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Reader Poll: Do you know how to use your GPS?

How to Use a GPS
How to Use a GPS

I had a reader contact me recently who wanted to learn how to use her GPS.  She wrote:

[quote]I have had a GPS for a year and can’t figure it out.[/quote]

That got me thinking – there must be other people out there in the same boat. I know this is a potentially embarrassing topic, but please share your experience .

  • How many of you own a GPS and don’t know how to use it?
  • Were the directions that came with the GPS unit too difficult to understand or do you learn by being taught something?
  • Did you seek out other ways to learn how to use your GPS? Which were the most useful for you?
    • Can you recommend a book that teaches how to use a GPS?
    • Did you learn how to use a GPS from REI, your scout troop, or some other school you’d recommend?
  • Did you have to buy other products such as digital maps that cost more than you expected?
  • What are the main functions you use your GPS for?
  • Do you plot your course on a map and in your GPS when you go for a hike, or just in your GPS?

Personally, I own a GPS, but a very ancient Garmin Gecko 301 which I only use to measure elevation or take periodic grid fixes when I want to double-check my map position.  I taught myself how to use it, though with some difficulty, and rarely carry it. As far as I know, you can’t load maps onto it. I’ve avoided upgrading to a more modern GPS because I’m a bit intimidated by the whole technology thing which seems amazingly confusing and time consuming. I have problems clearing paper jams in copy machines, so I steer clear of complex electronics whenever possible.

How about you? Please share your own GPS experiences in a comment.

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26 comments

  1. I have an old Delorme PN-20. I believe they are up to the PN-60 now. It did not come with a manual but there is one on line. The GPS was relatively easy to learn but the mapping software you load on your computer is a little more challenging. I have used the software to create my own maps and routes and I have also created routes with the GPS while hiking and then downloaded to my computer later.

    My primary purpose for the GPS was for use in hunting areas where I am mostly bushwacking. On well established trails I generally leave it behind though I may review the mapping software and create my own map. The PN-20 has detailed maps with contour lines and color features. Last weekend I took a group of Girl Scouts geocaching. The troop had inexpensive Garmin units without maps that would basically provide distances and headings. Without a map feature the value was limited. A unit like this has to be used with paper map to be of much use. Even with the map GPS coordinates don’t usually relate to trail maps.

    I really like my Delorme GPS but it isn’t something you can take out of the package and use immediately. You have to load the software and then load specific maps to the GPS. This may be different on newer units.

    • I’ve always been unimpressed by the maps that come with many GPS units. They are based on very old mapping data that does not have up-to-date trail information (like 50 years out of date or more) or they don’t include USGS maps – which is what most bushwhackers use for compass navigation. Part of my reluctance to dive in.

      • Quality maps were the reason I purchased the Delorme. If you are familiar with their paper maps, Altas and Gazatteers for each state, they have the same level of detail on their map software. They are great for hunting, fishing and camping information. They also show a lot of trails. That being said I aware of at least one trail here in Missouri where the trail in their map does not match the actual trail. The trail heads are correct.

        You have the option to purchase, download and overlay the USGS maps if you wish.

  2. I mostly use it for breadcrumbs in case I need to track back for some reason. It’s a secondary nav aid pretty much.

    Actually, I was hiking with my boys labor day weekend and we had a destination in mind, but started late and ended up hiking after dark for hours so had no visual references we could make. Knew we needed to make a left at a branch in the trail eventually. Took the left, but things didn’t seem quite like I thought they should so ended up taking out my phone with gps and getting UTM coordinates for our location and cross referencing on the map to find that we were on the right trail. Good for peace of mind. :^)

    As far as learning guess I learned the underlying principles long ago (manuals and reading online and in the plane I worked on in the USAF…) and just apply them to whichever gps I come across, mostly used Garmin though.

    Interesting topic. Thanks!

