Guest post: Top tips for using a GPS to improve your hiking experience by John Lewis of Epic Wilderness


Photo: Rositsa Jeliazkova

Successful hiking means different things to different people. Experienced hikers might always be striving to finish a trail in less time while more casual hikers may just want to enjoy getting into nature. However, no matter what your hiking goals are, you don’t want to have to worry about getting lost. Owning and understanding how to use a GPS system can help you overcome any anxiety concerning not being lost.

Here are some fun facts about your GPS. The Global Positioning System is made out of 3 parts: satellites, ground stations and GPS receivers. Its function is to accurately determine your elevation above sea level, your latitude and longitude. Usually satellite signals emit two different frequencies: 1228 and 1575 MHz.

Here is a video that shows how a GPS works.

Tip 1: Utilize the scouting feature

Scouting is a useful GPS feature, especially when you are hiking in an unfamiliar area. As author Mark Hicks puts it in this article, “My handheld GPS has a far better memory than I have.” How do you use this feature? First, you have to access your computer to explore 3-Dimensional or topographical maps using resources like Google Maps. Then, when you are researching trail maps and wilderness areas, you can mark spots of interest and then import them as waypoints into your handheld GPS units.  I like to use this method because of its simplicity, where it can effectively tell me where I should go. Remember to do your homework before your next hike!

This video explains “scouting” in greater detail.

Tip 2: Explore available navigation methods

Most handheld GPS receivers come with a variety of navigation methods. Some hikers may be more comfortable using a 3D map navigational method while others may prefer following the waypoints they have set.

I like to use the 3D map navigational method when I am searching for places to explore. But when I am hiking on the trail, I like to keep things simple by following the waypoints, so I can focus on my surroundings by not having to worry if I’m off course.

Tip 3: Remember to update your unit’s software

Often times your GPS manufacturer will provide free updates for your unit. These can help make your handheld receiver function more smoothly and fix glitches in the system.

It is usually simple to update your software; the specifics depend on the manufacturer. For example, Garmin users have to install Garmin Express into your computer and get an account to access all the updates while for Megallan users, the updates will usually appear on the support page.

Despite getting free firmware updates, you may need to pay a fee to update maps. Updating maps is important to allow you to navigate with your GPS effectively. For information about updating maps for free, click here.

Tip 4: Having a distress signal with you to keep yourself safe

There are two kinds of transmitters used by wilderness explorers: personal locator beacons (PLBs) and satellite messengers. Usually, we avoid using personal locator beacons because it should only be utilized when we are faced with a really dangerous situation. It utilizes the Distress Alerting Satellite System (DASS), which is tracked by NASA.

Usually, satellite messengers are a better choice. If the rescuers already know your location, they can just focus on the ‘rescuing’ part of the process. Having a satellite messenger by your side will definitely make you feel safe. This article notes, “for most unites, PLB activation means ‘life threatening emergency.'”

This link explains the differences between personal locator beacons and satellite messengers, and when it might be better to have one than the other.

What should you look for in a GPS receiver?

Your ideal model and features may depend on your needs and goals, but there are several characteristics that are essential for anyone. Your receiver should a display that is clearly visible even in poor lighting conditions. It should be lightweight enough to carry easily. It must have enough storage to keep all your waypoints. For more information about what features to look for in a GPS unit, click here and here.

Having a handheld GPS receiver and understanding how to use it can be very beneficial to you as a hiker. You can be safe outside cellphone coverage, you are capable of better understanding your surroundings and you can navigate your trail with ease.

If you have any ideas you want to share, feel free to comment below.

John Lewis is a blogger, survivalist and outdoor enthusiast. You can find him online at Epic Wilderness, on Facebook and on Twitter.

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