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Kids Love Geocaching. So What's Best: Smartphone or GPS Unit?

Kids dig geocaching, as this Dec. 9 New York Times article explains, and smartphones are emerging as a great tool for getting a whole new wave of kids introduced to outdoor activity. For a change it's nice to see technology getting some credit for playing a role in getting kids active and outdoors. Need some tips to get your kids interested in the activity? Read the REI Expert Advice article Kids and Geocaching.

GeocacheThe article also addresses a question we hear often at REI stores: Is a smartphone all I really need to handle GPS-related tasks? As the article points out, not quite.

Steve Wood, an REI Outdoor School instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area, a navigation specialist and a long-time geocaching enthusiast (check out our profile of Steve in the REI Expert Advice article Geocaching: Expert Q&A), says smartphones are nice for geocaching novices in urban areas, but a dedicated GPS receiver will ultimately serve them better.

Steve Wood"Smartphone GPS units are at a point technologically where hand-helds were 10 years ago," says Steve, who most often works out of the REI Saratoga store. "They're comparatively weak. They don't work well under tree cover, and they generally require cell phone tower assistance to improve the accuracy of their otherwise very weak GPS receivers."

"There are a lot of things that you can't do on a smartphone that you can do on a hand-held GPS, like enter coordinates or simply find a location more accurately," Steve says.

"But a smartphone is an excellent way for kids get introduced to geocaching without having to invest in a dedicated GPS. I see kids around my neighborhood using their phones to look for caches. It really makes me happy to see them out there giving geocaching a try.

"There are free or low-cost geocaching apps for both the iPhone or the Droid, and they work very well. Once a person finds they really enjoy geocaching, they usually want to invest in a stand-alone unit, which gives them reception beyond cell phone coverage, dedicated features and greater accuracy."

For iPhone geocaching apps, Steve suggests visiting Droid users can also use this or seek out a free app known as C:Geo.

Geomate JuniorWhen considering the smartphone-vs.-GPS question, Steve suggests thinking about it in the same way you would when deciding what type of camera to carry on an excursion.

"Your cell phone likely has a camera," he says, "but you would still bring along a dedicated camera if you where interested in taking a lot of quality photos. To do that you require more features, and a dedicated camera will just be easier to use repeatedly. So you must balance convenience with advanced features and an improved user interface. A GPS is no different."

Steve says novice geocachers on a budget could consider GPS units such as the eTrex Venture HC ("It's an entry-level GPS that does everything a geocacher needs it to do") or the Geomate Jr. ("It comes preloaded with every geocache in the United States. It's not a hard-core unit, but it's fine for the occasional geocacher.") Ready to get serious? Steve points to the Magellan eXplorist GC. "It's a full-featured geocaching workhorse," he says.

Posted on at 5:54 PM

Tagged: Geocaching, Geomate Junior, Magellan Xplorist GC, New York times, REI Outdoor School, Steve wood, eTrex Venture and smartphone

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