Should I buy a GPS system for my road trip?

Your Gearness, I planning to drive cross-country this summer, hiking and camping wherever the road takes me. For the driving portion, I was thinking of investing in a GPS system to help with the "figuring-out-where-the-heck-I-am" moments. Do you have any advice as to the value of GPS for this? (I will not need it for hiking, using the old-fashioned technique of map, compass, and trail blazes) Realistically, I'd like to stay under $300, but will go higher for an exceptional device—one that does the navigating, driving, AND laundry. Charles New York City, New York

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Two options here. You could indeed purchase a GPS unit for route finding in the car. Magellan’s new Meridian Gold GPS ($300, with a $50 rebate available) would be just the ticket. Sixteen megabytes of memory let it store all U.S. interstates and local roads. Garmin’s StreetPilot ($370, but I bet you can find one for less) offers similar features in a package that’s a little more car-oriented than the Meridian. The StreetPilot also has basic interstate and local road features, and can be augmented with Garmin’s MapSource or MetroGuide software for states and cities. For $800, the StreetPilot III adds a color screen, a more detailed database, and the ability to key in a destination and have the GPS plot your route. It’ll also estimate your travel time, gauge the distance, and all sorts of other good tricks.

Or, there is this: the Rand McNally Road Atlas Deluxe 2003. During the summer of 2001, while I was on the road researching a book, I packed an earlier version of this atlas and found it indispensable. The pages are big, so detail is admirable—comparable to or better than the basic software setup in a GPS. It was easy to gauge distances and choose routes. Included is lots of helpful information on destinations, services, and side trips. And, the pages are beautiful to look at. There’s just something about a big, tactile map, with all the possibilities it suggests, that a GPS can’t duplicate. OK, I know that’s an old-fashioned approach, but I think you’ll get better use and more enjoyment from a good paper-based road atlas than from a GPS worth $300.

Check out Mark Jenkins’ ruminations on the lost art of route finding from Outside’s September 2002 issue: I Know Where I’m Going.

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