Everything You Need to Know About Navigation When Travelling

Nothing causes more trouble than getting lost in the middle of nowhere when you’re travelling. So, instead of sticking to areas which you are already familiar with, you could plan your trip beforehand. Doing so can lessen your travel time, increase fuel efficiency, and save you from stress.

If your tow vehicle already has a built-in navigational system, then that would suffice. However, if your vehicle lacks this feature, a third-party GPS navigation system will do. In addition, you can also use your smartphone or physical maps to find your way.

So, what kind of navigational system should you use, and which brands do we recommend? Read more to find out!

What Is Digital Mapping?

Digital mapping is defined as the process of storing and displaying map data in digital form (to store and retrieve on a computer). These digital image files can be downloaded off the internet or purchased from publishers who produce maps by way of CD or DVD for larger files.

What Is A GPS Navigation System?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It was originally designed for use by the U.S. Department of Defense and it used orbiting satellites to transmit precise microwave signals. After many years of exclusive use by the military, in the 1980s it was released for civilian use. GPS devices pinpoint your location and enable the user to navigate to the desired destination of the user.

Some cars and 4WD vehicles come with a factory-installed GPS but portable devices are also available. The GPS system consists of a GPS receiver, a map database, and processor. The device will identify the shortest route as well as the traffic situation. The device’s screen displays the map, coordinates (information from orbiting satellites), and traffic. In addition, the directions will be made known to the user by using the speaker which provides audio instruction.

Whilst the devices are accurate, it is necessary to look at the visual information displayed on the screen and not rely solely on the audio directions as the device does at times briefly loose connection with the satellite. Also, roads displayed on some maps may have changed and are yet to be updated. The Australian map data is generally updated once a year and these updates can be downloaded from the manufacturer’s website or purchased from a retailer. The satellite connection can also be lost because of interference caused by tall buildings, forests or when travelling in tunnels.

In order to improve the connection, you should install an external aerial or antenna. Some of these aerials come with a magnetic strip to clamp it to the body of the vehicle and an attaching cable that can be fed back through the vehicle door or window to the GPS device.
The GPS display screen may also double for the screen for a reversing camera if one is to be installed.

Programs such as Destinator, Navman, and TomTom are available for installation in smartphones or PDAs, but you may likely need to buy a larger memory card to facilitate this. Google Maps can also be used to view an area in photographic form. Another benefit of using Google Maps is it comes preinstalled on most Android phones and it can be easily downloaded on the App Store on iOS devices (iPhones/iPads). 

Navigational Software

PDA software can be purchased and uploaded to the device. Some such GPS software is Travroute CoPilot, Oziexplorer, Destinator and TomTom. The software can also be stored on an SD (Secure Digital) Memory Card. These cards are currently available in 2, 4 & 8GB.

OziExplorer states their GPS Mapping Software is interactive, it allows you to work on your computer screen, with digital maps that you have purchased or scanned yourself. By using these maps OziExplorer allows you to plan your trip by creating waypoints, routes, and tracks on screen and upload these to your GPS. In their moving map mode, it will navigate you along your chosen route giving instructions when each waypoint is reached. They say their software will work with Garmin, Magellan, Lowrance, Eagle, Brunton/Silva, and MLR GPS receivers.

Next Destination Pty Ltd is an Australian based and owned company that distributes Magellan GPS and they produced the Magellan certified mapping. The distributor states you no longer need separate units to take you over streets, overland and over water as the Magellan Crossover GPS will do this. The Magellan Crossover allows you to use the one sat nav unit for voice-prompted street directions, GPS capabilities and topo mapping with 4WD trails, as well as outback tracks, and marine GPS features with marine charts.


Routing Options – ability to exclude toll roads, unsealed roads or to choose the shortest or quickest routes. The devices will also re-route you in the event you take a wrong turn.

Other options – are also available such as mobile phone connection compatibility, play your MP3 files, a walking option to plot a route ignoring one-way streets or using paths through parks.

Most standard GPS receivers will not only place your position on a map at any location but will also trace your path as you move across a map. The receiver, with the GPS built-in clock, can give you information such as your speed, your average speed, how long you have been travelling, how far you have travelled (odometer) and the estimated time of arrival at your programmed destination. A ‘bread crumb’ trail showing where you have travelled on the map is also available.

GPS devices also contain an address book you can save addresses that you may commonly go to so you can mark this as a ‘favorite’ to make it easier to find.

What Brand of Navigation System Should I Get?

