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Garmin eTrex H on Mac OS X

Posted at 21:10 on Mon, 8th August 2011 in gadgets, travel.

Some lessons learnt trying to get a Garmin eTrex H GPS unit working in Mac OS X Snow Leopard, for the purposes of sending/receiving tracks/courses, etc.

Earlier this year, I decided to take up bush walking for the purposes of fitness and to see a bit of the outdoors. After doing the 'on track' 15KM Eagle View walk at John Forest National Park, I decided I wanted more and wanted to go off track. To do this safely though, you need a real GPS unit to ensure you can get to where you want, without getting lost! By real, I mean one that doesn't suck your battery life (like the GPS components built cheaply into your Swiss army phone), and one that is easy to send/receive coordinates to/from a computer.

After talking to a few people, and reading up on the technology (I'm still a GPS noobie!) I decided on the Garmin eTrex H. It does all the important basics mentioned above, is waterproof, very accurate (within a few metre's if you have enough satellites), but also didn't bust the bank. Searching around both on overseas and local retailers, the cheapest I found was from Dick Smiths for $129 (reduced from $149).

However when getting it home, I found that the unit didn't come with a computer connection cable. Further to this, it needed a serial based connection - YES the 9 pin serial plug that Apple depreciated on all its products since 1999! So looking into some Serial->USB cable's, I came across this affordable cable on eBay. It was about $30, but this is much cheaper than buying it direct from Garmin, which is almost the same price as the GPS unit (what are Garmin thinking!).

The other challenge with this unit is that a lot of the software out there doesn't work with Mac OS X or if it does, it's designed for more modern/expensive native USB based GPS units. Take the Garmin Mac OS X section for instance - none of it will let you download or upload stuff to your eTraxH (ditto on Garmin's thought process here).

So anyway, after a bit of experimenting with different software and drivers, the following seemed to work for me (Note, I did this in Mac OS X Snow Leopard, but it should work in Lion too):

  1. Download the latest version of the PL2303 Mac OS X driver from the Prolific website (Prolific are the guys who designed the chip that's inside the serial->USB cable you buy off eBay - but the drivers on the disk they give you are as old as the hills, and strangely they don't mention their name or that they have a website with drivers). Follow their included instructions for installing the driver.
  2. Then download and install the LoadMyTracks program.
  3. Run LoadMyTracks, and select 'Garmin Serial' and then select 'usbserial' as the interface. Don't worry too much about the output format you use, as you can convert these later on with other programs like GPS Babel. Fill in any other necessary options and then press Send or Acquire.
  4. You should now be able to successfully send and receive data to your eTrex H unit on a Mac!

Once you have the KML files, you can then load them into pretty much any program, such as Google Earth for plotting, or GPS Babel for conversion to other formats for other programs.

Hope the above can help someone out there with the same setup/budget!

P.S. If your based in Perth, Western Australia and looking for information on good walks, checkout walkgps.com - it's a really excellent resource for walkers in the region. I did part of the Woorooloo Brooke walk on the weekend (my first GPS led walk) and can't wait to get back out there on another of the walkgps walks!