Garmin's Dakota 20

Smaller Touchscreen Handheld GPS

August 12, 2009
Nov. 5, 2009 Add instructions for BaseCamp

By: Sam Penrod

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Garmin's newest handheld series is the Dakota model.  It is a smaller, scaled back version of the Oregon series and appears to hit a lower price point for customers not willing to pay the higher price for an Oregon.  It is designed for the outdoor market, such as hiking, exploring and hunting.  It is lighter and smaller than the Oregon and appears to be more rugged too.  The Dakota seems to fit into the same category of the popular eTrex handheld series, but is the next generation unit with a touchscreen interface. There are two versions of the Dakota series: the Dakota 10, which is the basic version selling for about $290 and the Dakota 20, which adds a 3-axis electronic compass, barometric altimeter, ability to add additional memory with a microSD card slot, and to wirelessly share data with other Garmin compatible units such as the Oregon/Colorado. The Dakota 20 retails for $349.  Check discount prices here.  The Dakota units do not come with any preloaded map data, but have approximately 900 MB of internal memory available for Garmin compatible map products.  I am using a 2GB microSD as well with no issues.

The Dakota operates in a similar way to the 
Oregon 200, 300 and 400 series, however the unit has a smaller screen with less resolution than the Oregon.  It operates on 2 AA batteries and while NiMH are suggested, it also supports operation with lithium or alkaline AA's.  Battery life appears to be good, considering it is a touchscreen.  In a test with an Oregon 550, both with compass on auto, and both using brand new Energizer NiMH 2450mh rechargeables, the Dakota went more than 17 hours before showing low batteries and lasted more than 18 hours.  The Oregon 550 however, gave a batteries low message at 13 1/2 hours and was dead at 15.  Garmin advertises the Dakota 20 at 20 hours, but with backlight, compass and barometer, we believe using NiMH that you shouldn't expect more than 18 hours.


What's In the Box
The Dakota comes in a small package, with no accessories, other than a basic string lanyard. There is a very brief quick start guide included and a simple owner's manual comes on a CD-ROM.  There is no software or map data included.  It is not as detailed about the features as it could be.  You can download the Dakota manual here.  The unit is waterproof and has a newly designed back cover.  The USB connection is found on the top of the backside of the unit and has a rubber cover to protect it from water and dirt.  


The Dakota shipped with version 2.10 firmware and the GPS software is 3.40, and is believed to use the same chipset as the Oregon series.  We expect several firmware upgrades in the coming months and suggest you regularly use Garmin's WebUpdater program or check Allory's page for new updates.  
Garmin's new free program  BaseCamp appears to be geared to manage waypoints, routes and tracks in the Dakota models and the new Oregon 550 & 550t models.  When you connect the Dakota to BaseCamp, it will bring up not only waypoints, routes, tracks, but also any geocaches you have loaded in, and you can access hints, logs, descriptions, etc.  The edits you make, will be saved in the Dakota when you exit the program.  The BaseCamp program appears to still need some work, but the latest version 2.06 seems to be working much better than previous versions and shows some real promise.   It also includes a basic basemap now, if you don't have a Garmin product with terrain shading loaded onto your computer.  There is also a BaseCamp version for Mac available here.  The Dakota will automatically switch into Mass Storage Device mode when you connect it to a computer.   The waypoints, tracks, routes are all in a folder labeled GPX on the Dakota drive and are in the .gpx file format, which makes it easier to transfer files from non-Garmin GPS programs.  

The power button is the only physical control on the Dakota.  Everything else uses the touchscreen
.  Garmin lists it as a Transflective color TFT with 160X 240 pixels.  It is 1.43 inches wide and 2.15 inches tall.  While it is smaller than the Oregon screen, the content is not smaller, there is just a smaller amount of map shown at a time.  So going with a Dakota does not mean the map points, etc is going to be smaller.  See comparison shots below.   Note the waypoint icons are different in the Oregon 550 and the Dakota 20 and the screen resolution is not properly reflected in the images in an attempt to demonstrate it is just a smaller map in the Dakota and not more difficult to read.
Below are some map screen comparisons between the Dakota and an Oregon. 


