New Garmin GPSMAP 66 Series

As my regular readers know, I'm a fan of the button-operated GPSMAP series from Garmin. So I was excited to see the new GPSMAP 66 series released. At first, it didn't seem like this was much of an upgrade from the GPSMAP 64, but a closer look revealed that some long-awaited features have been added. So I decided to order one to check it out. Until it arrives and I can evaluate the unit in the field, here's some thoughts on the new features.

Probably the most exciting for me is the expedition mode, which extends the battery life from 16 hours to a week. You can set expedition mode to come on automatically after two minutes of inactivity, or switch it on manually. In expedition mode, the screen is off, the unit enters low power mode, and fewer track points are recorded. With my 64s, I save the batteries by keeping the unit off except when I want to record a waypoint. This can extend the battery life to weeks, but has the disadvantage of not recording track points, and also I have to wait until the receiver gets a solid satellite fix before recording a waypoint. This can become time-consuming when there are frequent trail junctions or landmarks where I need to record waypoints. Since the unit is recording track points in expedition mode, it is ready to record an accurate waypoint.

The 66 series adds Wi-Fi connectivity to the Bluetooth-only connectivity in the 64 series. Bluetooth on the 64 series is limited to pushing phone notifications to the GPS receiver, Live Connect, which allows others to track you on a Garmin Connect webpage, and data uploads to Garmin Connect. I've never found phone notifications that useful on the GPS screen while hiking and mapping trails- I just look at the phone! But I'm sure there are situations where such push notifications would be useful, such as in a vehicle or mountain bike where the GPS receiver is mounted and visible, but your phone is safely tucked away. I'm not all that interested in sharing real time location data with others- for strangers, my activities are probably as about exciting as watching paint dry. And the Bluetooth upload to Garmin Connect doesn't do much for me either since I'm not into fitness tracking. (I'm kind of old school on fitness tracking- like, "...that climb out of the canyon was really tough. I think I need to get out more!")

However, I really like the cloud synchronization on phone apps such as Gaia GPS. Gaia lets me record a track and waypoints as I hike, and automatically updates the Gaia Cloud so that when I fire up the Gaia webpage back at home, there's my track and waypoints. That's really useful for trail mapping, which is my main activity. The 66 series adds Wi-Fi connectivity to a new Garmin app and webpage, Garmin Explore. While Explore seems aimed primarily at the fitness market, I'm hoping that it will be useful for trail mapping. While the 64 series can upload and download waypoint and tracks through the Garmin Basecamp app via a USB cable, if I'm going to do that I'll just transfer a GPX file and open the file in the desktop app of my choice- usually Gaia GPS or CalTopo. It certainly will be useful if I can transfer a GPX file via Wi-Fi, or at least export transferred data from Garmin Explore to a GPX file. We'll see when my 66s arrives.

Other new connectivity features of the 66 series work when the unit is connected to a smartphone running either Garmin Connect or Explore, using Bluetooth, or directly to a Wi-Fi network. You can download software updates for the device without having to use a cable. And you can download updated satellite information to the unit, which speeds the time to get a fix when the unit is powered on. You can also download current weather, live geocache data, and Garmin Birdseye satellite imagery directly to the receiver (the 66 series comes with a lifetime subscription to Birdseye imagery.) Some of the connectivity features work only when connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone running the Garmin Connect app, including phone notifications pushed to the GPS receiver, live tracking, and Connect IQ.

The last feature, Connect IQ, has been primarily of interest to users of the Garmin fitness watches and Edge bike computers. It lets you download new apps, widgets, and data fields to your device, and now works with the Oregon 700 series as well as the GPSMAP 66 series. While most of the apps and widgets are still aimed at fitness and cycling, there's a few appearing for hiking. I'll check those out when I start using my 66s.

In a first for Garmin handhelds, the 66 series uses the European Galileo navigation satellites, as well as the Russian GLONASS and American GPS satellites. I'm sure this feature will be added to the Oregon and Montana touchscreen series in the future. In my experience, the addition of GLONASS significantly increased the accuracy of GPS fixes on the 64 series and the Oregon series, as well as decreasing the likelihood of losing satellite lock in areas with less than full sky view, especially under forest cover. Galileo should improve both at little cost in battery life, since Galileo is frequency-compatible with GPS and doesn't require a separate receiver module as GLONASS does.

You may ask, why did I order the GPSMAP 66s and not the 66st? Both units have 3-axis magnetic compasses and barometric altimeters. These sensors are important because both work when you don't have a good GPS fix, and barometric altitude is more accurate than GPS altitude. The 66s comes with a worldwide basemap and the 66st adds Garmin's 100K topographic coverage of the U.S. and Canada. However, as I've mentioned before, there are much better topo maps available for free from sources such as, as well as many other maps and overlays such as land ownership, hunting units, updated trails, wilderness area boundaries, and much more. These maps are easy to load onto any Garmin unit that is compatible with external maps, including the 64 and 66 series, later Oregon series, and Montana series.

So stay tuned- I should have my 66s in a few days and I'll start testing it in the field.