Wednesday, 30 December 2009

GPS on the hill? Necessity or a hazard?

I enjoy taking part in debates on GPS and how it is becoming a bigger part of mountaineering and hill walking, and to what end the increasing GPS trend represents a positive or a negative impact for what I do.

So there is no confusion I’ll briefly explain the types of GPS available out there at the moment:

1) GPS sets with no mapping data – these handsets such as the Garmin etrex provide an accurate readout of location in a variety of formats (including OS grid ref), they also provide a track of where you have walked that day (provided you have had the set on all day) meaning that in the event of an emergency you can back track to where you came from. However they do not show a map with features, so setting a grid reference where you want to go to, will not take into account cliffs, steep ground and other hazards.
2) GPS sets with “vector mapping” – these handsets are the same as the above however they have vector maps which provide basic details like landmarks, rivers, roads and paths. Some sets have contours but not all. The advantage to vector maps is that as you zoom out details are removed meaning the map doesn’t become cluttered. These maps can be useful, but are not 100% accurate in many cases.
3) GPS sets with full OS maps – increasingly popular with new handsets, these GPS sets have full ordnance survey mapping in 1:25k or 1:50k. Although this has been available on PDA’s for some time via memory map, the short battery life and lack of ruggedness meant they were unsuitable for use on the hill. Some PDA’s like the Airo A25 (see review) are ideal for hill use. Newer sets like the memory map navigator set and the Satmap Active 10 are rugged units with built in mapping which mean that accurate positions are displayed on a map, allowing you to double check the outdoor with your surroundings using normal map and compass techniques. Even some phones now have OS GPS capability via ViewRanger software.

The benefits of having a GPS are obvious; in the event of an emergency you simply switch it on and allow to provide an accurate read out of you location. This is essential to any walking group and could save valuable time should the worst happen. In the event of poor weather a GPS set can help you navigate your way to safer ground.

Now recently on UKC I suggested that a GPS with OS mapping was the safest and best option as you can double check the readout using your own skills. However one forum user replied “Your're way too soft. there's no adventure there.” Now besides the obvious mis-spelling of “you’re”. The same user then proceeded to wreck the thread by calling another guy putting forward a good opinion a twat but nevermind.

Personally I think that new GPS sets are tough enough, accurate enough, and last long enough to be the most effective way of navigating on the hill. The accurate location shows on a map, allowing you to cross check it with your own skills. However this gets into the debate of ethics and loss of adventure etc. Personally I am ok with using a GPS, I learned to navigate the hard way, through practice and training and doing my ML. However I understand that others may feel that something is lost by using a GPS. I get my thrills from the adventure of what I’m doing. However despite that all DofE gold groups I work with are trained on the use of GPS, however it is left in a sealed envelope which is checked daily, and the group told only to use it in emergencies.

In the end its down to individuals to decide their own ethics and comfort zone. For me carrying a GPS and using it to navigate with is perfectly ok to me, and I don’t think it would dull my enjoyment of the hills. By ensuring I have a backup map and compass (and knowing how to use it) plus a spare battery I feel totally at home. However I frequently use map and compass only (with GPS in bag) to make sure my purist map reading skills are still up to scratch!

I will be posting a “how to” of different GPS sets and types on here in the next couple of weeks, which will helpfully help anyone wanting to use a GPS but who is not sure of how they work.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Mountain Equipment Kongur MRT - Initial thoughts

RRP £300

Well I must have been good this year as my gift from Santa (or more accurately my loving parents) was a Mountain Equipment Kongur MRT jacket. Undoubtabley one of the best hard shell jackets on the market.

Having only worn this in the comfort of my home, I can't yet say anything about the performance of the jacket. However what I can say is that this jacket is truly incredible, it feels amazing, it fits great, the cut is perfect, the fabrics used feel tough, it has high reflective strips for bad visibility, and best of all the colour scheme looks awesome.

I will be getting out on the hill in this in the next couple of weeks, where I will post a full review!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Landrover S1 Rugged Mobile

RRP £299.99

Before reading this review take a couple of minutes to watch these 2 videos. . .

Done? Excellent. I bought one of these last week (I say bought, it actually was available as a free upgrade on my contract). However the phone boasts a number of features that caught my interest from the start.

The landrover X1 also branded as the Sonim XP3 has the following features:

- 2MP Camera with Flash
- Built-in GPS with SIRF
- Torch Light
- FM Radio
- Sonim Applications
- MSD Card Slot (up to 2 GB)

Nothing special right? Not really. However it’s the phones ultra tough and rugged build that makes the phone the perfect phone for outdoor workers. The phone boasts the following rugged features:

1. Dust proof – due to its non porous casing, meaning even micro dust particles cannot work their way into the phone over long periods.

