Home / For Beginners / 10 Biggest Beginner GPS Mistakes

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.

Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.

Most Popular Searches

  • beginner gps
  • using gps in snow to find trail


  1. Might I add:
    #11. Buying a GPS. Solves the other numbers (1-10).

    • All these apply to smartphone apps too, like Gaia and Viewranger. Just saying it for the viewing audience.

      • Excellent point. I’ve made several myself.
        Having said that, what’s the reason that people are staying with GPS at this point? Phone apps can basically do the same thing and people already own them.

      • I use one occasionally because it has maps I can’t get on paper or phones, but I think most people still use them because they have better battery life than phones, they’re waterproof, and many models are usable while wearing gloves which is handy in winter.

      • With CalTopo.com and Avenza PDF reader (iphone App) you can make the exact type of map you want for free and upload it into your phone. USGS, FS1016, Satelitte, etc with so many customizable features it is truly remarkable. There is a learning curve to this tech and I am assembling a webinar for April/May to help people learn these new tools. As for battery life airplane mode still allows use of GPS chip in smartphones and extends the life greatly, my phone case is waterproof, and my gloves are touch screen friendly. Don’t get me wrong, still a place out there for the more rugged dedicated GPS, but smartphones are starting to really make that place a bit smaller.

      • Completely agree. I use Caltopo/Gaia quite a lot these days. Mainly for planning and recording my routes. I’ll use Viewranger in the UK.

      • We use a combination of paper maps (1:25000 OS and 1:10,000k localised printouts), view ranger (1:25000 OS) and GPS for our Search and rescue ops. The 1:10k makes urban searching easier.
        We use the paper maps primarily (also marking off areas searched), using Viewranger to also give a track of where we have searched – useful at night when you are searching woodland off a bearing and pivoting on a team member to cover the next section. It helps to highlight any potentially missed areas. Also, in rural searches it is good to just spot check that you are where you think you are, especially as we do not want to stray into another teams search area.

        Battery life can be an issue on long searches for a smart phone but having it running in the background saves a lot of battery drain.
        Additionally, although it might be different now, the U.K. Phone networks did not use as many satellites to triangulate the signal as the GPS units. However, it is not usually a great issue as you are close enough.

        In the end, as long as people are not trying to navigate with Pokémon Go…

    • I agree, DouchePacker! This luddite has navigated in all sorts of weather and terrain via map and compass since age 6 (obviously under parental direction back then) and has never had a problem. (No, you don’t really want to know how long ago that was!) I’m still learning on my digital camera! Why bother with yet another gadget requiring batteries and a long learning period?

      • TwoYellowDogs.Terri

        I learned to navigate via map/compass. Up till now, I’ve only hiked/packed in areas where I had map (or already knew the area well). I am struggling with the purpose of purchasing a GPS–justify the expense. Perhaps when hiking in snow? (landmarks difficult?) (Oh, I’m not currently a snow hiker/packer). Seems that a map is significantly less expensive than a GSP–and doesn’t go dead, lighter. hum… Can anyone Convince me I need a GPS (enlighten me).

      • There are lots of uses for a GPS. For example to mark the locations of plants or artifacts you come across or to walk a property boundary that does have clear landmarks. They’re also an excellent way for you to keep track of the path you’ve walked off trail if you need to double back and follow it home. You can do this with a map and compass but you need to write down all your bearing changes and count steps…which most people are just too lazy to do. In perfect visibility, having a GPS on a well blazed trail is pointless. But for hunters, backcountry skiers, people hiking off trail, it’s a valuable adjunct to a map and compass. GPS receiver or Smartphone GPS app…the differences there are narrowing fast.

