17

I thought about it for both privacy and energy saving. A GPS after all needs only to receive the signal and check the cached map, I also remember that until few years ago car sat/nav could not transmit anything. So, is there currently a device on the market that has only a GPS antenna to tell you where you are on a map, but no other wireless/transmission capability?

I am excluding the second hand market because some 5/6 years old devices might match the requirements, but probably the manufacturers would not put online updated maps for them.

Update

I see that there is an answer that does not answer my question. I'll try to clarify it.

Few years ago a story of TomTom came out. When the device was connected via USB to a computer to download the maps the devices sent to the server all the logs, those logs were used by the Dutch police to evaluate where people were speeding and the best locations for the speed cameras. The trouble is that when a device has the capability to transmit you never know what the software installed by the vendor is transmitting.

Therefore I would like to know if there exists a device without a built-in WiFi, Bluetooth or anything similar.

Update 2:

I see from the messages and misleading edits that people keep misunderstanding this question. I cited the TomTom story only to show that you never know what the vendor software is doing. But I am fully aware that in order to load new maps or software updates you need some connectivity. Therefore a USB port is still needed. To avoid any transmission someone could download new maps on a PC and then disconnect it from the internet before plugging the GPS device. A wireless connection on the other hand cannot be easily controlled by the user, therefore in my question I asked only about devices capable of receiving a GPS signal, but with no wireless transmission capability

Furthermore. I am fully aware that a lot of models on the second hand market match these characteristics. But for how long will you able to download new maps for those models?

18
  • 4
    You could use an offline phone app, with the mobile network turned off. Jul 11 at 15:41
  • 9
    Curious what it is you think GPS devices are transmitting? I’ve never used one in anger but the ones I’ve seen only seem to be passive receiving devices.
    – Darren
    Jul 11 at 17:27
  • 5
    @WeatherVane are you talking about sat navs or handheld GPS devices? The former may send traffic updates OTA but the latter would have - at most - a wifi capability for updating firmware and maps etc. If you don’t ever connect it to a wifi network, it can’t transmit.
    – Darren
    Jul 11 at 23:26
  • 5
    If you are comfortable using a paper map you can easily DIY an Arduino + GPS module + LCD screen for under $50 to display your current coordinates
    – slebetman
    Jul 12 at 2:00
  • 5
    Your question seems to reflect a great deal of confusion over how the underlying technology is used to violate user's privacy. For instance you talk about a "transmitter" but your TomTom privacy breach example involved no transmitters at all. I edited your question to remove guesswork about underlying tech, and focus on the question of privacy, tracking, logging, sharing, etc. Jul 13 at 16:58
22

You are probably best looking at older and cheaper models to achieve this lack of functionality. Therefore you should look for models that don't advertise bluetooth connectivity, app integration or wireless connectivity.

A curent example is the Garmin eTrex 10 which seems only to receive GPS signals, not to send or receive other data wirelessly. In this case data can be uploaded/removed manually using a PC and USB cable, allowing the user control of what data is transferred to and from the device.

7
  • 1
    Communicating by USB cable still requires the GPS device to transmit data.
    – gerrit
    Jul 12 at 10:26
  • 4
    @gerrit You can download the maps and unplug the network from your PC before connecting the device. In any case my question was about WiFi, Bluetooth and similar.
    – FluidCode
    Jul 12 at 11:25
  • 2
    Old devices are probably the solution here. Extreme example: If you get the original etrex yellow, it doesn't even have maps. You can enter waypoints on the device by hand, or upload (as well as downloading tracklogs) using RS-232 with no proprietary software. Or you can connect over 232 to a non-networked device of your choosing and read your location that way. Mine still works after 20+ years, though I don't use it much any more.
    – Chris H
    Jul 12 at 13:44
  • 3
    This is a good answer, but note that the eTrex 10 came out in 2011. Although it's still available as of July 2021 from retailers like amazon, the reality seems to be that such devices without wireless are not going to be on the market for much longer.
    – user2169
    Jul 12 at 14:04
  • 4
    As noted by @ChrisH, you can avoid proprietary software for uploading/downloading to the GPS unit. GPSBabel is open source, so you are free to inspect the code and verify it's not sending anything. Certain Garmin devices (eg, Map76csx) use a micro SD card for map storage, so you don't have to connect the unit to install new maps. If making your own maps is important, select a device that uses a geo-referenced jpg or tiff instead of the Garmin .img format, which is a real challenge to produce, though it can be done with enough effort.
    – Llaves
    Jul 12 at 23:13
24

All GPS navigators on the market work as you’ve described. Two way communication is very battery intensive and costs money, so it’s only included in PLB beacons or devices like Spot, not your average GPS device. Some of them let you connect to WiFi or add a SIM card to download map or traffic updates but this is completely optional.

