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May 24, 2024

GPS for Hiking: Everything You Need to Know

GPS for Hiking: Everything You Need to Know

GPS for hiking is a technology that has revolutionized the way hikers navigate through the wilderness. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of satellites that orbit the Earth and provide accurate location and time information. This system can be used to determine a hiker's exact location, track their progress, and guide them to their destination.

A hand holding a GPS device with a mountain trail in the background

GPS technology has become an essential tool for outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and backpacking. With the help of GPS, hikers can navigate through unfamiliar terrain with confidence, knowing their exact location and the direction they need to go. GPS devices can also provide information on the distance traveled, elevation gain, and estimated time of arrival, making it easier for hikers to plan their trips and stay on track.

In this article, we will explore the benefits of using GPS for hiking, the different types of GPS devices available, and how to use them effectively. Whether you are a seasoned hiker or a beginner, GPS technology can enhance your outdoor experience and help you navigate with ease.

Understanding GPS Technology

A hiker uses a handheld GPS device to navigate through a dense forest, with a trail map and compass in hand. The device displays the hiker's location and the surrounding terrain, guiding their journey

How GPS Works

GPS stands for Global Positioning System, which is a network of satellites orbiting the earth that transmit signals to GPS receivers on the ground. These signals contain information about the location, time, and velocity of the satellites, which the GPS receiver uses to calculate its own position. The GPS receiver needs to receive signals from at least four satellites to accurately determine its position in three dimensions.


GLONASS is a similar satellite-based navigation system developed by Russia. Both GPS and GLONASS use similar technology and principles to determine location, but there are some differences between the two systems. GPS has a higher accuracy than GLONASS, but GLONASS has more satellites in orbit, which can improve reception in areas with limited sky view.

Satellite Networks and Reception

GPS and GLONASS are part of a larger network of satellite navigation systems that include Galileo, BeiDou, and QZSS. The more satellites a GPS receiver can receive signals from, the more accurate its position calculation will be. However, the number of satellites visible to a GPS receiver can be limited by factors such as terrain, buildings, and atmospheric conditions.

To improve reception, some GPS receivers use additional technologies such as WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) or EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service), which provide additional correction signals to improve accuracy. It is important to note that GPS receivers must have a clear view of the sky to receive signals from satellites, so they may not work well in heavily wooded or urban areas with tall buildings.

Overall, GPS technology has revolutionized the way hikers navigate in the outdoors. By understanding how GPS works and the factors that affect reception, hikers can make informed decisions about which GPS receiver to use and how to use it effectively.

Choosing a GPS Device for Hiking

A hiker selects a GPS device from a display of various models in an outdoor gear store

When it comes to hiking, having a reliable GPS device can be a game-changer. However, with so many options available, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one. In this section, we'll explore some key factors to consider when choosing a GPS device for hiking.

Handheld GPS vs. GPS Watch

One of the first decisions to make is whether to opt for a handheld GPS device or a GPS watch. Handheld GPS devices typically offer more advanced features and a larger screen, making them ideal for longer hikes and more complex terrain. GPS watches, on the other hand, are more compact and lightweight, making them a good choice for shorter hikes or those who prefer to travel light.

Key Features to Consider

Regardless of whether you choose a handheld GPS device or a GPS watch, there are several key features to consider. These include:

  • Battery life: Look for a device with a long battery life, especially if you'll be hiking for multiple days.
  • Durability: Your GPS device will likely be exposed to the elements, so choose one that is rugged and waterproof.
  • Mapping capabilities: Make sure your device has accurate and detailed maps of the areas you'll be hiking in.
  • Waypoint storage: This feature allows you to mark and save specific locations along your route, which can be helpful for tracking your progress and finding your way back to your starting point.

Budget-Friendly Options

GPS devices can range in price from under $100 to over $500, so it's important to consider your budget when making a decision. However, there are several budget-friendly options available that still offer reliable GPS tracking and basic navigation features. Some examples include the Garmin eTrex 10 and the Magellan eXplorist 110.

Overall, choosing the right GPS device for hiking depends on your individual needs and preferences. By considering factors such as device type, key features, and budget, you can find a device that will help you navigate the trails with confidence.

Essential GPS Features for Hikers

A GPS device with a clear screen, rugged design, and easy-to-use buttons, surrounded by a lush forest with a trail winding through the trees

When it comes to hiking, a GPS device can be a valuable tool to enhance the overall experience and ensure safety. However, not all GPS devices are created equal. Here are some essential features to consider when selecting a GPS device for hiking.

Accuracy and Altimeter

Accuracy is crucial when it comes to GPS devices for hiking. A device with high accuracy can help hikers navigate through challenging terrain and ensure they stay on the right path. Additionally, an altimeter is an essential feature for hikers, as it can provide accurate elevation data, allowing hikers to monitor their progress and plan their routes accordingly.

Battery Life and Power Options

Battery life is another crucial consideration when selecting a GPS device for hiking. Hikers need a device with a long battery life to ensure they can rely on it for the duration of their trip. It's also essential to consider power options. A device that can run on AA batteries or a rechargeable lithium-ion battery can be a convenient option for hikers.

