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Spending as much time as I do in the great outdoors to capture the magnificent beauty through the lens(es) of my camera, I’ve carried, for the last six years, a Garmin GPS 76CS in my F-Stop TilopaBC, to record my treks.  The GPS 76CS has served me well in all kinds of weather, from rain to sun to blizzard conditions, but the time had finally come to step up the technology and capabilities.

Like most everything I do for photography, I researched the various options available on the market as well as asking a few people I know who use other gear for their thoughts & opinions.  Upon reaching a conclusion, I sought out the best deal I could find for the Garmin tactix™ watch.  When I purchased the watch, I also purchased the Garmin tempe™ temperature sensor.

My first opportunity to truly use the watch was on my trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park.  Unfortunately, I did not have a gear review on my mind just yet.  I wanted to use it a couple of times before I offered up my review (and opinion) on the gear.

On Saturday, 22 February, I met up with my photography buddy Shaun at 6am, so we could head up to Rocky Mountain National Park, for a research trek up to Lake Haiyaha.  We originally had planned to meet up at 1am on Saturday morning, so that we could be on the trail by 3am, to be on-location by 5:30am at the latest, to capture the magnificent blue ice that Lake Haiyaha is known to form.  Unfortunately, the weather forecast did not improve through the week and so the I offered up the option to do a research trek just to get out and see what the conditions were like at Lake Haiyaha.

Once we finally arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot, we geared up (and yes, we did bring our cameras with just the lens attached to the camera, in the off-chance we saw something that we needed to capture! lol).  Just prior to finishing up the gear-up process, I started the GPS on the Garmin tactix™ to ensure the satellite connectivity was established.

While packing my Camelback backpack the night prior to the trek, I made sure to put the sensor in my pack, so that I had a more accurate ambient temperature sensor.  I had also put on my Garmin Heart Rate Monitor from my Edge 800 cycle computer that I use with my BMC TrailFox02 Mountain Bike, so this trek would allow me the opportunity to capture a lot of data, not just for this gear review, but also for a personal health issue I have been battling for a while.

For the last year, I have had some lung capacity issues that have made my hiking & snowshoeing a bit slower than normal, but I still meet my goals and get to where I need to accordingly.  I had started using a med to hopefully resolve the lung capacity issue earlier this week, so I wanted to be sure I got as much data as I could in case this issue is not resolved and I end up having to see a pulmonary specialist.  That said, when you look at the graphs from my data on Saturday, understand that there were a number of stops not only to catch my breath, but also to just take in the magnificent beauty from the snow that has been falling en masse all week up in Rocky Mountain National Park!

Onwards to the review:

Upon receipt of the tactix™, I took the time to proceed through the setup to ensure I had the temperature sensor and heart rate monitors connecting properly.  Next up, I made my way through all of the screens to make sure that I was capturing data as often as I desired.  The watch has a battery lifetime of ~16hrs when capturing in “normal” GPS mode (the mode I will use for most of my treks).  If you have a need for a longer battery life, you can switch it to Ultra-Sync GPS mode which records data less frequently, starting with a default of 1x / minute and is adjustable.  I plan to test this during the summer months on a photo trek in the San Juan range.

The Garmin tempe™ temperture sensor is connected via Bluetooth to the Garmin.  You can set the readout units to be either Fahrenheit or Celsius.  Having the tempe™ sensor in a backpack pocket is nice because most sensors built into a watch will not be very accurate due to body heat.  This external sensor has proven to be very accurate, based on comparisons of temperature data recorded by the sensor and data recorded by various weather agencies.

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Temperature data and barometric pressure readings can provide you with some great insight to oncoming weather, allowing you to make safety decisions more accurately!  Perhaps I am a little over-sensitive to knowing everything I possibly can, but I do believe that chance favors the prepared mind!