  3. I have an old Magellan Meridian Gold that I use for bicycling and day-hikes to keep track of mileage and elevation. It’s been a useful aid in throttling my behavior while rehabilitating an injured knee. Otherwise I use it mostly as an automotive way-point finder, getting me to trailheads in unfamiliar areas. I don’t take it backpacking, at 8 oz it is too heavy, a paper map and small compass weigh less and don’t require batteries.

    Learning how to use a GPS was mostly a vocabulary problem for me, and what I didn’t understand from the user-manual was easily found on-line in the many FAQs. And for those without technical backgrounds, I’d bet an REI event would be a good way to get started.

  4. We have a Garmin etrex 20. We use it to map the trails we hike and record points of interest. On occasion we use it to cross check our terrain/map navigation. It is not our primary navigation tool.

    Our main use is for record keeping – how far we’ve gone and where. We transfer the tracks to Google Earth and Google Maps and publish some trail maps. Using the GPS has shown us that actual distances hiked are about 5% greater than the distances shown on a map (Depends on the steepness of the gradients). Useful to know.

    Preparing trail maps from the GPS track is a whole other layer of annoyance, and a subject for another post? Google’s tools almost, but just don’t quite hack it. I’d welcome any workable opensource solutions.

    I found the GPS’ instructions and the User Interface quite hard going – and I’m an IT professional. Online searches yielded the best help in how to do some fairly basic tasks. After a while you ‘get into’ how it was designed and it gets easier. But several button pushes just to mark a waypoint?!! I sometimes wonder if the software designers actually have to use the things they design.

    The great thing about the etrex is that you don’t have to buy maps – you can make your own for free. Download free USGS Topo maps, import them into Google Earth and export them as KMZ files and you have a full topo map of your intended hiking area.

    We used the GPS a couple of weekends ago to locate a spring. I had worked out that the spring was on a specific contour line so we used the GPS to get to the contour line, and lo and behold after a few minutes bushwhacking we found the spring.

    Using the GPS to estimate ETA is fairly hit and miss as it calculates the distance to go ‘as the crow flies’ and doesn’t understand terrain, rivers and trail routes etc. Unlike road navigation systems that know the route you’re going to take.

    Despite the issues, it’s a handy tool, but I would never rely on one for navigation. Batteries and electronics fail. There’s no replacement for knowing where you are on a map.

    • Gary – just want to call out a remark in your comment “The great thing about the etrex is that you don’t have to buy maps – you can make your own for free. Download free USGS Topo maps, import them into Google Earth and export them as KMZ files and you have a full topo map of your intended hiking area.”

      That sounds very useful!

      • I just get the map sets from http://www.gpsfiledepot.com. From what I can understand, they’re comparable in quality to the maps that you could buy from Garmin for many hundreds of dollars (for the entire country), but free. No brainer for me…

        I agree that Garmin’s instruction manuals are pretty awful. Their online help was pretty weak the last time I used it, too. The best way to learn, I found, was just to play around with the thing for a while and hope I didn’t break it.

      • Why do people spend money on these things? They sound plain awful.

      • On the GPS, or the maps? I actually have a lot of fun with the GPS itself now that I’ve figured out how to use it (the simple things like tracking yourself are the most entertaining, I’ve found).

        As for the maps… I imagine Garmin must have something going for it that makes its maps better than the free ones, but I’m not going to drop the $100 for the Northeast Region to test it out. I just saved my friend Tom a boatload of cash by showing him the gpsfiledepot maps for the states he’ll be walking through on the CDT next summer…

        Another really great website I use with my GPS tracks is http://www.gpsvisualizer.com which is just a nice way to plot your tracks and waypoints on a variety of maps (google, usgs, opencyclemap, etc.)

        This is how I kill the hours… ;)

      • I agree, it’s great to be able to look at the route you took on Google Earth, and it can help in planning future trips – answering questions like how long did it take us to get here? I also use it to pin-point where pictures are taken.

