Garmin Dakota 20 GPS

There has been some discussion on blogs recently about route tracking and logging using various devices - smart phones, GPS units, SPOT systems, and other, simple GPS trackers.

A couple of years ago I bought a Garmin Dakota 20 GPS - a neat, small, lightweight, and low power usage fully-featured GPS unit. Perhaps it's a good time to write a review and compare it to some of the alternatives.

I've been trying out some of the iPhone based GPS systems, because I always carry my phone with me, and if I can carry one device instead of two, I'm a happy man. The iPhone has the advantage of combining GPS, a camera, an HD video camera, a digital compass, and 15,000 apps providing amusing ways to make fart sounds. What more could you need in the wild?

ViewRanger has a very popular GPS app on Android and the iPhone. It's advantage is that it allows you to download maps onto memory, so you can use it effectively outside the cellphone network. The disadvantage is that all this uses a lot of power, and battery capacities are limited.

I can't speak for Android phones, but on the iPhone it maintains a GPS link while running in the background. This drains the battery very quickly, giving only about 4 or 5 hours use. The non-removable batteries of smart phones limit their usefulness on multi-day hikes.  While it's possible to use a solar charger to recharge the iPhone, they are not very effective in poor conditions, and at the nest of times are very slow (Chris Townsend recently wrote that after three days one charger provided enough energy to half charge his phone). So, phone-based solutions are fine if all you want to do is check your location occasionally (as long as you remember to manually force ViewRanger to close to conserve power). But if you want to track your route precisely over multiple days, you need something that you can leave on without worrying, and that you can easily resupply power to.

One solution which has recently become popular is the SPOT II GPS messenger. The Spot can send out a automatic breadcrumb trail of beacons, or manual beacons via satellite, and has an SOS button for emergencies. It can also send messages via twitter and email so you can let friends and family know where you are, and that you are still safe and alive. The only thing I don't like about it is the auto-renewing subscription fee for the satellite service. Joe and Jorgen are using one right now in northern Norway, and you can follow their progress here. The SPOT draws power from 3 AAA batteries, providing up to 3 months of standby, or 7 days tracking - which is very good, and shows what you can achieve when you eliminate a screen from the design. But of course, without a screen, the SPOT cannot help you determine where you are.

Enter the Dakota.

Garmin has a whole range of GPS units, each with a dizzying array of features, aimed at different users. I went with the Dakota 20 primarily because it's small, uses only two AA batteries (which can be rechargeable ones), is lightweight ( 152g including batteries), waterproof, rugged, and simple. Some of their larger units (the Oregon) offer cameras, but I felt that was unnecessary as I always carry a decent one, and the tracking sites and software are intelligent enough these days to automatically geotag photos based on when you took them.

One of the nice things in Garmin GPS units is the LCD touchscreen they use. It's designed to be clearly visible in daylight without a backlight, and this cuts a lot of battery drain. I get about 15 hours of continuous use on a standard set of Duracell batteries. This typically covers about a day and a half of hiking before I need to change batteries.

The software design is very easy to use, and the colour screen, although far, far away from the iPhone's retina screen, is more than adequate. The Dakota 20 comes with a topo map DVD for North America. It's easy to select the area you are hiking in on your Mac or PC using the BaseCamp app, and transfer the top quality maps to the Dakota. You can set waypoints before you leave so you have destinations at the ready.

In the field, the Dakota is a joy to use - it's a very good example of an extremely well thought out user interface. It's easy to use without using the manual (ViewRanger could work on this a little harder). Tracking your route is automatic (unless you select otherwise), so as soon as you turn it on, you're ready to go. After the initial geolocation, it remembers your general position so getting a fix is almost instant when you turn it off at camp, and on again the next morning. Little things like this make dedicated GPS units worth their weight. They do one thing, and do it well. Having said that, the version 1 software on the Dakota did crash, becoming inoperable and losing all my data once on the Sioux Hustler Trail when I would really have needed it. Thankfully a software update fixed this bug, but I no longer have a record of that trail.

Snowbank Lake trail overview

Snowbank Lake trail detail

It's easy to create waypoints and assign them icons, which will all be carried over when uploading the tracks to BaseCamp. Naming waypoints, however, is a bit of a pain. The small screen means that letters are small, and for ham-fisted klutzes, it can get a little frustrating. On the other hand, you could just accept the generic name, and rename it later.

Naturally, the Dakota records all your elevation data, provides an accurate sunset countdown, measures distance hiked, shows your direction using the digital compass, and offers a host of other functionality which you may or may not find useful. I tend to stick to the basics. Geocaching is nice to have, but the implementation on the iPhone is much better.

Elevation data

Trip odometer / data

On a few occasions the Dakota has saved my bacon. In the Badlands and up in the Boundary Waters there have been times when it's proven invaluable. I wouldn't hesitate to take it with me on future trips.

Pros:

The navigation UI is clear, simple, and easy to use.

The screen in sunlight is great.

Waterproofness and ruggedness. Using it in the rain is no problem.

Battery operation time, and the fact it takes standard batteries.

Quick fix on GPS once it has initially located itself.

Lightweight and flexible - it also mounts nicely on my road bike.

Multifunctions - digital compass, geocaching, etc

BaseCamp software is easy to use, updated often, and Mac compatible.

Nice fishing info screen, showing best days and times to catch that 8lb sturgeon.

Cons:

The screen seems sensitive to scuffing. I scratched mine at some point just from having it in my pocket.

Naming waypoints is UPPER CASE ONLY AND A BIT AWKWARD WITB THRE SMHELL BNUBTTOBNS

The touchscreen sometimes feels a little unresponsive.