As mentioned previously, barometric pressure is yet another of the tools in the Garmin tactix™ arsenal.  There are two modes that can be set for barometric pressure: Always On or On Demand.  On Demand (default mode) will provide real-time data about the current barometric pressure, where as Always On allows for constant reading of barometric pressure, showing the current in large numbers with a range of the previous readings in small numbers along bottom of page.  As one would imagine, being in Always On mode will most likely use the battery more, so I will test that feature out and write a follow-on article on the various features that have multiple modes, later this year, as I have more data to provide a detailed assessment!

Working in conjunction with the barometer,  the next function to discuss is the altimeter.  The altimeter can be set to display in feet (ft) or in meters (me).  One of the things that I found with the GPS76CS was that its’ accuracy with elevation was “ok,” but nowhere near as accurate as I would have liked!  The altitude readings seem to be pretty accurate, but I’ll reserve judgement until later this year when I have more data on battery life, actual use and such.

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Next function of the Garmin tactix™ is the 3-axis compass.  You can set the compass North Reference to either True North, Magnetic North or Grid North (000°).  Since this is a wrist-worn device, I employed a technique similar to what I did when performing underwater surveys with a compass when I was a dive-master in Hawaii.  This technique is to extend my right arm straight out in front of me and create a figure 4 with my left arm, creating a more stable platform for using the compass.  As I turned, the compass reads out the direction (for example, SE) along with a numeric value for the compass reading, such as SE 148.  It is important to hold the compass as level as you can, so that the readings are not skewed or in correctly presented!

The Garmin tactix™ will record a large amount of data.  Among those items is data from ANT+ sensors, such as the heart rate monitor that I had previously for use with my Edge800.  This sensor allows me to page to the Heart Rate screen and have an instantaneous reading of where my heart rate is, in beats per minute (bpm), along with the profile zone that is configurable (you can set the upper and lower bounds for all six zones, based on your fitness level.  Given my current lung capacity issues, I adjusted my zones down quite a bit until I am sure that things have returned to more typical values.

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As you trek along, the GPS watch is recording your movement, based on selections you make in the Track setup (you can select Auto where the watch will automatically adjust, as appropriate based on your movements or you can set a specific interval to record tracks if you are so inclined).  You can also select Auto Start On/Off, Auto Save On/Off and Auto Pause On/Off (this is a handy feature that will auto-pause when your movements become stationary.  As a photographer, I stop randomly for images.  Additionally, since I am dealing with lung capacity issues and stop a little more frequently right now to catch my breath, the Auto Pause feature will ensure I am not randomly adding data which is a known frustration point with the Suunto Ambit devices).  The GPS data will show you the speed you are traveling which is nice to know and can be useful if you know you are maintaining a desired pace to get to a location or back to your vehicle.

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The trek on Saturday was really spectacular for snowshoeing, but not so stellar for photography.  Constant snowfall and winds variable in direction made it hard to not have moisture on the lens or filters.  Fortunately, post-processing tools allowed me to clean up the images fairly well.  The images I did capture were not gallery quality images, but worth sharing with family & friends!

Past Perspective!

There are a slew of features that I’ve not yet had a chance to test, so I’ll hold off on discussing those for now.  The last bit of information to discuss is Garmin BaseCamp™.  BaseCamp™ is used both for pre-trip preparation (setting Waypoints, tracks or routes and sending to the tactix™ or for receiving the data after use).  The amount of data is absolutely amazing and if your a techno-junkie, well, let’s just say, you can have a lot of fun review, analyzing and assessing the data.

The one area that BaseCamp™ lack is a decent base-map.  Would be nice if Garmin would put a half-decent topographic map in as default.  But, where BaseCamp™ lacks a base-map, it does offer you the ability to overlay your tracks in Google Earth (a feature I happened on by accident during my Great Sand Dunes National Park trip at the beginning of the month).  The image below shows the tracks from my trip on Saturday, 22 Feb 2014 overlaid on Google Earth.

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My overall impression of the Garmin tactix™ Tactical GPS Navigator + ABC Watch after the first few uses is that it is a formidable tool capable of performing at or above the expectations of most anyone!

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