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A GPS for Trail Riding

GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receivers are all the rage these days for hikers, cars, boats, planes, and yes, even trail riders (at least those that ride on more than just a few acres). I ride in a Rhode Island state forest of over 14,000 acres that abuts a Connecticut 24,000+ acre state forest. It's really just one big forest with the state line running through it. That's over 38,000 acres or 60 square miles — one could truly get lost, or worse, hurt with no one around when exploring the far reaches (the North 4,000?) A GPS system can make such rides far safer. It's more fun if you always know where you are and a GPS can help you not to get lost — it can also help you get back if you do get lost.

GPS The Garmin Rino 530 HCx GPS is an example of a unit offering functionality very useful on the trail. In addition to all the normal GPS functions, it also provides high-sensitivity so it can receive even weak satellite signals in deep valleys and under thick tree cover, a weather radio to receive weather alerts and forecasts while on the trail, and even a built-in walkie-talkie for communications.

Important Features
If you're thinking about getting a GPS to accompany your trail rides, consider the following features to make the unit more useful for trail riding:

  • Ability to Display Topo Maps
    On some of the most basic units, you'll get a compass and simple directions and lines pointing to waypoints — you'll likely find those units frustrating. At the very least, you'll want a unit that can display a topographical (topo) map of the area in which you're riding. We're all familiar with maps, but being able to also see our elevation is extremely useful in finding out where we are and what route we should take. If a GPS includes just a base map, it's definitely not enough and provides minimal or no detail on the scales you'll use for hiking and riding. Unfortunately, the topo map often must be purchased separately.
  • High Sensitivity
    Unless you generally ride the open plains, you should STRONGLY consider a unit that is rated "High Sensitivity". Here in New England, most undeveloped space is forest. In fact, if you look at an agricultural map of the U.S., you'll see that from Ohio east to the coast is actually one big forest with cities and roads carved out. Add in the fact that the topography is hilly and in some places, mountainous, and you realize that you'll usually be under tree cover and in low places between hills. High sensitivity versions are able to receive satellite location signals even in narrow valleys and under thick forest canopies. No matter what you can afford to spend, if your unit is not sensitive enough to receive satellite-positioning signals under those trees and in those valleys, it's useless.
  • Electronic Breadcrumb Trailing
    This feature will let you see the path you've taken, and if necessary, go back the way you came. This is also handy for uploading to your computer to take a good look at the path you rode for the day. It's often different than you would think and really helps you to learn your way around a park or forest.
  • Trip Computer – Just Plain Fun
    The trip computer is nice because is tells you how long your trip took, your maximum speed (especially after that exciting gallop), your average speed (walking could be faster), distance remaining to your destination, and much more. Fortunately, almost all the GPS units I've seen have this, even the cheaper ones, so that shouldn't be an issue.
Other "Nice to Have" Features
These features aren't critical or necessary, but they will make your riding safer and more fun if you can afford them.
  • Built-in Walkie-Talkie
    This is a great backup for your cell phone in case your phone's batteries die, the phone itself gets broken, you're in a low or no-signal area, or your horse mistakes it for a treat because you answered a call with food on your hand while eating lunch. Alternatively, you can inexpensively buy a set of two Family Radio Service (FRS) walkie-talkies as your cell phone backup for as little as $15 - $30 — it doesn't have to be built into the GPS unit. I just like that convenience and the reduced need to carry still more stuff that also occasionally needs recharging or fresh batteries.
  • Built-in Weather Radio
    This is valuable to keep you apprised of fast-changing weather conditions. This feature will also usually provide weather alerts when harse weather threatens and an advisory or warning is released by the National Weather Service.
  • Miscellaneous
    Other features that are not necessary but sometimes included are a color display, a barometer and altimeter, and an electronic compass.
I do carry and use a map and compass when venturing beyond the area I know. But I've found a GPS also adds information and fun to a ride. And while several of my riding friends laughed at first, they're now often asking how long we've been out, how far we've traveled, and how fast we hit on that last gallop…and a few are getting their own…

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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