Can I Use a Car GPS Unit on a Boat?

GPS systems have dramatically changed the way we navigate our world. Car-based GPS systems have made it easier than ever to get where one needs to go, without the need for complicated maps that do not change with the changing conditions of traffic or construction. GPS units have become invaluable for people in cars, on foot and even in the water.

For the marine enthusiast, GPS units can be incredibly useful - whether taking a leisurely boat ride or doing a little fishing. There are many different types of marine-specific GPS units that provide increasing levels of information, detail and sophistication, depending on the need of the user. These units can be pretty basic for the novice water enthusiast, or incredibly complex for the expert user.

These units, while they won't necessarily break the bank, do cost money and many do not understand the differences between different types of GPS units. A common question amongst novice water enthusiasts is whether or not the GPS system they use in their car will work on a boat.

The short answer is "sort of, but not really."

Will Work for Limited Uses

A GPS unit will work anywhere that it can receive satellite transmissions, but an automotive unit will not be programmed with aquatic maps. This means that they provide limited utility on the water as they are not loaded with detailed topography, depth or shoreline maps. An automotive unit may be useful in helping determine a general location, but it is not designed to provide step-by-step water navigation.

One of the biggest disadvantages to using a car-based GPS is that it is not designed to withstand such conditions. This type of GPS is not made to be waterproof, durable or resistant to the elements as this is not the intended use. They were designed to withstand the conditions inside a car, not on the lake.

Advantages to a Marine-Specific GPS Unit

First and foremost, GPS units designed explicitly for use in cars are not designed to withstand the moist conditions in a boat. Car interiors do not tend to encounter water in the course of their daily use and as a result, car models are not waterproof or resistant to residual moisture. A boat-specific GPS system is designed to withstand the conditions that fisherman and boaters are likely to experience. Boat-specific GPS units tend to be waterproof and are often more durable, designed to take more of a beating that a car-based unit.

Marine and automotive navigation require different variables and data. The marine-specific GPS unit will be programmed with chartplotters, maps, and other useful data tools that a car-based unit will not have. Marine units are loaded with water maps that account for depth, topography and more, making them far more useful to both the avid boater or fisherman.

GPS units are also preprogrammed with map data. A car-based GPS unit is going to be programmed with terrestrial maps, while conversely, a marine-specific GPS unit will be programmed with aquatic maps that display the relevant information and allow for coherent marine navigation.

There are a number of combination devices now available, that are suitable for use on both land and water, but these are not car-specific units. Certain manufacturers make a number of different handheld GPS models that are designed for the outdoor enthusiast and provide a variety of different types of maps from pedestrian maps that are perfect for the hiker or camper, to basic river and lake maps suitable for recreational use on smaller bodies of water. These units tend to be more rugged than a car-based system and are often designed to be more durable, waterproof and even resistant to extreme elements like hot and cold.

Car-specific GPS units can provide basic information on water in a pinch but they are not designed for that use. A marine-specific GPS unit is programmed to provide the navigational tools and information that are needed on water. From shoreline topography to water depth, a marine-specific unit is designed with this information in mind. There are a wide range of different options, from simple to incredibly complex, depending on what one wishes to get out of the unit. While in a pinch or an emergency a car-based GPS unit can provide a limited amount of useful information, it is not intended or recommended for use on water. A water-specific unit is the best tool for the job.