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Garmin Gecko 301: A Simple GPS For Map Addicts

Ordnance Survey Landranger Map
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map

I love maps but the thought of replacing them with a GPS makes me uneasy. The fact is, I very rarely get lost because I know how to read a map, I’m an expert with a  compass, and I carefully chart my progress during the day by frequently referring to my map and watch.

As a map addict, the thing I’ve always dreaded the most about GPS units is the time suck spent mapping routes on a computer and transferring them to a GPS unit. I’d much rather spend that time looking at a big map and weighing the benefits of different routes. The fact is, I find this process to be extremely relaxing and pleasurable, and the possibility of eliminating it has always made me anxious.

On the other hand, I can see that having a GPS is advantageous under certain conditions when you want to avoid walking off an unfamiliar mountain in a whiteout or to avoid getting horribly lost in the hilly wastelands of Scotland where there are a paucity of landmarks. Both of these are possible during the TGO Challenge, a coast to coast hike across Scotland that I hope to participate in next May. So I’ve been obsessing the past 6 months about what kind of GPS to get as a safety measure for that adventure.

That is, until last Friday, when I remembered a post about GPS loggers on a friend’s blog. These are GPS units that log your route and waypoints, but don’t provide any mapping capability and weigh next to nothing. I saw that my friend Baz Carter had commented on that post, so I shot him off a facebook message to see if he had gotten a GPS logger or what he recommended. Baz replied that he had a Garmin Geko 201. This is a very lightweight GPS receiver that will give you a position fix, but doesn’t have a mapping display. It’s also powered by AAA batteries, which I feel are a must-have for international use on long distance treks.

Garmin Geko 301 GPS
Garmin Geko 301 GPS

I did some searching and found a refurbished Garmin Gecko 301 for sale at Amazon for $99 that comes with a 1 year factory warranty from Garmin. Like the 201, it doesn’t have a mapping display, but it has a few more features that I liked including an electronic compass and a barometric altimeter that retains a 12 hour history and is useful for predicting the weather. It stores way points, routes, and all that and uses AAA batteries. I checked the UK Ordance Survey maps I own to see if they have Lat Lon position on them and they do, so I purchased the Geko 301 and plan to try it out when I’m in southern Scotland in a few weeks.

At 3.1 oz, the Garmin Geko is 301 is not the lightest GPS unit out there, but it is over half the weight of Garmin’s fancy new color mapping models like the battery guzzling Garmin Montana or Garmin Oregon. The refurbished model I bought is also 5-10 times less expensive when you factor in all of the additional software, memory cards and digital software you need for a map capable GPS unit these days.

I still have mine and use it as a backup to my compass navigation on bushwhacks, 4 years later. You can also still find used Gecko 301 units on sale on eBay.

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25 comments

  1. I've got a Geko 301. I rarely use it, but if I need it then it's excellent. I remember that it was Chris Townsend's top choice in a GPS review some years ago, too. I'm sure you'll be pleased with it :)

  2. I'm a relative neophyte in the GPS world, and while I'm having tremendous fun with mine, I don't think it could ever replace a map (except on the most straightforward of short trips). The Geko sounds like a good compromise – it might be worth testing it out in woodland and at the bottom of a convenient valley just to get an idea of signal acquisition times and the degree of signal bounce.

  3. Use the UK Ordinance survey grid reference system with it (six figure). If you phone control on the Challenge, or Mountain Rescue they will expect a grid reference if you are telling them your location. I sometimes take a GPS and they come in handy. Good backup navigation tool. See my Bothy Nights story on how compasses can go wrong.

  4. I've got a Gecko 201 and it's a great GPS if you just want to fix your position. It's very light and I like the fact it uses AAA batteries. As Martin said, set it to UK grid references if you're in the UK, you'll find it a lot easier.

  5. Probably obvious, but try and use the photo lithium batteries. I don't know the relative time/weight for AAA but for AA they are about 1/2 the weight and 6-9 times the lifetime of alkaline cells. My current record is about 7 days without a change, vs every day with alkaline on the same (somewhat fancier – i like the maps) device.

    rob

  6. Rob – I see that I didn't scare you off with my grid rant on your blog. :-) Appreciate the battery advice.

  7. I, too, am a map and compass guy who wanted a way to fix my position on a paper map. I use a Garmin eTrex Venture HC. The "HC" in the name indicates that it has a high sensitivity receiver that will give me a position fix in dense forest. Many GPS receivers have trouble with that.

    It is a lot easier to use a grid system than latitude/longitude to place yourself on the map. In the US, use the UTM grid that appears on USGS quads, as well as Trails Illustrated, Green Trails, Tom Harrison, etc.

    A UTM Grid Reader from REI helps a lot if your map has a standard scale. Many Trails Illustrated maps do not.

  8. I am so glad to hear that the map and compass is alive and well! My problem with maps on tiny screens is that you can easily miss something important or interesting due to the narrow focus. I have an old eTrex Legend and have never bothered updating the maps anyway because I just want the position fix. Hope the 301 works out for you.

  9. The extra features on the 301 are handy to have but I already had a Suunto Vector; that does those hence why I got the 201.

    I suggest a bit of geocaching as a way of trying out the features, and using the device.

