Thursday, February 4, 2010

New GPS Review

Long Post…

Picked up a GPS for the trip this year, the driver behind this one is simple, Trent Waterway is fairly straightforward and you can navigate without GPS (or maps for that matter) but when it comes to Georgian Bay there are so many islands that you can get lost and paddle around in circles.

I’m not a GPS guru by any stretch of the imagination but I love gadgets, thought I would do a review of my unit and provide some details on where you can save some serious cash by downloading unlocked maps.

Review broken down into 5 sections:

  1. Selection
  2. Features/Performance
  3. Free Maps
  4. Free Software
  5. Marine Map Frustration


When I was debating GPS for the trip last year I looked around for a handheld GPS and looked at a number of different models, kept gravitating to the Garmin Oregon 450 model, submersible, every feature imaginable and for me the selling feature, full touch screen so no buttons to worry about as there is only one for this device, power on/off. There is a baby brother version called the Dakota 10 which is a smaller version but essentially the same feature set.

All the reviews I read on both devices had two common complaints, screen was almost unreadable in direct sunlight and the compass required the devices to be laid flat for accurate readings, I passed at the time.

As with all manufacturers, they then to listen when people start complaining so Garmin released a second generation of each model, Garmin 550 and Dakota 20. Improved the screen and added an accelerometer for the compass so you no longer have to hold flat. This does require periodic calibration but it’s as simple as following directions to rotate the unit on the 3 axis, no biggie. The Garmin 550 also added a built in camera which is cool but for me, couldn’t justify the cost of the 550 as it is double the price of the Dakota. Dakota 20 it is at a cost of $319, much more reasonable. Definitely go with the 2nd generation devices if choosing the Oregon/Dakota line.


I have nothing bad to say about this GPS unit, 5 stars all the way, small, rugged and waterproof (IPX7 standard) which is huge for a handheld which is going to be used on the water. It doesn’t float so make sure it’s attached otherwise, well, bye bye new GPS.

  • User interface is simple and functional, works much like an iTouch/iPhone and supports multiple profiles for different settings so you can customize it the way you want, took about ½ hour to get fully comfortable with all the options and features available
  • Compass screen has a dashboard so you can see other (customizable) stats such as speed, time to destination, bearing etc, and a wealth of other values, compass also includes a bearing indicator to the next waypoint so you can see how off course you may be. Trip computer has the same type of dashboard which you can configure to show the properties you want to track
  • Map Navigation is very simple and you can drag around the map and zoom in/out on the touch screen, pressing screen puts a temporary place marker which you can drag around or move the map under to determine/bearing from current point, can also create a waypoint on the fly. There are other options for waypoint, track and route management and planning.
  • Barometric and Altitude tracking which you can view in a plot over time and some other features worthy of mentioning just because they are there, calendar, sun/moon calendar, hunt and fish calendar, calculator, alarm clock, stop watch, area calculation and man overboard function
  • Full Support for Paperless GeoCaching (which I didn’t know what it was at first) and if you are into it then you won’t be disappointed with its capabilities
  • Runs off 2 AA batteries and battery life is great and better than the Oregon due to the smaller size, they say 16-20 hours but I haven’t tested that yet, had for three days now and still only half drained, hasn’t been on constantly but I have used it quite a bit
  • Connects to your computer for transferring data back and forth from computer to device and vice, it has a built in 1gb flash card (950mb free) and a MicroSD slot for expansion, both are used to add new maps. HINT: If you have a Blackberry and not using the SD card in it, just flip it over to the GPS, personally best to pick up a 4GB card as the maps can be quite large
  • Only comes with the World Base Map which is fairly useless, very little detail and major highways only, definitely need to add maps, City, Topographical, Marine or whatever your thing is. More on that in next section.
  • Unit allows you to display multiple maps and enable/disable different maps on the flash and SD card on the fly.

I didn’t apply any scientific method to evaluating performance of the GPS, just basically did a bunch of driving around to track my route and then did the same thing while walking, consistently showed GPS accuracy to 3m which sounds good to me. I loaded the tracks into Google Earth to match up the track with an actual map and it was dead on, very impressed.

