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Sunday, May 19, 2002

Technology

GPS tracker most useful in civilization
Gizmos

By Frank Bajak
Associated Press

At a glance
On the Net:

National Air and Space Museum: www.nasm.si.edu/galleries/gps/

  • www.garmin.com/aboutGPS/
  • www.gpsworld.com
  • www.wcmc.org.uk/protected--areas/data/wh/huascara.html
  • CASHAPAMPA, Peru -- I can read maps all right. I'm pretty handy with a compass, and I've got a decent enough sense of direction.

    But put me three miles above sea level in a blizzard, spin me around a few times and I'm as disoriented as the next guy.

    That's why I need a GPS receiver, right?

    It couldn't hurt, I figured. A short trek with my son up into the alpine tundra of Peru's Cordillera Blanca, the world's highest tropical mountain range, provided the opportunity to try one.

    Global positioning technology has been around just short of three decades but no one paid it much mind until the Gulf War, when it helped guide soldiers and tanks across the desert.

    The system relies on 24 U.S. military satellites that orbit the earth at about 12,000 miles, emitting signals that permit GPS receivers, through triangulation, to pinpoint one's exact position on the planet.

    These days, GPS in combination with map databases gets your rental car through Los Angeles without a wrong turn.

    At sea, it's given sailors cause to deep-six the sextant. In the wilderness, seismologists, wildlife biologists, search-and-rescue teams, cartographers and paleontologists swear by their GPS receivers. In aviation, global positioning has revolutionized navigation.

    We tried the top-of-the-line eTrex Vista for hikers from Garmin International Inc., whose main competitors are Magellan and Lowrance.

    At its best, the Vista was accurate to within 29 feet. It also provides elevation through a barometric altimeter, points you in the right direction with an electronic compass -- and can lead you home like those proverbial breadcrumbs of Grimm based on ''waypoints'' you've recorded.

    The Vista supports 500 waypoints -- and remembers up to 10 tracks so users can retrace their steps. That's where our machine ultimately proved valuable. But that's getting ahead of the story.

    For our overnight backpacking trip in the Santa Cruz valley, a popular glacially scoured avenue through a range with 27 snow-encrusted peaks above 19,700 feet, the Vista ultimately proved superfluous.

    The path was well-trod, the weather mostly clear and vegetation never high enough to be an impediment, being as we were about 2 miles above sea level flanked by glacier-saddled summits.

    Now, if I'm in the Amazon jungle I'll want this instrument -- though I'd need a clearing to acquire the four satellites required for a precise reading.

    Lightweight at 5.3 ounces, water resistant and compact, the $325 Vista has the feel of an electronic Swiss army knife. It packs a calendar, tells you when the sun and moon will rise and set and even suggests the best hours for fishing.

    Add to those features a crisp high-resolution display (160 X 220 pixels), with backlight and a built-in basemap of North and South America, and you've got a traveling security blanket.

    Although it didn't detail Cashapampa, the departure point for our hike, the built-in map did show the town of Caraz where we'd spent the previous night as well as primary and secondary roads. To my surprise, it even showed the path we hiked.

    More detailed street and topographic maps of everything from European metro areas to U.S. and Canadian waterways are available on CDs. These separate purchases, some costing well over $100, can be transferred from a computer via a serial cable into the Vista's 24 megabytes of memory.

    My only complaint: this sleek gadget exhausted its two AA batteries fairly quickly. Garmin rates the Vista at 12 hours of steady use. I got more like 8 hours with frequent backlight use.

    Any prudent backcountry traveler, though, would find the Vista worth packing extra batteries.

    It wasn't until we drove into Lima, returning from the mountains well after nightfall, that the GPS receiver proved its mettle.

    On an unlit stretch of highway just north of the city, someone hurled a rock at our rented car that missed the windows but dented the body. It's a common tactic of highway robbers, who prey on drivers naive enough to stop.

    Getting lost in a metropolis like Lima can be dangerous.

    Once in the Peruvian capital, we became unsure of the exact route to my brother-in-law's house in a southern beach district where roads are unmarked. And we didn't have a cell phone.

    So my son pulled out the GPS receiver. Before our alpine excursion, we'd recorded the house's location in memory. The Vista thus provided distance and compass heading.

    Between our memories, a bunch of satellites and a remarkable little machine, getting home safe proved a snap.

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