2. Ultra long battery life – 1500 hours (yes 1,500 hours) of standby time and 18 hours of talk time

3. Built in GPS

4. Submersible in water up to 1 metre

5. Impact proof – withstands repeated drops from 2 metres high on to concrete

6. Works in extremes of temperature (-20oC to + 60 oC)

7. The camera works under water (that’s just cool!)

8. And best of all the phone has an unconditional 3 year guarantee

The phone itself its very substantial. When holding it, it just feels tough. If you are one of the many people like me who can’t stand small buttons on phones when texting, fear not, the S1 is big finger friendly! Now I should make the point now that if you are one of these people who like your phone to have the latest blinged up to date menutouchscreenslicklookingshiny interface. . . you will be very disappointed with this phone. Comparing it to cars this phone is more like a tank. . . however going into war I would rather be in a tank than a Ferrari. The interface is easy to use, texts are easy to send, calls are easy to make and the selection of ringtones is suitably crap.

The phone comes in a small land rover tool box with a belt clip, charger, software and PC cable. It’s quick to charge, and very easy to use (I had this one up and ready to use, with all my contacts copied across from my old phone in about 30mins). Overall I will sum this phone up with a quote from the telegraph newspaper dated Jul 2009.
“The staff at the sun newspaper managed to break one of these phones. . . under the weight of a 3 tonne fork lift truck. Prior to that it survived being baked in an oven at 150 degrees, being left in a pint of beer for an hour, being put in a washing machine, and being thrown out of a second floor building window”

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Landrover S1 Rugged Mobile - initial thoughts

My Sony Ericsson has been giving me some trouble lately so I decided that it was time I upgraded my mobile. My main problem with phones is I seem to break them in one way or another, which is why I went for C702. However this time I thought I would go all out for the toughest phone money could buy. In this case my quest lead me to the Landrover X1. At an RRP of £299.99 this phone is not cheap and I have to say had I not been offered it on a free upgrade on my contract I would not have bothered buying it! However I am very glad I did! I will be getting a full review up on this in the next couple of days. In the meantime pics;

The phone boasts being waterproof and submersible to 1m for 30minutes, operation in extreme temperatures both high and low, GPS, 1000 hours battery life and many other cool features which will make it ideal for any outdoor enthusiast. Initial thoughts are that this is a well built chunk of a phone, that I am going to love!

Review coming in the next couple of days!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Vodafone mobile broadband dongle

RRP £35 including 1gb of data

I've been fancying one of these for a while. The idea of being able to have broadband while I'm out in the field for long periods of time seems like a good prospect. Pay as you go broadband has been around for a while now, and it seems to me that Vodafone is ahead of the game, their broadband pay as you go dongle is £35 (cheaper than others) comes with 1gb of data in the price (more than others) and unlike every other mobile broadband, your data does not expire, so you can top it up and just leave it there and use it as and when you need it. Very easy to use, you simply plug it in, it installs the software automatically. In the next few weeks I will attempt to get out and test this in Snowdonia and the Peak and let everyone know the outcome of how effective this is as a tool for outdoor instructors. I see this as being particularly useful for going abroad, and for instructors who are in the field for long periods of time and need to get access to email and internet without having to go to a webcafe etc.

More to follow....

Sony Ericsson C702i Mobile

RRP £200

Every outdoor instructor or hill goer should carry a mobile phone, if nothing else for emergencies. Recently there have been a number of so called "tough phones" that feature ruggedness, water resistance, etc. Recently the C702i caught my eye, and as I needed a new phone I invested. The promising set of features gave me hope for a good outdoorsmen phone. The phone says it is water resistant and dust proof, it also boasts a GPS reciever and google maps.

The phone itself is simple and easy to use, texting, calling, saving numbers etc are all easy. The phone also has a sony cybershot 3.2meg camera built in which is very good, and very easy to use. The images produced are brilliant for a mobile phone.

Now onto the main features that would interest someone who was into the outdoors. Water resistant? Yes. In fact I would go so far as to say reasonably water PROOF - I dropped mine in the sink while trying to answer a phone call while shaving, and was able to pick it out of the water, answer the call, and replace it on the side with no problems what so ever. Dust proof? Yes, no problems what so ever, dropped this in the sand at Newborough Warren and there has been no issues as a result of this. GPS, yes, and accurate. The readout is in standard WSG84 lat/long, which is no real use as a navigational tool. However in the event of an emergency it would provide an accurate location for MRT or rescuers. I tested the readout in my local park and checked the readout against an OS map of the area, the readout was accurate on 10/10 occasions. Googlemaps however is crap, the location it gives you is very out on every occasion from my experience of it, and this should ever be relied upon!!

