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Back in 1975, when Maxine Nightingale was singing “We got to get right back to where we started from,” little did she know that the song would make a perfect commercial for a gadget that wouldn’t be invented for another 35 years or so. In fact, the technology that allows this neat little gadget to work didn’t even exist at the time.
I’m talking about Bushnell’s Back-Track, a personal GPS location finder that’s so easy to use, even a caveman could do it. It is ideal for finding your car in a big parking lot, finding your campsite in the middle of the woods, getting back to your seat at the ballpark, and so on. You can actually get back to any location you like, as long as you mark it before you leave. You can mark up to three locations.
The Global Positioning System, or GPS, is a satellite navigation system that can tell you where you are anywhere on Earth, at any time, and in any weather conditions, as long as you have an unobstructed view of the sky. The only catch is that you need a GPS receiver.
The GPS system consists of a series of satellites in orbit above Earth. With great accuracy, each satellite knows the time of day, its position in orbit, and the positions of all the other GPS satellites, and each satellite continually broadcasts a signal containing this information. By calculating its distance from at least four satellites, and knowing the location of each satellite, a GPS receiver can then determine its exact position on Earth, including elevation, direction, and speed.
Some GPS receivers can show you where you are on a map, and indicate your direction and speed if you’re moving. But Back-Track aims to be as simple to use as possible, so it doesn’t tell you where you are; it simply points an arrow in the direction you have to travel and tells you how far you have to go. Back-Track’s high-sensitivity SiRFstarIII GPS receiver chip can lock onto signals in crowded cities and thick forests, but not easily inside buildings or vehicles.
The GPS device uses two AAA batteries, which you have to supply yourself. I find it odd that Bushnell doesn’t throw in a pair, but at least they’re not expensive. A battery-level indicator lets you know when to change them.
Back-Track has only two buttons, a Mode/Power button and a Mark button, and a simple display that looks like a compass. Power is turned on by holding down the Mode/Power button for two seconds. A small Satellite icon flashes until the device receives valid GPS coordinates. This can take several minutes, especially the first time it’s powered up, and it may not work at all if you are indoors or in an area where GPS reception is blocked. The device is ready to use once the Satellite icon stops flashing.
Back-Track powers up in the Compass mode, in which an arrow points north and the compass displays the degrees past north to which it’s pointed. The GPS receiver can keep track of up to three locations, represented by Home, Car, and Star icons. Repeatedly pressing the Mode/Power button cycles the unit through the Home, Car, and Star displays, and then back to the Compass mode. A backlight turns on when you press both buttons simultaneously.
Each of the Home, Car, and Star icons can represent any location you want to mark. On a camping trip, for example, Home could represent your tent’s location, Car could be where you leave your car for the day, and Star could be anything else, such as a neat waterfall located deep in the woods somewhere.
Once you’re in a location you want to mark, you have to press the Mode/Power button until the display shows the icon you want to mark, either Home, Car, or Star. You then hold down the Mark button until the distance display resets to zero. Once you’ve stored a location, be sure you don’t inadvertently overwrite it with a new one. To get back to a marked location you just have to press the Mode/Power button until the display shows the location icon you want, along with the direction and distance to that location.
Back-Track can be set to display either English or Metric units. When set to English units, the distance will be displayed in yards, up to a maximum of 999 yards, at which point it changes to miles. When set to Metric units, the distance will be displayed in meters, up to a maximum of 999 meters, at which point it changes to kilometers.
I tested the unit in a Home Depot parking lot. It led me right to my car, even though I knew where it was. I also took it on a car ride to my in-laws’ house, which I now know is 16.3 miles from my house as the crow flies.
I’m going camping with my kids at the end of June, at which time I hope to give Back-Track more of a workout. We’re going to North Lake campgrounds in upstate New York. I usually head off into the woods away from our campsite, just to look for firewood and see what else is around. Usually when I head back, I end up in the wrong campsite. I’m only 50 or 100 feet off course, but if you amplify that over several miles in a forest with no marked trails, you might never find your way back.
Back-Track would have come in handy years ago when a friend and I went walking in Heckscher State Park. We explored a lake we saw a few hundred feet off a path, and then headed back to where we thought we came from. We soon realized we were lost, and it was starting to get dark and cold. We walked through the woods for hours before coming out in some guy’s backyard. The guy said that people often ended up there after getting lost in the park. He was nice enough to give us a ride back to our car, which was at least five miles away. We would have ended even farther away had we not stumbled across that house. But we could have avoided all the trouble if we could have used GPS to find our way.
Back-Track is weather resistant and comes with a lanyard so you can wear it around your neck. It’s about three inches in diameter, but fits easily in a pocket or purse. It costs $44.99.