So get the cheapest GPS device that supports hiking maps in your region and you’re good. I’d also note that at least my phone can last for a week in airplane mode as long as I only use it for offline navigation and a bit of picture taking. It could be a good alternative, especially when combined with a power bank.

6
  • 1
    This does not answer the clarified question.
    – user253751
    Jul 12 at 8:27
  • 3
    This answer is not entirely true; many devices can connect to a computer using wifi or bluetooth. What they don't do is communicate directly to a satellite.
    – gerrit
    Jul 12 at 8:45
  • 1
    My PLB certainly does not have 2-way communication - it sends information but does not receive. My Garmin Inreach does do 2-way (albeit slowly depending on the view of the sky). But the Inreach is not a PLB in my mind - the Inreach does not use the Air Force satellite system.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 12 at 13:42
  • 1
    @JonCuster it has two 1-way channels: GPS down and PLB up. While not 2-way comms, it's probably close enough for the OP.
    – Chris H
    Jul 12 at 13:45
  • @ChrisH - to me that is stretching the definition here. Does an ELT (tone on 121.5MHz) transmit data? The point of a real PLB is to transmit your GPS coordinates to the satellite so search and rescue doesn't have to do radio direction finding.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 12 at 13:56
19

Y'all are way overthinking this.

Get an old and/or cheap smart phone. Don't put a SIM card in it. Install some basic GPS app and then tell it to forget the WiFi network (and turn off WiFi). If you don't need maps, you're done. If you do, I wouldn't be surprised if there are apps (probably OSM based) that let you side-load offline maps from an SD card; you could pop the card and update it on a computer as needed such that your "GPS device" never connects to a network.

If you're particularly worried, get one that runs all open source. (I've heard somewhat-good things about the Librem line as far as being a usable product. If you're really paranoid about privacy, though, it's excellent in that respect.) These are probably safe to connect to WiFi without worrying that they're going to report back on you, but the interface is likely to be clunkier than commercial Android.

There's also the DIY route, but you may well end up spending just as much for a device with fewer (potential) features. As a bonus, even with no SIM card, some phones will let you call your local emergency number, which is a HUGE "nice-to-have" feature.

5
  • 2
    There are definitely offline OSM-based mapping solutions. Navit, the first that sprang to mind, is on F-droid (alternative app store, good for side-loading). All phones should support emergency dialling with no SIM in most places, however that means the radio is on, which may still be too traceable for the OP. Aeroplane mode should stop that & save battery, or get a phone you can open and disconnect the antenna - I have a broken Blackview in pieces; it's screwed together and would make a good GPS, being waterproof and rugged (though not rugged enough to go bouncing down the road at 30km/h).
    – Chris H
    Jul 12 at 13:52
  • 1
    @ChrisH, well, yes, you'd normally leave the radio off. However, if you're in a situation where you have to choose between being tracked and potentially dying, your priorities might undergo a sudden revision 🙂. Point is, you have that option, which a DIY solution doesn't give you. But hopefully you never need to use it!
    – Matthew
    Jul 12 at 14:20
  • That's reasonable. Personally I use aeroplane mode to save battery, and want to be in touch. Having needed to call out in an emergency, I've also found that too much unfamiliar fiddling is a bad idea (I needed to get my coordinates in Ireland, but my GPS app was set to UK grid ref not lat/long; I knew that I knew how to change it, but it wasn't trivial) so aeroplane mode is better than anything too clever if the OP trusts it. Or carry a phone-phone (which could be satellite) and a GPS-phone
    – Chris H
    Jul 12 at 14:25
  • 2
    Osmand is the best navigation software I know of. It runs on offline OSM maps per default. You can even combine it with BRouter (the best routing software) which can run offline as well.
    – Michael
    Jul 13 at 8:04
  • @Michael I've also heard good things about it; the only reason I haven't tried it recently is that I have paid for a very nice bike computer app that can also uses offline OSM data - and I plan most of my routes meticulously on a desktop so rarely need routing on the fly
    – Chris H
    Jul 14 at 9:44
10

Thanks for the further clarification in comments and edits to the question. I think the answer is no, although I'd be happy to be proved wrong.

I assume you want a lightweight GPS device that tells you where you are when you're hiking. If you want a GPS for your car that gives you directions, then that would be off topic for this site. If you want a GPS running watch that doesn't tell you where you are, then that would be a different question.

