I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to outdoor GPS units and over the past 7 years I’ve owned nearly a dozen different models. I recently got a chance to use the Earthmate PN-40 from DeLorme and I have to say it’s one of my top 2 choices for camping and hiking.

The PN-40 is a color-screen, palm-sized GPS that uses 2-AA batteries. At first I was hoping for the unit to use a rechargeable battery but it turns out serious trekkers prefer the portability of replaceable batteries (no where to charge up on the trail!). The PN-40 has a rugged, rubberized case and it’s waterproof to IPX 7 standard meaning you can dunk it under 1 meter of water for 30 minutes and it will still work. The screen is readable in all but the brightest sunlight though some map images were harder to read than others (more on that later). The buttons on the PN-40 give you quick access to the most commonly used functions like marking waypoints and searching for points of interest but can be difficult to press with gloved hands.

Since the PN-40 was designed for hikers and bikers it comes with an incredible set of topographic maps via the DeLorme Topo USA software. I’ve been a fan of Topo USA for a while now – well before I tried the PN-40 – because it includes some of the clearest, most detailed outdoor maps available. You can transfer detailed topographic maps to the PN-40 to take on the trail, though unfortunately the process can be a bit tiresome using the slow serial-USB connection. The PN-40 comes with plenty of memory to fit detailed map coverage and you can add up to 32GB of additional memory though the SDHC slot.

Once you’ve loaded detailed maps on your PN-40 you can start using it as soon as you walk out your door thanks to its ability to provide driving directions. It won’t talk to you like your Nuvi or Tom Tom but it will help you navigate to an unfamiliar trailhead. Once you’re at the trailhead you can queue up a downloaded GPS track of the trail (Topo USA and the PN-40 support GPX formatted files) and follow it just as you would a road. The PN-40 even chirps like a bird when it’s time to turn – pretty outdoorsy if you ask me.

The PN-40 also has the (fairly) unique ability to view satellite and aerial imagery on the GPS itself. You’ll need to download the imagery before you head out and the imagery isn’t free (about $30 a year last I checked) but once you’ve loaded the images it’s like having Google Earth in the palm of your hand! Some satellite images were hard to read in direct sunlight and the images aren’t nearly as clear or detailed as some online services like Google Maps. Satellite images can certainly come in handy but at times I at times felt like it ruined some of the suspense and adventure of hiking. Instead of being surprised to find that the top of the mountain is bald, now I can see it before I’m out of the trees…

Of course the PN-40 also includes all the functions you’ve come to expect from an outdoor GPS – time, distance, speed, etc. but it also includes some helpful functions like a digital compass, barometric altimeter, and fishing and hunting functions. If you’re looking for a good all-around GPS to use in the great outdoors and you’re tired of paying for extras like detailed maps (ahem, Garmin) the DeLorme Earthmate PN-40 is a good choice that won’t break the bank. Just don’t forget to bring extra batteries 😉

# Comments

  • Charles Nelson

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m equally obsessed with outdoor GPS units and I must say that I find it interesting that there are so many glowing reviews about this flawless GPS. I am always skeptical of anything that sounds too good! I read many of the reviews online, and after evaluating the specifications and features, opted to buy the Delorme PN-40. Prior to this purchase, I owned a Garmin 60CSX GPS. I believed that the Delorme was poised to be a significant improvement in both the tracking ability and the display of aerial overlays.

  • Steve Crowley

    Delorme needs to stick with what they do best (maps), fire their software designers and partner with someone who can make a more functional GPS!

    After considerable research, I purchased my first GPS, a PN-20, primarily because of Delorme’s reputation for great maps. The PN-20’s graphics were terribly slow, so I returned it and made the mistake of buying the newly-released PN-40. One would think that the second generation would have incorporated many more improvements, but the only difference I found was better graphics speed.

    Some of the main problems/complaints I have about the PN-40 are:
    – It’s slow to acquire satellites.
    – It’s not reliable. You can’t rely on it to self-start – you must turn it on, wait for it to acquire satellites, and make sure the tracking is working before you start to walk. Even in open areas, it may not acquire satellites if you start moving first. PLUS, after a period of time it just quits trying to acquire satellites and displays a “should I continue trying” message (duh – the answer is “yes” if I have it on!) If you don’t tell it to continue, it stays on, doing nothing but wasting batteries.
    – Once it is on and working it sometimes will lock up – and you’ll never know it until you stop to check it. Also, there have been several occasions where it just quit working until I could get it home to install new software.
    – The map on the screen can give great detail, but it’s awkward to use to view a larger area. Zooming out decreases detail in dramatic steps, panning at higher zoom/detail is slow, and zooming out, panning and then zooming in on where you want to see detail is hit-or-miss (and also slow).
    – It eats up batteries! One simple solution would be to have the screen turn off after an adjustable time period, and add a button to quickly toggle to screen on and off.
    – It’s too heavy and bulky. To mount it on a shoulder strap, the type of case needed to hold it securely would make it less accessible. I’ve tried various things to mount it for easy access, but haven’t come up with anything that works well.
    – It’s not practical for highway use. The graphics have a hard time keeping up and sometimes get stuck. On longer trips, the tracks file gets too large the unit locks up.

    Several months ago I was in the backcountry with my brother, who had a Blackberry. The blackberry was faster and the practical use of its map (zooming, panning, etc.) was MUCH better. (Not to mention the blackberry costs less, is lighter and can do other things.) A side-by-side comparison didn’t last long – my PN-40 locked up and wouldn’t restart until I got it home updated its software.

    The software interface for the computer, Topozone, is one of the most non-intuitive programs I’ve ever had the displeasure of using. I’ve had almost two years to become familiar with Topozone, but still find it very difficult and awkward to use. It WILL do almost everything I need and want it to, but each time I have to re-learn exactly what/where to click to get what I want.

    Now Delorme has the PN-60 (with some great advertised features) and an updated version of Topozone. However, I don’t think it’s possible for a company that made a product with such a lack of “fundamental” functionality and performance to make a decent product, regardless of its features. While I don’t expect perfection in the first generation or two, I DO expect something with better basic design and is easier to learn and use.

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