GPS safety – how to be safe and stay safe

When used correctly, a GPS unit can be a real time and lifesaver. It’ll get you where you need to be, on time, and (usually) with the best route. There are however some basic precautions you need to take in order to stay safe. Some of these tips are very logical, but as I drive around, I still see people neglect to follow even the most basic safety tips.

I have compiled 6 basic tips that will help keep you and your passengers safer as you drive around with your GPS unit.
Use the right mount

Can you imagine what kind of damage a GPS unit will do if you hit another vehicle? It turns from a GPS unit into a projectile. Never place your GPS unit on the dashboard without a proper mount. Also, be sure to keep your GPS unit out of your line of sight. In some states, the law prohibits your GPS unit from being mounted in the middle of the windshield.

In California for example, your GPS unit must be mounted in the lower corner of the driver side (in a 5″ square) or in the lower corner of the passenger side (in a 7″ square). Anywhere else is against the law, so you’ll need to invest in a beanbag mount or vent mount if you want it in the middle.

Don’t program when driving

The unit warns you about this, but I still see plenty of people fiddling with their GPS unit while barreling down the highway at 70 miles an hour. Leave the programming to your passenger(s) or pull over when permitted. Messing with your GPS unit while driving ranks up there with texting while driving.

If you can’t resist the urge to mess with the GPS while driving, then it may be time to invest in a voice activated unit like the Magellan Maestro 4700. A unit like this accepts a variety of spoken commands, and allows you to focus on the road instead of your gadget.

Program your destination(s) before you leave

If you plan to take your GPS unit on a trip, and use it in your rental car, be sure to program your destination(s) in the unit before your leave. Since most GPS units are battery operated, simply bring the unit inside the night before you leave, and add all the hotels, restaurants and attractions you want to visit. This will prevent messing with papers and guidebooks and wasting valuable trip time.

If you do rent, don’t forget to be sure the airport is set as a favorite location, and check the surrounding area for cheap gas to top off the rental before returning it.

If you are renting from Hertz, and opted to pay extra for their Neverlost system, you can even copy your destinations to a USB memory key and copy them to the Neverlost system as soon as you get in the vehicle.

Know how to operate the GPS

There is nothing more annoying than trying to figure out how to program your GPS unit when you are lost or stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. Before embarking on any long trip, spend some time getting to know your GPS unit.

Your wife (or husband) may not appreciate it, but you can spend some time going over its various features before going to bed. GPS units are fairly intuitive, but the user guide is still there for a reason. Especially when you want to use the more advanced features, all your passengers will appreciate the time you took to go over the manual.

Don’t consider the GPS to be king (or queen)

If your GPS unit tells you to turn left when you clearly see a “do not enter” sign, don’t listen to it. Every year, people actually die when they consider the GPS voice to be a command, rather than just a suggestion.

A GPS unit is not a replacement for common sense and sensory awareness. If your GPS unit says the speed limit is 55, and you are caught when it was actually 40, no judge is going to let you off the hook.

Check the suggested route before you leave

This one is an extension of the previous one – if your GPS unit suggests a route, take 30 seconds to read through the route to be sure it leads where you need to go.

A simple typo could lead you completely in the wrong direction. This happened to two Swedish tourists on their way to Italy. Their typo sent them to Carpi, instead of the island village of Capri. The difference? 400 miles. Remember, a GPS unit is no replacement for basic geography knowledge.

Keep your home address out of your GPS unit

Have you ever considered what could happen if your vehicle is stolen, along with your GPS unit? A thief could tell the GPS unit to “go home”. If you are like most people, you’ll provide easy access to your home with the garage door opener in your vehicle.

Now, I’ll admit right away that this scenario does build heavily on some pretty healthy paranoia, but I’m of the opinion that “better safe than sorry” applies here.

When you program your home address into the GPS, program it without a house number, or better yet – set it to a couple of blocks away. You know where you live (I hope), and if you need the GPS to get you home every night, you need more help than a GPS unit can provide. Removing your home address is just one more way to help keep you, your family and your belongings safe.

Know the limitations of GPS when hiking

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.

Daily gear deal – TomTom ONE XL-S GPS unit + bonus for $125

Today’s daily deal is for a TomTom navigation unit. The TomTom ONE XL-S features a widescreen display, text-to-speech directions and built in Bluetooth connectivity.

When connected to your (compatible) mobile phone, you can access the TomTom plus online services, though you do need to be sure your phone has an active data plan.

The TomTom ONE XL-S comes with a car charger, USB cable, windshield mount and a user manual and is on sale at for $124.99 (with free shipping). The added bonus is a 30 piece car emergency kit.