Backcountry Technology Review: Electronics and GPS

Your complete guide to the latest in outdoor electronics, including a smart watch, a weatherproof MP3 player, and the best in GPS.

Contact 3.0 Backpacker Webcast Package

Ever wish the folks back home could see the sights you're seeing? Now they can--in real time--without leaving their desks. With this field communications system, you can transmit expedition dispatches, photos, video, and audio from anywhere on the planet to any Web site server, all for less than 2 ½ pounds trail weight. The key is proprietary software that links up a digital camera, satellite phone, PDA, and keyboard (all included in the package price). Various hardware packages are available, but we like the Backpacker setup, which includes a Globalstar Sat phone, Compaq iPAQ 2200 PDA, and Sony DC-P93 digital camera. During tests in the Canadian Rockies, we found the system easy to use and were surprised at the near-instant transmission time. Simply type your message, attach the multimedia files, and hit send. An optional software upgrade ($200) will automatically plot your dispatch position to an online map. The system is solar rechargeable and includes all cables, a Pelican case, and software training. $2,800; 2 lbs., 8 oz.

Energizer E2 Lithium L92 AAA

Finally, headlamp-friendly lithium AAAs. Like their much-loved AA brothers, these cells will work from -40°F to 140°F, store for 15 years, and offer roughly four times the life of an alkaline at 70 percent of the weight. $8 (8-pack)

Qualcomm GSP-160/Globalstar

Long-long-distance calls just got a lot cheaper, thanks to Qualcomm's GSP-160 phone and Globalstar's budget calling plans. During 2 months of remote travel in Canada, Rainier, and Glacier, Qualcomm's tough 12-ounce wonder gave us long battery life, no notable voice delay, and fewer interrupted calls than other phones we've tried. And Globalstar has a North American airtime plan for as little as $40/month for 40 minutes (activation charges apply). An optional data kit allows for Internet and e-mail, with 9,500 kbps transfer rates. $695

Nokia 5140

The splash-resistant 5140 is more rugged than the average cell phone, and it comes with outdoor-specific features: a digital compass, LED flashlight, and a personal fitness coach to help you train for the big trip. A tiny camera shoots low-res photos and video clips; add a headset ($30) to tune into your favorite FM radio station. $250; 3 oz.

Polar AXN500

This watch-cum-super computer is built for hikers who like to push their fitness and backcountry boundaries. It calculates heart rate, estimates calories burned, reports the temperature, and shows compass bearings, among other features. But we really like its ability to track altitude and barometric pressure with great accuracy. The stainless-steel body is super tough, though a bit heavy on the wrist. $300; 4 oz.

Powerizer Rechargeable Batteries

Tired of throwing away batteries? These rechargeables are the most affordable (about $1 each) NI-Mh batteries we've found, and at full charge they rival most name-brand alkaline batteries. Our tester has used the 2250 mAh AAs and 750 mAh AAAs in various gizmos and reports no drop off in performance after dozens of rechargings. $25 (12 AAs and 12 AAAs)

Best Buy

Highgear TrailAudio 512

Finally, someone noticed MP3 players are going everywhere hikers go and made a unit up to the task. The TrailAudio is water-resistant and has a 'biner attachment for hanging it off your shoulder strap. And Highgear engineers say it shouldn't stutter at high altitude because it has flash memory instead of a hard drive. Beyond that, it's a sweet, light little unit with a ton of memory (512 MB); easy file transfer (just drag and drop); no fancy software to learn; up to 15 hours of playtime on a single AAA battery; an FM receiver; and voice recording. Our tester loved everything but the headphones; Highgear says they're including regular ear buds this spring. (Also available in a 256 MB version, $180.) $225; 3 oz.

GPS Receivers

Brunton Atlas MNS

This upgrade to the original Atlas adds an altimeter, 36-hour graph barometer, electronic compass, and expandable memory. But Brunton's new integrated mapping products are the real story. Start with regional Topocards ($199), which hold true USGS 1:24.000-scale topos-the highest resolution on-screen maps we've seen. For home use, add Topocreate software ($249), which lets you upload and customize maps and GPS info from your handheld (and vice versa). With Topocreate and a 512 MB SD card, you could store a lifetime of trips and customized quads on the GPS unit itself. In the field, the receiver was quick and reliable, and the large screen refreshed faster than others thanks to dual processors. Downside: It's bulkier and less intuitive than some. $359; 7 oz.

Bargain!

Garmin Foretrex 101

"This wrist-top unit may make you look like a Trekkie, but it's collecting more accurate data in the field than some of our more expensive handheld units," raves our map editor. We've seen consistently fast, steady reception, even in thick undergrowth. The waterproof unit is very intuitive to use, battery-efficient (uses two AAAs), and stores 500 waypoints and multiple track logs. Watch for a full review in the April issue. $139; 3 oz.

Garmin eTrex Legend C

This ergonomically designed GPS fits snugly into your palm and features the most vibrant color screen we've seen (side buttons adjust the backlight, making the 2-inch display readable in most light conditions). It comes with a built-in basemap with the ability to upload 24 MB of topo maps. A complaint: Reception is so-so in forests and canyons. $375; 6 oz.

Magellan Explorist 200

Do you hate gizmos but like the stay-found security of a GPS? The Explorist 200 delivers all the basics, from points of interest to routes, in a small, tough, no-frills design. Equipped with a generic basemap of roads, streams, and park boundaries, it contains more than 70 map grids to overlay on the battery-friendly (two AAs) grayscale display. Drawback: The unit can't upload or download data, something you'll want as you head farther off trail or become more GPS-savvy. $149; 4 oz.

Garmin GPSMap 60C And 60CS

State of the art in handheld GPS, the 60C ($482; 7 oz.) includes a USB connection, large onboard memory (56 MB), razor-sharp color, big screen, and unrivaled battery life. Geocaching modes and training games make learning how to use the unit easy. The GPSMAP 60CS ($536; 7 oz.) adds a barometer, barometric altimeter, and electronic compass. Both come with a Trip/Waypoint Manager CD for storage and retrieval of routes from a computer. In the field, we've appreciated the user-friendly menus and vast trip information (average and maximum speed, time moving and stopped, distance traveled, and elevation gain/loss, to name a few). Garmin's MapSource Topo U.S. 1:100,000 software ($117), good reception, and 20- to 30-hour battery life make these excellent receivers for serious backcountry navigation.

Best Buy

Magellan Meridians

When our map scouts absolutely need to get a satellite lock and keep it, they depend on this series of exceedingly reliable and easy-to-use units. All Meridians come with a PC cable but require an optional SD card (expandable to 128 MB) to download onscreen topos. Magellan's MapSend Topo US software ($150) is an excellent addition, offering the best national coverage in high-resolution downloads. The Meridian Gold ($250) is the "basic" model, offering true 14-hour battery life on two AAs. The Meridian Platinum ($400) adds a barometer and an excellent three-axis electronic compass, but at a cost to battery life (10 hours in mild temperatures). The Meridian Color ($400) adds a color screen to the Platinum.

All prices for high-tech items are MSRP. Actual retail prices are often much lower, so shop around.