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Technology

Let a GPS Be Your Trail Guide

Touch screens make them easier to use, and a no-frills model costs just $150.

High-tech gadgets on an outdoor trek? Traditionalists may sneer, but a good GPS receiver can be a lifesaver when youÕve taken a wrong turn.

But you'd better learn how to use it before you've lost your way. GPS receivers you can take along on hikes aren't as easy to master as their car-bound brethren. So crack the manual to learn how to set way points, customize maps and so on. And remember to bring along an extra set of AA batteries (or a solar recharger-see the box at right). A dead GPS unit isn't even good for swatting mosquitoes.

iPhone-like GPS. Apple's wildly popular iPhone made the touch screen trendy, and now Garmin's Oregon series has introduced that handy feature to the rugged world of GPS receivers for the outdoors. The Oregon 400T ($500) has a clever touch screen and no external controls other than an on/off button. It gives you access to color maps (some with a three-dimensional view), includes a MicroSD card slot for adding more maps and for saving location data, and has an easy-to-read electronic compass and a barometric altimeter. A newer model, the Oregon 550t ($600), adds a built-in camera.

I tested the Oregon 400t and found a couple of glitches. The display was sometimes difficult to read in direct sunlight. And though Garmin claims that the receiver is waterproof, Òwater resistantÓ would be more accurate. If you forget to close the clumsy weather cap (which hides the USB port) and accidentally drop your Oregon in a babbling brook, you may be left in the wilderness with an expensive rock on your hands. So be careful, pilgrim.

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Camera and flashlight included. The Magellan Triton 2000 ($500) isn't as easy to use as the Oregon 400t, but it has more features, including a flashlight and a 2-megapixel digital camera that shoots both still photos and videos. It plays MP3 and audio-book files, too, but youÕll probably want to save your batteries for trekking. In my tests, the Triton 2000 drained a pair of AAs in just a few hours.

Reviewers have griped about the complexity of Magellan's GPS receivers, but the Triton 2000 is a big step toward simplicity. With its color touch screen and well-organized array of external buttons, the Triton is fairly intuitive to use. It has a rugged, sturdy feel, and it's sealed tightly to block water damage.

GPS for less. You don't have to pay $500 for an outdoor GPS. The Garmin eTrex Legend H costs just $150 and handles basic navigation well. It doesnÕt have a color display, touch screen, digital camera or flashlight, but it does give you a fairly detailed map.

The monochrome screen is surprisingly easy to read in direct sunlight. (It's less readable indoors, although an optional backlight helps.) As with pricier receivers, the Legend H lets you add maps. Unfortunately, however, it lacks a memory-card slot, so you'll have to transfer data via its USB port.

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Recharge in the Wild

If you're going to tote electronics in the wilderness, you may want to pack a Solio Hybrid 1000, a solar charger ($80). A fully powered Solio can recharge a dead cell phone once, or give an MP3 player ten hours of play time. It comes with connectors for charging many popular phones, including BlackBerry, Motorola and Nokia models, as well as iPod and iRiver music players. You can also recharge an outdoor GPS using a $10 adapter.

The Solio is easy to use, although it's a slow process. It takes ten to 12 hours to fully charge the device via sunlight (or five to six hours via computer using a USB cable). That makes the Solio best for giving gadgets a quick jolt of emergency power. The unit is lightweight enough (4.6 ounces) to carry in your backpack.