Elevation: accuracy of a Garmin Edge 800 GPS device

I use a Garmin 800 GPS device to log my cycling activity. including my commutes. Since I have now built up nearly 4 years of cycling the same route, I had a good dataset to look at how accurate the device is.

I wrote some code to import all of the rides tagged with commute in rubiTrack 4 Pro (technical details are below). These tracks needed categorising so that they could be compared. Then I plotted them out as a gizmo in Igor Pro and compared them to a reference data set which I obtained via GPS Visualiser.


The reference dataset is black. Showing the “true” elevation at those particular latitude and longitude coordinates. Plotted on to that are the commute tracks coloured red-white-blue according to longitude. You can see that there are a range of elevations recorded by the device, apart from a few outliers they are mostly accurate but offset. This is strange because I have the elevation of the start and end points saved in the device and I thought it changed the altitude it was measuring to these elevation positions when recording the track, obviously not.

abcTo look at the error in the device I plotted out the difference in the measured altitude at a given location versus the true elevation. For each route (to and from work) a histogram of elevation differences is shown to the right. The average difference is 8 m for the commute in and 4 m for the commute back. This is quite a lot considering that all of this is only ~100 m above sea level. The standard deviation is 43 m for the commute in and 26 m for the way back.


This post at VeloViewer comparing GPS data on Strava from pro-cyclists riding the St15 of 2015 Giro d’Italia sprang to mind. Some GPS devices performed OK, whereas others (including Garmin) did less well. The idea in that post is that rain affects the recording of some units. This could be true and although I live in a rainy country, I doubt it can account for the inaccuracies recorded here. Bear in mind that that stage was over some big changes in altitude and my recordings, very little. On the other hand, there are very few tracks in that post whereas there is lots of data here.

startmidIt’s interesting that the data is worse going in to work than coming back. I do set off quite early in the morning and it is colder etc first thing which might mean the unit doesn’t behave as well for the commute to work. Both to and from work tracks vary most in lat/lon recordings at the start of the track which suggests that the unit is slow to get an exact location – something every Garmin user can attest to. Although I always wait until it has a fix before setting off. The final two plots show what the beginning of the return from work looks like for location accuracy (travelling east to west) compared to a midway section of the same commute (right). This might mean the the inaccuracy at the start determines how inaccurate the track is. As I mentioned, the elevation is set for start and end points. Perhaps if the lat/lon is too far from the endpoint it fails to collect the correct elevation.


I’m disappointed with the accuracy of the device. However, I have no idea whether other GPS units (including phones) would outperform the Garmin Edge 800 or even if later Garmin models are better. This is a good but limited dataset. A similar analysis would be possible on a huge dataset (e.g. all strava data) which would reveal the best and worst GPS devices and/or the best conditions for recording the most accurate data.

Technical details

I described how to get GPX tracks from rubiTrack 4 Pro into Igor and how to crunch them in a previous post. I modified the code to get elevation data out from the cycling tracks and generally made the code slightly more robust. This left me with 1,200 tracks. My commutes are varied. I frequently go from A to C via B and from C to A via D which is a loop (this is what is shown here). But I also go A to C via D, C to A via B and then I also often extend the commute to include 30 km of Warwickshire countryside. The tracks could be categorized by testing whether they began at A or C (this rejected some partial routes) and then testing whether they passed through B or D. These could then be plotted and checked visually for any routes which went off course, there were none. The key here is to pick the right B and D points. To calculate the differences in elevation, the simplest thing was to get GPS Visualiser to tell me what the elevation should be for all the points I had. I was surprised that the API could do half a million points without complaining. This was sufficient to do the rest. Note that the comparisons needed to be done as lat/lon versus elevation because due to differences in speed, time or trackpoint number lead to inherent differences in lat/lon (and elevation). Note also due to the small scale I didn’t bother converting lat/lon into flat earth kilometres.

The post title comes from “Elevation” by Television, which can be found on the classic “Marquee Moon” LP.


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