Product Reviews

Garmin Dakota 20 Review

Hiking has been a hobby of mine for about a decade and early on I bought a GPS which I used in conjunction with a paper map and compass. My first GPS was a Garmin Etrex Summit which I still use today. It’s suffered a few heavy knocks, scrapes and soakings but still works as well today as the day I bought it (although it does now have a tiny scratch on the screen).

I’ve never been a big fan of paper maps. Walks always seem to go over the fold of a page and they don’t always last well when they get wet or high winds rip them when you are on top of a mountain. As a result I became an early convert to digital versions of Ordnance Survey mapping using software from Memory Map though Tracklogs and Anquet were also popular alternatives at that time. More recently Quo has joined the race and they seem to be the cheapest provider of digital maps.

My usual method of working would be to plot a route using Memory Map, send the route to my GPS and also print a hard copy of the OS map on A4 paper at 1:25 scale. In the field the Garmin Etrex would give me to grid reference of my current location which I could cross reference back to the A4 print out and it would also tell me the distance and direction to my next waypoint on the route. This worked well for a few years until computers did away with the parallel port connection which meant I needed to buy an adaptor to use my GPS lead with the new style USB ports.

Hikers, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts began to ask why there was no device that could actually display a digital version of the OS map on the GPS screen. In truth there were devices that could already do this but they had their drawbacks. I even bought a Mitak Mio Digiwalker which was a PDA running Windows mobile. The drawbacks were that the device was not waterproof and battery life was poor. Waterproof cases and battery extenders were introduced but it was not an ideal solution and I found the power connection on the Mitak to be very fragile.

As time went by I became aware of new GPS devices that would actually show the OS map digitally on the screen. The first popular model was the SatMap Active 10 which had reasonable battery life and was waterproof. You could not use Memory Map however and there was no way I was going to pay the high prices to get the same maps again! Garmin responded to this by bringing out the Colorado, Oregon and Dakota models which could also display digital OS maps but again the maps were expensive and Memory Map software was not compatible.

When I changed my laptop recently to a model that had the Windows 7 operating system I noticed that my Etrex Summit could no longer be recognised by Memory Map. It meant I could not send the route to the GPS but I still used the Etrex just to check the my current location and then refer back to the Memory Map A4 print out.

GPS receivers seemed to be built into many mobile phones and when I upgraded to a Nokia 5800 I became aware of Viewranger software. The screen of the Nokia 5800 was a decent size and the Viewranger software worked really well and was priced quite attractively too. They seemed to have maps for much of Europe and the only downside was that there was no seperate software for the PC so the routes had to be planned on the phone itself, though you could send a GPX route that you had saved using Memory Map to the phone. Unlike other mobile phones like the iPhone, the Nokia had great battery life, mainly due to the fact that you could kill the screen to save the battery but the phone would still be recording your position. The issue again was that the phone was not waterproof and despite it being inside the pocket of my waterproof jacket it recently stopped working due to moisture. I’d had enough of fragile gadgets. On the mountain you want something you can rely on!

So fast forward to today. I’m about to go travelling in Europe and will need to find maps for many different countries. It seems no digital software company has maps covering all the countries I want to visit. Garmin as a world leader seem to have more than most however and when I read about Garmin custom maps my mind was made up. With Garmin custom maps I can use my flatbad scanner to scan a paper map, then calibrate this map by overlaying it on Google Earth and then send this scanned image to the new generation of  Garmins.

Garmin Dakota 20

The GPS I decided to buy was the Garmin Dakota 20 which is cheaper than the Oregon models. The battery life on the Garmin Dakota 20 is impressive and my concern that the screen might be too small has been unfounded. Now I admit that calibrating a paper scan using Google Earth can be a little fiddly but I seem to have managed without too much trouble and the results are impressive. The digital map on the screen is not as sharp as a proper digital map but I’ve been very happy with my initial tests on a walk I did last Sunday.

I won’t go into the actual process of how to use custom maps as the Garmin website and others already do a good job of explaining it. Finally I’m now able to go hiking anywhere in the world and if I cannot find a digital topo map for the Garmin I can at least buy the paper map, scan the area I need and create a digital map I can use with the Garmin Dakota 20. Don’t you just love technology!

I hope you have enjoyed my Garmin Dakota 20 Review.

Garmin Dakota 20

The Garmin Dakota 20 showing a Custom Map

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