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Survival Kit GPS

Hi everyone!

New to the forum and really just popping in for some expert advice because I am totally striking out here.

I'm an office-worker kind of guy and so I roll into work every day with a messenger bag. Thing is, after a couple of close calls and a lifetime of generally unfortunate luck I started getting into emergency preparedness and now that bag is essentially a big ol' survival kit, covering everything from "I forgot my cufflinks" and "I need a Tide pen" to "a bomb hit the tower" or "the car's battery died on a winter dirt road".

Here's hoping this will be a fun challenge for you.

Space is at an absolute premium, as is power. And, of course, cash. Any GPS unit is going to be competing for space with food, water, shelter, medical supplies, etc. And it will be competing for power with things like an emergency radio and other communications equipment. And I've definitely spent more than enough on this whole kit already.

Paper maps are brilliant; they're flat, they're easy to read, I know how to use them, and they take up next to no space. I've got maps for my entire vicinity, in highway, back roads, and topographical all slivered away in the back document pocket of this thing. Fits beautifully, doesn't impact the footprint of the interior of the bag.

What I'm concerned about is getting lost when you have no idea where exactly you are --- when the car goes off a small cliff on a bend, a plane crashes, a camping or boating trip goes awry or you're trying to get to an unfamiliar place with the power out and lose track of yourself.

The ideal unit, as far as I can figure, would be a keychain-sized screen that just gives you your exact location. That's it, nothing fancy. Even those GPS units that can remember three points of interest would probably just be used for triangulation. A cheap, water-resistant, low-power, tiny, super-reliable "self locator" that requires no further accessories in order to answer the simple question, "Where am I?"

Does such a thing exist? Or, taking a look at our intended uses here, is there something better you can recommend? The Garmin xTrek series is really pushing the outer boundaries of how much space I could possibly make --- I maybe have enough room for something an inch thick and palm-sized --- and ideally I'd like to keep this under $100. I recognize that might not be possible and I may have to jettison the paper maps and spend some money on a real, useful, proper GPS... But man, I'd be in good shape if I just had something that could be used in a power-outage situation just to tell me where I am.

I look forward to your thoughts!


  • sussamb 829 Points
    I assume you have a smart phone on you? Use that?
  • lemat 0 Points
    To the extent possible, that would be great --- and I do use those applications to the extent possible. (A lot of square inches go to keeping that little monster up and running!)

    But in the (reasonably common, non-emergency) event that cell reception goes down, I'll need another solution. In the uh-oh scenarios I've been through, the lack of cell reception or the overloading of network latency is basically a given.
  • sussamb 829 Points
    You don't need cell reception to get a gps fix
  • Boyd 1999 Points
    edited December 2015
    I don't really see how a gps would meet your needs unless it had a map. But if it does, you can get a factory refurb eTrex (not "xTrex") for about $75. It should have pretty good battery life and uses AA batteries so you could pack some spares.

    I agree with @sussamb though, forget the GPS and use your smartphone. An external battery would give you additional run time and be smaller than a standalone GPS. There are plenty of apps that can be used with no cell connection, the maps are installed on the device and the GPS chip always works. Since you say you don't need maps, a free app should give you a compass and show your coordinates.
  • Tim 1482 Points
    I disagree a little bit with the smartphone approach. Without access to a cellular signal, the GPS in smartphones are typically very low power and struggle to acquire a fix even in open areas. Battery life of the phone will also tank in that scenario.

    I'd look towards something like a cycling GPS or a running/watch GPS. Something like the Edge 20 or Forerunner 10 would seem to be a better fit for this situation. Good battery life, no reliance on cellular (even to assist with getting a fix on location), very small, and durable. Those devices will probably get a GPS fix faster and more accurately than a smartphone without a cellular connection. You won't likely get it under $100, but you would be close.

    When out hiking, often I decide I'd like to carry a GPS as an emergency backup to determine my exact location. I don't need to lug around a full handheld GPS and I always have paper maps with me. My phone will never get a signal and I don't want to burn the batteries trying to get a GPS fix. So I'll often carry around one of my Garmin Edge devices in a similar fashion. If I need it to determine my exact location, it is there quickly and reliably and takes up minimal space and weight.
  • DaveM 160 Points
    @Tim Will an Edge 20 or Forerunner 10 give you Latitude - Longitude or better yet UTM? If so they would be good as They are small and light

    An eTrex would also be good. They use AA batteries so power is not a problem. The eTrex 10 is cheep and would work for this use.

