A GPS receiver is a powerful hiking and backpacking navigation device, but it must be configured properly for use and it 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.