Trackside GPS: 3 systems put to the test

By: Michael Borg , Photography by: Matt Fehlberg

Borgy heads out bush to compare three different types of offroad-ready navigation systems for the keen camper.

Trackside GPS: 3 systems put to the test
When it comes to electronic offroad mapping, it’s hard to beat a dedicated in-car GPS unit

Geez, the navigation side of things has come a long way in recent years. I mean, it doesn’t seem all that long ago that an electrical navigation device was considered a real luxury, but these days it’s almost a given. Now look, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make here: I’m an absolutely hopeless navigator! Yep, I’m one of those guys who can’t read a map to save his life, and gets lost if you leave him unattended for too long. So who better than me to put the latest offroad mapping technology to the test, eh? I mean, if a device can work for me, it’s bound to work for pretty much anyone, right?

We’ve all heard tech gurus tell us how easy and reliable these things are, but I’m here to call a spade a bloody spade and find out the good, the bad and the damn right ugly about the different gadgets available to the modern 4WDer.

Obviously we can’t test each and every single one of the thousands of programs out there, but what we can do is give you a better idea of the pros and cons of each style of device, namely in-car GPS units, handheld GPS devices, tablets and applications. Plus, to ensure we keep things as real world as possible, we did things the old fashioned way – we took the units out bush and tried our hardest to get lost. It might sound silly, but it’s one way of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.


When it comes to electronic offroad mapping, it’s hard to beat a dedicated in-car GPS unit. The main reason being they’re built from the ground up with the intention of guiding you as you drive. Everything from the exterior design to the software it employs is purpose-built to make things easy on the road. You’ll find these types of units generally have a nice, solid mounting bracket to cope with bumpy tracks and the charging cable is usually designed to be secure during transit. The size of the screen is usually well thought out too, with an emphasis on easy viewing that doesn’t obstruct your vision while driving, and good functionality. Built-in features such as voice guidance for street driving come standard, too, which adds plenty in terms of value for money.

Plus, you’ll find these units usually include maps which are considered optional extras with most applications for multi-use devices. Perhaps the biggest difference with these devices over other options is that most newer models come with voice command, so you don’t have to touch the screen for to use it. Most even have Bluetooth, so you can pair it with your phone, making them quite a convenient tool in the car.


In the few weeks I’ve tested them, both the Hema HN7 and Navman My Escape III in-car GPS units have worked an absolute treat. Both are easy to operate and have never lost signal despite spending a fair bit of time in a deep overgrown gullies. The interfaces for both units are fairly easy to use, although I’ve found there is a bit of lag with the Navman when you aren’t in perfect operating conditions.


Is there anything these tablets can’t do these days? I mean, having an application to suit just about everything has seriously revolutionised the way we do things, including how we head out bush. This not only makes a tablet device extremely versatile, but great value for money too. You want an offroad map? Simple, download the application! You want to know where the closest campsites are? Simple, download it! Heck, if you want a bush cooking application there’s one of those too. Perhaps the biggest advantage of simply downloading navigation applications to your tablet is that you’re not restricted to one product or brand. Instead, you can have several of the best applications around all on one device, and swap and change as you see fit. So you can jump between say Google Earth satellite imagery and the Hema Explorer apps to work out where you’re going or where you need to be, and then use another app like WikiCamps or Campee to find a camp while you’re on the road. This has worked well in the past for me!

But it’s not all roses and butterflies. Nope, there are a few downsides that I’ve noted along the way too. Things like most of the navigation applications only supply limited or basic maps to start with, so if you need a more specific map you’ll have to purchase it as you go at an extra cost. The only problem is you’ll need reception to download it, which is rarely possible when you’re in the middle of the bush. In saying that, once you’ve got it, you got it, and as long as your tablet has a built-in GPS tracker you won’t need reception at all. If it doesn’t, you can buy an external GPS to get the job done.

different strokes

I found the biggest difference between navigation apps and purpose-designed GPS units is the little features and functions that are missing from the apps. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have even realised the difference unless I used them side-by-side. The apps are also limited to the capabilities of the tablet. So things like volume, screen resolution or backlighting, memory, battery life and durability are all left up to the device itself, not the navigation software.

Mounting a tablet securely will require the purchase of an aftermarket mount, which isn’t cheap if you want a good one. The upside is the tablets’ larger touchscreen is nice and easy to use on the tracks.


For a good chunk of us, going 4WDing is just the beginning of the adventure. That’s where a smaller, more versatile, hand-held GPS comes into its own. These things are designed to be super reliable with detailed topographical maps for hikers, bike riders, kayakers and pretty much anyone who ventures off the beaten track. But a few of their features can benefit the keen 4WDer, too, such as the battery life, which will often outlast larger devices. Plus, being really portable means you can take them anywhere, so you’ll get plenty of use out of them if you’re a bit more adventurous around camp.

The downside is the small screen which is difficult to use when you’re driving, with everything from fiddly touchscreen options to basic vision being affected. Being built for personal adventure, these units are also generally much more robust than basic GPS devices, so you know you’ll get your money’s worth in the long run. Another great point for the outdoorsman is that there’s often a choice of having replaceable batteries instead of a built-in rechargeable one in most other GPS units so if, for some reason, your charger gets buggered, you’ve got another option.


On our little adventure, the Garmin Montana 650t was a great bit of kit. It’s super accurate, and was handy for the early morning hikes, and seems to have a lot of little details the other GPS units simply didn’t show.

Check out the full feature in issue #101 June 2016 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.