Garmin eTrex Legend GPS

Still a good choice

Minus the original bugs

Though the Garmin Etrex Legend GPS Receiver has been discontinued from production, at the time of this publication it’s still available as a new unit as well as a reconditioned bargain. Since it’s been around a few years already most of the bugs have been worked out and you shouldn’t have any unexpected problems. Age means reliability in this case.

The Legend is pretty basic in terms of GPS functions and was designed for the non-professional. How you get to be a professional GPS user I’m not really sure, but what Garmin tried to do was make a GPS that wasn’t so hard to use that you had to read the manual to find out what the buttons do every time you wanted to set a waypoint–a problem I still have with the earlier Garmin eTrex.

Sample of the onboard map

Sample of the onboard map

The basic change Garmin introduced in the interface was to replace those confusing button combinations with a tiny joystick. The buttons are still there, but the function is simplified. A page button on the right side selects from one of five basic page menus and the five position joystick clicks through them. Pushing in on the center position is the equivalent of hitting Enter on a keyboard. Left side buttons serve as page up and page down and contrast controls depending on what menu you have displayed. One more button opens the Find page, which lets you select a saved destination and generate a path to it. Like a GPS designed for auto use, the Legend’s eight megabytes of memory include an extensive Point of Interest list, with options for adding your own.

Maps of North and South America are also part of the built-in software, though the detail and accuracy of the originals left customers unsatisfied. Positions might be off by a couple of hundred feet, or routes might include roadways that no longer exist in the real world. Updates to the map software and the operating system are available at the Garmin website, and MapQuest maps are available for purchase which add a lot of the missing detail. Those additional maps are fairly expensive–a library of topo maps for our National Parks currently runs around $90.

The Legend’s sensitivity is a great leap forward in comparison to the old eTrex which had problems seeing through light forest canopy. With luck the Legend can pick up triangulation signals even in difficult terrain. There’s no independent compass or altimeter, so unless you can spot satellites the compass and elevation functions won’t be of use.

Some of the interesting quirks from the early days included the Legend’s inability to measure travel under two mph. Packers had poor results when traveling difficult trails, since the Legend assumed they weren’t moving. Location would change but trip data was all wrong. Most problems have been corrected in the updates to the operating system–whether that particular problem was addressed, I’m not sure. Nothing’s perfect and even with that flaw the system would be useful. If I’m traveling under two mph I’d be embarrassed to see it anyway.

Some useful perks include moon phase data and opinions on the right times to fish and hunt. A calculator can be manipulated via the tiny joystick, and if you ever need to know the area of the terrain you’ve circumnavigated during your journey you can get a reading on that from the Legend. I’m not sure why any hiker would need to know that.

Others have described the Garmin Etrex Legend GPS Receiver as simple to learn but hard to use. The joystick concept doesn’t work well as a keyboard, resulting in a lot of errors and unwanted menu shifts, but the basics of the system work well. Great GPS for those who want something simple and reliable for trail use, but it won’t serve if you expect it to carve fast routes through city traffic.

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