As the official navigator of team Life Remotely, I’m in charge of getting us where we need to go as painlessly as possible. There are two very important tools for this task: a GPS device, and a decent digital map. The two are inseparable. A map does no good without satellite reception, and an excellent GPS isn't worth squat without a navigable map.
This is part one about how to pick the best GPS unit for international travel. In part two I discuss the best maps for navigating the Pan-American Highway.
There is only one brand you need to look at if you’re traveling internationally, and that’s Garmin. No, we aren’t sponsored by them, nor am I being paid to write this post. Not that DeLorme, TomTom and Magellan fail to make good devices. Actually, they are quite comparable to Garmin. However, there is one huge deciding factor that puts Garmin miles above the rest, summed up in two words: open source.
Garmin accepts third party maps. You can make your own, trade with other travelers, download OpenStreetMaps or any of the other FREE open source map from non-profits around the globe. Trust me, the amount you could spend on maps far exceeds the cost of a GPS unit. Take advantage of the free (and often superior) maps available and buy a Garmin.
At this time Garmin lists more than 150 GPS devices for sale on their website. The selection is daunting. Even more daunting is the thought of trying to find an intelligent salesperson to explain the difference. Thankfully you have me, Jessica, GPS nerd-extraordinaire to break it down for you.
First, we’re going to cut out all the very specialized devices. I’m writing for overlanders and backpackers, not for mountaineering athletes, mariners, pilots or dog trackers. We’re going to stick to devices in the “on the trail” and “on the road” categories.
Note: Garmin makes an awesome series of GPS devise for motorcycles. Check out the options here if you happen to be traveling with a bike.
Garmin’s "on the trail" series is by far their largest. But, don’t think that these devices are only good for hiking, quite the contrary. They all accept road maps and can route turn by turn just like a normal dash-mounted device.
Pros of “on the trail" devices:
Cons of “on the trail” devices:
Yeah, I know, again we run into the issue of having 23 options. Well I’ll make it easy for you. Here are the top two models.
Garmin describes it as “top-of-the-line”. And it is! The GPSMAP models runs between $349-600. Don’t freak out, you don’t need the $600 model, unless you consider a 5-megapixel camera essential to your GPS. Also, these are list prices.
Model number note: Every few years the model number goes up and so does the price, usually with very few new features worth paying for. If you can find the GPSMAP 60 model then buy it! It’s just as good, and will undoubtedly be cheaper. If the 64 has been released by the time you read this, then start looking for cheap 62s to take home.
Pros of this device:
Cons of this device:
You’ll notice there are several other GPSMAP 62 sub-models available. What’s the difference between them?
This is the perfect road meets trail device. It has all the perks of the GPSMAP device (above) only with a giant touch screen. If you want user friendly, great reception and have $500 to spend, this is your device. I may own (and love) the GPSMAP 60, but I want to own this device more than I want a solar powered espresso maker.
Pros of this device:
Cons of this device:
You’ll notice there are two other Montana models available. What’s the difference between them?
There are three other models of “on the trail” type GPS units. I’ve never used any of them, but I have done a pile of research. Here they are with a brief description of why you should or shouldn’t consider them:
The second option is to buy a traditional road device. These are the most commonly used in cars around the world. They almost always come with kits to mount to your dash and power through your car’s cigarette lighter. Garmin makes several series of on the road, dash-mounted devices. Because new models are released constantly, I will simply refer to them as the 4-digit series and the 2-digit series. Here’s a quick rundown of the differences:
Nuvi two digit series (Currently Nuvi 30- Nuvi 50) $100-180
Nuvi four digit series (Currently Nuvi 3450) $300-380
Honestly, neither. You should go buy a handheld GPSMAP device that I rambled on about above (or a Montana, if you want touch screen). Ok, ok. But if you really want a driver-friendly, touchscreen GPS that won’t break the bank, than buy the Nuvi 50.
Why? Because if you are going to spend the money for a four digit model (i.e. the Nuvi 3450LMT) than you might as well buy a trail model that you can beat up, throw in a backpack, run on AA batteries, that includes and altimeter and more accurate positioning and routing. The perks of the higher-end on the road models are only worth the cost if you are staying in the US and plan on doing serious commuting.
Again, all of these models have various “sub models” specified by random letters appended to the model number. You decide what’s worth paying for. In my opinion, if you’re going cheap you might as well go all the way. In general the cheaper models (with less letters):
Always buy Garmin. Buy the GPSMAP 62s for best all-around performance while driving and on trails. If you want the same quality as the GPSMAP series, but with easier to use touchscreen, buy the Montana 600. If you can’t live without touchscreen, but can’t afford the Montana price tag, check out the Oregon 450. If you just want something cheap and functional buy the Nuvi 50, just be gentle with it, and don’t take it hiking.
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