The best GPS systems that we can recommend are the following:

  • VMS Touring Navigator Series: enables you to navigate around towns, cities, rural areas, and the outback. The device uses 2009 Where IS for street navigation. In addition, it also has an optional add-on called the iTOPO topographical maps which includes maps of 4WD tracks, caravan parks, and campsites. One model, the Touring 500, can be upgraded to display up to 2 camera images automatically to help you with reversing the vehicle.
  • VMS In-Dash A.V.N.C 3000: features off-road topographical 4×4 GPS, Bluetooth Handsfree, FM/AM radio, Digital TV tuner, SD card & USB input, DVD/CD/mp3 player, and iPod integration control. You can also opt to upgrade the system with reversing cameras for the vehicle and caravan. The 4 GB memory can also be upgraded for an 8 GB SD card. The range also has preloaded Hema 4×4 maps (1:250,000) and will accept other maps down to 25:000. If a map is not in digital form, it can be manually scanned by the user and uploaded to the SD card. This makes it easier to view the map while driving. In addition, routes and waypoints can also be plotted.

The VMS Navigation features also include spoken street names, lane information to assist you with the correct lane you need to be in for the next turn (which is really helpful when you are towing a caravan), auto-routing, 3D landmarks, over-speed warning and providing points of interest. All these upgrades are available every 12 months.

Hand Held GPS

Hand held GPS technology has made navigating the great outdoors a breeze. Unlike paper maps, these devices provide real-time positioning and allow for precise tracking of location data. The ability to track your movement and find your way around unfamiliar territory has enabled outdoor enthusiasts such as hikers, campers, and hunters to explore new terrain with confidence. Additionally, hand held GPS technology can be used for geocaching, an exciting treasure-hunting game that uses coordinates to locate hidden caches.

Have a look at the Garmin devices, they now are available in colour screens.

Can I Use My Laptop to Navigate?

When navigating locally, an in-car navigation or PDA device will be fine. But you may find it lacking in regional areas where you may need to get a bigger picture when travelling. The screen size will obviously limit the amount of terrain you can view. So, a laptop may be the best device for planning your trip the night before. You can even print out a colour map using the ‘zoom’ feature because paper maps are easier to view than laptops while driving. The laptop screen may also be affected by glare, so it can be difficult to read under direct sunlight. Some models may not even be able to survive the rough ride. 

What Is A PDA?

PDA is short for ‘personal digital assistant’ which is a handheld device that may combine computing, internet, telephone, and networking features. A PDA incorporates features like handwriting recognition, so input is done through a stylus (writing utensil like a ballpoint pen) rather than a keyboard. Some PDAs also have voice recognition technology so they can react to voice input.

PDAs are often called handheld computers; pocket computers or pocket PCs and its main purpose is to act as a personal organiser. The latest devices can run multimedia software, connect to the internet, and act as a GPS. These features are also found on modern smartphones running the Android and iOS platforms. So, you can easily communicate through voice calls and SMS while navigating to your destination.

However, PDAs also have some limitations. They have low internal memory, so it is recommended you use an SD (Secure Digital) card for map storage instead of the internal memory of the PDA. Doing so will leave more free space for other programs. Another constraint is its battery life. PDAs are powered by batteries and the life of the battery depends on the model and its features. Many PDAs come with the option for adaptors to connect to standard household power and/or your vehicle 12V. When a PDA loses power, you can lose all the data stored in its RAM. You should also be careful because the data stored on a PDA can be lost. However, this can easily be solved by backing up your PDA. 

One such device is the Garmin iQue 3600 combining GPS and mapping. The manufacturer states some of its features are a flip-up integrated GPS antenna, speaker for voice–guidance commands and the capability of loading any Garmin Mapsource product for Australia, Europe, South Africa or the USA. It also comes with a CD-ROM with City Navigator Australia which shows detailed street information for metropolitan and provincial towns plus all rural roads throughout Australia.

What Hints and Tips Should I Know Before Using GPS Systems?

Look for navigational devices with:

  • A printed user manual
  • Large onscreen buttons to be operated
  • Good quality display screen for both night and day use
  • Dedicated buttons on the front to find parking station or nearest service stations
  • Maps that display points of interest such as railways, hospitals, airports, etc.
  • For portable GPS – lightweight for carrying as well as easy removal from the mount
  • Ability to put in location for ‘home’, ‘favorites’ or waypoints

How Can I Determine the Scale of the Map?

The detail in maps is determined by the scale which is the ratio of a single unit of distance on a map that has an equivalent distance on the ground. The map scale is usually located in the legend box of the map which contains explanations for the symbols and other important information.
A scale expressed as a ratio of say 1:10,000 means that one unit on the map represents 10,000 units on the ground (i.e. 1 millimeter represents 10,000 mm) or 10 meters.