Durability and Weather Resistance

Hiking can be a rugged and challenging activity, and a GPS device must be able to withstand the elements. A durable and weather-resistant device can handle rain, snow, and other harsh conditions that hikers may encounter on their journey.

Memory and Waypoint Management

Memory and waypoint management are essential features for hikers who want to plan and track their routes accurately. A device with ample memory can store maps, waypoints, and other critical data. Additionally, a device with easy-to-use waypoint management features can help hikers navigate through challenging terrain and ensure they stay on the right path.

Overall, when selecting a GPS device for hiking, it's essential to consider accuracy, battery life, durability, and memory management. By selecting a device with these essential features, hikers can enjoy a safe and enjoyable hiking experience.

GPS Navigation Tools

A hand holding a GPS device with a hiking trail map on the screen, surrounded by a compass, binoculars, and a water bottle

When it comes to hiking, GPS navigation tools can be extremely helpful in ensuring that you stay on track and reach your destination safely. Here are some essential tools that hikers should consider:

Maps and Compass Integration

One of the most important tools for any hiker is a map and compass. While GPS devices can be incredibly useful, they can also malfunction or run out of battery power. Therefore, it is important to always carry a backup map and compass. Many GPS devices also integrate with maps and compasses, allowing you to easily navigate using both traditional and modern tools.

Understanding Topographic Maps

Topographic maps are a critical tool for hikers, as they provide detailed information about the terrain and elevation of the area you are exploring. By understanding how to read topographic maps, hikers can better plan their routes and avoid dangerous areas. Many GPS devices also offer topographic maps, making it easy to navigate even in remote or unfamiliar areas.

Route Planning and Tracking

GPS devices can be incredibly helpful for planning and tracking your hiking routes. Many devices allow you to plan out your route ahead of time, and then track your progress as you hike. This can be especially useful for longer hikes or multi-day trips, as it allows you to keep track of your progress and make adjustments as needed.

Overall, GPS navigation tools can be an invaluable asset for hikers of all skill levels. By using a combination of traditional tools like maps and compasses, as well as modern GPS devices, hikers can stay safe and confident while exploring the great outdoors.

Advanced GPS Functions

A GPS device with hiking maps and advanced functions displayed on a rugged terrain with trees and a clear sky

Barometric Altimeter and Electronic Compass

Some advanced GPS devices come equipped with a barometric altimeter and an electronic compass. The barometric altimeter measures changes in air pressure to determine altitude, which can be more accurate than GPS elevation readings in certain situations. The electronic compass provides an additional navigational tool, especially useful when GPS signals are weak or unavailable. These features can greatly enhance the accuracy and reliability of GPS navigation during hikes and other outdoor activities.

Satellite Messaging and SOS Features

For those who venture into remote areas, GPS devices with satellite messaging and SOS features can provide a critical lifeline in emergency situations. These features allow users to send and receive text messages and even summon help from emergency services via satellite communication. Some devices also include tracking features that allow friends and family to follow a user's progress in real-time. These features can provide peace of mind and greatly enhance safety during outdoor adventures.

Wireless Connectivity and Smart Features

Many modern GPS devices now include wireless connectivity and smart features that allow for seamless integration with smartphones and other devices. This can include notifications for text messages and other alerts, as well as the ability to sync data with fitness apps and other tracking tools. Some devices even offer voice commands and other hands-free features, allowing users to keep their hands free for hiking and other activities. These features can greatly enhance the convenience and functionality of GPS devices during outdoor adventures.

Popular GPS Models for Hiking

A group of hikers using various GPS models, surrounded by mountains and dense forest

When it comes to hiking, having a reliable GPS device can make all the difference. There are a variety of GPS models on the market, but some stand out above the rest. In this section, we'll take a look at some of the most popular GPS models for hiking.

Garmin Series Overview

Garmin is a well-known brand in the GPS industry, and for good reason. Their GPS devices are reliable and packed with features, making them a favorite among hikers. The Garmin GPSMAP 64 is a popular choice, with a 2.6-inch color screen and a resolution of 160 x 240 pixels. Another popular option is the Garmin inReach Explorer+, which not only provides GPS navigation but also allows for two-way communication via satellite.

Garmin also offers the eTrex series, which includes the eTrex 32x and eTrex 22x. These devices are compact and lightweight, making them a great choice for backpackers. The eTrex 32x has a 2.2-inch color screen with a resolution of 240 x 320 pixels, while the eTrex 22x has a 2.2-inch monochrome screen.

Magellan and Other Brands

While Garmin is a popular choice, there are other brands to consider as well. Magellan is another well-known brand in the GPS industry, with their eXplorist series being a popular choice among hikers. The eXplorist 310 has a 2.2-inch color screen with a resolution of 240 x 320 pixels, while the eXplorist 710 has a 3-inch color screen with a resolution of 240 x 400 pixels.

Other brands to consider include TomTom and Lowrance. TomTom offers the Adventurer, which has a 1.3-inch monochrome screen, while Lowrance offers the Endura series, which includes the Endura Sierra and Endura Safari.

