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How to Choose a GPS for 4WD Adventuring

November 09, 2017
How to Choose a GPS for 4WD Adventuring

If you’re planning to get out to some truly wild places in your 4WD, there are several reasons why a standard GPS just isn’t going to cut the mustard. So what should you look for in a GPS for off-roading? Outdoria caught up with James Jackson from Hema Maps to get the low-down.

“The biggest difference between an on-road and an off-road GPS is in the mapping content,” says Jackson.

Topographic mapping

“With an on-road GPS, you'll receive turn-by-turn directions but you'll notice that the mapping itself is really just what we call ‘line data’. This means the GPS will tell you what is a road and what isn't a road but not much else. They do include things like buildings and landmarks but a lot of that information isn't actually visually helpful for navigation.”

According to Jackson, a good off-road GPS should have topographic mapping in addition to street mapping. This will show you contour lines, geographical features, 4WD tracks and unsealed roads.

“While an on-road GPS will usually include basic details on some unsealed roads and the like, in terms of 4WD and national park tracks, there's next to nothing in a lot of them.

“The addition of track data, for both off-road tracks and unsealed roads, as well as the actual topographic information that allows you to read the terrain and navigate by seeing what is around you (the same way you would with a paper map), is a big advantage of using an off-road GPS.”

topographic mapping

Points of interest

Another feature Jackson believes an off-road GPS should include is what’s called ‘points of interest’. An on-road GPS might include points of interest such as cafes, businesses and so on, but these probably aren’t going to be a whole lot of use to someone navigating through the bush.

“Whether you're a caravanner, a camper or a 4WDer, you're going to be looking for points that are actually useful to you – things like campsites, caravan parks, dump points and 24hr fuel. This information is vital, not just when you're planning the trip but when you're actually on the road, because it allows you to find things on the fly whenever needed.

“Points of interest also gives users access to information on things like lookouts and attractions – the things people are actually going out there to see in a lot of cases,” says Jackson.

lookout topographic mapping

App vs. dedicated device

Many avid off-roaders will use an app on a smart device instead of a dedicated unit. There is nothing wrong with this approach, however if you’re planning to go down this road there are a few things you should consider.

“When you buy a dedicated unit, you're getting hardware that is made for one purpose. One app will often do one aspect and a different app that will do another aspect. Most dedicated units on the market will combine the two, so you're essentially getting everything integrated in the one unit, designed to work as a cohesive system.

“For example, our Hema Explorer app is essentially the off-road half of our GPS system. It has the topographic maps, all our verified points of interest as well as the ability to do things like record your trip, drop waypoints and take geotagged photos, which means you can record your trip while you're navigating and then share it afterwards,” says Jackson.

The ability to share things as well as download data to your device from other sources are some great advantages for having your GPS on a smart device, but there are also some key things to remember.

“When you're preparing to go into areas where there's no cell coverage you need to ensure you have an app that allows offline mapping. Ensure you have the maps downloaded to your device, so there are no worries when you lose your internet connection,” says Jackson.

Of course, if you’re downloading all your maps to the device, you also need to ensure you have enough storage space on that device. Also consider the battery life of your device, should you want to use it independently of the vehicle.

Stand-alone vs. in-dash units

“I find there are big advantages to integrated in-dash systems, purely because you get everything in the one unit and it’s all connected to the car – Bluetooth, music and the like are all in the one unit.”

“The problem is, a lot of new cars have these units but many of them are blocked to third party input and so they can't be communicated with to install new or diverse map content.”

If you want to get another brand’s maps on your factory unit, there’s very little that can be done. But you can go out and buy aftermarket in-dash units that will allow you to load off-road maps – so you’ll have the maps on your in-dash setting next time you go bush.

“It really just comes down to personal preference. It is quite common that people will prefer a portable navigation device (PND) – something they can put onto the windscreen and take off when needed. They can then share it with friends, use it in multiple cars and take it hiking,” says Jackson.

portable navigation device


No doubt budget will also be a consideration when choosing a GPS. An app will usually set you back anywhere between $40 and $100. And then, of course, you also need to purchase a device with an internal GPS.

You can pick up a stand-alone unit from a respected brand from between $400 and $700. Differences in price will come down to considerations like the device’s ram, touchscreen and features like WiFi, geotagging and display resolution.

Whatever solution is right for you, just make sure you fully understand how to use it and have ironed out any wrinkles before you go romping off into the wilderness. You’re sure to discover some magnificent spots, just make sure you’re able to find your way back!

A special thank you to Hema for answering our questions and supplying images in the creation of this article.

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