Take a Hike With Your Portable GPS

Hiking is one of the most popular activities to arise from the GPS craze. But while it’s certainly a fun activity, it’s not as easy as it seems. If you’re thinking of taking your GPS for a hike, read these tips to help you get started.

The advent of the portable GPS has made hiking a hobby for everyone. With no fear of getting lost or losing touch, many people have taken to the woods and picked up this sport, their handy GPS unit in tow. If you’re looking for something fun to do with your portable GPS, hiking should definitely be on top of your list.

But don’t grab those hiking shoes just yet. GPS hiking may be simple, but it’s certainly not easy. For one thing, not just any GPS unit will do—you need certain features to suit the high demands of the outdoors. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re trying out GPS hiking.

Choose the right unit.

Your GPS receiver should have an actual map screen, not just a numerical latitude/longitude indicator. This makes it easier to see where you are in relation to your source, destination, and other reference points. You should be able to store personal waypoints, so you don’t have to rely on popular landmarks which may be a considerable distance from your area. There should also be a route feature—some units can store up to 50, but 20 will do in most situations. A long battery life (or at least a spare battery) also helps if you’re planning long hikes of two or more full days.

Know your terms.

If this is your first GPS unit, you may encounter three familiar but confusing terms: bearing, heading, and distance. These three are used to calculate your exact location and direction, and help you determine where you should go next. Bearing refers to the distance between you and your next waypoint; heading is the direction in which you are moving; and distance indicates the number of miles between you and certain reference points (other waypoints, your starting point, or your destination). To make sense of the data, you need to determine your actual direction using a separate compass.

Mark your starting point.

Never forget to mark the point where you started—it’s essential for staying on track and finding your way back if you get lost. You’ll be marking key areas in your route relative to your starting point, so accuracy is very important. Be sure to mark it clearly so you don’t confuse it with other waypoints. If you’re new to the whole mapping thing, try starting at a well-known waypoint—your GPS receiver should indicate some of the more popular landmarks.

Use magnetic deviation.

Most GPS receivers can track in True North or Magnetic North. Magnetic North is calculated according to your current position, which means it may vary a few degrees from the actual magnetic north. However, most receivers are fairly accurate and the gap doesn’t make much of a difference. Unless you’re absolutely sure about your magnetic location (few people are), set your GPS to magnetic north and use it to coordinate with your compass.

Leave room for error.

Selective Availability, a feature introduced by the US Defense Department to wad off missiles, can cause intentional errors to appear in your readings. The difference will seldom exceed 0.1 miles, but interference can sometimes cause a difference of up to 0.25 miles. Take this into account when doing your readings, especially during bad weather.

Bring backup.

Your GPS may be extremely helpful, but it’s not going to help all the time. When you get into trouble, run out of supplies, or become hopelessly lost, you need other tools in your arsenal to straighten things out. Besides your receiver, make sure to bring a form of communication (a radio or mobile phone), spare supplies, a first-aid kit, and a paper map you can follow in case your GPS fails.