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Gear tester is where I write about interesting bits of hiking, camping, expedition and survival gear I have used.


great gear #3: garmin etrex

The Garmin Etrex GPS- the ultra basic, inexpensive, waterproof, bright yellow handheld GPS unit has probably sold more than any other kind. For a very good reason- it’s brilliantly simple and reliable. Magellan’s similar small unit with its one touch GOTO and MARK buttons is better if you have lots of things to record as you walk along, but in this age of mobile phone tip-tapping we’re all pretty good at zipping through menus and options to get what we want.

I’ve used the Etrex on nine months of canoe voyaging in Canada and on countless smaller trips, including a recent 27 day crossing of the Egyptian Great Sand Sea. We were the first to walk this and had to pick up pre-dropped water at a couple of places hundreds of km from the asphalt. If we’d missed the drops we’d have been dead in a day or two assuming no other help was forthcoming. In those situations you want gear you can rely on.

Fancy features count for nothing in the real wilderness. If you’re going where the maps are either plain wrong, or, in our case, non existent in terms of detail, then you don’t need a big screen showing a map. Even if you need sat photos to identify a new route through tricky terrain it’s better to have hard copies than everything on a laptop you can drop. You can transfer the points to your handheld before you set out- making everything simpler and much less likely to go wrong. If there is one single maxim that works time and again in the wilderness it is that complicated gear and systems always break when you most need them. I’d rather have two Etrexs (we did on the desert trip) rather than one big fancy GPS anyday.

The triumph of this small GPS set is the simple fact that it is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, can sit on the dashboard wedged against the glass when driving, is waterproof enough to stand a dunking, can be used on a boat and can be run all day for three days on one set of AA batteries. That last bit is very important- recharging and solar panels are all very well but in the realer world it’s raining and the charging lead is broken or lost. Standard AAs are simple and can be bought anywhere or taken out of other people’s kit. For a twenty day excursion which needs daylong GPS use- say when crossing an area with lots of interesting features you want to note- you will need only sixteen AAs- which weigh very little.

Small is beautiful. The Etrex is under four inches long. It's like a mobile phone. There are 'better' models out there but check their dimensions. A six inch unit won't fit in your pocket without rubbing your leg. If you get what I mean. A GPS unit that you have to hold all the time is unacceptable. If you have to clip it to your belt in a special holder, well, that might work but I prefer the utter simplicity of carrying it in a front shirt pocket on a short lanyard to a button hole so that even if I drop it the thing just swings down and doesn’t hit the dirt. When I take it off I put mine in a small, hard zippered shell case just to give one extra layer of protection.

The tiny Etrex has a very sketchy map that appears on its tiny screen showing the relative position of points you have marked. It’s good enough if you are traveling through, though I concede that if you had uploaded lots of other people’s points and wanted to see where they all fitted together then a big screen and clearer map style might be appreciated. Of course you can easily just transfer points on to graph paper or a paper map. And anyway- why are you getting other people’s points- you should be out marking your own!

The original Etrex, is, of course (!) discontinued though I expect you can find new ‘old’ versions around for quite a while- though the replacement Etrex H looks pretty much as good (battery life is reportedly down from 22 hours to 17 hours on one standard set of AAs - you’d have to test this yourself though) but it’s the same dimensions and weight which is the key thing.

There are lots of times when it is more fun and challenging not to use a GPS, but making your way to a pre-scheduled food or water drop is not one of those times. Then you want a simple, rugged device that leads you to a point- never breaking down and never letting you down. The Etrex is just such a device. 


Leatherman Supertool

The Leatherman legend is well known- Tim Leatherman traveled around Europe in VW combi and wished he had one tool to fix everything. I think this is important- the leatherman, unlike the swiss army knife, was conceived with heavy machinery in mind which is why the pliars are still the best in the business and blow the alloy nonsense offered by gerber out of the window. But only on the Supertool, the Classic and the PST II. All else is pretty much to be disregarded- in fact Leatherman are an example of a company who singlehandedly destroyed their best product through boneheaded ‘innovation’ – ie. trying to make something that was a classic piece of kit into something that resembled a bottle opener made by a dress designer.

The Supertool, then, is THE leatherman. A bit big, no scissors, but a saw- which is very useful- used mine to cut a moose antler in two before now. Then there are the screw drivers- all well thought out and covering every situation- I've tightened glasses arm screws using the smallest spike/screw driver. The only redundancy is the mildly serated second knife blade- and, unlike the PST II, all the blades have the uniquely simple lock that is such a godsend when trying to cut hard wood, or turn a stuck screw while lying under a grubby motor in the rain fixing a severed exhaust pipe- also done using the Supertool.

The fact that Taiwanese and Chinese rip-offs exist probably puts people off- of course the steel is rubbish- but not that rubbish: Aron Ralston who cut off his arm after he got it stuck behind a boulder canyoneering in Arizona, used a ten dollar rip off of a Supertool to do the cutting.

The Supertool is simply the essence of a multitool, a real engineer’s design, a bit harsh, a bit brutal with its square section handle but there is no waste, no excess- and it is over engineered to really work, not break down and cause you to buy more- no Detroit hypocrisy here. It isn’t a pen knife but it can cover for one. It is a bit heavy- but that’s the price you pay for the strength of the thing. It’s real secret is it does EVERYTHING except cut your fingernails, but that’s fairly minor and you can always pack a mini-leatherman for that. There’s no corkscrew of course- but in those situations you can always push the cork in.

I had a Leatherman Wave, for a while, possibly the least offensive of the crappy new line up of new leathermen, but it wasn’t up to the job in the way the Supertool was. I’d rather take a Victorinox Mountaineer, which is no mean piece of kit in its own right – only weakness being the can opener which bent very slightly after continual use for two months.

A few years ago I walked into a Canadian outdoor shop and was shocked to find the Supertool no longer available. This sad state of affairs means you’ll have to get yours on ebay- never mind they are indestructible, and a used one might even be preferable in a way, a bit of love (no one can own a Supertool without loving it) and history accruing to its stark steel shell.

STOP PRESS: after the above experience I discovered the Supertool is back out there as the Supertool 300. Looks just the same if not better - get one and you won't be disappointed.


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