Gadling gear review: Bushnell Backtrack D-Tour GPS

Handheld GPS devices are a popular tool for outdoor enthusiasts who regularly hike or backpack deep into the backcountry. They can be an indispensable piece of equipment that comes in handy for navigating through remote regions, and for those who know how to use them, they can quite literally be a lifesaver. The problem is, the devices can also be quite complex to use, which is very daunting for those who would like to be able to take advantage of their basic functionality, without having to earn a degree in computer science to do so. The Backtrack D-Tour from Bushnell is designed specifically with those people in mind. The tiny little device is a perfect companion for casual hikers, runners, or other active people who are looking for an easy to use alternative to a more full functional GPS device.

Weighing in at just six ounces, the Backtrack still manages to pack in some great features. The unit functions as a digital compass, while providing such data as the current time, temperature, and altitude. It also allows users to mark up to five different locations and then navigate to those places. The Backtrack will record your path as you hike, measuring distance traveled, current speed, and average speed as well. And when you get home, you can connect the device to your computer to save your routes and share them with your friends too.

If all of that sounds like what you would expect out of a full-featured GPS, then you’d be right. Those are all features found in more expensive and complex models. But the Backtrack user interface is designed to be easy to understand and provide everything you need to know at a glance, and it does that very well. In my testing of the product, I was able to learn the basic use of the Backtrack D-Tour in a matter of minutes, and I was off and running with the device shortly there after. Along the way, I was never confused as to how the device operated or what exactly was being shown on the display at any given time.
Bushnell has built the Backtrack to be withstand the rigors of the trail, and when you hold it in your hand, it does indeed feel rugged, despite its lack of bulk. It is also weather resistant, which means it can be used in the snow and rain, although I wouldn’t recommend submersing it in water. Unlike its more sophisticated cousins, the Backtrack probably wouldn’t survive a good dousing in water.

Battery life was another strong point of the Backtrack. While many GPS devices suck through batteries very quickly, this device sips power, keeping the unit up and running for as much as 20 hours on three AAA batteries. I used my Backtrack for more than 15 hours while testing it, and it has yet to run out of juice. I also like that it uses batteries that are easy to find, so carrying a spare set isn’t a problem on longer treks either.

Of course, this simplistic approach to GPS means that we are giving up some key features that many would expect on other devices. Most notably, the Backtrack doesn’t include any kind of base maps at all and uses only arrows to indicate which direction you should be going. It also doesn’t have much memory, nor is it expandable, which limits the number of waypoints that can be set at any given time. As you would expect, there is no turn-by-turn navigation at all and forget about a database of points of interest, such as campsites or trailheads. I also found that the Backtrack was a bit slow to lock on to the satellite that provides its navigational data, although once it did connect, it held the signal well, even while under a canopy of trees.

But the lack of those options is not meant to be a limitation of this device, but a strength. As I’ve mentioned several times, this is a GPS unit for the common person, and when viewed in that context, it does its job very well. Bushnell has stayed with the “keep it simple” philosophy, and as a result, the Backtrack is a great option for runners, hiker, cyclists, and others who want to track their routes, speed, and distance. With a list price of just $119, it also is a rather inexpensive way to get the GPS features you really need, without breaking the bank or struggling to learn how to use the device.

The Backtrack would make a great holiday gift for the outdoor enthusiast on your list. Even if they already have a more fully featured GPS device, they may appreciate this one as well, as it makes a perfect companion for those outdoor excursions that don’t require more complex features. It is also a great gift for those looking to track their fitness progress as well.