Other good examples are:

1:100,000 map scale – 1 cm = 1 kilometer on the ground
1:250,000 map scale – 1 cm = 2.5 kilometers on the ground
1:1,000,000 map scale – 1 cm = 10 kilometers on the ground

Maps with a scale of 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 are termed large scale maps and are best for bushwalkers or hikers as they provide a lot of detail. Meanwhile, maps that have a scale that ranges between 1:50,000 and 1:250,000 are called intermediate scale maps. In addition, the recommended maps for motorists and 4WD enthusiasts are maps with the scale of 1:250,000.

How Do I Get There Using Maps and GPS Devices?

For planning trips and 4WD excursions, it is often easier to get the ‘big picture’ first by using paper maps as scrolling across several computer screens is often confusing. A compass would also prove to be useful to take along for remote trips, so you know the direction you are heading.

What Is Latitude and Longitude?

If you look at a map the lines running horizontally depict latitude. Degrees of latitude are number O degree to 90 degrees with 0 degrees at the equator, 90 degrees south being the South Pole and 90 degrees north is the North Pole.

Longitude lines, also known as meridians, run vertically on a map. Greenwich, England is zero degrees longitude and the degrees continue 180 degrees East and 180 degrees West until they meet to form the International Date Line.

What Is A Topographic Map?

Topographic maps depict the natural and constructed features on the Earth’s surface. For example, landforms which are represented by contours and spot heights, dams, roads, tracks, lakes, indigenous lands, national parks and state forests.

To understand and interpret topographic maps, some research or training is required. Not to oversimplify the detail on the maps, topographic maps depict contour lines to join points of height or equal elevation. Contour lines close together indicate a steep slope, two or more contour lines merging indicate a cliff and distant contours indicate a shallow slope. Contour lines can form ‘V’ shapes along a stream or creek beds or valleys with the V pointing upstream or uphill.

Topographic maps are of particular use for 4WD clubs, bushwalkers, and government environmental agencies. Especially in areas where there is no road or track found on a map to follow. A compass is a ‘must-have’ for such trips. Google Maps can also be used to view the terrain ahead in photographic form.

What Are Map Legends?

Map legends or tables are located on the map (usually near the edges) to explain the scale or symbols included in it. For example, major highways, main roads, railways, unsealed roads, camping are, rest stops, caravan parks, national parks, state forests, and various designated drives.

Where Can I Get Maps and Travel Publications?

Paper maps are available from automobile clubs such as NRMA, RACV, RACQ, RACWA, RACT, and the like. The automobile club websites often include a ‘Trip or Journey Planner’ section where you can insert ‘from’ and ‘to’ destinations. These journey planners also provide the option for you to locate accommodation, activities, and attractions.

Hema Maps Pty Ltd is a privately-owned company in Brisbane, Australia with subsidiaries in New Zealand and North America. Hema maps are available for just about everywhere in Australia. They offer maps like the Great Desert Track series, Australia’s Outback Map, Cape York, Central Australia, and many more. Hema also sells hardcover Around Australia atlas. CD-ROM maps and a collection of raster maps on DVD are also available.

For the camping enthusiast or backpacker finding their way around Australia, there is a publication called the Camps Australia Wide series. Camps Australia Wide book is a great guide for travellers with campervans, caravans, motorhomes, 5th wheelers, and camper trailers as it lists campgrounds, rest areas, national parks, state forests, low-cost caravan parks, and bush camps. One version of the A4-size book comes complete with photographs of some of the camping areas and the updated version provides GPS coordinates. The Camps Australia Wide book also provides symbols for helpful information such as if toilets, power or showers are available, if pets are allowed, the maximum time of stay, dump (black water waste) points, etc. The book also has free updates available on the publisher’s website. In addition, other books such as Gregory’s and Street Directory for each state and territory city street maps are available from newsagents and service stations.

Related Questions

Does Google Maps Show Low Bridges?

Google Maps is also good for avoiding low clearance bridges. Not all of the low overpass locations are listed in the trucker’s atlas. But looking on Google Maps for the best route in gives you an overhead to see potential problems, then the street view allows you to see the posted height.

Is TomTom Better Than Google Maps?

TomTom really shines in the real-time traffic department. … One of the key differences between the two mobile apps is that TomTom is a premium service. When you sign up, you’re allocated 50 free miles before having to put a hand in your pocket, whereas Google Maps is always free.

Can I Use GPS Offline?

GPS-enabled devices do not require a cellular or Wi-Fi network connection to provide location data—this is a common misunderstanding. Gaia GPS lets you download maps before you go on a trip. You can use your device’s GPS with the downloaded maps to navigate offline.

James Mitchell

Hi, I’m Jimmy Mitchell and I love exploring this great country with my wife and two boys. I have a 2015 Sterling LX that is the Mitchell Family camping machine. Lets Getaway is the website where I share things about my trailer as I learn them, and help other camper owners to enjoy their RV even more.

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