After a couple of years of being a bit dispirited about geocaching, and also a year of not really being allowed to go anyway, I started 2021 with a renewed sense of optimism and enthusiasm. It’s a hobby I enoy, so I’m going to try to get on with doing some of it. I’m now resigned to doing it on my own because the ladies of the house aren’t really interested and (as of January 2021) we can neither travel far, nor spend time with people from outside the household. But it’s my hobby, so I’m going to maintain enthusiasm and look forward to better times.

I’ve been thinking for some time that it’s about time I did something with my GPS. I’ve been using a handheld GPS instead of my phone since the end of 2013. I made 3,600 finds (mainly by phone) until one day I was out in Cambridgeshire one day and had an issue with the battery in my phone (see Ellington Expedition). At that point I splashed out on a dedicated handheld GPS unit (it was just before Christmas, and I’m lucky enough that my birthday is around this time too, so that was my Christmas and birthday presents sorted).

I used the first Montana 650t for about 18 months until an unfortunate incident in Letchworth in June 2015 where I managed to drop it down a drain (see Letchworth Disaster). That meant the first Montana 650t lasted me for about 2,500 caches. They’re not cheap things, but thankfully my home insurance covered the cost of a new one, and by the second week of June 2015 I had another. I’ve been using that one ever since, and so far made about 6,600 finds with it. I’ve taken to using the GPS more or less all the time unless I’m doing an opportunistic few caches on days when I wouldn’t normally be caching. When I’m planning a day out I like the resilience of a handheld and the fact that it works when you don’t have a phone signal.

About 2 years after I got the second Montana 650t it became obvious that the onboard battery was fried, and I decided to replace it with a stack of rechargeable AA ones. These work OK apart from issuing an irritating message about the voltage about an hour before they drain completely. They last about 6 hours per set, so I usually have to carry a couple of spare sets if I’m going out all day. One advantage of the 650t though is that you actually can just put AA batteries in when you need.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve noticed that I seem to have lost all my maps, and on detailed inspection it turns out that this happens when I disturb the cradle that holds the micro-SD card in the back. It’s inside the battery compartment, so every time I change the batteries there’s a risk that I’m going to dislodge the card. As soon as you bed it back in properly it works fine.

There were a few things on the Montana that I wasn’t over keen about, so I’ve spent some time hacking around to try to improve the way it looks (see Garmin Custom Icons and More Garmin Icons). Not blowing my own trumpet, because that’s not why I did it, but I seem to have become a bit of an expert in creating custom icons for the Montana (as well as for MemoryMap and Garmin BaseCamp). It’s not too difficult once you get the hang of it.

So fast-forward to New Year’s Day 2021. I set myself a challenge to try to get each one of the 366 totals days in a year up to at least 50 geocache finds. When I started that exercise I needed to find more caches on 264 different days, and find a minimum of 9,464 more caches. That’s a lot, and hence a challenge that isn’t going to be done in a single year.

Back at the plot, New Year’s Day was one day that needed a little attention. I needed 12 finds to bolster the day up to 50, and I headed over to the east side of Milton Keynes to attack a series running along the artifical ridge built between the new housing and the M1. Well, why not? I realised halfway round that I’d knocked the micro-SD card loose and I had a bit of trouble getting it back in again, so when I got home I thought it might be time to get myself a new onboard battery, so I don’t have to keep opening the back. In the process of looking for that, my eyes were drawn to a whole new series of Garmin Montana devices that bring the technology into the modern era. I’m afraid to say it was too much for me to resist, so a new battery became a somewhat more costly new GPS device.

So I’m now the proud owner of a Montana 700. The 700 series comes in 3 variants – I bought the cheapest of the three. If you spend more money what you get is a) the ability to use Garmin’s inReach emergency contact service, and b) a camera. I decided neither of those was really of any use. The inReach service requires a subscription of at least £14 a month and if you buy those variants (the 700i or the 750i) you have to dismiss a dialog about activating a subscription every time you switch it on. Bum to that. I always have my phone and I rarely go anywhere that I don’t have a signal. If I was going somewhere with no signal, I probably wouldn’t go alone anyway. Secondly, the camera on the Montana 750i might be a decent 8 megapixel, but it’s inadequate compared to the 16 megapixel camera on my phone, so it really wasn’t worth spending an extra £200 to get it.

