|1) Marine Chart Software.|
|2) USGS Quad Map Software.|
|3) Basic garmin Mapsource software (came with GPS).|
|4) Delorme Street Map Software.|
|5) Google Earth.|
Compare all the images above. All the images show the same area - Little Bateau Bay and part of Mudhole Creek. The connecting stream between Little Bateau Bay and Mudhole Creek is clearly seen on Google Earth but not on any of the images above it. In other words, MOST of the maps you get with GPS software will lack decision making detail, at least for kayaking purposes. If you're doing all day trips in unknown areas, plan your trip carefully in advance because again, the standard map you see on most GPS devices are about worthless.
So what good is a GPS if map detail is not good?
A) You get to a new kayaking launch site, set a waypoint and leave the unit on. As you kayak, the GPS tracks you. You go off for several hours and get lost. The sun is going down fast and you don't have time to guess which creek branch to take at the fork ahead of you. You can view the track on your GPS and follow it backwards to your launch site. It is hard to get lost if you leave a trail of digital crumbs from where you started. Map detail is not necessary for this use.
B) The GPS unit acts as a Compass (on some models). Sometimes, when the sky clouds up and there isn't much around you, sense of direction can be difficult, especially on open water when no land is in sight or in foggy conditions. When paddling in fog though, I rely on a Seattle Sports Nightquest LED Lit Deck Compass instead of a GPS.
C) You get in a hurry and drive to the launch site and then remember you forgot to see what the tides are doing today. Buy a GPS with the Tide Chart feature built in which will allow you to view the current or future tide chart near your current location. Having this feature can help save you from getting stuck on a mud flat if you live in an area affected by tidal influences. For kayaking, a GPS without tide charts is worthless in my opinion.
D) How much longer can you paddle before the sun goes down? If you're like me, you don't check the sunset time before you go on a paddle. If you get the right GPS, it will include Sunrise and Sunset time for any day. By knowing the sunset time, you can better time your trips (assuming you are doing a sunset paddle) to be where you want to be at the actual time the sun sets.
E) Distance traveled may be important. If you know how fast you normally paddle, you can use the distance you have traveled so far to know how far you have to go on the return trip. A GPS can help you gauge factors like current. If you know you normally paddle at 3.3 mph without current and you find yourself down to 1.3 miles per hour, you know you're paddling against a 2 mph current. Likewise, if you are cruising at 5 mph, you're paddling with the current. GPS's are great because tracking speed and overall distance traveled can help assist in deciding when to turn around.
F) Trip recording. If you have recorded your trip on a GPS, you can see distance traveled, time it took, average moving speed and possibly elevation changes. You can download the GPS data to a wide variety of programs. You can also share your GPS track on websites like EveryTrail.
G) General Route guidance. You can enter waypoints into your GPS at specific points to help direct you when kayaking into new areas. By turning on the GPS navigation feature, you can determine distance and direction to the next route point. I've witnessed on more than one occasion trip leaders paddling right past the turn into a tributary they needed to make. Had they planned their trip, uploaded the data to their GPS and navigated by it, they would have not gotten lost. How embarrassing! Besides routes, you can also upload tracks to GPS devices which will also aid in following a pre-planned trip.
H) Worst case situation. You're out there alone, no boats in sight, clutching your chest in pain. You grab your cell phone, dial 911, and ask for help. The operator asks where you are. Got no GPS? You tell her, "On the River near uhhh, well uhhh, a few miles south of uhhh..." Only got a smartphone? You don't want to have to hang up on the Operator to use a smartphone GPS app to get coordinates which is why it is good to have both a phone and a GPS. What kind of information do you think will get rescue help to you quicker? Yup, Exact Coordinates. If you have a GPS unit, you can give the 911 operator your exact coordinates immediately while still talking on the phone. You can also tell 911 how fast you are drifting and in what direction to help aid rescue personnel in locating you quicker.
What GPS do I Recommend?
When you buy a GPS, make sure you keep your receipt, original GPS box and all the original packaging. I used to recommend the Garmin brand but Garmin refused to update tide chart firmware on a GPS 72 which had stopped generating tide charts shortly after I bought it. Based on personal experience, Garmin does NOT support their products that fail due to their fault. I had a relatively new Garmin eTrex Vista (now out of warranty) which was literally falling apart. Garmin told me to go out, buy some super glue and fix it myself. Really?
DeLorme is another brand that showed promise since it does satellite images and tide charts. I recently tried their PN-60 gps only to spend a week with tech support trying to get it to work properly. We could not get it to work right. DeLorme confirmed a bug in their PN-60 GPS firmware. I returned the device for a full refund (Luckily I had kept the packaging. If you don't keep all the original stuff, paperwork, and boxing, you may not get a full refund). I'd recommend the DeLorme PN-60 if it worked. I have no experience with Magellen because none of their products had Tide Charts and for me a GPS without tide charts is worthless. I'll try DeLorme again in the future and if it works, I'll probably never go back to using a Garmin again. Meantime, I much as I hate to recommend Garmin, I prefer the Garmin GPS76, which can display large numbers visible from a distance, which floats, which has tide charts, and can be found on sale occasionally at West Marine for $150. Having a GPS with you on Kayak trips is a cheap form of life insurance.
Update: With the popularity of smart phones and apps, now days you really don't need a GPS. Free tide chart apps are easy to use. There are mapping apps like Google Earth and Everytrail that work with smart phones along with a multitude of cool apps to take place of a GPS recording device. Going on a multi-day trip? Battery life of a phone can be extended with an external battery like PowerMonkey. There are waterproof and floatable cases available for smart phones. The only drawback may be poor or no cell phone coverage. I still use a GPS because it is easier for me to upload a pre-planned track to the GPS than it is to the phone. That's not to say apps with easy uploading from the computer are not available. I'm just not willing to change what works well for me.
What Computer Software works well with my GPS?
As for software, I do not use the software that came with the GPS - Map Source. As you can see from the above images, Google Earth is the best mapping software you can use for trip planning. Bing Maps would also work along with a variety of other free online satellite maps. I use Google Earth to plan trips because it is easy. I save planned paths and convert the data to GPX data and upload the trip plan to the GPS using Garmin's free BaseCamp software. You should be able to do all your mapping for free. There is however other software that work with GPS devices, including commercial mapping programs like DeLorme, Terrain Navigator, ExpertGPS and many more. Use what works best for your GPS and Operating System and Budget. You can read more about how I design a kayak route and upload it to my GPS here: http://mobilepaddler.blogspot.com/2011/08/kayak-trip-planning-101.html
Google Earth has proprietary KML/KMZ files which can't be uploaded directly to GPS units without first converting it so I use GPSBabel (freeware) that converts between the various gps data files types. Garmin's BaseCamp software has gotten better now that Google Earth files can be imported and GPS maps in BaseCamp can be sent to and viewed in Google Earth.