Because almost everybody carries a smartphone with them everywhere they go, the market for non-phone, non-car GPS devices is a very small niche these days, and it's dominated by Garmin. I previously owned Garmin eTrex and Foretrex models. My Foretrex 401 bricked itself in 2019 when I plugged it into my computer, and Garmin wanted to charge a hefty fee to make it work again, so at that time I did quite a bit of searching online to try to find any other company to do business with. I couldn't find any other good options for a lightweight, dedicated GPS unit, because that market seems to be so dominated by Garmin. There were some cheap Chinese units that seemed extremely low quality, a line from Magellan that was big, heavy and outdated, and products from Suunto that were very expensive.

So unless you're extremely flexible in terms of price, size/weight, and quality, Garmin is probably your only option. However, Garmin now seems to have wifi or similar technology in its stand-alone devices. For instance, the Garmin Foretrex 401 didn't have this, but the Foretrex 601 does.

In general, I think you're going to have trouble finding such a device, because most people these days want a mapping GPS -- there is almost nobody anymore who goes hiking and reads lat-lon or UTM coordinates off of a device and then finds their position on a paper map. For a mapping GPS, you need a network interface to download maps, and what the manufacturers seem to be providing now for that purpose is a wireless interface. Although there are devices like running watches that aren't intended to tell you where you are, I assume that isn't what you have in mind.

Some possible options would be either to buy an older Garmin model like the eTrex 10 (a 2011 model that is still available), or to build a DIY device, which I've done: https://www.instructables.com/Handheld-GPS-With-EInk-Display/

5
  • I am not sure about the quality, but you can find Chinese GPS device on AliExpress like this "NAVA F30 GPS and GLONASS Receiver for Agriculture, Forest, Surveying, Mining and More Outdoor Works Handhelds GPS Navigator"
    – Rsf
    Jul 12 at 6:34
  • 3
    I have a Garmin eTrex, and that does mapping without needing to transmit anything. I just build the maps (from OpenStreetMap) and write them to a memory card. Why isn't that the standard answer? Jul 12 at 9:44
  • 1
    @TobySpeight post that! Sounds like it’s exactly what OP wants!
    – Tim
    Jul 12 at 10:29
  • @TobySpeight: If your eTrex is a current model, then doesn't it have wireless? E.g., the eTrex 22x has wireless. The OP is looking for something that doesn't have a wireless antenna at all. They're specifically concerned about the device transmitting when they didn't ask it to transmit.
    – user2169
    Jul 12 at 13:59
  • Mine's a Vista HCx, which I've had for about 10 years or so. That's probably not the newest in the manufacturer's range, but the maps are only a week old, which seems to be the main concern of the questioner. I certainly wouldn't want a transmitter on a GPS either. Jul 12 at 14:29
7

Answering the updated question:

Get a device that uses an external memory - i.e. (micro) SD card for the maps.

You will never connect the device to a computer and may still have the actual maps on the SD card, just use a card reader.

You can always sanitize the SD card prior to accessing it with the device's software (up to and including a complete filesystem format or even low-level wipe of every byte).

Map updates are hardly that much frequent so you don't risk exhausting the memory card write cycles.


Not sure about the other brands, but with Garmin, you have to actively initiate the export of tracks, waypoints and other stuff before you get them on the memory card. The format of all Garmin data files is pretty much reverse-engineered and not much of data leak can be hidden there.


Edit: If I am that much concerned about the probable data leak, I would use some discontinued model that lacks the problematic hardware components (wifi interface) in the first place. There are no much useful improvements in the last 10 or so years anyway.. E.g. I have an old Colorado that is compatible with modern maps and pretty much air-gapped. Other than that, getting a computing device that is truly yours and does only whatever you want it to do is worth much more than a SE question.

Sorry to say it, it is 2021 already.


Edit2:

Depending on the stakes, the risk profile and the resources available (funds, expertise, etc...) a viable solution can be a modern GPS unit with its wifi/bluetooth circuit physically disabled. Chip power or chip-enable tracks or data lines on the PCB can be cut or chips can be preciselly desoldered. Bonus: (probably) longer battery life.

Even a plausible deniability can be achieved by killing only the radio circuit with a high voltage pulse.

Of course, the question becoomes better suited for EE.SE or Security.SE.


An open-source solutions for a digital map use and navigation do exist as well. Not that they are much user friendly, I am not saying this. But one can always disable the track/waypoint logging or band in some strong encryption.

