Garmin eTrex GPS

I love maps, infact I couldn’t think of anything better than buying the new year’s road altas and spending hours reading page by page each of the maps.   All a bit sad.

The idea of GPS mapping has always fascinated me, not only can you read a map but you can see yourself on it too.   Years ago I bought a Garmin GPS and data cable and the plan was to use this in conjunction with my Psion Series 5 to do some basic mapping. The plan never really came to anything, I had the GPS but the battery life was poor and it took for ages to find enough satellites.  With that and all the cables to rig it up to the Psion, getting it all into the car would always be a challenge, and that is before you have even tried to see the map on the small greyscale screen of the Psion.

Roll on 15 years or so and I find everyone has GPS tracking within their car on their Sat Navs and on their phones, futuristic stuff!

I like the idea of GPS tracking but I have no need for Sat Nav as such as I still enjoy looking at maps and planning a route rather than just sticking in a post code and going where the computer tells you to.    There are two things that I want out of GPS and that is:

  1. to track where I have been, elevation and speed
  2. to show me the pre-planned route

I’ll start backwards with point number two.   Having lived in the local area for most of my life I know the roads pretty well and normally would not need a map.  However, when planning a route I like to use the small rural roads where possible.  I have no problems being on busy roads as a means to get somewhere but when you are out for a ride it is much more relaxing to be on your  own riding along a country lane all very Famous Five with a bottle ginger bear in your rear pannier.    This is fine but to do this I need to look at a map to determine if the small undefined country lane I have just come up to is in fact the one I want.   Stopping to  look at a map every five or ten miles could become a bit tedious.    One solution is to put the map on the handlebars, maybe on a handlebar bag.  This would work, but I don’t have any means to do this, I have no bag.

Buy a bag?  This I could do but it would not solve point number one which is to track where I have been.  I’m not so worried about tracking my speed for any performance figures, I’m not racing around.  Instead, it is interesting to see and keep a record of where I have been and look at speed and elevation at points along the route.   This can all be achieved with an Android app and I use Endomondo at times to do this.   I have a problem though in using my only means of communication (and possible help if should need it) for something like drains the battery like there is no tomorrow.     It turns out that the eTrex is able to log your position at set intervals, you cannot view it back but it saves it all the same ready to be downloaded onto the computer when you get home.

So I kept an eye on Ebay for a number of weeks and noticed that a secondhand unit would cost between £40 and £60 with a brand new one costing around £80.   Not wanting to spend loads of money I decided to watch and wait for possible good deals to show up on Ebay and after a while two possible ones did.   One came with a serial to usb cable (unfortunately these units first came out when computers still had serial ports) and one came with a bike mount, either would be good.  One was slightly damaged in that you could no longer attach a wrist strap and it was that one which finished first with just two bids and the winning bid being mine getting it for £40.   All a bit of a good result as every other sale I had watched always had lots of bids and some got up to nearly the same price as a brand new (and probably better) model.    A quick delivery meant I was not waiting too long to see if there was a reason for the low price but all was fine.  It was true in that I could not attach a wrist strap but this was not something I needed on the bike.

A bit of a learning curve is needed to work out how to get the unit to work with the computer, the manual just says plug it in!   I read on a world touring blog that a site called Bike Route Toaster was a good place to start.  With no frills it allows you to plan a route either automatically or manually by clicking on the map to make your route.   It shows you the hills, the distance and the expected time.  It even allows you to put in a suggested speed when going up hills and so calculates the time accordingly from that.    It allows you to save and retrieve your route and that is about it.  Nothing more or less, straight to the point.

You can download your route to a number of formats including  GPX format which the eTrex is able to accept.   Having never looked into this before I was pleased to see that GPX is actually just plain XML, no wonder there are so many tools for it.

It was a cold, wet and windy Saturday afternoon and not the sort of biking weather I wanted, so we planned a route to walk along around the back of the house and back.     Firstly we put in the points into Bike Route Toaster and then using a free copy of Garmin Map Source were able to upload it to the eTrex.   Map Source seemed to be Garmin’s answer to Bike Route Toaster but it seemed you had to buy the maps and I could not work out just how you went about that.   I suppose when on the road for days an offline solution like Map Source is a better idea than having to find an internet connection for Bike Route Toaster.  It allowed you to upload GPX files and had the upload/download functionality to communicate to the eTrex which is what I wanted.  Probably a bit of an overkill just to use it for that, maybe I’ll work out how to get the maps.

Planning a route using Bike Route Toaster, a simple and no frills route planning site
Planning a route using Bike Route Toaster, a simple and no frills route planning site


Once uploaded, the route was on the eTrex.  You get a route screen which shows you the route you have just mapped out.  While it looked pretty and would tell you just where abouts you were on the map, it wasn’t something you could use on the road to find your way (unless you really zoomed in).    It was proof that the route looked pretty much the same shape as it did on the computer, which was good.

Route shown on the eTrex, it is more of a pretty picture that you can zoom in and out of rather than anything of too much use
Route shown on the eTrex, it is more of a pretty picture than anything of too much use


We followed the arrow on the GPS while we walked and all was good.    When we got home the next part was to download the log that the eTrex had created of our activity and see what we could do with the data.   Again, GPX format was used which meant it could be uploaded to Endomondo.   Once doing this, it had all the same features as if I had logged it using the Endomondo app on the phone, apart from this time I still had a full battery as I didn’t have to use the phone.

Downloading the log and viewing on Endomondo gave all the stats needed
Downloading the log and viewing on Endomondo gave all the stats needed


The full thing then as a success.  I had found a GPS unit that had not cost a fortune, it not only allowed me to follow a route I had planned, but also on the road would tell me my mileage and speed (cue taking off the speedo I had just fitted).   At the end of the ride I could download the log and see how the day had gone and where I had actually been.    The suggested battery life was said to be 16 hours (try that Android phone!), plus it came with a light.   The next thing to do was to put it to the test on a real ride.


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