Note: This guide was written before smartphone apps with GPS capabilities became more widespread, so the focus of this guide is on dedicated GPS handheld units.
On the Trail with GPS
By Jeremy Apgar, Trail Conference cartographer
As the staff cartographer here at the Trail Conference, I am often approached by volunteers or members asking, "I am interested in getting a GPS receiver to hike with but don't quite know what to look for...can you provide any recommendations?"
More and more people are carrying a GPS receiver when they hike. In addition, many people are getting into geo-caching, a family-friendly activity that utilizes GPS receivers to hunt for treasure in the great outdoors. In a survey concerning trail map usage that we conducted in 2009, 50% of the 660 respondents noted they use a GPS receiver when out hiking, with their frequency of use ranging from rarely to always.
(Fortunately, over 90% of total respondents noted they carry a trail map at least most of the time. GPS units should not be considered substitutes for map and compass, but supplements to them. Like any electronic technology, they are not wholly reliable: batteries may die, the unit may fail, contact may be lost with satellites.)
With so many different brands offering multiple models with a wide range of features (Garmin, for instance, offers over 40 different GPS receivers for "On the Trail" use), it can certainly seem like an overwhelming task to find the GPS receiver perfect for your use. This article aims to provide some guidance about what to look for when shopping for a GPS receiver, keeping in mind that everyone has distinct needs and varying wallet sizes.
FIRST, IDENTIFY YOUR NEEDS
Do you want to just track your mileage or perhaps your elevation ups and downs? Do you want to record and find specific locations (waypoints, perhaps for geo-caching)? These are fairly straightforward GPS applications and you probably can get away with simpler and less expensive units that have no built-in map.
Or perhaps you want to record tracks of your hikes and impose them on maps on your computer at home or in your GPS unit? Maybe you want to follow a trail map installed on your unit. Mapping features tend to lead up the GPS scale of products and therefore in price.
The following features are fairly standard among many handheld GPS receivers, but it is still important to make sure they are included for the particular model you are interested in.
Rugged/Waterproof: GPS receivers used on the trail should be able to withstand some abuse, from getting wet in a surprise thunderstorm to being dropped on a rocky trail. Look for at least some protection to dropping and a waterproof rating.
Battery Life: Most new GPS receivers can exceed 16 hours of use on two AA batteries, which works out great for most day trips. It's a good idea, though, to bring along an extra set of batteries.
Positional Accuracy: Look for GPS receivers that utilize a 12-channel parallel receiver system, as this allows the receiver to lock onto multiple satellites at the same time to more accurately pinpoint your location. Many factors affect GPS accuracy, regardless of the model; but some receivers provide enhanced accuracy under certain conditions, such as with a system called WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System). GPS receivers need unobstructed access to satellites overhead, so to maintain the best connection, they should not be hidden inside a deep pocket or backpack (keep in mind that it is still possible to lose satellite connection even under seemingly perfect conditions).
Maps: Not all GPS receivers have mapping tools. The most basic units document and record data such as miles traveled, waypoints, or elevation, simply as numbers. Some GPS receivers have basic mapping capabilities, showing your location in reference to major roads or towns. Others can be used to access fully-featured topographic maps that are either preloaded or available for purchase. Certain GPS receivers even allow user-created maps to be used. It is important to identify what kind of mapping capability you need, as this variable plays a big role in the overall price.
Color vs. Grayscale: More expensive models tend to provide color screens while less expensive models have a grayscale screen. This factor often goes hand-in-hand with mapping capabilities, as topographic maps are often easier to follow with a color screen. If the intended use of the GPS receiver is less focused on using maps, consider a grayscale model to save some money. It is also important to make sure the screen is readable in the outdoors, as certain screens can appear to be washed out in sunlight.
Size/Weight: Though many GPS receivers for hiking use are designed to be handheld, their sizes and shapes widely vary. Some are small enough to fit comfortably in a child's hand, while others can be bulkier and be easier to use with larger adult hands. Screen sizes and resolutions also vary, so be sure you can easily read the text and maps on the screen. The best way to figure out what works for you is to find an outdoor retail store such as Campmor or Ramsey Outdoor that carries GPS receivers and allows customers to handle the units and try them out.
Each of these above factors influences the cost of a GPS receiver, so if you can decide what you need in a receiver, you can easily narrow down your possibilities. A small, grayscale receiver with no or very limited mapping capabilities and other functions may cost about $100, while a top-of-the-line color receiver with topographic mapping, a touchscreen display, and other advanced features may cost as much as $600. Luckily, there are some great GPS receivers that offer a good mix of these extremes for around $300.
Keep these points in mind as you figure out your needs and research different brands/models on the internet or at an outdoor retailer. If you have experience with GPS receivers and would like to provide your personal recommendations or additional input, please leave a comment at the bottom of this page for others to read. (You must be a registered user of the site to read and write comments.)
Here are just a few ideas for how you can use your GPS for a variety of activities (note: some of these ideas rely on features that may not be available on all GPS units):
- Track Your Elevation Change as you climb up a mountain by referring to the altimeter of a GPS receiver.
- Go on a GPS Treasure Hunt known as geocaching.
- After a great hike, transfer your GPS tracks to a computer and Create A Map in a program such as Google Earth.
- Collect GPS Data for the Trail Conference to be used on trail maps (see section below for more information).
- If you are into photography, explore the ability to Geotag Your Photos based on GPS data.
- Once you start using your GPS receiver in the outdoors, you will likely discover many other ways that you can use it to enhance your hiking experience.
Here at the Trail Conference, we use trail data collected by volunteers with handheld GPS receivers for a wide variety of projects, from our published trail maps to advocacy and land conservation issues. With the extraordinary number of trails in the NY-NJ area and the amount of relocations and new trails constantly in the works, we can certainly use any help in obtaining GPS data for trails.
If you might be interested in using your GPS receiver to collect trail data for our needs here at the Trail Conference, please contact Jeremy Apgar (firstname.lastname@example.org) for further details.
- Garmin 'Hiking' GPS Devices - Garmin's site has a lot of information about their wide variety of handheld GPS devices and also has a very useful comparison tool that allows you to compare/contrast the features of multiple GPS devices.
- Magellan 'eXplorist' GPS Receivers - With a variety of features and pricepoints, Magellan's eXplorist GPS receivers are an attractive option for hikers.
- GPSinformation.net -A very thorough site with GPS reviews, tips on using certain GPS features, a GPS forum and much more, including an 'essential hiking feature list'.
- Guide to GPS Navigation - This site has a great overview of what GPS is and also provides additional resources (link suggested by a helpful website user who found it helpful for her GPS research).
- Geocaching.com - Learn all about geocaching on the official geocaching website!