A Review of the Garmin® eTrex Legend GPS Receiver

Text and photos by Michael Gordon, August 2001. "Garmin" and "etrex" are trademarks of Garmin Corporation


I purchased this Garmin eTrex Legend in August, 2001, motivated primarily by the high quality display and compact size. It is relatively inexpensive and very likely as rugged as its predecessors. It has greatly expanded the map storage space as compared to a Garmin GPS III+, it can hold 8 megabytes (The Vista model can hold 24 megabytes!).

It is unwise to rely solely on GPS for navigation; even though GPS is superior for nearly all navigation needs, it can fail for a variety of reasons. For that purpose, you should use all navigational aids that are available to you. In these top two photographs, I have been conducting map and compass instruction, using GPS to confirm the location.

Intended Purpose: This is a hiker's GPS, intended to be used in your hands or in a clamp so the antenna can see the sky. It is suitable for extreme adventure; hang gliding, kayak and canoe, bicycle, mountaineering. A Garmin Street Pilot, or a Garmin GPS III+, is more effective for automobile use, primarily because of the display size and the moveable helical antenna of these other GPS receivers.

Tracking: Many of the life-saving features of GPS require that the unit be turned on and tracking continuously. This allows you to create a reverse route (Track Back). The "patch" antenna on this unit is compact but finicky, it needs a clear view of the sky. I have discovered a wonderful little soft Velcro GPS case which I purchased at Gart Sports; it fastens to a strap on your body (backpack or whatever) and keeps the GPS on your shoulder. Easy to access your GPS, and keeps it pointing at the sky. The unit will operate for a LONG time on Lithium AA batteries. You can use any kind of AA batteries (it takes two) but Lithium lasts the longest. I don't know how long; I have used my GPS a lot and it is still on its first set of batteries.

A New Method of Operation: The eTrex series screens resemble tiny web pages. The "click stick" is your mouse -- you can push it up, down, left, or right; you can also push IN. Moving it around highlights little icons, pushing it in clicks the icon and opens the menu. If you have been using Garmin GPS before, it can take a little bit of getting used to. You will be delighted with the more efficient method of entering text as compared to its predecessors.

Software: I have used it in conjunction with DeLorme Street Atlas, Garmin MapSource (Roads and Recreations, Topo), and National Geographic TOPO!GPS.

Clickable pictures:

Startup screen; Satellite Status; Location (click photos to enlarge)

When first turned on you see a clever satellites-orbiting-planet-earth animation, followed by this satellite status screen. Initially, you see text at the top which reads "Wait... Tracking Satellites." After 15 seconds or so, it changes to "Ready To Navigate". Synchronization can be much less than 15 seconds depending on how long it has been turned off. It seems to be a bit slower "booting up" than a Garmin GPS III+ but I often use it in canyon country where satellites are obstructed.

That text change is your only clue that it is ready to go; and it is an easy thing to miss. It does not change to map screen automatically on satellite fix (perhaps there's a menu function that I haven't found yet to achieve that desireable outcome).

Excellent detail on this and all screens. Contrast is excellent and it is razor sharp.

Beware the unusual location and small size of the latitude/longitude. On the Vista model, not even the elevation is displayed adjacent to lat/long. Wish list: lat/long and elevation and datum (3-d coordinate; "where"), date and time ("when") suitable for photographing. It ought to be BIG on its own screen.

Navigation Screen

This is the most useful screen on the Legend and the best Course Deviation Indicator and Compass I've seen on a GPS. This big compass with aircraft-style off-track indicator is simply marvelous. The eTrex series offers distances to the next waypoint (top right) as well as distance to the end of the route (bottom right). At top left is an estimate of time remaining to the next waypoint.

The broken arrow represents off-track or cross-track error. This is useful when you are flying or boating and must remain "on track" between waypoints. When you are hiking, it may not be an option to remain on track because of obstacles.

Why is track important? You may have charted a track to avoid shoals or other obstacles. Any GPS can point to your destination, but not all GPS can keep you on track along the way. Many have off-track capability, but they vary in how this information is represented. I like this representation best.


The Legend can hold 8 megabytes of map, 5 times more than a GPS III+ (1.44 megabytes). Wow!

Street names are clear and easy to read; closely spaced streets are distinctly rendered. Shaded areas (parks, rivers) are easily distinguished.

Warning: The GPS is tiny and so is the map. You can choose different font sizes, however, if your eyes cannot easily see this size. The size portrayed here is "medium", with choices including small and large.

The two data cells at the bottom are configurable; you can choose from a wide (but not complete) list of data elements, or you can turn them off to maximize the screen available to the map. I found the choices to be a bit sparse; I would like to be able to add any data to the screen, and any number of cells, so that I can work a route and see the map. But, if your main application is highway navigation, the eTrex is not the optimum choice.

The map is only displayed in portrait mode as shown. Detail levels are adjustable according to how much clutter you like on the screen. This is the default detail level, with a Roads and Recreation MapSource® CD loaded for street-level detail.