Overall this phone is excellent, tough (I have dropped it so many times), water resistant, dust proof, and has a decent GPS unit. All these features are ideal for a small phone that looks and functions like a phone. Ideal for any outdoor instructor looking for a functional phone that is tougher than the rest.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Satmap Active 10 - first impressions

RRP £379.99 inc maps

Got my hands on one of these units today for the first time. Been wanting to test one for a while! First impressions where the unit seems very good indeed. The screen is big and very useable, the buttons on the side are very ergonomic when you are holding the unit. I also like the fact that unlike the Airo A25 the unit orientates the map as you move, so that the ground around you always makes sense. This is in stark contrast to the A25 that doesn't do this at all and is (I feel a big drawback of the A25). The satmap has its drawbacks however, firstly it doesnt interface with memory map as well as the A25. Also you have to spend upwards of £90 on maps for the unit, where as with the A25 you purchase memory map and get it on your computer and GPS unit. So if I wanted to use the satmap to plan a route on memory map then upload the waypoints and use it navigate through the route I would have to buy the satmap, then buy the maps for the satmap then buy memory map. However despite that I think the satmap fills a gap in the market, for a rugged unit that displays an OS map along with a high quality GPS readout. The unit does not feel as tough and rugged as the Airo (and I doubt it is for that matter), it is however waterproof and dustproof. I will be trying to get hold of one of these for a proper test in the next couple of weeks, where by I will do a few review and comparison against the A25! Watch this space....

Friday, 14 August 2009

Suunto Vector

RRP £170

Every outdoorsman needs a good watch, in my case I ended up with a suunto vector. The watch has a number of features which have been useful. The watch has an altimeter, a compass, a barometer, and a thermometer. The altimeter (once calibrated) is decent, and can be a useful aid to navigation. The altimeter also has a "logbook" which will tell u the height climbed, height descended, and maximum height of the day. The compass too is useful and reasonably accurate. The compass works by alligning the small bubble in the level in the centre, and the direction you poin the watch in, is displayed in degrees. The barometer is good, but a reading in millabars isn't really that useful if you don't know what the number means. More useful is the pressure trend graph which indicates whether the current pressure trend is dropping, rising or staying constant. This can help predict weather if you understand the mechanics of weather enough. The thermometer is utterly useless, it is effected by your body heat and is yet to give me an accurate reading on which I would rely.

In addition the watch is waterproof, has a stopwatch, countdown timer, alarm and various other standard watch features, and comes in a choice of yellow, black and olive green (for military types). It can be fitted with 3 different strap types; neoprene, rubber, and material.

All in all the watch is good, little steep at £170 but if you look around you can get it sub £120.

Useful video on youtube about the function of the watch may help you understand the features;

Memory Map OS-5 Mapping software

RRP £99.99
My faithful companion for the last 3 years. Memory map is a fantastic piece of software that has so many applications and uses. The software is available with OS 1:25k and OS 1:50k maps. It also comes with a 1:250k road Atlas which comes in very handy.

The software itself its (on first look) quite expensive. However when you consider that you can print your own maps whenever you want, it’s not so bad! The software is very user friendly for route planning, you just click where you want to go. The software then adds up height climbed, distance, estimated time, and every other detail you could ever want. Routes can then be exported to GPS. The memory map system allows for easily printing route cards. It is also a brilliant teaching aid, especially if your classroom has a projector.

Memory map also has a 3D view allowing you to see your entire route in 3D as a run through. You can also download your track from a GPS onto the map to see where you have been. There is also aerial photos available for all national park areas, this allows for very realistic looking 3D landscapes. Printing maps is simple and you can print off individual sections and routes and custom scales. All in all there is literally no flaw that I can see with this software aside from the price, which is justifiable if you plan on using it extensively.

Camelion Emergency charger

RRP £3.99

If you guys reading this are anything like me then you'll be the kind of person that likes to stay in touch. I enjoy the solitude of the mountains, but at the end of the day I like to come down and be able to text my lady, or ring my parents or whatever. The main limitation of phones is their battery life, you can text away all day, ring whoever whenever , but when it comes to being away for a week at a time and you want to stay in touch then a low battery is something we'd all like to avoid. To this end I was delighted when I discovered this item. The camelion is a small cylinder that contains a single AA battery, and comes with a variety of adapters for different phones. All you do is simply plug the phone in and it will begin charging your phone!