Free Maps

Adding maps can get very expensive, for instance, the Georgian Bay Marine maps (Garmin G2 Vision) are $300US and then if you want detailed city maps or topographical then you have to fork out for those as well.

Thankfully there is a site which will walk you through how to unlock maps and provides a download center for getting them. Process is very straight forward but I am technical, if you need assistance let me know and I can help you out.

Free Software

Garmin has two products, BaseMap and HomePort.

Basemap is a Windows program which allows viewing maps, loading tracks from the GPS and doing Route Plans which can be loaded back to the Unit. You can also save tracks as a GPX file which can then be loaded into Google Earth. This is a free download at Garmin but doesn’t support Blue Chart G2 Vision maps

HomePort is a Windows program which allows viewing of Marine maps, same functionality as BaseMap but isn’t free, fairly cheap at $29US, available for free at GPS Underground.

Marine Map Frustration

Complaint has nothing to do with the Dakota itself, all handheld units suffer from the same issue. Marine maps have a huge amount of detail so when you view them on the device, depending on how far in you zoom in/out the display gets very cluttered, under certain zoom levels so much so that you can’t tell land from water. Once you zoom in to where you can view/read all the detail you can’t see far on the horizon. Unit comes with different options for displaying detail but I haven’t figured out the right combination yet and if I find a solution that works well, will update this post.

Hope this helps

Monday, February 1, 2010

Portage to Portage Paddle Project

A little over a year ago this would have held no interest to me but over the winter months I have been following a number of different people out on their own kayak adventure. This one in particular I have been following daily for about a month now.

Jacob Stachovak is currently going into month 2 of a 10 month, 5,000 mile solo Kayak paddle to do the “Great Loop” basically start in the Great Lakes, head down the Mississippi, across the Gulf of Mexico, around the tip of Florida, up the East Coast then back through the Great Lakes to finish where he started. I so want to do this now, if only I could get the 10 months off work (still be paid of course), makes my 450k Trent Trip seem like child’s play, baby steps, baby steps.

Jake is currently in the Gulf of Mexico just having finished day 55, he started out in a place called Portage in WI and has a great site to follow along with his adventures:

Many people have done the “loop” and it’s quite an achievement by boat, recently read a blog of 2 college girls who did it with a 16 foot aluminum boat and a gentleman that did it by SeaDoo, way fun.

Gear Status

Outside of the Kayak (paddles etc) not much I really need in terms of gear, I got almost everything last year so I’m pretty much all set. I did pick up a few new items having learned a little from last year and I have some must haves for this year and some nice to haves, call it my wish list, hey, I’m a gadget guy and if money was no object... now know why people on expeditions have sponsors.

List does not include gear I already have.

New for this Year (purchased already)

  • Sealine Baja Deck Bag, last year was a pain on the water because I didn’t have much storage for day access, don’t like the 3rd day hatch as it takes up too much room (in my opinion) so this will be nice to store items which I can get access to quickly.
  • Thermarest sleeping pad, the self inflating pad I used last year was great, just too big and took too much room
  • Thermarest Kayak Seat, more padding is never a bad thing, learned the hard way last year, rental kayaks have crappy seats, can also use it to sit on rocks or ground
  • Nalgene (1000ML) I have one from last year but was all scratched up, I like new and now have an extra one
  • Naglene Lantern cap, couldn’t resist, attaches to your Nalgene and turns it into a lantern, doesn’t get extremely bright but saves me having to keep flashlight/headlamp on just to see around the tent at night. Compact and not a big fan of candle lantern in the tent
  • Mini-Folding chair, something to sit is always nice, didn’t need last year as the locks have picnic tables everywhere, Georgian Bay, not so much

Must Have Items (need to get)

  • GPS and Marine Maps, Unlike the Trent Waterway trip, need them for this one
  • Compass, like the Suunto Orca compass but if I buy kayak will get deck mounted instead
  • Cockpit Seal, was major pain waking up every morning and bailing kayak, this should help keep the water and dirt when not in use
  • Waterproof IPOD Case, didn’t use one last year but was always worried, going with an OtterBox for the iTouch
  • Waterproof Headphones, ruined my $300 headphones out of stupidity last year, H20 audio has a great pair of waterproof ones.