Here it is with Garmin's MapSource Topo map loaded. If you place the pointer on a contour line, it will tell you the elevation of that contour. Topo MapSource comes on a 3-CD set of Eastern United States, Western United States, Alaska and Hawaii. The mildly annoying background shading represents National Forest. You can see elevation contour lines, Highway 89, Logan River (the dot is Zanavoo Restaurant and hotel in the mountains), the boxed line containing "008" and "009" was a precomputed and uploaded route, the trail of tiny circles is the actual track recorded by the GPS; notice how the trail is following a contour, more or less. It was also very close to the correct measurement -- USGS-based topo map says it should be 5,085 feet, GPS says 5,056. You aren't going to get much better than that!

What's it good for? Besides just the fun of it, let's say you are snowmobiling and you've been buzzing along not paying a lot of attention. Now you wonder where you are. Your GPS will have been keeping a track log, so long as it was enabled of course, and you can either follow the track backwards or, more effectively, create a "track back" route to take advantage of the Navigator screen (above).

Snowmobile: Having a topographic map right in the GPS can help you decide whether to attempt a short cut back to your starting point. Don't bet your life on it, but it is certainly helpful. And, if your life is indeed at stake, having topographic data is certainly better than not having topographic data.

Aviation: Topographic data has some utility for ultralight aircraft that must follow canyons and avoid mountains; should the weather suddenly become foggy, the GPS with topographic data is your lifesaver.

Hiking: You are on your planned hike; and you find a new trail off to the side. Does it go somewhere? A check of the topo map can give you a clue where it might go (mountain peak via canyon, in an actual instance of this happening a couple of days ago).

Visual Confirmation of GPS functionality. You can see the contours of mountains and valleys -- so, just look around! Does it correspond? If so, you have a visual confirmation of the correct functioning of your GPS.

Elevations and contours are stored in metric; 50 meter intervals. When set to "feet" the elevations come out with odd numbers -- 5249 Ft in this example, and 164 foot intervals. With a 164 foot interval, you will not see many contour lines in flatter parts of the world (perhaps none at all in Florida!), but its wonderful in the western United States.

You can use the PC host program to choose map units to load (typical map size for mountain areas: 380 kilobytes per map unit). You can also utilize the same program to produce waypoints and routes with pretty good convenience, and upload those waypoints and routes to the GPS. You can also reverse the process and pull waypoints OFF the GPS. Presumably you can also do track logs so you can see on the map where you have been, but I have not tried it yet.

Beware the city streets found on these maps; probably based on USGS topo maps, they do NOT have current street information. They are pretty good in rural areas, but fast growing cities have major gaps in coverage. The Salt Lake City, Utah map segment for instance does not show a completed Interstate 215, but that was completed at least 10 years ago. BUT, this is not a problem, nobody buys a topographic map to navigate a CITY. You use Roads and Recreation for that purpose.

The shaded grey area in the map represents a political division, in this case a National Forest. It is nice on the computer screen of the host PC, but it is surely a nuisance on the GPS most of the time, since most of the time I am going to be right in the middle of shaded grey areas.

You cannot utilize Topo MapSource and Roads and Recreation simultaneously; or at least, I have not figured out a way. Roads and Recreation MapSource is supremely detailed for city use, Topo is the winner for off-road use. It would be nice to overlay a Topo segment on top of a Roads and Recreation segment on top of the Base Map.

You can change from Topo to Roads and Recreation without losing your routes and waypoints.

How does it compare with other GPS receivers?

I would sure like to see a universal GPS, but we don't have it yet. I have three GPS receivers:

The Garmin GPS III+ is more sensitive to the satellite signal. In this photograph above, we were in a canyon, Right Hand Fork of Logan canyon in northeastern Utah. The GPS III+ has obtained a fix, the eTrex Legend is still trying to lock onto the satellites. The eTrex is pretty good; it did eventually get a fix, but I estimate its sensitivity to be about 80 percent of the GPS III+. The GPS III+ can also be fitted with amplified antennas for even greater signal gain in more difficult circumstances (underneath a rain forest, for instance).

When plotted on mapping software, we found the position to be off by about a hundred yards, doubtless caused by the reflections of the satellite signal on the canyon walls. The reflections cause the signal to take a slightly longer path, which causes the GPS to think it is somewhere other than where it really is. This is why, especially in canyon country, you do not rely solely on GPS signals -- and why the Vista model comes with a built-in magnetic compass and barometric altimeter.

Wish it had...

Latitude, longitude, datum, elevation, date and time; in text, in big letters, that fills the screen and is suitable for being photographed as a "fix" in time and space.

Solar power! We have solar power calculators and flashlights; why not let the back panel be a photovoltiac; and when not in use, just turn it over and let the sun charge it up! In the meantime, you can purchase (at Gart Sports and doubtless elsewhere) nifty little solar boxes that will charge your AA batteries. Charge one set while the other is powering your GPS. It ought to be fairly simple to make a small, 3-volt photovoltiac panel that clips to the GPS' power input terminals. This could really save your bacon in parts of the world where AA batteries are not so easily obtained.