There is no doubt that using a GPS has changed the way we travel. Adding one of the little devices to our cars allows us to navigate effortlessly to our destinations and has all but eliminated our need to carry road maps or stop off at the local gas station to ask for directions. That same technology can be of benefit when we leave the vehicle behind and hit a hiking trail as well, although hikers should be aware of the limitations of their devices, and be prepared to use their common sense and good judgment when employing such a device.
Hand held GPS units are very common and inexpensive these days. Most are small, light weight and battery operated, allowing them to be dropped into your backpack when you head out for the day. They generally offer such features as trail maps, suggested points of interest, and topographical data, all of which can be helpful for finding your way in the backcountry.
But unlike GPS devices in our cars, our hand held units don’t do “turn-by-turn” navigation while out in the wilderness, mostly because there are no clear cut roads or landmarks that can be used in the same fashion as when we are on the streets, and natural obstacles can abound. Hikers are instead provided with a general indication of where their destination is from their current position in an “as the crow flies” fashion, and they are forced to navigate to that destination themselves. When doing so, they’ll generally take advantage of the GPS’s built in electronic compass and topographical information to assist them, but more importantly, they’ll need to constantly survey the terrain, adjusting their course as needed, in order to reach their end point successfully.
Speaking of terrain, it can also have a direct impact on the performance of your GPS device while hiking. In order to find your location, you’ll need a clear view of the sky overhead, and that works fine when you’re in a wide open field. But many trekkers have found their hand held GPS can’t connect to the orbiting satellites when they are under a thick canopy of trees or deep in a canyon or gorge where the sky is obscured by the rock walls. It is important to know how your device will perform on the trails that you’ll be hiking so as to avoid a surprise that may leave you lost in the woods and without alternative methods of find your way.
The battery life of our hand held GPS units are also a cause for concern, as they can chew through a full charge in to time at all if you’re not careful. That means you’ll need to carry more batteries in your backpack, which hampers the portability of the device to a degree. And should you run out of juice while on the trail, then your expensive electronic toy becomes useless. Make sure it is fully charged before heading out, and that you’re aware of how long the batteries last under typical conditions. Also keep in mind that cold weather will have an impact on battery life as well, often reducing run times dramatically.
Most of this isn’t new information of course, and experienced hikers have learned that a GPS can be an invaluable tool. However, they’ve also learned not to become overly reliant on the devices, preferring instead to continue to use the time tested skills of reading maps and compasses to find their way. Those skills are enhanced however by being able to turn on the GPS, take some quick readings to find your bearings, plot your course on the map, and set out for your destination, returning to the GPS from time to time to ensure that you’re still on course and making adjustments as necessary.
Despite some of these drawbacks to the use of a hand held GPS, they can be quite a powerful addition to anyone’s mandatory gear list. They are an excellent navigational tool, as long as the person using it is familiar with both the strengths and limitations of such a device. Finding our way in the backcountry has never been so easy, and we’re definitely safer than ever while on the trail.