                        Dakota 20                                                Oregon 550                                      Dakota 20                                                Oregon 550

The Dakota does surprisingly well outside in direct sun, much better than the Oregon and Colorado screens, likely because of the lower resolution screen.  See some screen shot comparisons below in sunlight.  I've done my best to give a representative shot of how the different units compare.


  Dakota held in the direct sun with no backlight                    Dakota in sunlight against Vista HCx                                    Dakota and Oregon 550 both in sunlight

The backlight on the Dakota is not nearly as bright as the Oregon, but for typical outdoor use, this should not be an issue.  The Dakota does not seem to handle the terrain shading on the maps as well, especially in steep terrain when used outside.  An easy workaround for this is to turn off the terrain shading on the map page.  See comparison shots of the Dakota below.

               Example with map shading                    Same image with no shading            Another image with map shading            Same image with no shading


Touchscreen input of data for waypoints, addresses, points of interest, etc.  There is a separate page for numbers and also for symbols.

Dakota vs. Oregon

The Dakota is missing a few non-GPS related features found in the Oregon.  Specifically, there is no picture viewer, the WhereIgo feature is not available, the screen resolution is inferior and there is no 3-D map view.  The Dakota does support the automotive high angle view however.  The Dakota models also do not have a built in camera or geotagging capabilities like the Oregon 550 series.  
The Dakota series has no NMEA support for interfacing the unit and is not compatible with Garmin's Spanner program.   The Dakota DOES include several recent feature updates made in the Oregon series, including: waypoint averaging, waypoint edit, Sight-n-Go (Dakota 20 only) Man Overboard and even the ability to custom name a map file, with the .img extension.                

Main Menu
The main menu scrolls your through four pages of options.  You can re-order which pages these options appear on in the "Setup" under "Main Menu"  Below you can see which options are available in the Dakota.  The main menu page also shows your battery strength as well as GPS reception.  Pressing the signal strength bars, will bring up the satellite page.


The Dakota has a high sensitive receiver which helps in both satellite acquisition and keeping a satellite lock.  It features what Garmin calls HotFix, which stores GPS almanac data, allowing for a quicker fix if the unit has been on in the past three days or so.  The Dakota gets a satellite lock very quickly if outside and usually has a satellite fix by the time the unit has finished starting up.  In a side by side test with the Oregon 550, the Dakota seems to read almost the exact same in the lat/long.  You can also operate the Dakota in Demo Mode by switching to it in the Setup under System.  You can then attempt to navigate to a location and simulate being at that location.  

The Dakota model can be customized by individual users to fit your own needs and preferences.  You can also select the background color of the menus in the Display setup.  Below are screen grabs of the setup menu.


The Profile system is a plus in my mind.  It allows you to switch between different mapsets, various settings or different uses, with just the touch of a button.  The profiles do keep the critical settings the same across all of the profiles.  I have my profiles setup to switch between mapsets and also to have terrain shading enabled or disabled. There are five default profiles, and you can edit those and create up to five more.  

Unfortunately, the unit does not come with anything but the basic basemap, but it does have coverage for the entire world.   The Dakota like other GPS units, are most effective with maps, which you must purchase separately.  I have loaded in Garmin's 100K TOPO product, (US TOPO 2008) as well as Garmin's 24K Southwest TOPO as well as some third party Garmin compatible TOPO maps with no issues at all.  Garmin is now selling TOPO maps online, some of which are available for download from  The list of 24K TOPO areas keeps getting longer.  With the new Garmin City xPlorer maps, you can get CityNav street maps for select cities, for about $10 per city.  While the Dakota is not compatible with the pedestrian capabilities of the CityXplorer maps, it is an inexpensive way to get street mapping for the city you live in or plan to visit. I have also found you can download CityNav maps for $59 from for the lower 49 U.S states.  Using your 10% discount for registering your Dakota, you can get it for $54.  This will only work with the Dakota 20 however, as you will need at least a 2GB microSD card loaded to have space for the 1.2GB City Navigator file.  You can also check out other third party map options which are Garmin compatible by searching the web.