Nice to Have Items

  • Personal Locator Beacon, I’m a big fan of these devices if for nothing else other than peace of mind. I was thinking the ACR but FindFast has a new one out that has gotten great reviews.
  • Waterproof Camera – Didn’t take enough pictures last year and only used my Blackberry camera for the ones I did. I have a digital camera and waterproof box but with the new waterproof cameras on the market might have to upgrade
  • Portable Hammock, why the hell not.
  • Kayak Wheels, depends on how much room I have
  • Casio Pathfinder Watch, was looking at the Suunto Vector first but the pathfinder is wicked, digital compass, barometer, temperature, altimeter, solar powered and atomic synchronization, don’t really need this but like I said, I’m a gadget guy and I also collect watches so what’s one more. FYI, Mountain Equipment sells this watch for $100 less than Bass Pro and the Titanium version at MEC is cheaper than the non Titanium version at Bass Pro, what’s up with that.


Regardless of my decision to buy a Kayak vs rent this year, I swore this year I was going to buy my own PFD. Found that you have limited choices on PFD when you are renting, you get what they have, regardless of style, storage capacity or condition, and it kind of felt like wearing someone else’s undergarments.

After reviewing a number of different manufacturers I decided Kokatat was the brand for me. I took a trip down to Mountain Equipment Co-op in Toronto and started checking out the different models, in the end I went with the MsFit Tour, pronounced “MissFit” yeah I know it’s a PFD for the ladies, just meant I had to go a size up with XL instead of large. You may ask, why pick a ladies PFD.

Quite simply, for some reason Kokatat in their infinite wisdom made the ladies PFD with more options. All the men’s PFD’s had either 1 pocket or a VHF pocket and another pocket. This was the only one that has VHF pocket and two additional pockets, one on each side, three if you include the little inside one for storing keys or whatnot. It fits me perfectly and I’m very happy with it although, I can hear my buddies now, “nice jacket, does it come in men’s”. Went with mango color, they didn’t have pink in stock.

Picked up a Wenoka Squeeze Titanium knife by Aqua Lung, I had a folding mini one on my vest last year but if you ever needed to use it in a pinch, good luck. Figured I had to man up my ladies jacket and this one is amazing, very rugged and sharp, has a sheath which the knife snaps into and can attach to PFD, I used zip ties to attach upside down to the front lash tab on the PFD, I can take the knife out one handed with either hand if required. Never know if you get tangled up in rope and need quick access. My motto, “better to have and not need than need and not have” plus, cool factor is up there.

Attached my fox40 and strobe light to the front zipper so I can reach easily and it’s out of the way, VHF fits perfectly and there are still two other pockets for putting whatever else I may want to carry on the water.

Buy vs. Rent

Not 100% on whether I’m going to buy a Kayak this year, logically it makes sense now that I have determined I enjoy it and will be doing more trips. Really comes down to cost, probably end up somewhere between 5-6k to fully outfit what comes with a rental for under 1K for 2 week paddle trip, for instance, Kayak, Skirt, Paddle, Spare Paddle, Throw Bag, Pump, Paddle Float, PFD, at some point though it just doesn’t make sense to keep renting so I have been shopping around.

I’ve tried a number of different Kayaks now and generally know what I want, a lot of that decision boils down to the “Coffin” I used last year as it was an amazing boat, sure maybe I’m biased now but oh well, go with what works and comfortable with, others I tried just didn’t do it for me.

One thing I know 100% is I don’t want a Kayak with a 6” inch front hatch opening, which is why I liked the “coffin” from last year, no messing around trying to stuff things in, made life much easier having to pack twice a day for two weeks. Also don’t prefer narrow bows as I found them a pain to pack, sure I could pack smaller or with less but why should I have to, prefer flush mounted hatch covers over those rubber hatches too.

I reviewed which had to be thousands of articles on different boats and given my preferences, I keep gravitating to QCC Kayaks, to me it’s everything I want. Not sure on whether Q500x or Q700x model yet but either one would rock. Reasonable cost compared to other similar kayaks and customer reviews are phenomenal, I like the family owned personal touch aspect of this company.

Get at it!

Haven’t posted in quite some time but didn’t take break from planning, just didn’t have much to report, lots of reading and research and figured it was time to get back into full planning cycle and provide some updates.