How to Use a GPS Unit

A handheld GPS device is an excellent navigational tool for outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking and climbing. Of course, GPS won't do you much good if you don't know how to use it. Whether you have a basic tracking GPS or a more advanced mapping model, you'll want to understand the basics of its operation so that you can effectively use it in the wilderness.
How to Use a GPS Unit


Difficulty: Moderate

Step 1
Initialize the GPS. The first step in using any GPS unit is to turn it on and allow it to communicate with satellites to provide a location or fix. Take the device outside and hold it in front of you. Turn the unit on and wait. This could take several minutes. Once the GPS has acquired signals, it will calculate and display your location.
Step 2
Enter in a waypoint. A waypoint is a GPS destination that allows your GPS to provide you with a point-to-point distance and bearing. Use a recognizable landmark such as a park, trail merge or stream crossing. Enter in the coordinates of the waypoint and label it something specific that you'll remember such as "Sunrise Park." Save the waypoint so that you can access it in the future.
Step 3
Navigate to the waypoint. Hit the "Go To" or appropriate command on your GPS and allow the GPS to display the point-to-point distance and bearing so that you can navigate to it. Remember that this will be a direct route, and the route you actually travel will be less direct since trails don't usually lie in a straight line. However, you can always see how far away you are and the direction that you need to get to.
Step 4
Create a route using a series of waypoints. Enter in a variety of waypoints that you'll cross along your intended journey to get a more detailed, accurate route.
Step 5
Use your GPS to travel from point to point. Your GPS will give you a bearing and distance that you need to travel to reach your next waypoint. Use a map to determine the specific course that you need to travel on. Ensure that the distance to the waypoint, provided by the GPS, is decreasing, indicating that you are getting closer.
Step 6
Compare the coordinates on your GPS with your topographic map to ensure that you are traveling in the right direction. Mapping GPS units include software maps that allow you to overlay your location on an on-screen map, but you could also use a paper map to plot your location based on the coordinates provided by your GPS.
Step 7
Use GPS tracking to find your way home. GPS units can automatically record a series of track points (places you've traveled through) so that you can easily retrace your steps. Use the tracking feature when you stray off course or take a hike that you haven't designated using waypoints. The GPS will enter track points at specified intervals so that you can find your bearing and get back to your starting point. Set the GPS to track at a specified time or distance interval when you first decide to go "off the grid."

Tips & Warnings

Always enter the parking lot or trail head as a waypoint so that you can navigate back to it.
Use lithium batteries and carry an extra pair.
Depending on your GPS device, you can probably enter waypoints in a variety of ways, including coordinates, one-button entry of a location where you're standing and pointing to it on the mapping software.
GPS does not replace a map, compass and traditional navigation skills. GPS is not as reliable, and a map and compass should still be carried on any extended trip in the wilderness.
Your GPS unit needs a clear view of the sky to get a fix from satellites. If there is dense tree or rock coverage overhead, you may not be able to rely on your GPS.

Article Written By Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher has been a writer since 2002, starting his career in politics and legislation. He has written travel and outdoor recreation articles for a variety of print and online publications, including "Rocky Mountain Magazine" and "Bomb Snow." He received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Rutgers College.

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