The Montana 700 is the “basic” one of the series. By basic, I mean “pretty spectacular for geocaching” and “much more capable than the 650t”, but I don’t mean “makes the tea and splits the atom” – I deemed those to be unnecessary features.

So what does a Montana 700 do that a Montana 650 doesn’t?

Firstly, it’s part of the modern generation of Garmin doo-dahs that works with the Connect app on your phone. It can therefore exchange track information (and possibly upload caching logs) over bluetooth through my phone.

Secondly, it can connect to wi-fi and can be registered on your Geocaching.com account, allowing it to download caches directly using the Geocaching Live API whenever you are somewhere with a wi-fi signal. That presumably includes using your phone as a hotspot. Those are genuinely useful new additions.

Thirdly, it has a much bigger screen than the 650. The working area is notionally 5 inches across the diagonal and the screen resolution is 480×800 pixels. In practice that means that the maps look much better and the bigger screen makes it easier for me to see without glasses, which is important for me when I’m caching, as I only need glasses for reading, so don’t always carry them with me when caching as I can’t wear them whilst walking.

Fourthly, the screen interface is more like a small computer or phone than the old Montana, so it seems more intuitive to use.

Finally, the device supports use of Garmin Connect IQ apps. I wasn’t really sure what those were, so I had a look at the store and (at time of writing) there seem to be only two apps compatible with the Montana 700. One of those is an online tool for accessing the Hungarian local variant of geocaching and the other is something that mucks about with the camera (that I don’t have), so I guess at the moment that Connect IQ is a zero-value item for me.

Getting it going

It pretty much worked straight out of the box.

I managed to connect it to my home wi-fi, and to the Geocaching.com website, and to Garmin Connect on my phone, without having to reference the Owner’s Manual.

I bought a second battery pack – the onboard variety, but the 700 is also the only one of the three that supports use of battery pack that takes AA batteries too. That might be useful some time in the future. For now, I have two of the onboard batteries – these come in fully sealed packs and they clip in and out of the device without disturbing the micro-SD card bay. The battery fitted in the device came 20% charged and it filled up in an hour. The spare was completely flat and it also charged fully in an hour. That’s quicker than the old ones.

The next job was to see how my local customisations were going to fare. I decided to brave sticking the old micro-SD card straight into the new device. Aside from warning me that the BirdsEye map segments weren’t valid for this device (yeah, I know about that), everything else installed on the card worked fine – so I can verify that TalkyToaster UK maps and Freizeitkarte maps work fine on a Montana 700 series. They seem to load faster too.

The final job was to load some caches and play around with the custom icons. I tested whether this variant is still limited by allowing just 12 or so cache icons, named according to the key caches types. That seems to be the case. It’s not a major issue, but it might have been nice if they’d addressed that. At least I’d already got some custom icons that work. They looked a little too small on the higher resolution screen, so I’ve upscaled them to be 27 pixels square rather than the previous 21 pixels. They are still nice and clear, and they’re roughly the same “actual” size displayed on the screen, but the bigger screen means you can see more at a time.

I tried downloading some caches using the Live API on the device. It works fairly quickly and it uses my custom icons, which is good, but I suspect it won’t adapt to the peculiarities of how I set things up in GSAK to get the icons to do what I want, so for now I’m tied to the way I manipulate things in GSAK, which means uploading from the PC all the time. Not a major issue, but maybe an area of technology to look at in a few weeks. What happens, for instance, if you use the live API to download caches in Seattle? How does the “HQ” cache display? It’s not one of the standard types that Garmin supports, so does it render as the catch-all “Geocache” icon, or does it just not show at all, or is there actually a broader collection of icons that can be used (if I can discover what their names are)? I ran a test. It renders the HQ cache as the generic “Geocache” icon.

On first impressions it looks like a stonker, and I can’t wait to get out and try to find some caches with it.