Where To?
This menu is where you select your destination.  You can navigate recent finds, waypoints, tracks, Custom POI's in the Extra's section, or even input a lat/long coordinate.  If you add additional maps, you will have more map POI's to search from.


This image shows that with Garmin compatible maps, with autorouting capabilities, that the Dakota will build a turn by turn route for you and signal upcoming turns with a short audible tone.  This shows a screen grab using Garmin's Southwest 24K map product.

Compass (Dakota 20 only)
The compass is a 3-axis and allows you to get an accurate reading, regardless of how you hold the unit.  Previous Garmin models have required a user to hold the GPS level, to get an accurate reading.  The 3-axis allows you to get a reading by holding it in any position.  The compass does require three steps to properly calibrate it and in my experience with the Dakota, it is accurate within five degrees.  You should recalibrate it when you change batteries, several days without use and anytime you are concerned about getting an accurate reading.  The Dakota 20 also supports the Sight n Go feature, but this is not available in the Dakota 10.   If you navigate to a location using the off road mode in the routing settings, you will get an arrow showing you the direction to your destination.  You can also customize the fields on the compass page.


     Compass with new larger pointer                                        Sight n Go feature

As with other Garmin units, the electronic compass only activates when you slow down under 3 mph.  If you are going faster that 3 mph, it relies on the GPS generated heading for the compass arrow.  

Altimeter  (Dakota 20 only)
The Dakota 20 has a barometric altimeter to help with elevation.  It will self correct using the GPS generated altitude reading, but you can also calibrate it by either inputting the known elevation of your location or by putting in the current  barometric pressure.  The altimeter will also give you an x/y graph of your elevation change.  Height of altitude and distance traveled, can be adjusted, by pressing the scale area of the screen.   The Elevation page still needs some work, including the ability to plot an elevation location and then bring that location up on the map page.  This is possible in both the 60CSx and HCx series.  You have the option of plotting elevation and time, elevation and distance (shown below), barometric pressure or ambient pressure on the graph.


    Altimeter                                                    Elevation Plot

Trip Computer
The trip computer keeps track of trip data and you can customize each individual data field.  You can see the sunrise or sunset update at the top of the screen.  It will count you down in the day to sunset and at night to sunrise.  To reset the Trip Odometer, go to Setup and then Reset.  You cannot reset the overall Odometer reading, without doing a master reset.  There are a total now of four separate pages in the trip computer and you can customize each one.  There is also one dedicated to geocaching which is shown in the Geocaching explanation below.


Route Planner
This is where you can build routes for the Dakota.  You can select using waypoints, points of interest and by browsing the map and selecting map points.  The specs show you can load a total of 50 saved routes in your Dakota.  On the Active Route page, the Dakota will give you a turn by turn listings of your route, calculated with City Navigator or other Garmin autorouting capable maps

Share Wirelessly (Dakota 20 only)

The Dakota 20 is capable of exchanging waypoints, geocaches, routes or tracks between other Garmin compatible unit such as the Colorado or Oregon series or another Dakota 20.  This is a nice feature for exchanging data with friends or new friends you meet on the trail.  You can only connect to one unit at a time however and geocaches only transfer basic waypoint information. No description, hints or logs from geocaches can be exchanged.   You must be within ten feet to share the data wirelessly.


Mark Waypoint
To mark a location, you simply hit Mark Waypoint in the main menu.  You can then immediately save it with a default number, or save and edit, changing the waypoint name. The Dakota allows up to 1000 waypoints to be added.  The Dakota also supports waypoint averaging, which allows you to average a location already saved or when creating a new one.  Read Garmin's take on Waypoint Averaging here.

The Dakota allows up to 10,000 tracklog points and 200 saved tracks.  The Garmin Track manager also allows you to set the settings for each individual saved track, such as color, if you want it shown on the map at all times, etc.  Garmin has a track archive system which will automatically extend the 10,000 point limit.  Read more on archiving tracks from Garmin here.


