How to Choose and Use a Hiking GPS
Learn why a handheld GPS device will make a big impact in your next hiking or backpacking trip. Tackle new trails with a great wayfinding tool.
The jury is still out as to whether a smartphone or handheld GPS is the best option for outdoor navigation, but one thing is crystal-clear: you never want to get lost when hiking or backpacking.
Thankfully, we live in a day and age where we have options. Sure, some diehards may choose their path based on the position of the sun or by checking where the moss grows, but the average dayhiker or aspiring thru-hiker need not resort to such ways. With a little bit of basic training, proper GPS device selection and practice, most every outdoorsman and woman can plot their route, stay on course, and return home safely. Not to mention all the fun perks of wayfinding with these handy little things.
What is a GPS Device?
For starters, a GPS or Global Positioning System is a satellite navigation device that allows users to accurately pinpoint their position to within approximately 10 feet in most cases. Nowadays, GPS devices and GPS technology are everywhere. From onboard navigation elements in cars to apps, personal drones, and even the military, global positioning systems have become an integral component in the way many everyday items accurately get around the world.
A handheld GPS is just that – a device roughly the size of a walkie-talkie that communicates locational information straight to its user’s hand via satellite. These devices are more portable and compact than ever before and are quickly becoming a hiking essential in every outdoor pack.
Hiking with a GPS Device
From seasoned explorers to weekend warriors, the benefits of using a personal GPS device are pretty astounding. A handheld GPS blends the traditional perks of traveling with a compass with the agility and dynamic options of a modern smartphone. This allows hikers, backpackers, and other backcountry enthusiasts the opportunity to plan and replay their experiences in real time.
Planning the Hike
Many modern GPS devices come equipped with onboard trail-plotting software and downloadable maps. This allows users to:
- place routes
- establish landmarks and checkpoints (aka “waypoints”)
- gauge topographical hurdles
This virtual “preview” makes planning a hike and assessing the energy necessary to tackling the path easier than ever before. Moreover, hikers and backpackers can export their chosen routes and share them with others on their adventure as well as friend or family at home to make sure everyone is on the same page about the plan of attack.
Wayfinding On the Trail
Global Positioning Systems are useful before a trip and after, but they’re a real lifesaver when you’re in a pinch. Whether you’ve inadvertently ventured way off trail, the weather has reduced your visibility, or you can’t locate landmarks you’d really banked on, a GPS device may quickly provide:
- altitude – your height above sea level
- direction – are you heading north, south, east, west or somewhere in between?
- position – your relative coordinates (latitude and longitude)
- communication – text or spoken communication via a two-way radio with civilization or emergency services
Access to this information gives valuable context and problem-solving options for those who’ve lost their way. Users can work backwards to retrace steps, locate alternative routes, and course-correct on the fly with visibility and assurance that they’re making proper decisions.
This data becomes even more valuable in the unfortunate event that there is an injury or emergency rescue necessary in backcountry, on the slopes or in a canyon. This real-time positioning information allows responders to rush directly to the relative source of an accident or emergency situation to help those in need.
Reliving the Trip
Ever plan on re-creating a trip or returning to a key vantage point, campsite or landmark? GPS devices allow hikers to keep track of all that and more, including things like:
- miles covered
- average speed
- elevation change
This information becomes very valuable to those who want to improve their performance over time and for those who want to revisit or amend a wonderful outing in the future.
GPS Basics and How to Use
Technology is your friend. Don’t be intimidated by the configuration or operation of your GPS device. A little practice in a city park or along a local hiking trail ought to be enough to familiarize yourself with its capabilities.
Functionality will differ by device, but typically you’ll want to:
- Make sure the navigation device is fully charged
- Power up the GPS device
- Sync with satellites and wipe out any residual trip data from previous outings
- Set trail markers and waypoints along your desired path
- Program additional features (like the barometer and compass)
It’s highly recommended you practice in an open space free of dense tree coverage or anything else that might interrupt your signal. Refer to the user’s manual that comes with the device to learn more.
- Did you bring reserve batteries or a way to recharge?
- Have you pre-loaded necessary maps and/or routes?
- Do you have ample data/memory for the trip at hand?
- Have you told someone close where you’re headed?
- Do you have a backup navigation tool like a compass?
- Are you bringing a good old-fashioned map or a photo of it at the very least?
- Are you familiar with key landmarks and the general lay of the land?
- If you’re not fully versed in the device just yet, are you bringing the manual?
- Have you practiced using the device on a local walking path or hiking trail?
- Would you be comfortable with your chosen destination without a GPS device?
If you answered “no” to any of these, you may want to reconsider the trip.
Don’t Forget the Fundamentals
To be frank, don’t let a little device lead to a big head. Yes, GPS devices improve modern wayfinding for hikers and backpackers, but this does not mean that you should blaze new trails without doing your homework. And you should always stay on established trails if they’re available. Finally, trust your instincts and plan trips to destinations that are within your abilities to the best of your reasoning. This includes taking into account things like weather, duration, access to water and other elements that might impact your outing.
Batteries fail, devices can break, signals can disconnect and you do not want to find yourself lost in a foreign land.
How to Choose the Right GPS
Fundamentally, all GPS devices are designed for basic locating. There are however, many bells and whistles that make choosing the right device a bit more complex. You’ll certainly want to take into consideration GPS features like:
- battery life and charging options
- total memory
- durability and waterproofness
- touchscreen and display (some models even have glove-friendly touchscreens)
- compatibility with other devices and software
There are a ton of GPS manufacturers in the market, but some of the big ones include Garmin, DeLorme, Bushnell, and Magellan. Nothing works as well as the device that works best for you, so shop around, ask sales personnel to point out key differences, and make an educated purchase.
GPS vs. Smartphone Navigation
This question is the subject of heated debate. Some hikers swear by smartphones, but the answer really depends on where you’re headed, which phone you carry, the coverage and access of your provider, the wayfinding apps you prefer, and how carefully you monitor battery life.
I’ve used a mix of both, and skew toward the GPS camp based purely on a few experiences where my service signal fell short on my smartphone. There’s no scarier feeling than being way down in a slot canyon with little more knowledge than which way is up and down. I much prefer putting my phone on airplane mode to preserve battery, and using the camera function to snag virtual memories along the way. But again, it is nice to know there are options.
Now pack up, and get out there. Embrace a little technology and tackle more trails.