Selecting the Right GPS For Hiking

GPS for HikingWe have all seen and heard the great GPS systems from your cell phone or car.  But these are not designed for off-road experiences.  So, what are the features and how do you decide on the right GPS for Hiking or Backpacking?  It’s time to figure this out.

How Does It Work?: “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, Jon Kabut-Zinn

GPS stands for Global Positioning System.  This is a fancy term that tells you where you are.  Sort of like those great maps in the malls that have a point that states, “You Are Here”.  It does this by talking with government satellites.  There are a total of 24 of them, but the GPS system only needs three in order to find your location.  It does this by triangulation (Am I getting too technical?  They killed the writer by triangulation-strangulation.)

Today’s GPS systems, if Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) enabled, can calculate your location to within 3 meters (about 10 feet), but don’t count on that kind of accuracy.  The GPS should be able to pinpoint your location to 30 feet or less.

On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever:

Because a GPS for hiking relies on overhead satellites, the unit may have problems calculating your position if you have extensive tree cover, are down in a canyon with steep walls or if there are a lot of tall buildings around.

What Does a GPS For Hiking Do?:

  • Location, Location, Location: They can tell you your current location.  Most models have multiple coordinate nomenclatures.  In other words, they can tell you where you are in different ways; Degree Decimal Minutes (DDM), Degrees-Minutes-Seconds (DMS) and/or Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM).
  • We Are Tracking His Every Move: You can tell your GPS to track your movements.  It will draw a line on its map, showing the exact path that you took.  The accuracy or interval of the points for the path can be changed.
  • Point to Point and Route: Some people separate these functions, but I think they are the same function.  One, the Point to Point is just one “step” in the route.  The way this function works is that you put in a point that you want to hike to this is the “way point”.  Like let’s say that you put in the location that your car is parked and you want to get to the campsite location.  You know the coordinates of the campsite, so you put those into the GPS and it will tell you the distance and bearing to the campsite.  This would be a point to point.  A route would basically have multiple way points.

Selecting a GPS For Hiking: (Finally, what took you so long to get here?)

There is only one main question you must ask to figure out which GPS to select; what are my needs.

If you want to just track your mileage or elevation or find way points, a simpler model should suffice.  But, if recording your hikes on a map and being able to upload and download those maps to and from your computer is important, a more expensive model will be needed.  So, what are the options available?

GPS Options:

Durability/Waterproof: Most hiking GPS units are rugged and durable.  Even with that being true, when selecting a GPS, make sure that it will hold up to your type of hiking.   There are also rubber cases for some models that you can purchase to help protect it even more.  Just make sure that if you drop the GPS on a rock or a rain storm passes overhead that it will still work.

Battery Power: Look at the type of batteries the unit uses and how long they will last.  If the screen is backlit, then it may go through batteries faster if you are hiking at night.  Lastly, Lithium batteries will last longer than rechargeable.  Lithium batteries also work well in cold weather.  Some models have a sleep mode that will conserve battery power.

Antenna: (“Can You Hear Me Now?”)

  • Internal: Less likely to break off.
  • External: More susceptible to damage, but might be able to be adjusted to improve the reception.
  • Plug-In: Some may have a plug in for an optional antenna.  This can be useful for in-car/boat use.
  • Type: There are two types:
    • Quad Helix: These are the most widely installed and work better under tree cover.
    • Flat Patch: These are designed for more open terrain.
  • SiRF Star III: This is a chip that can greatly increase the antenna performance.  If you are looking for a higher performing GPS, find a model that has this or similar chip set.

Maps: This feature is probably one of the most varied between models.  Map detail, amount of map storage, can you upload and download maps from a CD or the Internet.  The basic rule for a GPS for Hiking is the better the map system, the higher the price.  Figure out what level of map detail that you need and then select the model that matches.

Color or Monochrome Screen: If you are going to rely on topographical maps, then a color screen would suit you better.  On the other hand, if you just want to plot way points and don’t care about detail, then opt for a cheaper, monochrome model.  Another factor with screens is resolution.  If your eyesight is less than perfect, then it might be a good idea to test out the different models to make sure that you can read the screen.  Size of screen goes hand in hand with readability.  Higher resolution and larger screen models are going to cost more.  Back lit screens are nice to have too.   Lastly, there are some models that have a screen that can be read in bright daylight.

Altimeter: You can get your approximate elevation from a typical GPS unit, but this number can be inaccurate.  So, some models offer a barometric altimeter to help out.  These units can also chart the changes in air pressure to notify you of changing weather.

Storage Capacity: All models have some level of storage.  If you want to be able to upload and download maps, more memory will be needed.  Some models even come with a MicroSD port so that you can add even more memory.

Final Note: A GPS for Hiking can be a great addition to your backpacking tools, but it is not to be the only piece of navigational equipment in your arsenal.  Before even considering a GPS, make sure that you know how to read and use a compass and map.  These two items should always be in your pack.  A GPS is a technologically advanced device and because of that, it can fail.  Batteries can go dead, a chip can malfunction.   Just because you have a GPS does not mean that you can’t get lost.

Bonus: Once you get a GPS, you may want to start GPS Geocache Hunting. It’s a great high tech game of hide and seek.

Get out there and enjoy your new GPS, but don’t solely rely on it.

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