Highway Dreams

Travelling Australia

Choosing a GPS unit

What is GPS and what can it do for you?

Over 200 years ago when Captain James Cook sailed for Australia, a clock accurate enough to calculate his position from the stars cost the equivalent of one-third of a ship. Today we have the luxury of affordable and accurate Global Positioning that we can put in our pocket or stick on our windscreen.

GPS (Which stands for Global Positioning System) is a constellation of satellites orbiting the earth sending down an accurate time signal which can be used by a GPS receiver to calculate its position to within a few metres. All this is maintained and provided free courtesy of the US Military, so there are no subscription fees and coverage is worldwide. GPS signal is affected by obstructions to the view of the sky such as trees, building and canyons. As it is a satellite based system, unlike a mobile phone signal the further you get away from civilization the better reception you get. With recent advancements in modern high-sensitivity GPS receivers, it is now very rare to lose satellite signal unless you are in a tunnel, cave or underground car park.

There is a wide range of GPS units on the market at the moment with prices ranging from a little over $100 up to $1000 (you can spend tens of thousands of dollars if you really need to know where you are within centimetres). While most in-car units come with everything you need, you will need to add maps to most of the handheld units, although there are often package deals available for maps and accessories when you purchase a unit. There is a variety of maps that you can load on to GPS units including Topographical, Road, Marine, Satellite imagery and your own custom map images. Not all units will support all these map types so be sure to mention what kind of mapping you want when buying a GPS. There are a large number of different GPS models on the market as well as a selection of brands. Some of the brands cover the whole market, while other brands may specialise in one field, such as in-car or off-road. The key to choosing a GPS is to understand what you are planning on using it for. While there are GPS units out there that attempt to be a jack of all trades, you will often find these are more expensive than two specialized units and less well featured.

On Road

Once a GPS receiver knows your position, there are many things it can do with it. The most common use is to display your position on a map and give you directions to your destination. In-car navigation has dropped sharply in price over the last few years. Ten years ago a basic in-car navigation system would have cost around $2000, where now you can get entry-level units for less than $200 with far more features.

Current in-car navigation units are not just for around town – many units allow you to plan out extended trips with stops as well as finding things like fuel, restaurants and caravan parks while you are travelling. You can even load on free camping spots as well as public toilets in case you get caught out on the road. The Hema HN6 has rest areas and the complete listing from Camps Australia Wide and a complete caravan park listing- perfect for travellers There is a vast array of different features available in at the moment, as well as screen sizes. If you are just after basic navigation even the simplest of in-car navigation units will do the job. Almost all current models include voice guidance which reads out the street name. One thing to be aware of when getting a cheaper unit is the cost of updates. Updates vary between brands as far as cost and frequency. If you are going to be travelling a lot it would be worth looking at a brand such as Hema, that currently have regular updates. Be on the lookout for ongoing or lifetime update packages which can save you hundreds of dollars on updates. The more expensive units add in extra features such as Bluetooth hands-free calling, traffic avoidance (Currently only available around major capital cities so only useful to find the best way out-of-town at the start of a weekend!), advanced lane guidance (it helps to know the right lane to be in when towing a caravan) and route planning. Be mindful of if you will use a particular feature – it’s easy to pay for all these extra features that you may never use.

Off Road

For those that like to get seriously off the road there are units that come pre-loaded with off-road maps of most of the popular 4WD areas as well as Australia wide topographical maps. There are many additional maps you can add to these units, such as high detail individual state topographical maps or even your own custom maps. What maps you load are only limited by your imagination – whether you want historical maps showing what the land was like 100 years ago or geological maps if you fancy a bit of gold prospecting. All you need is a digital image of the map that you want and you can load it up. You can also run these maps on a laptop or car computer with a simple USB GPS if you like the idea of having a bigger screen to display the maps.

Again- the Hema HN6 below is a great all-in-one solution with the accuracy and reliability of a trusted Australian mapping company!


For those why like to hike, bike or kayak around the place, there are a number of battery operated waterproof rugged handheld GPS receivers for this purpose. These allow you to record where you have been, mark interesting things along the way as well as find your way back to them. They are also vital for finding your way back home! The more advanced units will show you what kind of terrain to expect, allow you to view satellite images of your destination or even take geo-tagged photos so you can pinpoint the photos on a map when you get home.


While GPS devices are purely receivers there are specialised products on the market made by SPOT that can transmit your location using a separate set of satellites. This works anywhere in Australia (and other places around the world!) so it is a great tool for travellers outside of phone coverage. The SPOT satellite tracker can send a check in message to a pre-defined set of contacts, track your position on a website or ask your friends for help. If even has an option to alert the emergency services of your current position if you find yourself in serious trouble, so it can be a viable cost effective alternative to an EPRIB or PLB.


You don’t have to just use GPS to get where you are going, you can also use it to treasure hunt along the way. Geocaching is a worldwide adventure game that is constantly growing. The simplest form of Geocaching involves finding a hidden box with toys in it (make sure you bring something to swap!). You will be surprised how many of these are hidden around the place and they are often in spots that have interesting features and attractions you would have otherwise missed. There are all sorts of exciting forms of Geocaching including puzzle, mystery and multiple caches all with their own unique challenges – sometimes you will need to run all over the place finding hints using landmarks and other features. It is a great way to entertain the kids as well as getting them some exercise. Most handheld and some in-car units can be used for Geocaching. If you are a serious Geocacher, look for handhelds that allow you to download the complete Geocache (known as paperless Geocaching) so you can take all the hints, clues and instructions with you.

check out www.geocaching.com.au

Without sounding bias, we have used many different GPS systems over the years and they are not all the same. Performance and accuracy vary greatly between units as does the user-friendly interface (or not-so user-friendly in some cases). Take a look at our Hema HN6 unit we have taken with us on our travels. In our opinion you wont find a better unit for in-car navigation (on or off-road) A guide to choosing which GPS is right for you.

A great website to compare GPS models is http://www.ja-gps.com.au/

And checkout www.hema.com.au for more info on the HN7 Navigators and digital maps & software

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