Garmin Dakota 20 GPS

I managed to road test the Garmin Dakota 20 GPS recently. The Dakota range of hand held satnav units are described by Garmin as “entry level”, although they have far more features than the old yellow Etrex, once the standard basic GPS. Very small and lightweight, with a touch screen display and an ability to take maps via Micro SD card, it seems a good choice for someone who wants more features than a very basic unit, without the size or weight of the larger units. The unit is aimed at the hiking and geocaching market, and seems well suited to both. Unlike the Oregon models there are no charger and batteries supplied, but with the money you save buying this, you can easily invest in a good charger and decent rechargeable batteries.

Garmin Dakota 20 (right) next to a Garmin Oregon 550

My first impression was that it was very small, compared to the Oregon or the Garmin GPS60/62 series it’s tiny. It has a published weight of 148g, 50g less than the Oregon 550, and a whopping 112g less than the GPS62! With that kind of weight saving you can perhaps afford not to cut the handle off your toothbrush. It’s small size becomes a drawback however when it comes to screen size, at 37mm X 55mm it’s significantly smaller than the Oregons, yet is apparently the same as the much heavier GPS62. Even though the screen is small it has very good resolution and is clear enough. Like the Oregon I noticed that when you have maps loaded on the Micro SD card and scroll right in to the greatest magnification (20ft/5m) the screen will appear to go a bit crazy, a kaleidoscopic mess of colours. This doesn’t happen with the built in worldwide basemap, and appears to be a side effect of having too much detail on the map. The screen is well recessed, but I would recommend always using a screen protector to prevent scratching of the surface.

Worldwide basemap

The unit itself is grey in colour and constructed of plastic, and is waterproof rated IPX7, which is up to 30 minutes at a depth of 1 metre. At the bottom of the unit is an attachment point for a lanyard, which is supplied with the unit. The back cover is shaped to fit with compatible vehicle or cycle mounts, and has a sprung release lever which must be operated to remove the cover. This reveals the battery compartment which holds 2 AA batteries, and a housing for the Micro SD card. I’ve been trialling this unit with the Garmin Discoverer OS 1:50,000 Scotland mapping, and to fit or remove it is self explanatory, with instructions to Open and Lock the card in place and relevant polarity arrows displayed clearly. Do make sure the card is inserted and secured correctly, as it will give some erratic displays if it isn’t. Hidden behind a rubber seal is the Micro USB connection port, which allows you to connect to a computer to download and upload information. It can’t be stressed enough how important it is to update the unit immediately. It may have been sitting in a shop for months while glitches are discovered and rectified. If you don’t update it you may suffer unnecessary problems, it’s worth taking a few minutes to update it before using it for the first time. The only other feature on the unit is it’s one solitary button. Press once to switch the unit on, press briefly to display the lock/unlock screen/ brightness display, and press and hold to switch off. Everything else is controlled on the touchscreen.

When using the touchscreen I like to use a stylus from a Nintentdo DS games console, which I attach to the unit with fishing line. This allows a level of precision even when wearing gloves, and avoids the frustration of ‘fat finger syndrome’ causing you to delete something when you least expect it. The screen layout is straightforward, and can be edited to suit your needs. Pictorial icons help you to navigate the menu quickly, with two arrows at the bottom of the screen allowing you to scroll left and right to view the full range of features. I won’t go into great detail over this, as that is a job for the manual. Some of the main points however would be to select the correct battery type (Lithium batteries are expensive, but highly recommended in cold conditions), select the correct datum (British Grid for the UK) and to enable WAAS/EGNOS for greater accuracy. A final point on the touchscreen is in relation to battery life. The more you use the screen, the more power you will use, shortening the battery life. When you aren’t actually using the unit to navigate with in your hand, set it to the menu screen and lock it. If you leave it on the map screen for example it will constantly be scrolling the map as you move, draining power unnecessarily. Keeping it on the menu screen allows quick access to the map or trip computer, while minimising battery use.

There are a few features which are useful, and worth having. The unit has an electronic compass which works even when you are at a halt. Some receivers only work when the unit is moving, which was confusing. I remember teaching GPS using the Garmin Etrex, and watching the confusion on peoples face as they marched off in the direction indicated, only for it to veer off in a wildly different direction after a few paces. There is also a barometric altimeter, for more accurate height readings, and an excellent touch is that the unit is capable of wireless transfer of information. I had the chance to try this out, exchanging geocache waypoints with a similar unit. Select Share Wirelessly from the menu, and if you are sending data, select Send, if you are receiving data, select Receive. Transfer of data is fairly quick, and is best achieved if the units are fairly close to each other. This could be an ideal way of exchanging waypoints and information, not only for geocachers but for emergency and rescue services. The units wireless capability also enables it to search for Garmins new beacon transmitter, the Chirp, which has added a new dimension to geocaching, and while expensive, is worth looking in to.

1:50,000 OS mapping display

When using the Garmin Discoverer mapping the unit can be used in two ways, point to point, or on road. When navigating point to point it will guide you in a straight line to your selected waypoint. If you have to get there by road you can select the Navigate On Road feature from the Where To menu, in effect converting it to the familiar car type satnav. Directions are given on screen, with a tone also sounding to signify a change of direction. This makes the unit as useful off the hill as on it, guiding you to the start point, then to your destination. Why have a vehicle satnav and a hand held when one does both jobs? Another good point is the fairly fast rebuild rate of the screen when scrolling. I’ve found the Oregon to be slow at this, leaving big chunks of blank screen hanging while the map shows the newly scrolled material. This unit doesn’t suffer that hangup, which is a good point if you are trying to use the unit while on the move.

Overall this is a good, easy to use unit. It’s small size makes it handy, and overall I’ve found it reliable, once updates had been installed. Used with Ordnance Survey mapping it’s a great aid to navigation. The small screen size does limit the ability to plan a route over a larger area, and it should still be used in conjunction with a printed map. The menus are easily navigable and are suited to beginner and expert alike.It retails with mapping for around £350.


Unit: 100mm x 55mm x 34mm.

Screen: 37mm x 60mm

Weight: 148g with batteries.

Accessories: Lanyard.

Battery life: (Claimed) 20hrs


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