Although we live in Silicon Valley, we have not been on the leading edge of technology, mainly because I don’t like to carry things with me as I tend to lose or misplace them sometimes. Also I find them to be restricting as opposed to be liberating: I yearn for freedom. However, for this trip, we decided to be on the safe side and, of course, to keep a lasting memory of our trip.

We decided to carry two cell phones with us. We had an AT&T/Cingular digital service. We thought we would be safer with them in case we would get stranded. As it turned out, a lot of places we went did not have digital signal (at least not AT&T/Cingular). I guess they only put cell towers where there would be a lot of usages (a.k.a. people). Well, if there were a lot of people, then we wouldn’t be stranded even if we didn’t have a cell phone. As we were driving through the country, there were lots of places we didn’t get any signal, especially in the Midwest where population density was low. Even in some National Parks, we didn’t get any signals. So don’t be fooled into thinking that you will be safe with a cell phone. Next time, we will bring a phone with analog capability.

As another safety precaution, we decided to bring a couple of GPS devices with us. Why two, you ask? It was because I already had them. Although I am not a gadget person, I have been using them for a year to keep track of places we traveled to. I also wrote software to display where we went, how fast we were traveling by distance and by time (great for bike riding) and where each picture was taken on a Google map. For this trip, we took both Magellan eXplorist 500 and Garmin GPSMap 60C. I liked the eXplorist for its small size, external memory support and unlimited track points storage but not its proprietary battery. I liked the Garmin for its user interface and standard battery but not its lack of external memory and only 10,000 points of track storage. Garmin has since released GPSMap 60Cx which has external memory support but from what I heard, it still has the limitation of 10,000 points. I also ordered an external antenna, Gilsson, for the GPSMap 60C so we could use it in the car as both devices did not get great reception in the car. The antenna worked great on the trip, allowing us to know where we were at all times (except in big cities like Chicago and New York).

It took me a while to figure out how to use both devices. After about a few weeks, I kept Garmin in the car to keep track of driving and carried the eXplorist 500 for hiking. I downloaded the Garmin tracks about every 4-5 days and uploaded new map regions to it and for eXplorist, I only had to charge it after 2-3 hikes as it had enough storage for me to save each hiking track. The downloading map part for Garmin was easy and fast; the downloading map part for eXplorist was slow and less flexible. However, it did have external memory (256 Mbytes) so I only downloaded one time where we would most likely go hiking and didn’t bother to download new maps to it again. It worked for us as we were mostly only using it to keep track of where we were going but not depending on it to find our destination. Always carry a compass and a paper map in the wilderness.

For software, we used Garmin Metroguide North America and Garmin MapSource TOPO USA for GPSMap 60C and Magellan MapSend TOPO for eXplorist 500. Because we liked the adventure of finding our own ways to places so navigation capability was not high on our list of must have. However, we did try to use the GPSMap 60C for navigation a few times with various successes and failures. We downloaded the route from Bryce Canyon National Park to Arches National Park but when I tried to activate the route on the device, it kept failing with an error of not being able to find a road. We also downloaded a route from Cleveland to my Aunt house at Columbus, Ohio. When we got close, it kept asking me to make a turn where there wasn’t any street to turn. However, when we were Vancouver, we had to make a detour because of traffic, I asked it to reroute me on the fly and it did a good job that time.

We did find the ‘FIND’ feature on the GPSMap 60C useful to look for gas station and grocery stores. However it would be better if it can list the gas stations in the direction where we were heading first as opposed to places we had just passed. Also it would be great if it can tell us where the cheapest gas was at. I know there are some services offering such service but we didn’t need to know the exact price just a general trend for the last year. It would be a good indicator. For example, when we crossed from one state to another state, we always found surprises. Some information was outdated but it bailed us out a couple of time looking for a gas station. Use them with the expectation that it may not work; don’t bet your life on them.