    For what the OP is asking any GPS that gives Lat - Lon or better yet UTM would work. After getting the numbers you could transfer them to your map. I would work with it ahead of time to make sure you know how to transfer the position to the map.

    I have done off trail backpacks of 2 weeks plus. We use a map and compass to navigate and once or twice a day power on the GPS to check that we are where we think we are. This way the batteries will last for a long time.

  • Tim 1482 Points
    I can't say as though either of those models specifically will-- perhaps they will not. As we know the manuals are not always a perfect indication of the devices capabilities. I have an older Forerunner as well as an older Edge, both of which will show lat/long. Perhaps it has been removed from some more recent models.
  • sussamb 829 Points
    Well he says space is at a premium and he's already spent far too much. As it seems he has power for comms that presumably includes a cell phone, as he says he has one. So I still reckon phone is his best bet. No additional space. No additional cost. No additional power needed. Agreed it can take a while to get a fix but then I can't see him being in a hurry :)
  • Tim 1482 Points
    sussamb said:

    So I still reckon phone is his best bet. No additional space. No additional cost. No additional power needed.

    And no good if it doesn't perform in an emergency. In my experience, a smart phone's GPS is nearly worthless when there is no carrier signal.
  • sussamb 829 Points
    I haven't experienced that. Can be a tad slow without a cell signal but within a few minutes. Maybe I'm just lucky :)
  • lemat 0 Points
    Wow, what a great conversation overnight. Thanks for getting us started, everyone! I was surprised to find that my phone actually doesn't need to be connected to the internet in order to use GPS --- it looks like Navmii is one of the higher-recommended apps for use offline. That's really useful information and definitely falls into the category of saving space, cash and power since I'm already relying on this handy little brick.

    That being said, I share Tim's concern. Does anyone else have any sense of how well a smartphone's GPS (in this case an iPhone 5S) performs without a carrier signal? We're not talking nuclear apocalypse here; I have family in remote Western Canada where you just have to do without anything resembling cellular data. One of the big concerns, of course, is coming off a dirt road on the four-hour ride up to visit Grandpa with no way to call home. It would be great to know where the nearest town, hospital or river is in a situation like that.

    As Sussamb says, I'll definitely have time to wait it out and I might as well download the app as a redundancy. But I'd like to know that I'll have an answer at the end of the day. Especially in places where you can freeze to death in an hour over Christmas.

    The other thing that occurs to me is, as I have sadly had recent cause to confirm, iPhones don't do well after having been submerged in water. Or... do anything at all, really. I see that the Forerunner is equipped to withstand 5 ATM, which is great --- but I don't see anything that would indicate I can extract latitude and longitude from it. That thought about watches was pretty much where my mind was going, along with the tiny Bushnell units. (Does anyone know anything about these?) But I've run into the same hitch in my research: I haven't seen any pictures where the unit just provides your location rather than just directing you back to a pre-set vertex.

    My last concern about using the cell is the fact that it's a touch screen. If I'm out in the cold, or the rain, or a blizzard, it's really really hard to operate the fine controls on an iPhone. If there's a BackTrack, Edge or a Forerunner that can give me my location using a physical key, that would be worth its weight in gold.

    Failing all that, I was looking at eTrex a few days ago, as Boyd mentioned. My only concerns with that one are size and the lack of expandable memory. I don't know how big a deal that last point is, but I've heard that it's going to be tough for me to get enough coverage on that thing. I'm also not familiar with where to track down refurbs --- is there a site somewhere?

    Phew. Looks like I'm just raising further questions! Thanks again for engaging, everyone. So! I'll prepare the phone in any event as a backup, but in terms of a GPS, what do you guys think? Unnecessary? Or, if necessary, which and why?
  • sussamb 829 Points
    Well you can get Etrexs with expandable memory ... but they invariably cost more.
  • lemat 0 Points
    How necessary would that be? Would you expect the basemap to be sufficiently detailed to get you through the middle of nowhere in North America? Or would I have to go out and get better maps?
  • lemat 0 Points
    (The product description suggested it might not even identify smallish towns and cities, which could be a life and death omission if true.)
  • DaveM 160 Points
    lemat said:

    Failing all that, I was looking at eTrex a few days ago, as Boyd mentioned. My only concerns with that one are size and the lack of expandable memory. I don't know how big a deal that last point is, but I've heard that it's going to be tough for me to get enough coverage on that thing.

    The lack of expandable on an eTrex is only true for the 10. If you are only looking to get location off the GPS like I was thinking memory is not a problem. If you are looking to have maps on the GPS the eTrex 20 and 30 have expandable memory with micro sd card
  • sussamb 829 Points
    edited December 2015
    lemat said:

    How necessary would that be? Would you expect the basemap to be sufficiently detailed to get you through the middle of nowhere in North America? Or would I have to go out and get better maps?