      • I’m bookmarking that link it sounds good.

        With the method I use you can upload the latest USGS digitised maps which are much clearer than the scanned maps they had for download before.

  5. I have the Garmen etrex Venture HC. It was gift to me a year ago. The owners manual is very difficult to understand and follow. Every few months I sit down with the manual and try to understand it but then give up. It sometimes hardly seems worth it, but this is an expensive little piece of electronics and I feel like I really should figure it out just so the person who gave it to me can feel like the cost is justified. After reading these posts, I’m feeling even less inclined to use it and may just sell it.

  6. I’ve had a few GPS units, from very basic lat/long units to mapping ones. The old basic unit was useful on a new trail for getting cross fixes for tracking progress on it, although I could also do just as well by observing the terrain.

    My next unit had maps but a monochrome screen which made water features hard to distinguish, not to mention the resolution wasn’t fine enough for hiking as far as I was concerned. I then bought a DeLorme PN-20 and immediately sent it back.

    I later bought a PN 60 just because I could download USGS quads and satellite photography to it, however, the screen is about the size of two postage stamps and it is a battery hog. It quit working and I’ve gone without since.

    I just got a Samsung Galaxy SIII phone and will try some GPS apps for it. The screen is about 3X the size of the DeLorme GPS. I’ll try uploading some maps to the unit and checking battery life compared to the dedicated GPS.

    I’m still a paper map and compass guy although there have been a couple times the GPS has helped me find a specific spot.

  7. I am glad you said which brand of GPS you own, as the experience might be different with another manufacturer. I can relate to your frustrations with your Garmin, however, as I own a Garmin GPSmap 62. And I previously owned the precursor model, the GPSmap 60, before losing it in a wilderness area here in Virginia last fall. The Garmin models have some of the worst user manuals I have ever seen for any electronics product, and it has taken me over a year to understand my new GPSmap 62’s capabilities. Adding to the problem was the Garmin Basecamp software, which seemed counterintuitive compared to the company’s earlier (and no longer supported) Mapsource program. I would have paid handsomely for a “Garmin for Dummies” book, but none existed. Many of the features I thought the system lacked actually were integrated into the receiver, but I didn’t know how to access them.

    I have come to appreciate the complexities of my GPS and Basecamp software after many Youtube searches for videos for both my model and for other, similar Garmin models. I discovered that there are a wealth of free topo maps that I could import into my GPS, so my new model could actually be used to help me on the trail, instead of just recording where I had gone. (I could never justify the extra $100 for Garmin’s maps.) And I learned how to import additional maps, like online state park maps, into my GPS using Google Earth. There is one set of videos on Garmin Basecamp that has so much good information that I have probably watched 10 times over the past year. Look for Basecamp demos by a guy named “leszekp.”

    There are other aspects that I’ve just learned on my own, such as exporting data into an Excel spreadsheet so I can conclusively calculate trail grades. I like knowing that this summer’s descent of the Garfield Ridge Trail past the Garfield Ridge Campsite was a 33% grade, the same as the following day’s climb up South Twin.

    Check out gpsfiledepot.com for free topo downloads that do not require importing through Google Earth. I used one called Northeast USA Topo Part 1 for my White Mountains trek and it was fantastic. Combine that with another called My Trails for trail locations that were so spot-on I used them when I found myself in the middle of boulders without white blazes descending Mt. Lafayette’s scree on the same Garfield Ridge Trail, instead of climbing back to retrace steps. I never hike without at least one set of maps, but no amount of map and compass expertise can tell you that you are twenty feet northwest of the trail when on a field of rocks.

    And saving the data from each hike over the past 5 years has allowed me to go back and further study the numbers from early hikes as my knowledge of the software has increased. I still don’t know everything I want to know about using my GPSr, but am slowly getting there.

