Information: Handheld GPS Units and Hiking

You are never lost if you don’t care where you are. Most of us though, do care. I am a great believer in handheld GPS units. I have been using one since 2003. A handheld GPS unit is designed to be used outdoors, unlike the unit you find in cars. The newer units are quite sophisticated, actual much more than is necessary. GPS units are like cars, there are a mess of manufacturers and models out there, each one appealing to different types of people. I use mine for both hiking and Geocaching. I can not really tell you which one to buy, I currently have a Garmin 60cx and am quite pleased with it. If you search the Internet you will find a great deal of information about GPS units, so I will not go into details about anything you can find out just by doing a little research. Make sure you set your unit up to your tastes, everyone seems to like the data presented in a different fashion - that is not a problem as long as you understand it! What I'm going to talk about is using your unit for hiking. Every GPS unit has the following basic functionality -
  • Determine your current longitude and latitude - one use for this is if you ever get lost and have to call for help, you just have to provide your rescuers with the lat/lon and they can get to you
  • "Mark" your current position (called a waypoint) - this is used for future reference or as a place to possibly get back to, like the parking area
  • Keep track of where you have been - these are called "tracks". These are used to reference where you have been or a means to "backtrack" if you get lost
This is my hiking GPS regiment - Before the hike begins I do this -
  • Clear out all waypoints and tracks (reseting both)
  • Download any tracks and waypoints I might need on the hike (normally only waypoints of places I might want to go to)
  • Recharge the batteries (I only use rechargeable batteries)
  • Pack it in a place where I won't forget it
When I get to the hiking site and I'm all ready to use it -
  • Turn unit on, wait for satellite reception (must have that)
  • If nothing has been downloaded, I will reset the unit one more time - cleaning out tracks and waypoints - I always reset the "trip computer" function so I know at all times how far I have hiked
  • Create a waypoint of where the car is parked - "mark the spot"
  • Start the hike
As I'm hiking -
  • I will check the map screen every so often to see how my tracks are - you should see a line on the screen showing where you have gone
  • "Mark" waypoints of different spots along the trail - this could be an interesting spot, a place where the trail splits, where I saw a certain flower or animal, where I had lunch - whatever I feel might be good to look back at later or I might need to get back too. I enter a short name for each waypoint I enter.
  • At times, use the unit to bring me to a preentered destination or bring me back to a previous entered destination, like the parking area. This function is what I use it for mostly.
  • If necessary, I can always use the tracks data to figure out where the trail I took is and how to get back to it. There is a true "backtrack" function, but that is really only used in case you really, really get lost.
End of hike -
  • I always turn the unit off when I get back to the car, this preserves the trip data (mileage, walking time, stopped time, avg speed etc). If I am going to use the unit on another hike that day, I write down the trip data so I can record each hikes data when I get home
When I get home -
  • Download all the data to my PC (I use Garmin's Mapsource Program)
  • Edit all the waypoint names I entered in the field (example: pk1 is changed to parking)
  • Save the cleaned up waypoints and tracks to a file and place it in a "hiking" folder for future reference
  • Pass the tracks and waypoints to Google Earth so I can see what my hiked looked like from that viewpoint
That is pretty much how I use my GPS for hiking. This may seem like a lot of things to do, but most of them are necessary to insure that you don't get lost on a hike. I must say it again, I love my GPS! I wouldn't go out in the woods depending on instincts alone - if for no other reason help can be told exactly where you are. There are some specialty units out there which can actually report your positions to family and/or friends on a "realtime" basis. They can see where you are on their computer screens. This was as of 2009, who knows what is available as you read this. Please consider buying a GPS and then make sure you learn how to use it. If you have one already and are not using it, learn how to use it. Like everything in this world, handheld GPS units improve each year. The one thing you should make sure your unit has is a "high sensitivity" chipset. These chipsets do a much better job of determining your lat/lon than older chipsets. I have helped many, many people with their GPS units - in almost all cases they learned to use them and feel much more secure in the field. I certainly haven't learned all the functions of my units, so the reference manual is always available if needed. So learn how to do the above things and keep the reference manual for backup. Happy and safe trails to all!


Luciano said...

Just wanted to say that your website has provided me with a wealth of information. Thank you for your dedication and contribution.

Tom Choma said...

Thanks for the feedback Luciano, just trying to help people out....happy trails