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Navigation on Your Wrist
(Maps/Navigation #5, January 4, 2004)

   It had started as an ordinary day of hiking in the desert. My daughter, Lib, and I had taken several of the tourist trails in the Joshua Tree National Park. It was hot, dry, and very bright all day, just the way a Southern California high desert day should be. We'd seen rock climbers, coyotes, boulders, and lots of cholla cactus.
mine wash
Joshua Tree—southern high desert

   When we returned about suppertime to the motel for a breather, and to check up on Lib's dog, Sophie, Lib came up with an intriguing suggestion. "Let's go back to the park and take an afternoon hike before supper. We can pick one of the short hikes and get back in plenty of time."
   I agreed, a little reluctantly; but I'd never been to California before and might not get back for some time. Maximum exposure seemed like a good idea.
   We chose a one-mile hike that meandered to an old livestock pool and dam and returned through some rocks decorated with petroglyphs.
   I was wearing my Timex Expedition, and I hadn't calibrated its electronic compass for several months; but, just because I had it, I took a compass bearing as we left the trail head. NNW!
Lib in arch.jpg
It was interesting terrain

   We hiked along a hard, well-marked trail through some mesquite thickets and between huge rounded granite slabs and down smaller stone stairsteps. Lib is a lot younger and lighter than I, so she was moving fast; I was managing to keep her in sight.
   Just as the sun was dipping below the clifftops, we arrived at the stock pond. The trail wound to our left in a large loop and onto a flat sandy plain with old stream washes and many criss-crossed extemporaneous trails-just masses of jumbled footprints, really.

Lib's Sophie
Trail and Error We trudged on along the widest track, assuming it must be the trail back. Twenty minutes' walking led us into a soft sandy wash. No trail signs! We'd taken a wrong turn. We had to backtrack.
   We regained the trail in a few minutes, but after another quarter hour we lost it again. My knees and feet were getting very tender by now, but there was no choice. We backtracked again. We continued this try, fail, repeat process until the sky darkened and the moon began to peek above the rocks. At last we arrived at the petroglyphs with just enough light left to barely see them in their little stone grotto.
   Time to finish the hike. But in a few minutes we lost the trail again, and once again we began the disheartening cycle.
   Lib was getting noticeably nervous by now (I was nervous, too, but a Dad is supposed to be ever-resourceful; I kept quiet). I was carrying a fanny pack with two bottles of water, a first-aid kit, and a flashlight. The flashlight made Lib feel a lot better in the dark, but, truthfully, it wasn't a lot of help in all the loose sand and rock. It was the water that made me feel better.
   We kept moving, still lost, but at least moving, until amost nine PM. The moon was high now, covered with moving clouds, but at least giving us enough light to walk safely.
   "I wish we had a compass!" Lib complained.
   I was about to to remind her that with no map a compass wouldn't do us a lot of good. Instead I said "We do! I've got one in my watch, and I took a heading when we left." We should be able to do the old 180º escape trick and at least strike a park road...eventually. I pointed the little lubber's line toward our line of hike and pressed the "heading" button. "SSE! We're just about right on track."
   We continued our start, backtrack, restart process for another half hour. No trail signs, but the rough direction was about right, and I began to believe I recognized a few landmarks, including a bizarre oak tree and a line of five stones that we'd passed about the same time I took our original bearing.
   "We're very close, Lib. I distinctly remember these stones."
Rescued! I'd like to say I saved the day (or night), but it didn't really happen that way. We started heading SSE along the line of stone markers when a truck's headlights swung into view no more than a hundred meters in front of us. It passed slowly from left to right.
   "I believe the rangers are looking for us. They've seen the car on the parking lot."
   "Signal to them," she said.
   "What do you mean? It's too dark to see!" Duhh! I had a flashlight! But it was too late; by the time I found it and flicked it on the truck had disappeared.
   But we were close. Another hundred steps and we literally collided with Lib's Accord on the parking lot where we started four hours ago.

   It was a friendly desert; it would have been relatively safe to spend the night there. But we'd found our way! It's a good adventure to look back on, and another episode in my lengthening saga "Lost in the Deserts." I'm glad I discovered what a great little desert rat my daughter is. She'll be a great companion on some future adventure. I'm already planning it.

   We'd have found our way out by trial and error, but I'm glad I had the little Timex. It was useful and highlighted in my mind the essential rightness of buying the occasional electronic toy. For a little deeper insight into the new combo watches, read on...