7
  • "Not sure about the other brands, but with Garmin," Which is the Garmin model that does not have a built in WiFi?
    – FluidCode
    Jul 11 at 22:10
  • 1
    If I am that much concerned about the probable data leak, I would use some discontinued model that lacks the problematic hardware components in the first place. There are no much useful improvements in the last 10 or so years anyway.. E.g. I have an old Colorado that is compatible with modern maps and pretty much air-gapped. Other than that, getting a computing device that is truly yours and does only whatever you want it to do is worth much more than a SE question. Sorry to say it, it is 2021 already.
    – fraxinus
    Jul 11 at 22:18
  • SD cards are very cheap. You could just donate used ones to charity (after wiping them clean with a write-only device) and use a new one for every map update. Jul 11 at 22:34
  • 3
    @JonathanReez which charity is doing a drive for SD cards?
    – user253751
    Jul 12 at 8:27
  • The local waste management service is always an option. But I think this is too much - assuming one controls their own computer (or at least one computer - the one that will do the sanitizing procedure).
    – fraxinus
    Jul 12 at 9:14
3

I wish there was a solution that's both practical and 100% data secure, but I don't know of one. An open source phone, as suggested by Matthew, is probably the closest, but with that you unfortunately still need to expect to run into reliability problems – not something I would risk in the outdoors.

Also, open source phones are probably among the products that intelligence agencies and police are most interested about because of their potential use by terrorists and criminals. And as much as I love free/libre software, unfortunately it is not immune against backdoors. So these phones are more likely to leak data to police etc., than a device that doesn't have communication hardware in the first place (which also makes it less useful to criminals).

Here's a solution that I found secure enough for my personal paranoia, and is still very practical:

Get a cycling computer

I used to use a handheld Garmin etrex10 – which, as was already mentioned in the accepted answer, is pretty sure to be safe with respects tracking. Maybe a good idea to get your hands on one of these while you still can.

But it needs to be said, in practice these old bricks are less than ideal. Always manually uploading the maps for the (pretty small) regions that fit in its memory is tedious indeed. I generally travel by bike, and then you quickly run into the situation that a rectangular map with everything you need doesn't fit in memory, so you need to pre-crop around the route you want to take – it's a pain. And at some point I realised that my prior online research for this probably gives away more data then a normally-used GPS would... (Yeah, you could VPN/Tor etc., but a) will you? and b) online will always be more risky than offline.)

This kind of device is probably best used with actual physical maps – which is arguably still a good idea anyway. I personally can't really be bothered...

When my etrex10 eventually broke down, I got a Garmin Edge 830, one of the better cycling-oriented ones. Now, this is definitely not an answer to “no transmission capability?”, because it does have BlueTooth.
Still, I'm pretty confident that the way I use it does not give away any information. Why?

Well, these “cycling computers” are nowadays designed with the use case in mind of having them coupled to a phone, as most cyclists will always have a phone with them as well. Alternatively, they will connect via USB to the Garmin Express application on a PC. Both of this definitely can leak data. Whether this is in fact exploited by any authorities, I don't know – but it's certainly a possibility.

However, because of this standard user case, the Edge 830 (and presumably many other cycling computers) really don't have any WiFi or cellular network hardware, so you can be pretty sure that they won't do any long-distance communications behind your back. So the only threat you might still be worried about is that the phones of people passing by might pick up the Bluetooth signal.

The advantage of a modern device like the Edge 830 is that it actually has a large built-in storage, and comes with a complete and up-to-date OSM and topographic data. That does a lot against the temptation to consult Google Earth / -maps etc. first. Really, the Edge 830 fulfills most of my planning needs in addition to the navigation ones – without ever needing to go online.

Of course, since it's designed for cycling, the routing isn't always best for hiking – but in my experience the MTB mode actually works very well for hiking too, since it makes use of even the smallest trails that OSM knows about.

You can always also upload GPX files, to follow whatever routes you want. That does require connecting via USB, but I only ever do that on a Linux machine without any proprietary Garmin software on it. The Edge 830 is then simply mounted as a USB mass storage device, and only data you explicitly want to transmit is exchanged.


Somewhat confusingly, the Edge 830 does advertise itself as WiFi-capable, but it turns out this is only usable via a phone or PC. Theoretically, it could of course be that it does secretly do WiFi or cellular on its own... but then, the same could be said about your flashlight.

1
  • This is a good, informative answer. If the Edge 830 is advertised as having wifi, but actually only has it when paired with another device that supplies the radio, then I wonder if this is also the case with other Garmin devices, such as the GPSMap 64x.
    – user2169
    Jul 14 at 17:17
0

The Classic Garmin GPSMap 64 can satisfy this requirement

enter image description here

I assume the requirements are satisfied when this device cannot communicate with any other device and does not require vendor software (Garmin Basecamp) to retrieve the tracks and waypoints.

  1. Purchase vendor maps (24K/100K) on SD cards, or download the maps and install to an sd card using the vendor software without connecting the GPS device.