  8. I owned a Garmin 60CSx and an Oregon prior to buying a Montana. Though heavier than I would like it has a screen size that is big enough for me to read (for the most part) without glasses. It supports different modes (profiles) so when I’m traveling to the trail head it looks like a Garmin Nuvi, gives spoken directions and all the rest that a car GPS does. When I get on the trail it switches over to using the topo maps that I have loaded into it.

    I don’t have any trouble with the instructions though I’m fortunate to be one of those people who generally doesn’t have trouble with getting gadgets to do what they’re supposed to.

    I did buy both the Garmin City Navigator and New England 24,000 topo. I have loaded and looked at some of the other topo’s others have talked about but stayed with the Garmin.

    My primary uses are seeing where I am in relation to where I want to go and to collect a track line for each trip I take. In some cases I’ll load a track line from WikiLoc for bushwhacks (Brutus on Owls Head) or somewhat obscure trails (firewarden on Hale) to facilitate using finding and using these alternate routes.

    In order to cover the bases I also carry a topo map for the area I am in and a compass. (I don’t trust any electronic device 100%). I also have a decent topo in my iPhone but I don’t use it all that often.

    What are the main functions you use your GPS for?
    Do you plot your course on a map and in your GPS when you go for a hike, or just in your GPS?

  9. I was given an Etrex 20 as a gift last year. As soon as I learned it took topo maps I went on the hunt for free ones versus the $100 region-limited ones (I’m cheap that way and figured someone had figured out a way to do it). GPSFileDepot, which several others have mentioned, was where I landed. I use the North East USA 1 topos (and have most of the rest of the US by the same uploader on a memory card in it) and the MyTrails overlay. Not perfect (the myTrails has some imperfections, but does pretty well overall in the North East at least), but extremely useful. Mostly I just let it track me (plus take waypoints at summits and other spots) and overlay it on Google Earth later. But having 20′ contours of exactly where you are has great uses.

    If I’m doing something not on a standard maintained trail (say an abandoned trail), I will often download a track that others have uploaded as a backup just in case. Using Google Earth, you can draw lines/points and import them as tracks or at least waypoints to help plot off-trail routes (use the fall imagery to find hardwood bands, or find ledge spots, etc). Granted I tend to stick mostly to maintained trails.

    Still should carry and know how to use map/compass of course.

  10. I have a Garmin Etrex Vista HCX that I use on almost every hike. I am a techno geek, and while the user interface is not great, it is usable and over time I learned about more and more of the available functionality.

    I mostly use it for tracking – keeping track of distance, elevation gain, time, etc. I now have a library of tracks for many of the 48 4K’s in NH and many other peaks and routes.

    I also use it as a secondary navigation aid. (I always carry map, compass, and extra batteries for the GPS.) I spend a fair amount of time on route planning. I use maps and online resources to plan the route. I create a route in Garmin’s Mapsource SW and upload it to my GPS.

    When hiking in the Whites, I create my routes using the AMC’s White Mountain Guide Online. I then download them to Mapsource, and upload them to my GPS. If you haven’t checked out the WMG Online, you are missing a great resource. A subscription is $12 per year for AMC members.

    I find that the time spent planning familiarizes me with the trail and I often don’t even have to look at the GPS to find the route. Just the same, it is nice to have it for reference just in case. As one other user already commented, you can also use the ascent track (breadcrumbs) to verify that you are taking the correct route on the descent. That is usually how I use the routes I upload as well.

    For less traveled or less well documented (or marked) routes, I will try and find somebody else’s GPS track and upload it to my GPS for reference. There are several places to find GPS tracks on the web.

    I did find myself using the GPS as a primary navigation tool when doing the bushwack to Nubble Peak, but even carrying 2 extra sets of batteries, I was uncomfortable relying on it. Beware when using your GPS to navigate – the GPS based compass is not very accurate when you are not moving and the onboard magnetic compass on mine is not much better. Because it was almost impossible to walk and look at the GPS in the thick brush on Nubble, we ended up using a regualr compass with the GPS to verify our bearing

    There have been many comments on the small sreen size on many hiking GPS units. As my vision has deteriorated, I started carrying a pair of foldable reading glasses when I hike. I don’t need them for quick checks, but if I am need to see any detail on the map, they are necessary.