Friendly desert?
Watches with Toys
   Recreational technology is advancing very quickly. Since the GPS receiver has been reduced in size and price, and at the same time has increased in convenience, features, and accuracy, many manufacturers are miniaturizing other useful electronic devices and combining them with calculators and wristwatches with an eye toward capturing segments of the sports and outdoors markets.
   The first time I saw a watch/calculator combination I was fascinated with the possibilities yet to come. Later, one of my friends bought a wristwatch made by Casio that would monitor pulse and blood pressure. Another friend was trying the blood pressure monitor and kept getting high readings. We assumed the watch was defective, or at least not very accurate. But when my friend visited the doctor it was confirmed. He had high blood pressure, and it was in the same range indicated by the watch monitor!
   I first saw a wristwatch with a built-in electronic compass in a mall electronics boutique. I was very interested. Until I checked the price-$600! The old Silva would have to do for a while longer.
   Recently, when I saw that Timex sold a watch, chronograph, timer, alarm, and magnetic compass combination for less than $40, I rushed to my nearby WalMart store and bought one. It's a clever combination of useful tools in an attractive package.
Timex Expedition
The Timex Expedition in "heading" mode

   My Timex "Expedition" and it's time-derivative components worked pretty well at first glance. But how about the compass? That's what I really bought it for.
   The instruction set was a multi-language, multi-page, closely-spaced sheet about the size of a newspaper, folded down into a little square and stuffed in the watch box. As I unfolded it I was about to get into the world of flux-gate compasses.
   There was the usual warning to stay clear of nearby masses of metal, and a notice, a mild disclaimer, that the normal accuracy was ±10º. I typically try to read a magnetic compass to ±2º, so this fairly large tolerance was a little disheartening. The brochure recommended an optional two-step calibration method and keeping the compass level as a way to improve accuracy.
   The calibration routine was simple, but a little weird. I pressed the "heading" button, and when notified by the watch display, I slowly turned the watch in two 360º rotations. This calibrated the compass for magnetic north. If I wanted true north, I could key in a declination correction.
   The more accurate two-step method was similar, with an added calibration that involved starting the rotations at 150º. I'd save that for later.
   To measure a bearing I pointed the small lubber's line (12 o'clock on the watch bezel) at an object. I held the watch level and pressed the heading button. The compass displayed the heading in both degrees and cardinal compass points (319º NW, for example).
   Once the heading is displayed, the display locks until you dismiss it with another press of the heading button.
   Everything worked as the brochure said, but I was pretty sure I wasn't within the advertised heading tolerance. Not only that, but the same heading, taken repeatedly, varied, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. The largest error factor I've discovered is keeping the compass level. A tilt of the wrist gives large reading variations.
   Even with these spotty results I like the watch. It's nice looking, light, very handy, and priced about right.
   But Timex take note! There is an improvement that should be easy and would make the compass a great deal more useful: instead of locking the display with each reading, refresh the display with a series of readings-say once a second for five or ten seconds. This would be a lot more convenient than fumbling for the heading button time and time again, and it would allow moving a bit to get a better aim at objects in the field.
Time Functions The standard time/day/date functions work well and offer a choice of 12- or 24-hour time. The watch is quite accurate. I've noticed only a few seconds of drift per month.
   One time-related feature was a little less than optimum, the countdown timer. Normally, a countdown timer works like this:
  1. set the timer for the duration you want to time;
  2. start the timer;
  3. allow it to time out, or stop the timer;
  4. reset the timer and use it again.
At any time I can stop the timer, clear it, and reset it.
   The timer in the "Expedition" does (a), (b), and (c). When it comes to (d), though, I can only reset the timer to the initial time or up to a longer one. There is no "clear" function except to cycle through "99" and back to "1". If I miss my target I have to cycle all the way through again. I have been unable to find any other way to clear the display to its initial "1:00."
   This is a minutes-only timer; there is no way to adjust countdown seconds. That's not particularly important in a wrist timer, but a "clear" function is, and the lack of one causes a lot of irritating button punching. It's a serious human engineering flaw.
   The chronograph was pretty standard: start, split, stop, and reset. I can time up to 99 minutes, 59.99 seconds, a pretty fair range, though the decimal seconds must be for people with faster fingers than mine.
   The alarm is like the other added features in this watch. It works well, but it's not quite intuitive to use.
Shining Example One feature really did shine. Literally. I am especially fond of instruments with night lights, and this one is the best. The Timex Indiglo night light in the "Expedition" is superb. I wish my GPS receivers had lights as good.
   All in all the Timex "Expedition" watch/compass combo is a nice watch with some fairly clever toys built in. Let's face it; combo watches will always be a compromise, but, except for serious work, I'd rather wear the watch than carry all the extra instruments.
   These notes have all been my opinions. Hey! Maybe some day they'll ask me first!