    And ditto on the GB grid ref recommendation.

  10. I tried a Highgear Summit – similar to the Suunto Vector and found them both to be too big as watches go (smacking in to door jams), with thick manuals to read. It was just too much detail. The Geko has arrived and I'll be trying it out this weekend in the Texas Hill Country.

  11. sorry about music on this post…couldn't find a way to turn it off.

    DD – I'm also glad to see so many people are still into maps. I was feeling like the ugly duckling.

  12. Too true about the size of these watches. Mine's sitting on my desk at the moment as I cant wear it whilst typing. As for the instruction book, I spent a wintery evening in the Vanyol Arms in Llanberis with a mate who demostrated the features. In fact he ended up with a small audience of bemused, then enlightened, suunto watch owners :)Which reminds me to remind myself how to set the log book for this evening trip to north Wales.

  13. I have to speak up in defense of the Suunto Vector. When it first came out 8 or so years ago, yes it looked like a clown watch. But in the intervening years, high end fashion watches have gotten bigger and bigger, to the point where the Vector looks almost trendy. If present trends continue, Brad Pitt will be wearing one at the 2012 Academy Awards.

  14. I'm primarily a map and compass man, although I like the look of the Satmap. However, I would always use a paper map as my primary navigation aid.

  15. I always liked the way the Vector looked. They're really cheap now. Suunto seems to have replaced them with a new model called The Core.

  16. Jarra – it does make a statement :) The Vector came in handy over the weekend as a navigation aid. A quick tap on the compass button confirmed which way we were facing so I was able to set the map, and the altimeter gave us an idea of how far up the mountain we were.

  17. Phil,

    I would like a GPS for altitude and location. Like you, I don't want or need the mapping function.

    I have been told that barometric altimeters are unreliable; especially when a storm front comes in and changes the ambient pressure. Can you let us know if this is the case with the 301?

    Also, do you know how the chip in the Garmin Geko 301 compares to the Garmin 60CSx and 70 CSx chip (SiRFstar III™ chipset)? The chip is what allows the GPS to get a signal in the forest valleys of New England.

    I will always use a map,compass, and my tiny zipper pull thermometer.

    Thanks.

  18. Barometric altimeters such as the type in the Vector do vary due to moving fronts but then the barometer indicates this and shows the any shift. Users of these devices should be aware of this and take this into consideration. Regular benchmarking against known contour heights will keep the device calibrated. GPS devices use the GPS network to fix height but again these aren't fixed so that changes in height happen as well.

  19. Baz,

    Thank you, your description confirms what I thought. You need to set barometric altimeters at the trailhead and then check/adjust them at trail junctions, summits, or other points where you know the elevation.

    It is worth noting that the 301's altimeter is NOT based on the GPS data and therefore needs to be used with a gain of salt.

    You wrote:

    "GPS devices use the GPS network to fix height but again these aren’t fixed so that changes in height happen as well."

    I have always assumed that the height accuracy of a full featured GPS would be on thee scame scale as the co-ordinate location accuracy and therefore very good, on a scale of +/- 25 feet or better.

    I visualize a GPS/satellite system as an inverted pyramid with the GPS devise(user) at the bottom of the pyramid.

    The satellites know their positions with relation to the Earth and the GPS device knows how long it is taking to receive the time-stamped signal from each satellite. Then it is simple geometry to calculate the GPS device's altitude and co-ordinate location.

    My "long-winded" point is that the same numbers are used for both the co-ordinate calculation and the altitude calculations so both measurements should have the same precision and the same accuracy. That will not be true of the 301 – again, the 301's altimeter is NOT based on the GPS data.

    That is fine as long as the user is aware of it.

  20. Tom Murphy: Geko 301 has been around since 2003, so it's unlikely that it uses a high sensitivity chipset. It does have the ability to have the GPS-derived elevation automatically calibrate the barometric altimeter.

    In my experience (and this is with receivers other than the Geko but not too dissimilar), if you are only locked to three or four satellites, the GPS elevation can be off by hundreds of feet. If you lock to five or six satellites, the accuracy will be within 30 feet or so.

    GPS accuracy is better horizontally than vertically- it's inherent in the GPS system.

  21. I've no experience of the 301 model and the remark about elevation was based on my use of the 201, which uses the GPS network to determine this.

    Having looked briefly at the manual for the 301 model on the Garmin website it has a barometric altimeter that it uses to determine elevation. And as such will require calibrating the same way the Vector does. Quite why they use this set up is a mystery to me…

  22. Jarra, that pretty much sums up my experience with the 201 although I've not seen variences as much as that though!

  23. God love yahoo, helpful information. All the best.

  24. Hi Philip,

    Since your writeup on GPS is three years old, I hope this email gets to you.

    How did this GPS work out for you in Scotland? I’m hoping to do a Pennines walk in 2013 and looking for a GPS unit to supplement paper maps. From all that I’ve read, they can be very barren and easy to get in a mist.

    Look forward to hearing from you,
    Michael
    NY, NY

    • it worked fine. I used it to take a couple of grid coordinates on my walk to double check my map reading. I’ll be walking a more difficult route next year and plan to use it more. I also use it here in the states as an altimeter for bushwhacking.

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