    The Etrex Vista is my second GPS. For me, the two most important factors when choosing the GPS was having a high sensitivity receiver (some of the base units don’t, making them essentially useless in the woods) and battery life. Most units have the basic navigation features – the rest is just bells and whistles. Because of issues with battery life and cell coverage, I would never trust a smartphone based GPS as a serious tool.

    • I forgot to mention – I use the Garmin Topo 2008 North America maps. After each hike, I download the track and store it on my computer.

      Grmin does have new PC program called BaseCamp. I have tried it briefly but have not spent much time with it.

  11. I use a Garmin Etrex Vista. Originally bought the GPS to track my hikes and distance and to make pretty maps and elevation profiles.
    Downloaded some maps from GPSfiledepot.
    Tried to work with my tracks and realized the interface (mapsource) is the most archaic, non-user friendly setup ever created.
    Just trying to measure a distance along my tracks from one point to the next is near impossible (I can’t click on one point and click on another and get a distance that’s along my tracks, only as the crow flies straight).
    Took me ages to find out saving tracks and loosing points and internal storage vs memory cards.
    I’ve given up trying to learn how to use it in that regard but overall it still serves its purpose on the trails.

    Is there any good program that will take my tracks and allow me to play with them on the fly, parsing the tracks, getting individual distances with ease?

    • In Basecamp double clicking on a track it brings up a windows showing all the individual positional points within the track and at the bottom of the box are totals showing the number of points, distance traveled, etc. If you highlight a series of points it will give you the stats for just the points you selected. It will also show the points selected within the track on the main display so you can see which point you’ve selected.

  12. I have a GPS, which was given to me, and I have no idea how to use it. I have figured out how to record my trips on it, but that’s it. I think to use other features I have to download maps and stuff, and I just never got around to it.

  13. I use it to see where I have been and to just kind of track miles. I took it to Philmont and then when we got back I took the route and layed it over Google Earth and then sent the scouts a jpg so they could see the distance they covered.

  14. I’m going to have to try the map sites that several posters have listed – as the Garmin maps are themselves not quite but almost useless.

    The latest Garmin units play well with Linux! which may not matter to everyone, but is really nice for me. They also support the Russian Glonass system which combines with GPS to give surprisingly good measurements.

    I mostly use mine to keep track of where I’ve been, and very rarely as a conformation of where I am (even the best maps have errors). I have used them to find unusual and hard to see things like a stone circle in Exmoor. (stone circles aren’t always big visible stones like Avesbury and Stonehenge). While not directly relevent to this site, geocaching has been a fun occasional family activity.

  15. I use a ten year-old Garmin E-Trex Legend on just about every outing. I found the instructions useless, but it was pretty easy to pick up how to use it once I brought it into the field – if that is what you find in East Boston. I did a lot of geocaching around my home in Boston. Later, I got a lot of use out of it in the Whites and along the LT. I always use it in conjuction with a map and I carry a good compass. (I don’t know if it would work with me, though. I have so many magnetic strips in my wallet, the needle would be inclined to point toward my butt.) As an AMC leader, I encouter one question again and again – “Are we there yet?” The breadcrumb feature is helpful to show the progress we have made toward our objective and enables me to wisely reply, “Not yet, now shut up and keep walking.”

  16. I have been teacing GPS classes in the Pacific Northwest since 1998.

    Here are two suggestions for GPS users:

    1. After replacing batteries always calibrate the electronic compass.

    2. Keep your waypoints (that are saved) to a minimum. Store old waypoints in google maps or use easygps.com

    Check out : outdoorquest.blogspot.com

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