      • Grannyhiker, I hike in the mountains north of Vancouver, BC. Mountains are big things and if you have a map or have memorized the area, it is hard to get lost. I find that the altimeter on my watch is the most useful gadget for pinpointing my position (I usually know that I’m somewhere between two creeks flowing off the hill, and the altimeter (a watch costing ~$100) will accurately put me within a contour on the map.) So what is the big deal about a GPS. Two things. And example: once, 35 km beyond the last road into the Chilcotin mountains, the leader of our group lost track of where we were. It resulting in a winter bivouac that night. I was running a track on my GPS, and when we arrived home, I could see exactly where we had been, and where we went wrong. My point is that my GPS tracks are more useful to me than wayfinding. Second, if I have planned a complicated track to a destination, it is very useful to upload that as a route before I go. I pay attention to the position of the birds and have a good idea of the accuracy of my GPS unit. So, I find that my GPS adds lots to my off-piste wilderness wandering. Now, if only I could have a heads-up display…

    • HYOH, dude. Some people like em.

  2. #10 should say, ‘Blindly following “as the crow flies” GPS directions.’

    Good points, though, all of ’em. Thanks for the article.

    • Really yeah. Double negatives. Hated first order logic in school. Fixed.

      • Reader’s Digest had an account a few years ago of a discussion in a college class on double negatives.

        The instructor pointed out that there are a few languages, such as Russian, where a double negative is still a negative, however, there’s no language in which a double positive is negative. Then came a voice from the back of the class, “Yeah. Right!”

  3. Pretty funny, Grandpa. It took me a moment to get that!
    I have used a GPS for years and was pleased to see I don’t do any of of the ten mistakes. I recently gladly switched to Gaia on my iPhone and ditched my Garmin Etrex 30. I have found Gaia to be more accurate, and I deal with the battery issue by carrying a 2 oz recharger for the iPhone that’s good for 2 full recharges. That’s a net loss of 3 oz weight by using a phone app instead of a dedicated GPS unit. For longer trips I carry a 4 oz recharger that will do about 5 full recharges. So I’m still ahead weight-wise and ahead with accuracy. Gaia works in airplane mode, and there are other tricks to do to the phone to cut down on battery drain that you can find on the internet.

  4. For me the GPS unit has always been in my pocket for those moments where I am not really certain where I am
    :-) You know that moment when you start to realize you may have missed a turn or something but this really does not look like the trail/route. The smartphone works pretty well for those AHA moments especially when you are in thick cover and taking bearings is not really an option because the only landmarks are the trees you are standing under!

  5. I do alot of exploring to remote parts of our badlands and mountains here in Alberta.

    My $100 GPS is basically there to give me confidence that I can return to my vehicle or mountain bike. I don’t need GPS maps, etc. I might enter a couple of waypoints now and then but rarely use them. Anyways, ‘finding home’ allows me to go one ridge further, etc.

    I’m never sure who uses all the complicated features. I go hiking with and know the hardcore hikers in my region and only two or three basic GPS features are used. Not sure what anyone in a more civilized region does with maps on a hiking GPS.

  6. What a great post! I have an ETrex20.


  7. Great article, and things we should all review from time to time!
    To be a technicrat – the device you hold in your hand is a GPSR ( R is for receiver) not a GPS.

    Map and compass skills are a must, and not something you try to figure out when you realize you are lost or temporarily confused.

    Thanks for all your work Phillip, I tell all my friends about your articles!

  8. #8 The indicated location of GPS is a result of rough calculation. This location is gradually corrected as the calculation converges. Therefore, it is important not to believe the location which the GPS indicated firstly. And if you walk several 10 meters, your location will become clear, because your location in the GPS changes.

  9. I noticed quite a few comments on using a smart phone for wilderness navigation. I have an iPhone 6S and have various navigation apps/maps on it. However, I’m not comfortable having to depend upon it as I think it is too fragile. I’ve had my phone die when the temperature dropped below 32F and not come back on until after re-warming. I’ve been using a Garmin Foretrex for GPS and it is ruggedized for the outdoors. Since it doesn’t have maps on board, I use it with paper maps and this purpose built gps device is a perfect complement to map and compass.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *