon account called Honey which compares prices across all similar products. It tells me the price changes in the past x days as well as whether I have the best price.
All of these watches with a compass, other than the Casio Pathfinder, are less than $70. The Casio Pathfinder is around $160, but also has an altimeter and barometric sensors that are good indicators of weather change. Altitude could be important if you’re in an area that can easily go over 10,000 ft. I’ve had the Pathfinder for over 5 years now and it’s a great watch. The Pathfinder will also display sunrise and sunset for your location. Important information if you need to decide whether to find a place to camp and build a shelter or have time to keep going.
Another feature you should look for in these is whether it’s capable of charging with solar (the Pathfinder is). These aren’t going to be subject to a battery dying when you need them the most.
Make sure to read the instructions carefully, you might need a magnifying glass or find the pdf version online as they print the manual small enough to put in the box with the watch! You’ll need to set magnetic deviation and also do a calibration for north for them to accurately display. These compass watches don’t need GPS to determine direction. They also work in areas where you don’t have a good view of the sky, such as dense woods.
Now you don’t even need a handheld GPS unit, you can wear that too!
There are a number of GPS capable watches on the market that I was able to find. As with the ones above do your own research on features you want and shop around for prices.
This has to be the top of the line, at least based on price! The link on the name goes to the Garmin site with the suggested price of $1,499.99! The link in the picture goes to Amazon (same price), but I also found it on Walmart online for $999.99. I think this watch can do everything except cook an egg! Reading the description shows that it’s more designed as a dive watch and includes heart rate monitoring, dive planning on various breathing mixes including nitrox and trimix, displays topo maps, stores your dive log, and even tells you when tilting!
The downside is that the battery, as with most of the watches with GPS, doesn’t last long.They say that it lasts 19 days in watch mode, 10 in smartwatch, and 20 in GSP modes.
This appears to be an all-round watch, more aimed at the tactical rather than athletic wearer. Outdoor navigation is touted as one of its features. As with the other wearables, it has only about 20 hours of battery life when using GPS. Around $700.
Link with the name goes to the Garmin site where it was actually cheaper at $549.99
This is the latest in the Fēnix line of GPS smart watches, or wearables as Garmin calls them. Not as many features as the Descent but it has GPS, which is what we’re really looking for here. Battery life in GPS mode is 24 hours.
The Fēnix 5X appears to offer some different purchase options which include a maps bundle as well as a different display.
There are prior versions of the Fēnix line you can still find as factory refurbished.
I found this for around $220 as a factory refurbished unit. Several reviewers said it died after a few months.
Again this appears to be more aimed at the sports enthusiast rather than the outdoors folks who get lost in the woods.
This appears to be more focused towards runners, but has the GPS feature. It also has: Phonebook, message, call logs, heart rate, notifications, settings, Siri, alarm, target setting, sleep, music, ALT, air pressure and temperature, camera remote, calculator, sound recorder, stop watch, volume adjustments, brightness adjustments, calendar, gesture control, weather, 6 Sports, phew!!
But it still can’t cook an egg! Some of these functions require that it connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth. This means dead phone = useless watch. Again, battery is limited to 20 hours in GPS mode. One review states this is a clone of the Garmin Fenix 5. Not a bad price at around $100.
The common theme with all the GPS equipped watches is they are aimed at athletes. They aren’t aimed at those who could be in the woods for days with no way to adequately recharge them or their smartphones.
Real GPS Units
Garmin is probably the most well-known name in GPS devices and they have lots to choose from. They come in a variety of sizes. Some come with map bundles with lifetime updates, which I suggest you look for when selecting a device.
The advantage with most of the hand-held GPS units, as opposed to the wearables above, is that most of them run on AA batteries. This makes it easy to have spares and charge with a small solar panel on the move. The disadvantage is that you do have to update the maps from time to time. The wearables can update from their connection with your smartphone in the background. Another advantage with the hand-helds is they tend to be a little more accurate as the antenna is larger. Some are accurate to less than 9’ if they have a clear view of the sky. As with the wearables they work on both the US GPS and Russian GLONASS GPS systems. They usually can see a dozen or more satellites at any one time, improving the accuracy. By the way China is in the process of deploying their own GPS system called BeiDou, the Europeans are deploying Galileo, India with NAVIC, and the Japanese are deploying QZSS to augment the US system.
In all cases you can select the type of coordinates to use. I’ve found using the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinate system the easiest.
All of the hand-held units give you the ability to map waypoints and to set a predetermined route. They also have a back-tracking feature if you start tracking from the paved road. Most of their units work with their free BaseCamp program. This program allows you to map out your route as well as download satellite views and store to the device.
I’ve not listed all their units below, only the ones that are best in my opinion.
This unit has a hi-resolution screen and is bundled with maps. I found it for $259.95 on Amazon.
It’s touch screen, which I’m personally not a fan of because when it breaks you have a useless paper weight.
When I bought mine a few years ago it was rated as the best on the market. Listed at $249.99 on Garmin. It uses 2 AA batteries and has a battery setting to indicate if you’re using regular or rechargeable. If it’s connected to power it will run and recharge the batteries depending on the settings.
I like the buttons, they’re easy to use even with gloves on. It will also give turn by turn directions, although it doesn’t have a voice. Set specific routes using BaseCamp and have different routes to your rendezvous points stored.
It has the feature to record the route you take and back track that route. In use I’ve found it’s accurate to less than 9’ when outdoors.
On the Garmin site you can select touch screen, sensors, and camera. The base model is the 700 for around $350 and the 755t has all the features for around $700.
The 700 series (750 and 755t models) use GMRS frequencies to transmit location to other similar units. They also function as a radio and can send text messages to units in range. These are great if you have a group of people and want to know where everyone else is. I’ve seen search and rescue teams using these. There were some team members in the class I took on using a GPS and that was the reason they bought them. Remember that you need a GMRS license to transmit. If you may recall from other articles on communications, GMRS won’t transmit up to 30 miles as they print on the box! One review I read of the 750, they stated it got 3 miles in mountainous terrain in Colorado.
When paired with a smartphone the 750 and 755t models will also display weather maps. You can also geotag pictures, which will document where you are lost in the woods.
Personally, I don’t like all my eggs in one basket and would still carry a radio capable of operating on ham frequencies as well as GMRS, etc. However, this unit does meet the backpacking rule of don’t carry anything that can’t be used for at least 2 purposes.
While researching I came across these little GPS units. While not strictly useful for helping you to get out of the woods, they’re not bad at $199 for 2. With cell reception, you could leave one in your car or starting point.
If you’re really lost, haven’t kept up with your map and compass/GPS skills, then these devices might be needed. In the early days there was Morse code that led to SOS. Then came Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) and then Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) that transmit a distress signal to a group of satellites operated by a program called Cospas-Sarsat. Initially started by the US, Russia, Canada, and France in 1982, the program now consists of 29 member countries. The early models just transmitted a distress beacon and the position had to be triangulated after being received by several of the satellites. As technology developed, the transmitters sent a unique identifier and user contact information could be looked up. The latest models, including Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), include GPS receivers and transmit locations as well as the registration information. The system now uses a number of satellites including;
- SARSAT (US/Canada/France LEO)
- COSPAS (Russia LEO)
- GOES (US geostationary)
- MSG (European geostationary)
- INSAT (Indian geostationary)
- ELEKTRO/LUCH (Russia geostationary)
All are linked and coordinated by over 30 rescue centers around the world to provide fast and accurate position reporting when activated. Some are designed to active when they come in contact with water, such as those on boats (EPIRBs). Others activate with hard landings or shock such as those on aircraft (ELTs). Some only activate when a safety is released and a button pressed, usually on the PLB’s to prevent accidental activation.
In addition to transmitting distress information on 406mHz, they also transmit a homing beacon on 121.5mHz which is the aircraft guard frequency for emergencies. This allows accurate homing on the device, not only from aircraft but also special direction finders for ground tracking. The GPS tracker is accurate to within 100 meters, the 121.5 beacon gets them directly on target.
ACR ARTEX is one of the leading manufacturers of personal locator beacons. Their web site has a selector guide to help you choose the right unit.
The ResQLink model comes in buoyant and non-buoyant models for around $250. As mentioned above, complete the registration card and send it in as soon as you get the device.
Some models are specific to US registration so make sure you get the right one. This is important as it determines which rescue coordination center it’s registered with. The device is still usable anywhere in the world, regardless of where it’s registered.
Note that these devices are rescue only, they don’t provide you GPS coordinates, tracking, or any other means to determine your own way out. These are for a true IIDS (I’m In Deep Shit) situation.
If you travel where cell coverage is limited or non-existent, this might be a very wise investment. I had a work colleague who was in Wyoming this past weekend and travelled 12 miles in the wrong direction in the dark before cell service for his smart phone’s GPS told him he was going the wrong way!
All the Bells and Whistles – GPS, Satellite Distress, Messaging and PLB in One
These devices incorporate GPS tracking along with the ability to send text messages and/or voice using satellite systems. They’re typically less powerful than the PLBs above and still require an open sky to work. They won’t work if you’re a spelunker.
Some of the models require a subscription service, based on planned use with message limits, etc. Again, do your due diligence and research the different devices.
The basic model is the SPOT Gen3 for around $150. It can send an “I’m OK” message to family, send tracking data as long as you’re moving, and has the SOS feature which is passed to rescue coordination centers.
The SPOT devices use the Globalstar satellite network, which provides coverage over most of the earth’s land masses using 48 satellites.
Garmin offers a number of satellite based GPS units with a number of different services and features.
The Garmin devices use the Iridium satellite network that provide 100% planetary coverage with 68 satellites.
The entry model is the inReach Mini for about $350 on the Garmin site. It provides text messaging via satellite as well as an SOS feature.
You can also download maps, aerial imagery, and use other features when connected to your smart device.
Both the inReach SE+ and Explorer+ offer identical messaging capabilities. However, it’s on the GPS navigation side that their differences become apparent.
inReach SE+ for $342 on Amazon uses GPS to provide basic grid navigation and allows you to drop waypoints, mark key locations, track your progress, and follow a breadcrumb trail back to base.
The inReach Explorer+ for about $500 goes a step beyond. It provides full-fledged GPS on map guidance with preloaded TOPO mapping and waypoint routings viewable directly on the unit. Plus, a built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter, and accelerometer are included with Explorer+.
DeLorme offers the inReach SE, an almost exact model of the Garmin inReach SE but in a different case. Garmin uses DeLorme mapping in most of their devices so there is probably some agreement. They offer two models that appear to have the same number. One is a base model like the Garmin inReach SE for $259 and the other has navigation features like the Garmin inReach Explorer+ for $304.
DeLorme also has the DeLorme AG-008449-201 inReach for smartphones for about $250.
This appears to work similar to the SPOT in that it will send out tracking point and SOS feature. Plus has messaging when paired with your smartphone.
I’d be remiss to not at least mention satellite phones. You can at least call someone if it can’t be used for GPS, tracking, or an SOS signal. With satellite phones you need to understand that they don’t have 9-1-1. The call goes to the service center of the satellite service they’re on, such as Iridium or Globalstar. That place where the satellite transmits to the ground station then has to route your call to the local 9-1-1. If they call 9-1-1 it goes to the nearest public safety center to the ground station. This could be a problem as some of the ground stations are in other countries. If you have a satellite phone, keep a list of the 10-digit number to your local 9-1-1 as well as the State Police. You should probably also have the number to your local rescue coordination center if near the coast. An Iridium satellite phone can be found for about $1300. Plus you’ll need a monthly minute packages, which can add an additional $1,000/month. If someone calls, they’re paying an international call rate and you’re paying for the minutes.
There is a lot of tech that can help you to avoid getting IDS but also help you get out of it. Of course, prevention is worth a lot more since in some places you get charged for search and rescue costs!
Don’t forget your basic map and compass skills. Stock up on paper maps wherever you go. Truck stops and travel centers are good places to find maps. If you have a watch like the Casio Pathfinder with GPS or a hand-held like the Garmin 64st, practice with those on a regular basis as well. If you go into the woods, use basic skills such as colored tape to mark your trail plus use the tracking features in the hand-held GPS units so you can backtrack. I was involved in wilderness and mountain SAR for a number of years. In all cases, the rescues were people who thought they knew where they were and didn’t need to use a map or compass. In some areas you can go a few yards off a trail and get completely lost. If you think I’m being over cautious, check out this article about the 68-year old who got lost and died when she stepped off the Appalachian Trail. She kept a journal and was found about 2 years after dying, roughly 2 miles from the trail.