    You'd need better maps. The Etrex10 is basically only good for giving you a GPS fix, not for navigating via its in built map.

  • lemat 0 Points
    Ahh gotcha. Right; here I am shopping and losing sight of my own objectives! :D

    I've just run into the Bushnell BackTrack D-Tour, which seems to be a really small, cheap little bit of business that goes to a screen with a compass and (hallelujah) a precise lat/long fix. That said, reviews aren't great about its quality.

    So I guess I'm still tossing --- the eTrex is a little on the bulky side but will do the trick and then some; the big BackTrack units might not be great quality, the small ones might not give latitude and longitude; and the watches have perfect size and water resistance but might be expensive and might not give a precise location.

    I guess I'm leaning towards the eTrex, but boy it would be great to cut that size in half...
  • Boyd 1999 Points
    I'm a bit confused over your requirements. You initially said: "The ideal unit, as far as I can figure, would be a keychain-sized screen that just gives you your exact location. That's it, nothing fancy."

    But now you've said: "It would be great to know where the nearest town, hospital or river is in a situation like that."

    Sorry, but if that is the case then you do want something fancy. ;) You will need high quality mapping and a device with enough memory to store it. The eTrex 10 doesn't meet that need, it only includes a basemap that is basically useless. It will only contain very major cities, political boundaries, waterbodies and a few roads. And all of these features will be very low resolution, so the position of a road could be perhaps 1/4 mile away from the actual road in many cases. Garmin's basemaps are typically 50MB IIRC. That doesn't get you much detail when you're covering the whole world.

    Since the eTrex 10 doesn't use maps, you don't need much memory. You would only need storage for tracks and waypoints and they use very little space.

    Garmin refurbs are all over the place and are a great value because they have been fully checked/reconditioned and include the same warranty as new. Many major vendors will carry them, GPSCity is one place. I have seen them on Amazon, Best Buy and Walmart's site among others. You need to shop around….

    Don't those units like the Edge and Forerunner use special rechargeable batteries? I'd think a device that can use common AA batteries would be better for your use. You could carry some extras and also use them in flashlights. And while you are wandering in the wasteland outside the primary blast area, maybe you could find some spares in a store that hasn't been taken over by zombies. :D
  • lemat 0 Points
    Right. Sorry for the confusion; I'm relying on the fact that I have actual, physical maps that fit easily into the pack. So I'm looking for my exact location on a nondescript rural highway in the middle of the night, from which I can use my physical maps to tell where the nearest town, hospital or river is. I only have about a soap-bar sized amount of space left in the bag, so nice flat papers and a keychain-sized GPS unit would work together perfectly, or so it seems to me.

    That's a great point about the Edge and Forerunner. I have a couple of redundancies (cranks, solar power) to charge something via USB or a dongle, but the more complex the recharging system is, the less useful it is to me. In a perfect, non-existent world, you'd have a lithium ion battery that can be charged via USB and loose batteries, like in the case of an emergency radio. That not being an option, I tend to think batteries are obviously a more attractive short-term option, and you'd have to assume you're not trying to survive for weeks and weeks under a tarp you keep in a tote bag.

    I'm looking at the Garmin Foretrex 401 now --- unless I'm badly mistaken, this looks like exactly what I'm looking for. IPX7 waterproof, small size, good battery life, runs on AAA batteries, latitude/longitude right up front, bonus points for a get-back-to-base-camp feature. It's just $100 over the budget. If you're not sick of me yet, I'd be interested in your input on that point; so far it's been really educational to hear the concerns and opinions raised by people that know what they're talking about --- stuff I hadn't even considered.

    That's a great tip about the refurbs, by the way --- thanks a lot! I'll definitely look into that. And for what it's worth, there are obviously going to be zombies in the stores; that's where all the people went to get supplies after the zombie bomb went off, and now they're all zombies out to zombie you.
  • lemat 0 Points
    Hm, maybe the 301...
  • DaveM 160 Points
    Looking at the manual I don't see location (latitude/longitude) listed as one of the data fields. With Garmin the fact it's not in the manual doesn't mean it's not on the device but I would check first. If you save a waypoint it will have Lat - Long you could then edit the waypoint to find it but this would get old if you did it very often.

    Other than that it looks like it should do what you want.

    If that doesn't work out an eTrex 10 is bigger but cheaper. It's not a big unit I carry my eTrex 20 in my pocket while hiking and don't notice it.
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