10 Biggest Beginner GPS Mistakes

Top 10 Beginner GPS Mistakes

A GPS receiver or Smartphone GPS App is a powerful hiking and backpacking navigation device, but it must be configured properly for use and has important limitations that trip up most beginner GPS users who may put undue trust in its ability to guide them in the backcountry. Here are the most frequent GPS mistakes that beginners make.

1. Not practicing using your GPS

A new GPS is confusing to use and it takes practice to become proficient at it. Read the manual and start using it near your home in familiar territory before you take it into the backcountry and try to navigate with it. Carrying around a GPS that you don’t know how to use is pointless, so practice, practice, practice, until you’ve mastered it.

2. Not resetting the trip data at the start of every hike

You need to develop a routine that you go through with your GPS at the start of every hike: Turn it on; Let it acquire satellites; Re-calibrate the compass; Reset the trip data; Clear the track log; Set a waypoint so you find the trailhead again (and your car.) Otherwise you won’t know where you hiked or how to get back to your start point.

3. Not installing 24K maps

The 100k base maps included with GPS receivers don’t have enough detail to be useful during a hike. Make sure you buy and install 24K Topo maps or obtain free ones from a website like GPSFileDepot.

4. Not hiking with a map and compass

A GPS is not a replacement for a map and compass. If you forget to turn your GPS off and the batteries drain or you lose your satellite connection, you still need to be able to find your way with a map and compass. A map also makes it easier to visualize where you’re headed and because it’s so much larger than the small-sized screen on your GPS.

5. Not having a trip plan

Make a plan before you start a hike. If it’s an area that you’re unfamiliar with or one that doesn’t have any hiking trails, plan a route by creating waypoints that you want to pass on your hike and enter them or transfer them to your GPS. Having a preplanned route will let you estimate how long it will take you to hike the route and let you set a turnaround time. You can also leave it with friend, so they can call search and rescue if you don’t make it back by a set time.

6. Not checking your position frequently

A GPS does absolutely no good if it lives inside your backpack and you never look at it. Carry your GPS in a pocket or attached to your shoulder strap where you can check it frequently. Locate your position on your map each time, so you always know where you are if your GPS stops working.

7. Not setting the map datum and declination properly

Whenever you plan a trip or start a hike, make sure to set your GPS map datum to match the datum shown in the legend of your map. A map’s datum is used to calculate the position of its latitude and longitude lines. Different maps use different datums and you want to make sure your GPS is set to the map that you’re using. Your GPS also has a compass and you need to set its north setting to magnetic, true north, or grid north so it matches the north you’re using with your compass.

8. Trusting that your GPS is 100% accurate

Your GPS position can be off by 10 feet or off by 500 feet. For example, your GPS might say you’re standing on a trail when it’s obvious that you’re not. While many GPS units are certified to be accurate to within 10 feet for 95% of the time, they can be way off the other 5%. This is why it’s important to carry a map and check your position on it frequently by making sure that the landscape features you’d expect to see around you are really there. GPS units also often overestimate the distance travelled and elevation gain, which is why the trip statistics reported by your GPS often don’t match your map or guidebook.

9. Not bringing spare batteries

GPS units can chew through a set batteries in a day. It’s best to bring spare batteries with you in case yours run out of juice during a hike. Lithium ion batteries last longer than alkaline batteries and are resistant to cold weather. Turning down screen brightness and turning off unused functions can also significantly prolong your battery life.

10. Blindly following “as the crow flies” GPS directions

While a GPS will point you in the right direction to get from waypoint to waypoint, this might not be the most efficient or easy route to follow. Dense vegetation, gullies, and other land features may impede a direct route. Check your map to see what obstacles you’re likely to encounter and take the easiest route instead.

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7 comments

  1. Your best tip is the first one: practice, practice, practice. Having recently abandoned by 10+ year old Garmin Etrex unit and adopted ViewRanger, I’ve tracked my route to the mailbox, walks around town, day hikes on my own property and so forth. Learning to use the app under casual conditions with no pressure should make it easier to use efficiently later on in unknown territory.

  2. HYOH, dude. Some people like em.

  3. I use Gaia, Guthook and Caltopo, but I’m still climbing that learning curve. How do you do #2 — recalibrate the compass — in Gaia? I’ve found the setting for true vs. magnetic north, but not for map grid north. I’m also not sure how to do #7 — set map datum and declination — in Gaia. Any tips? Yoshihiro Murakami’s tip above to improve accuracy seems really useful. As for the questions above on why not to rely exclusively on a paper map, I agree with Phillip that electronic and paper maps complement each other. Apps give far more information than a paper map, while paper maps are better for the terrain picture at a glance. Plus, I’m already carrying the phone for the camera and for communications when it gets a signal, such as on mountaintops.

  4. I’d like to add one more. Not thinking in 3D. Hiking at night, I lost the trail on the way to Mt. Whitney from Crabtree Meadows. I kept circling back to my last point on the trail, but just could not see a way forward. Heavy rain had wiped out all prior tracks. I could see the trail was to my right on my GPS, so I just found a likely route through the woods toward it. Eventually, I got to where I should have been right on top of it, yet could find no trace. Turns out it was 30 feet above me on top of a steep rock face. I had to wake up a poor soul I found camping nearby who pointed this out to me. Ouch.

  5. langleybackcountry

    Understanding datum is the one that students I teach navigation to are least likely to be aware of. In my advanced class I also make the direct link between map and compass and GPS by teaching them how to use the grid markings on the sides of the map. Being able to do that makes both tools more effective.

    The other thing I learned when i first started using a GPS is the difference between “heading” and “bearing” I couldn’t figure out why it kept changing every time I turned instead of keeping me on a straight line. Fortunately I playing around with it in a ski area, not making error #1.

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