Regardless of whether you are a seasoned explorer or a weekend warrior, the benefits of using a GPS are far too great to be ignored.
However, as a backpacker, you might be wondering how to use a GPS for hiking and how to ensure you get the most from your hike.
Why use a GPS for hiking?
If you use a GPS while hiking, you will have all the great perks of a traditional compass, but you’ll also have more agility in a device that offers almost as many features as a modern smartphone.
Although there is a big debate on whether a smartphone or handheld GPS is the best option for hiking navigation, one thing we do know is that getting lost is the LAST thing you want to do. Gone are the days where you need to rely on the position of the sun as a means of navigation.
Using modern GPS units isn’t rocket science and makes it easy for just about anyone to plot their route, stay on course, and get to where they need to be. Not sure how it works? Here’s a quick guide on what a GPS does, why it doesn’t need Wi-Fi to work, and what kind of features to look out for when investing in your first GPS!
What do GPS devices do?
A GPS (Global Positioning System) is a satellite navigation gadget that pinpoints your position. A handheld GPS is almost the size of a smartphone has the ability to effortlessly communicate with satellites to give the user extremely accurate location information.
Your GPS can be extremely helpful on your hike for three main reasons. These include:
Most GPS devices come with preloaded trail-plotting software and downloadable maps that’ll help you establish waypoints, topographical hurdles, and routes. You’ll also be able to share your planned hike with friends and family to ensure everyone knows exactly where you’ll be exploring.
It might be fun to take a stroll off the beaten track occasionally, but it’s no fun wandering around for hours with no clue where you are. And that’s exactly where a GPS comes it. It documents everything from altitude to direction and coordinated. Some GPS units also sport communication features so you can reach out for help when you need it most.
If you like reviewing details like mileage, average speed, and elevation change from your recent trips, GPS is a great tool that can help you relive the best hikes.
How does GPS work without the internet?
Your GPS is reliant on three major components: the receiver, preloaded maps, and the navigation system. The receiver is a one-way communication that receives satellite signals to determine your longitude and latitude coordinates.
When you buy a GPS, it comes preloaded with maps that include details of landscapes like landmarks, streets, and parks. Although you can download additional maps when you’re connected to the web, you don’t need to be connected to use the preloaded maps.
The navigation system is what brings the receiver and the preloaded maps together and keeps track of your movement. The nav system also calculates your movements and gives you complete details about your trip.
In short, GPS is a primary, straightforward, and very efficient system that functions with the help of preloaded map data and satellite signals. It’s probably one of the only modern gadgets that don’t require internet connection.
Why is my GPS not working?
Handheld GPS devices are man-made, and just like most other man-made products, they can go a little haywire from time to time. If you’re having issues with your GPS, one of these issues might be to blame:
Your GPS uses satellite signals to accurately pinpoint your location and provide you with handy information, but these signals are also sensitive. Often, things like buildings can deflect these signals and hinder efficient tracking. If your GPS is unable to navigate, move to an area where you can see the sky so it can restore its signal.
It’s in Power Saver mode
Power Saver Mode can sometimes cause issues with a GPS’s ability to work effectively. If your GPS isn’t working, make sure it’s not in Battery Saving Mode.
Corrupted data files
It’s possible for old files to get corrupted which can prevent your GPS from operating the way it should.to make sure everything is working the way it's supposed to, you should clean up old caches and data from time to time.
How to choose a GPS
A handheld GPS is one of the best ways to find your way through unfamiliar terrain when you’re hiking. While you might have been considering the idea of using a smartphone for navigational assistance, handheld GPS devices are much more useful, durable and have a much longer battery life than your phone ever will.
When you compare handheld GPS devices to GPS-enabled watches, the handheld unit still reigns supreme because it gives the user a better overview of the terrain including detailed maps. Most GPS-enabled watches just show info like location and direction of travel.
While all GPS devices were designed for basic locating, there are a lot of bells and whistles that can make choosing the right GPS a bit daunting. Here are some of the features to be on the lookout for when choosing a GPS:
Hiking GPS devices that are equipped with GPS, GLONASS, and HotFix are the cream of the crop and guarantee consistent coverage, even in areas that aren’t ideal. It’s important to pick a GPS that offers great satellite coverage if you like wandering into the “grey” areas of the maps.
Hikers are known for exploring the great outdoors regardless of what the terrain and conditions look like. When picking a new GPS, you really need something that’s rugged, durable, and waterproof.
Ease of use
This one should go without saying because the easier your device is to use, the more motivated you’ll be to reach your destination. Are the maps on the device easy to read? Will you be able to download additional maps with ease? How user friendly is the device when it comes to navigating the menus and settings?
For obvious reasons, battery life is one of the most important considerations when buying a hiking GPS. Most handheld units offer anything between 16 and 22 hours of battery life but investing in a unit that offers the possibility of using external batteries is always a better choice.
Altimeter & barometer combo
All GPS units can indicate your altitude based on satellite data but investing in a handheld GPS that sports a barometer/altimeter feature means you’ll get much more accurate elevation readings. With this feature, you’ll also be able to keep an eye on weather trends.
Wireless data transfer
If you like the idea of sharing track data, waypoints, and routes with your friends and family, this is a great feature to have in your GPS.
Your GPS can tell you in what direction you’re heading as you move around, but a handheld GPS with a built-in electronic compass can also tell you which direction you’re facing while you’re not moving. This is a great tool to help you plan your hike ahead while taking a rest stop.
Most GPS units available on the market have geocaching features that allow for paperless geocaching and managing your discovered caches.
Some handheld GPS devices allow unit-to-unit calls, making it easy to communicate with other members of your group. This feature is also a great tool if you’re keen on receiving NOAA weather-radio forecasts.
Some hiking GPS devices are comparable to basic phone cameras and allow geotagging photos so you can recap on where on the map you took which photos.
GPS technology is everywhere to be found nowadays, and it’s something you can’t afford to hit the hiking trail without. It’s an essential outdoor tool that will give you vital info on where you are, where you’ve been, and how to get to where you want to be.
We’ve covered the basics of pretty much everything you need to know including how GPS units work, what to do if they don’t work, and what considerations to keep in mind when investing in a hiking GPS.
- 1 Why use a GPS for hiking?
- 2 What do GPS devices do?
- 3 How does GPS work without the internet?
- 4 Why is my GPS not working?
- 5 How to choose a GPS
- 6 Final thoughts