Nicer Toys
   As toy lovers do, as soon as I got fairly comfortable with the "Expedition," I began to wonder if there might be more out there. I'd heard there were watches with built in altimeters and at least one with a GPS receiver. I found some of them on the Casio website.
   Casio combo watches are a little pricier, around $235 for the "Forester," a big watch with magnetic compass, barometer, altimeter, and all the other regular timing functions. "Forester" has a lot of buttons and some peculiar case protuberances, but that's Casio. In their "Pathfinder" series the "NAVI," is wristwatch and GPS in one case.
   At this point the watch display becomes important. With so many functions and so much data to display crowded into a square inch, I don't have the eyes for it, and several of Casio's outdoor models have complex digital data displays and analog hands.
   Another factor in a watch with a GPS is battery life. The "NAVI" has a life of only about 3-1/2 hours; but it does have a rechargeable battery. For an internet price of $500 it didn't really appeal to me in any way but curiosity.
   In an unexpected place I found another great, low-priced combo—this one with barometer, thermometer, and altimiter. Timex's Helix line offers a number of combos, one even with a depth gauge and diving computer!
   I bought the one Helix calls "The Works" from a jewelry website for less than $100. It does everything it says it does, and goes one better in the digital compass mode. It can be set to track your heading continuously. This is a distinct improvement over the "Expedition," with its single reading button-press compass.
Helix The Works
The Helix "The Works" in "time" mode

   In fact "The Works" has virtually no buttons to press, except for the "start/split" and "stop/reset" buttons for the chronograph and timer. Watch modes are set with the three-position rotating crown. All of the data in each mode is displayed continuously, so button pressing is greatly reduced. This design is a little strange for a digital watch, but it works well, and Helix seems quite proud of it. You can download the operating manual for "The Works" from Helix's website and get a perfect preview of the watch's operations.
   Even though "The Works" is a great combo watch, two—make that three—things about it are irritating:
  1. This watch is huge! And it's ugly. If you don't care about that, then...
  2. the manual is one of those happy-guy funny-joke-filled booklets. I wasn't ready for that;
  3. the issue watch strap is one of those black rubber Chinese things molded from reclaimed jeep tires. It itched and sweated and generally strangled my wrist from the moment I put it on. I went for a WalMart Tec-One velcro strap real quick, and I've never been happier.
side-by-side comparison
The Timex "Expedition" and Helix "The Works"

   "The Works" has all the features of the "Expedition" (except day of the week display) plus barometer, thermometer, and altimeter. Out of the box the accuracy of both watches has been ±10 seconds per month or better. That is phenomenal for watches this inexpensive.
   Either the Timex "Expedition" or the Helix "The Works" is excellent for outdoor sports, and priced low enough to maybe have both.
Consider the Environment Keep in mind, if you're going to use a wristwatch combo outdoors water resistance will be very important. The "Expedition" claims water resistance to 100 meters, the Casios to between 50 meters and 100 meters. I would never swim or even wash dishes wearing a combo, but water resistance might be a real blessing when I fall into a river, which I have been known to do.
   The sports environment is a tough one, and I stay aware that I could easily damage a watch in a fall or lose one in a hole or off a cliff. Because I consider a watch a disposable instrument, low price is important to me. I'd hate to damage or lose one of the Casios—but I'd just buy another Timex.

   Most sport watches are either black or camo green. At first that seems cool. But try finding your camo green watch in grass or rocks after taking it off for a climb or a swim or to take notes. It's very hard to find even a light colored instrument outdoors. I've searched the market for instruments in international orange or traffic yellow, but so far, except for one or two GPS receivers, no luck.
    I've even researched traffic yellow or international orange velcro watch straps, but I've found none that were really bright. Even a call to Speidel got a negative result. It seems they just haven't thought of that—yet. Until people start to think more clearly about the sports environment, remembering it's not a military one, removing or dropping a watch in the wilds is going to be risky.

   For now I'm satisfied with the "Expedition" and "The Works." In the near future, when I have a free weekend, I'm going to put them through their paces on a compass course side-by-side with the Silva as competitor. But that'll be another story.

For the correct
U. S. time:
It's About Time!
   Occasionally I browse the internet, updating my bookmarks and enjoying new information. Since I'm interested in navigation and time, two very interesting and useful websites caught my eye. The first is a simple site that displays the standard U. S. time, as maintained by the National Institute of Standards and the U. S. Naval Observatory. This is a great site for synchronizing watches and clocks, estimating watch drift, and checking your computer time. Use the URL in the left column to check out this great, simple site.
   The second site is a gem, too. Besides interesting articles on time and our national atomic clocks, this NIST site offers a free program download. The program, "NIST Time," is a very small, very elegant one that will reset your computer's internal clock by the national atomic clocks.
   I downloaded the program and its operating manual and then installed it. It ran perfectly the first time, and I've used it a dozen times since. Still Perfect! If you need to keep your computer clock sync'd with official U. S. time for legal purposes, or if you just want it to be as accurate as possible, or if you just enjoy tinkering, this program may be just right for you. The URL for this site is in the right column.
   Another thing I like about "NIST Time" is that it stands alone—there are no hooks or scattered hidden files to hunt down when you need to erase it. It's simple, it's public domain (free), it works!


"NIST Time":
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