Options for current tracklog                    Saved track showing road to cabin
                                                                    that is not on the map

Paperless Geocaching
The new Garmin models, Colorado, Oregon and Dakota are really geared to geocaching and geocachers seems to appreciate the features.  The Dakota has those same "paperless" geocaching features found in the Colorado/Oregon.  
The geocaches are stored separately from your waypoints.  To see the hint or logs, you must first navigate to that cache and then go back and hit the Geocache option in the Main Menu.  It will then bring up the geocaching features.   The Geocaching mode is very helpful if you are a premium member of, because you can get the cache information, including the last few logs and the hint automatically loaded into to your GPS.

                                                                                 Cache information                            Cache options                                    Cache log                                    Geocaching Computer

The Dakota 20 also supports "Field Notes."  What this means, is that when you are out in the field, you can input directly into your Dakota (under "Log Attempt") the outcome of the search for a cache, (found, did not find, needs repair) as well as any note you want uploaded on your geocaching account.  For example, TNLNSL (Took nothing, left nothing, signed log) and "enjoyed the cache" can be inputted into the Dakota at the cache.  When you get home, you then log onto and can import this data into your account if you are a premium member.  Be advised, you cannot delete a geocache on the Dakota itself.  You have to connect it to your computer in mass storage mode and then search for the geocache waypoint number and delete that .gpx file.  There is a limit of 200 .gpx files.  If you want to load more geocaches, then you have to use a Pocket Query.

Other Features

Hunt and Fish
The Dakotas have the Hunting and Fishing Almanacs and allow you to use your current or another location for the data by pressing the bullseye icon.

You can also access the sunrise/sunset data as well as lunar information.  This can also be down for a different location and you can use the find menu.

Alarm Clock (Dakota 20 only)
The alarm clock is a handy feature and will wake up if the unit is turned off to sound an alarm.    

The Dakota has a built in stopwatch.  

The Dakota has a calculator, but it does not offer scientific abilities.

There is a basic calendar in the unit, so you can see which date falls on which day of the week for not only future years, but past years.  You cannot save any information or data however, to a particular date.

Area Calculation
The Dakotas support Area Calculation.  You start the feature and then walk around the perimeter of the area you want to measure.  When you are finished, you will be prompted to enter the units you want it calculated in, such as feet, yards, miles, etc.

Other Observations

In taking the Dakota 20 out hiking, along with my Oregon 550 and the 60CSx, it did well in the canyon and also under trees.  However, the Dakota seemed to not get as good of reception as the other two units.  My theory is a different antenna is inside the Dakota than what is in the Oregon, even though they both apparently use the same GPS chipset.  I don't think it is anything to worry about myself, but it is an observation I noticed.  The back of the Dakota is different from the Oregon and snaps on well.  It will however be compatible with the carabineer lanyard, bicycle mount or auto mounts which are also compatible with the Oregon and Colorado series, despite the different shape.  I like the size and feel of the Dakota.  It is smaller and lighter and can easily wear it while hiking.  It is no different than carrying around a VistaHCx, but is a little smaller with a bigger screen and a touchscreen at that.

Bugs and Glitches
I have encountered some trouble when putting in rechargeable batteries and not changing the battery type setting in the setup from Alkaline.  When I did that, the issues stopped.  It also seems that you cannot send routes wirelessly between other Garmin units.  Waypoints, tracks and geocaches worked without any problem.  A fix in a firmware upgrade appears needed.

Area for Improvement
The Dakota appears to be a good solid unit and its development has benefited from the past year of improvements made to the Oregon models.  While there are some minor glitches, Garmin will hopefully fix these sooner than later in a firmware update.  It is too bad that Garmin does not include the same carabineer clip that comes with the Oregon, but you can purchase one separately, for another $13.   Other than that, there is not much to complain about, except for the price of the Dakota-- because the outdoor models remain at a higher price than the mid grade automotive units.


The Dakota series seems to be the next generation small handheld device, following in the footsteps of the eTrex series, including the Legend and Vista HCx.  Potential buyers of a Dakota will have to weigh the price and the reality of having to buy maps for the device and losing the screen quality they could get by spending more $$$ for an Oregon 400t.  
The Dakota however appears to fit into the mid-level handheld category and really does offer the latest important features in GPS navigation, as well as paperless geocaching, while being rugged enough for the outdoors.  The official Garmin Dakota page where you can see all of the specs on the unit is here and again here is the link to the online official Dakota manual.
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