How To Use a GPS for Hiking and Camping

While many of the features that a hiking GPS unit offers are cool to have, they are also not necessary for you to have an enjoyable hike. Some may even argue that using a GPS in the wild takes you away from the real experience of being in touch with nature. Others may say that GPS technology gives you a better understanding of the land you’re exploring.

any case, a hiking GPS should NEVER replace a simple magnetic compass and a paper trail map. Right when you need to find your way, your GPS batteries could be kaputsky. A magnetic compass won’t quit on you.

The Basic Functions of a Hiking GPS:

  • Giving Your Location

At the click of a button, your GPS device will tell you almost exactly where you are on the globe, using the UTM coordinate system.

The UTM coordinate system is an imaginary grid covering the entire globe. You can use your location in coordinates to find your position on a topographic map since most use the same UTM coordinate system.

  • Point-to-Point Navigation

You can tell the GPS receiver the location of point A, point B, etc. and it will point you towards each location and tell you how far you have to go. Each location is called a “Waypoint” and has specific coordinates.

A Simple Example Using Waypoints:

To start, let’s plug in the waypoint for a trailhead. Let’s say: 37°43’06.79″N by 122°07’48.95″W. As you can see, the coordinates have a reference on the North-South axis and one on the East-West axis. The first point will either be North in the Northern Hemisphere, or South in the Southern Hemisphere. Same goes for the second—either East or West. They are also divided into degrees ° , minutes ‘ , and seconds ” .) Then I’ll plug in a waypoint for a campground using a second set of specific coordinates. Now, when I enter the park, I can tell my hiking GPS to lead me to waypoint 1 (trailhead). An arrow on the screen will point in the direction of those coordinates until I get there. From the trailhead, the GPS unit can point me to waypoint 2 (campground). The downside of this method is that the GPS will point to the waypoints in a straight line, or “as the crow flies.” Since most of us don’t have wings and are stuck to hoofing it on trails that are rarely straight, it takes a little brainwork on your part to figure out the actual walking path. Over flat open terrain, like a desert or plain, this might be less of a problem. Using a paper trail map to compare to the arrow on your GPS screen makes navigation easier. That is, if you don’t have trail information already uploaded to your GPS receiver.

  • Plot Navigation

Taking waypoints one step further, you can plan your whole route before you take a step on the trails. Using map information, you can plug in a sequence of coordinates into your hiking GPS. Many GPS units come with access to route management software to aid in this process. Planning your trek is much easier to do at home, so when you hit the trails, just hit “Go” on your device and you’re all set.

  • Leaving a Track

This is one of the handiest and coolest features of using a hiking GPS on your treks. Unlike a route, which tells where you are going, this feature tells you where you have been. You can program your hiking GPS to record your location at intervals, say every three minutes, for example. By the end of your hike, or at any moment, you can view the track you have left since you started, just like a trail of breadcrumbs. How is that useful? Well, for one if you get lost. Just follow the track you left back to your starting point. Even in the dark, you are sure to get back to the trailhead. (If you have enough light and battery juice, of course!) Besides finding your way back, leaving a track also lends itself to lots of other useful, fun, and interesting data about your hike: such as, view your average speed view altitude change see graphs showing your overall hike, including speed, altitude, and more know the total distance of your hike, and calories burned …just to name a few.