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Contours in your pocket

How Garmin’s TOPO mapping looks on your PC (above) and on your GPS receiver (below)

The combination of PC-based digital mapping and compact GPS receivers is an increasingly-popular way of finding your way about on the hills. Garmin is the leading brand of “outdoorsy” GPS units (or at least, it’s the one we see the most of out and about) and a couple of recent announcements should see it consolidating that position.

First, and most exciting, is Garmin’s new TOPO Great Britain software. As the name suggests, this allows you to upload not just waypoints, routes and tracks to your (compatible) GPS, but also topographical data too. That’s contour lines, forested areas, water features, trig points, trails, roads, places of interest and so on. So your GPS display will show you more than just a blob for yourself, some flags for waypoints and a wiggly line for your route – it’ll have something on it that actually looks like a map. This is potentially extremely useful – you’ll be able to tell if you’re meant to be on a ridge or in a valley or in some woods or next to a trig point without rummaging your paper map out.

The software also includes routable street-level mapping, which certain GPS units can use to automatically generate point-to-point routes. It’s at this point that you’re probably wondering if it can do the same for bridleways, and unfortunately the answer is “no”. The road mapping comes from NAVTEQ and doesn’t include off-road trails. The topographical mapping comes from an Ordnance Survey database that doesn’t include off-road trails either. Or at least, it kind of does, but not in a way that’s useful for automatic routing. The coverage of trails seems to be a little patchy anyway, which is a shame – if you like to plan your routes on a PC and upload them to a GPS to follow, Garmin’s software isn’t going to be the answer. You’ll need to use one of the other mapping packages that includes OS Landranger mapping to do that, but the Garmin stuff will put it all into context on the GPS itself.

The data does include over 100,000 points of interest, including useful things like restaurants and emergency services. There’s a bit of a limitation in the PC software to satisfy OS’s licensing regulations – you only get full detail in a 640×480 window and you can’t print fully-detailed maps out. It’s got full coverage for England, Scotland and Wales, all of which comes on a single DVD for £149.99.

Garmin also has a variety of new GPS units out, including the Edge bike-specific model. That won’t take the TOPO maps, though, so we’ve been playing with a GPSmap 60Cx. As well as nice things like a big colour screen, plenty of memory and an SD card slot so you can fit more maps on it, the 60Cx uses a new chipset which is claimed to be a lot more sensitive and less prone to building or tree-related disturbance. So far those claims seem to be on the money – where our old eTrex tended to plot singletrack through the woods as a dead straight line between one side of the woods and the other, the 60Cx generally manages to hold on to a signal the whole way and accurately tracks every turn and wiggle. Impressive stuff.

We’ll have a full test of the 60Cx and TOPO software soon…


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