  2. Alternatively, one variant of the product - GPSmap 64st - comes with a Basemap and 100K Topo preloaded, out of the box

  3. To retrieve data - export tracks as GPX files to the SD card, no need to connect with vendor software.

  4. Alternatively, use the open source GPS manager gpsbabel which will speak Garmin natively .

This is an actively produced product, it is still manufactured in several variants. One of these variants has Bluetooth and NFC, while this can be disabled, you might want to avoid those variants. Typically sold for $200-$400 USD.


There are other devices from the same vendor of a similar vintage with slightly different feature sets like the Garmin Foretrex, these do not have the capability to display a map but can provide bearing/waypoints/tracks/etc.

enter image description here

2
  • Is there actually a specific model of the GPSMap 64 that doesn't have transmission capability? Amazon sells three variants, the csx, sx, and x, and although the x seems to be the simplest of the three, the product information on amazon says that it does have wireless. I also can't imagine that many people today want to pay $300 for a device that weighs half a pound, solely for this purpose. Re the foretrex/etrex series, these have been discussed previously in several answers.
    – user2169
    Jul 14 at 17:14
  • @BenCrowell the GPSMap 64st is the one I would recommend, it has ANT+ and BT but this can be disabled in the settings, it comes preloaded with maps. buy.garmin.com/en-US/US/p/140024 , The basemodel , which can still be bought, has no connectivity whatsoever - buy.garmin.com/en-US/US/p/140020
    – crasic
    Jul 14 at 17:15
-1

There are some general restrictions which limit a device’s ability to phone home: For cellular networks a device needs a SIM card. For Wifi it has to be able to connect to a Wifi network (and the Wifi network needs to have an (unrestricted) internet connection). For Bluetooth it has to be paired to a smartphone or other device. For cable connections the host needs an internet connection and has to forward the data. As long as the device is just a dumb, standard USB storage device your operating system shouldn’t process or forward data in any way.

So don’t put a SIM card into the device. Don’t input your Wifi password. Don’t install software on your PC and then connect the device via USB. Don’t pair it to your Smartphone over Bluetooth. Don’t upload recorded data yourself (Strava, Garmin Connect, Runtastic, Dropbox, Whatsapp, Facebook, E-Mail etc.).

Unless the device comes with built-in hacking capabilities which exploit (unknown/unpatched) security holes in your Wifi router or on your PC’s OS it can’t just connect to the internet, even if it has transmit capabilities.

3
  • 1
    "Unless the device comes with built-in hacking capabilities..." Of course it also applies to devices which officially do not have transmission capabilities.
    – Trang Oul
    Jul 13 at 13:01
  • This doesn't address the question. Instead it suggests workarounds to reduce the probability of a privacy violation.
    – user2169
    Jul 14 at 17:02
  • @BenCrowell: It’s a bit of a frame challenge in that it questions OP’s concerns.
    – Michael
    Jul 14 at 19:57
-1

Answering your question in three stages:

When I first read the question, I was thinking that you were asking if the GPS communicated back to the satellites in order to function as a GPS. That answer is "No" The ground unit receives the signals only. There is no way to track who is using the satellites, and no uplink from the GPS through the satellites.

Devices such as Inreach and SPOT, your cell phone do communicate, but this is not a GPS function. They are multipurpose tools. Inreach and SPOT both talk with a constellation of satellites. They are not marketed as navigation devices so much as communication devices. Inreach can be used as a gps, but with it's tiny screen, crappy maps, and awful interface, it's better not to.

Every GPS I have used needed a USB cable if you wanted to either get maps and routes from your computer onto your navigation unit, or to get waypoints, and breadcrumb trails off your unit onto your PC, or to update firmware. I would not consider a cable to be a 'transmission'. This could be done with bluetooth -- a limited protocol with typical range around 30 feet. That would count as transmission, but it's a feeble candle.

In my ideal world my GPS could talk to my other devices by bluetooth multicast, so I could automatically timestamp and geolocate images in my camera, and use a larger screen, such as an iPad for map display. I'd really like a way to not run multiple GPS's in the field just because devices don't talk to each other.

3
  • All producers claim that their devices do not communicate anything. But rootkits are quite common. I know that if you are hiking chances of finding a WiFi spot in the wild are almost naught, but to reach the starting point of your hike you often have to go through airports, train or bus stations.
    – FluidCode
    Jul 18 at 21:52
  • I don't have a gps that does wifi. But normally in the airport, your gps would be off. And normally you would explicityly need to turn on wifi, as it's a power pig. Jul 19 at 23:45
  • Do you know of a rootkit exploit for any GPS at all? Jul 19 at 23:46

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