Bushnell BackTrack: Fragile Personal Tracker

Here’s the good idea: Combine a digital compass with a simplified GPS locator and provide travelers with a directional arrow pointing back to home base or car. If you’ve ever tried to figure out a GPS system for recording tracks and waypoints and become more lost in the device’s menu than you were on the trail, this should appeal to you. But how well does the Bushnell BackTrack Personal Locator meet that useful set of goals? Like many pieces of modern wilderness gear, the Backtrack seems to have been designed by people who didn’t get out of the building very often.

Not that the BackTrack doesn’t do what it says — it actually works, with the usual bothersome limitations of budget-level GPS devices. If you can work a digital stopwatch (which I’m willing to bet very people can do in detail, considering all the options the usual stopwatch and event timer packs into three buttons and their seemingly limitless combinations) you can work the BackTrack. Two control buttons on the BackTrack —  one called Mode and the other called Mark — offer power on/off, backlit display, mode selection of compass or location selection; marking of three different locations in your local wilderness or urban area; and a display that shows compass directions, an arrow leading back to the desired marked spot, plus a numerical readout of the distance remaining between you and the place you’re going.

Does that sound a little complicated for a GPS that’s supposed to be idiot-proof? There’s still room here for some dumb mistakes that get in the way of performance, and many owners will make them. Unless you use the BackTrack often enough to memorize the system, take a cheat sheet along with you. For a personal GPS system it is pretty simple. It might seem easy enough at home in the backyard, but if you’re dealing with darkness, fear, hunger and hypothermia-induced stupidity you may find the manual a little bit too complicated.

In practice you’ll find quirks that force you to be patient and work with the BackTrack, not against it. On power-up the Bushnell BackTrack requires a couple of minutes or more to locate the satellites in the system and figure out where it is in the world. Two minutes is good time — more than that is likely to be necessary, and if the view of the right part of the sky is blocked by buildings, mountains, canyon walls or trees, you may not get a lock at all. Either find a new location to work from or stop blaming the device, because it’s doing everything it can do. After ten minutes without any button-pushing on your part, the BackTrack shuts off. Starting up again requires that frustrating orientation period before you get any useful GPS information back from the re-awakened BackTrack.

The digital compass and travel direction arrow also have some quirks. To orient the BackTrack properly hold it horizontal with the display up and move it in a slow figure eight pattern to recalibrate the compass headings after a power-down. Read the Direction-to-Mark arrow while standing still, not while in motion, or the results could be erratic.

With all that unexpected inconvenience, the Bushnell BackTrack still has life-saving potential for those who figure it out. Accurate to within about 15 feet of the marked location, the BackTrack potentially gives confused travelers an accurate straight line back to camp, home or car. Experienced wilderness travelers will understand that even with a straight line clearly marked, getting there could be tricky. Straight lines are rarely the best way home in the back country and a maze of trails might require going the wrong way from time to time to actually get there. Following a straight line could even get you deeper into serious trouble. You’ll still need the map and the compass. The Bushnell BackTrack provides another layer of helpful information but the real work is up to you.

As yet this is more an entertainment than a dependable guidance system, since the BackTrack is neither shockproof nor waterproof and could be rather short-lived in rough country. Although it’s commonly advertising as a “personal tracker” or “personal gps locator” the BackTrack does not transmit a homing signal or communicate with any emergency response system. It’s good fun but not a rock-solid piece of emergency gear.

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