Comparing Screen Size and Resolution

When choosing a GPS device for hiking, it's important to consider the screen size and resolution. A larger screen size can make it easier to read maps and navigate, while a higher resolution can provide more detail. However, larger screens and higher resolutions can also drain the battery faster.

Overall, the Garmin GPSMAP 64, Garmin inReach Explorer+, Garmin eTrex series, and Magellan eXplorist series are all popular choices among hikers. When choosing a GPS device, it's important to consider your needs and preferences, as well as the features and specifications of the device.

Accessories and Maintenance

A backpack with hiking gear, including a GPS device and maintenance tools, laid out on a wooden table

When it comes to hiking with GPS, having the right accessories can make all the difference. In addition to protecting your device from the elements, accessories can also help extend battery life and improve accuracy.

Protective Cases and Screen Protectors

Investing in a durable and compact protective case is essential for keeping your GPS device safe from drops, bumps, and scratches. Look for cases that are lightweight and easy to attach to your backpack or belt loop for quick access. Additionally, using a screen protector can help prevent damage to the screen and improve visibility in bright sunlight.

Battery Packs and Charging Solutions

One of the biggest concerns when hiking with GPS is battery life. To ensure you don't run out of power in the middle of your hike, consider investing in a battery pack or other charging solution. Look for packs that are lightweight and compact, and that can charge your device quickly and efficiently. Some packs even come with solar panels, making them ideal for extended trips in remote areas.

Software Updates and Calibration

To ensure your GPS device is working at its best, it's important to keep it updated with the latest software. This can help improve accuracy and add new features to your device. Additionally, calibrating your device regularly can help ensure it's working properly and providing accurate readings. Check your device's manual for instructions on how to calibrate it, or seek help from a professional if you're unsure.

Overall, taking care of your GPS device and investing in the right accessories can help ensure a successful and enjoyable hiking experience. By keeping your device protected, charged, and calibrated, you can rely on it to guide you safely and accurately on your adventures.

Practical Tips for Hiking with GPS

A hiker holds a GPS device, surrounded by dense forest and a winding trail. The sun shines through the trees, casting dappled shadows on the ground

Creating Waypoints and Tracks

When hiking with a GPS, it's important to understand how to create waypoints and tracks. Waypoints are specific locations that you can mark on your GPS device, while tracks are a series of waypoints that create a route. To create a waypoint, simply navigate to your desired location on the GPS and mark it. To create a track, navigate to the start of your desired route and begin marking waypoints as you hike.

Dealing with Limited Cell Service

In areas with limited cell service, it's important to have a GPS device that doesn't rely on cellular data. Hiking GPS devices are designed to work in remote areas without cell service. However, it's important to download maps and routes before heading out to ensure that you have access to the information you need.

Safety and Emergency Preparedness

When hiking with a GPS, safety should always be a top priority. Before heading out, make sure that you have a fully charged GPS device and a backup battery or charger. It's also important to have a map and compass as a backup in case your GPS fails. Additionally, make sure to let someone know where you're going and when you plan to return.

In the event of an emergency, a GPS device can be a valuable tool. Most devices have an emergency feature that allows you to send a distress signal to emergency services. However, it's important to note that this feature may not work in areas with limited cell service.

When it comes to hiking with a GPS, it's important to choose a device that fits your needs. Look for a device with features such as long battery life, durability, and accurate tracking. With the right device and the right knowledge, a GPS can be a valuable tool for any hiker or backpacker.

Integrating GPS with Other Hiking Practices

GPS device on a backpack, surrounded by hiking gear and a map. Trail markers and natural landmarks in the background

Hiking is a popular outdoor activity that requires a combination of skills and knowledge to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. One of the most important tools for hikers is GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. GPS devices can provide valuable information such as location, distance, and elevation, which can be used to enhance traditional navigation techniques.

Combining GPS with Traditional Navigation

GPS technology can be used to supplement traditional navigation techniques such as map and compass. By using GPS devices, hikers can pinpoint their location with greater accuracy and track their progress along a designated route. However, it is important to note that GPS devices should not be relied on solely for navigation purposes. Hikers should still carry a map and compass and know how to use them in case of technical failures or battery depletion.

Environmental Awareness and GPS Usage

Hikers should be aware of the environmental impact of GPS usage. GPS devices require batteries, which can be harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly. Additionally, using GPS devices can contribute to trail erosion and impact wildlife habitats. Hikers should use GPS devices responsibly and minimize their impact on the environment.

Ethical Considerations and Geocaching

Geocaching is a popular activity that involves using GPS devices to locate hidden containers, or geocaches, that have been placed by other hikers. While geocaching can be a fun and rewarding activity, it is important to follow ethical guidelines. Hikers should respect private property and sensitive environmental areas, and avoid disturbing wildlife habitats. Additionally, hikers should not place geocaches in dangerous or illegal locations.

In summary, GPS technology can be a valuable tool for hikers when used in conjunction with traditional navigation techniques. Hikers should be aware of the environmental impact of GPS usage and follow ethical guidelines when participating in activities such as geocaching.