Using a Garmin eTrex with a Macintosh

Summary: Got my Garmin GPSs to work with both Linux and my Mac

The Garmin eTrex series consists of decent, full featured handheld GPS units. The cheaper monochrome eTrex models have a basic RS-232 serial interface, and the color eTrex models sport USB connectivity.

In this article I'll talk about my experience with connecting both USB and serial port versions of the eTrex series to my Mac and to my Linux-based PC.

I personally use the Garmin Vista HCx GPS now, but the other Garmins in the eTrex series, including the inexpensive but well specified Garmin eTrex Venture should work the same way.

Dealing with the eTrex Series with USB:

Most of the eTrex units with a color screen have a USB port on the back. Happily, this USB port uses a common USB connector, so it is easy to physically connect a USB eTrex to a Mac or a PC running Linux.

Garmin eTrex VistaC USB PortThe USB Port on an eTrex

I have found two pieces of software perfect for use with a USB eTrex, without the need for special drivers: GPSBabel+ and Google Earth.

The Mac version of the freeware program "GPSBabel+" can natively read and write waypoint, track, and route data directly from the eTrex. I simply connect my GPS to my Mac via the standard USB cable. Once connected, I start up GPSBabel+.

GPSBabel+ can then be used to easily import and export waypoint and track data from the GPS. Simply choose "Use GPS receiver for input" or "output", choose "Convert", and then select the "Garmin USB" port. No special drivers or software beyond GPSBabel+ required.

Google Earth can communicate with the eTrex in real time, plotting your location on the fancy Google Earth map. In addition, like GPSBabel+, Google Earth can download routes, tracks, and waypoints from the eTrex and plot them on the Google Earth map.

Google Earth loading data from my eTrex

I have had good luck with Linux too.
I'm running Fedora Core with the latest updates, and find that it too can communicate with the USB eTrex series without issue. No kernel recompiles were required. Yay! I simply plug the thing into a USB port and then execute this command:

gpspoint -p /dev/ttyUSB0 -da -dt -dr -dw > gpsdata.gpd

With this command, all of the routes, tracks and waypoints are sucked down from the Garmin into a text file. From there, I can convert the file into any form I wish. I particularly like the open-source program Viking.

non-USB eTrex GPS on my Mac or Linux

I found that I could easily hook up the dirt cheap eTrex models, like the Garmin eTrex H and the other eTrex models that sport a serial interface.

My classic eTrex Legend is such a device. It's a nice GPS, but modern Macs and most modern PCs don't include near-obsolete serial ports. Happily, there is a simple and inexpensive solution - an eTrex serial cable with a reasonably good, low-cost USB to Serial Adapter.

Serial to USB convert, used with Mac and LinuxMy USB to Serial Adapter

I had to install the drivers for the USB converter onto the Mac. Once I did, good old GPSBabel+ was able to read and write to the GPS. Under Fedora Core Linux, the OS already had the driver for the USB converter. I just had to change my device settings and I was good to go!

[Note: updated on 8-Feb-2010 with more recent information]


---ryan said...

Great post. I too have an old Legend. I also use it for biking (with the bike mount), along with geocaches. The serial port access always bugged me. I was excited to see that I can convert it to USB. Thanks for the info.

Jake said...

Maybe you can help me. I purchased an eTrex vista cx and I can't seem to get it to mount. I tried installing gpsbabel+ but cannot seem to get the Garmin to "show up". What am I missing?
I note you referred to a USB driver .. do I need to find a driver? (running OS 10.4.8)

LanceJ said...

Hi Jake, I have a Vista CX and it works great with the Mac. After installing GPSBabel+, I simply (1) plug in my Vista via USB and turn it on, (2) Go into GPSBabel+'s "Quick" mode, and use the input options of "garmin" and "usb". (3) Select an output file type, and then choose "Save File...".

From there, GPSBabel+ connects to the Vista, pulls the data across (it can take up to a minute if you have a lot of data), and sticks it into the file of your choice.

Good luck! -- Lance.

Nancy said...

I know this is an old post, but I bought the "inexpensive adaptor" from Cables Unlimited as you recommended. It came with a tiny CD that I don't think I can put in my superdrive. I hunted for a driver online and came up with a few options. Nothing seems to work. Can you give me more advice. I am connected an etrex vista monochrome to a macbook running snow leopard.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nancy,

Did you resolve your problem?
I have the same issue.


Anonymous said...

I have a very early Etrex Legend. I just bought a USB / Serial cable with the Prolific chipset. My Mac (10.8) sees it but my GPS no matter HOW I configure it still remains invisible. This is trying to see the GPS using Garmin Software, like Basecamp.

Is Babelgps the solution?