The device is limited in the amount of power it can give, typically you will get about 90mins talktime from a single AA battery. If you leave the phone off and the camelion plugged in over night then a single AA battery will boost your battery by around 50%. This is excellent for those people who like to keep in touch. This effectively means that as long as you have access to AA batteries then you can keep your phone charged. It comes with adapters for a number of phones, and even has one that fits my Airo A25! And for £3.99 at your local maplins store there is really no downside to this awesome bit of kit! It even has a little LED torch on the end! (not that I reccomend using it too much as it drains the battery!). I used this last week in Wales and it was an excellent piece of kit 10/10! A real must have!

Airo A25 GPS PDA

RRP Approx £600 + software

My first review on my new blog! Woop! I will be reviewing the Airo A25 PDA. The unit itself is a palm top computer which has been ruggedized to protect it against the elements. It is waterproof, dustproof, temperature resistant, humidity proof and drop proof. What this basically means is that this unit can take anything the mountains can throw at it. But let’s take a look at those protective features (because for £600 let’s face it this needs to be something special!) The unit is completely submersible in water, and completely dust proof. So basically you could throw it in the sea then bury it in sand and it would still function 100%. It can withstand up to 95% humidity for 48 hours, and can withstand a 1.5 metre drop onto concrete. . . 26 times before showing any damage that effected its function. The reason this unit is built like a tank is that it has been designed to meet US military standards for “in the field” gear, and is used by a number of military units.

So with that boring load out the way you are probably wondering “how does this help me in the mountains?”. The unit is equipped with a high power GPS antenna so it is able to pinpoint your location very accurately and very quickly. But what truly sets this unit apart from other GPS sets is that Memory Map Navigator software can be installed on the unit. Combined with the GPS receiver this means that the unit can pinpoint your location on an OS 1:25000 map to within 50cm! Is this just another company making a wild statement that the gear doesn’t actually back up? I took to the mountains to find out. In order to test the units bold claims about accuracy I headed to “the horns” of Snowdon. Armed with a map and compass I accurately used a compass bearing and pacing to locate 18 small features including ring contours, finger contours and stream junctions. Now bearing in mind some of these features were as low as 4 metres the handset needed to be spot on in identifying them. The handset accurately identified all of the features I looked for. In addition it functioned perfectly in the driving rain through into the night.

Another feature which makes this unit truly excellent is that you can exchange data between the handset and your computer. This means you can plan routes on you laptop and upload them, or download your route for a day and check how far you went and where you went. The unit really comes into its own for instructors who work with DofE groups for example. The unit can have groups routes uploaded to it, meaning you can plan you day to meet up and supervise the group.

The A25 is also armed with a number of different bits of software that can help the user be in the field for extended periods. The unit can function as a phone when you insert a SIM card. It can also connect to the internet to receive email via outlook express or any web based mail system such as hotmail, although this is based on a GPRS internet system which is not overly quick so downloading attachments could take a while. The unit also has word, excel, powerpoint and several other programs which allow the user to write and review documents.

All in all the advantages of this unit are obvious, but what about the drawbacks?

The battery life of the unit when using the GPS all day can be as low as 12 hours. This is not ideal if you plan multiday trips and want to rely on it. Personally I use this unit to confirm my location and then switch it off if I plan on using it for days at a time. The one advantage is it does come with a car charger which can quickly charge the unit from a cigarette lighter.

The stylus used to navigate the unit is quite fiddly with gloves on, and typing cannot be done without the stylus. The unit is touch screen and can be operated with hands, but this is not ideal for people with big hands like me!

Accessing the back of the unit to get the memory card or SIM card can only be done by means of a tiny screwdriver. This is a pain if the unit freezes up (only happened to me once) and you need to remove the battery.

All in all what you have to ask yourself is what are you looking for from your GPS. If you are looking for a GPS that locates you on an OS map, that’s tough enough for the outdoors your options are quite limited. The A25 represents a small computer which functions as both a PDA a GPS and a phone. The other option is the Satmap Active 10, a cheaper unit that functions in much the same way, it does not have memory map but its own OS 1:25k maps. It claims to be weather proof and is substantially cheaper that the A25 (at £379). But in my opinion the A25 represents the ultimate tool for DofE workers and people who use memory map as their primary mapping software. The unit is robust, east to use, and has a wide variety of features.