How to Use a Handheld GPS for Hiking – Important Tips

As a hiker, you may wonder how to use a handheld GPS for hiking to enhance your trekking trip. A handheld GPS is a small device that provides locational information via satellite. A GPS ( Global Positioning System) helps you get around a place you don’t know well. It guides you on what directions you need to take. It also gives you accurate information about where you are.

You will reap many benefits from using a GPS on your hiking trip. If you have never hiked before, you need to be aware that your safety comes first and without a GPS you can get lost. A GPS acts as a safety gadget by helping you not to go off track and therefore not get lost.

How to Use a Handheld GPS for Hiking

It is your way-finding device. It guides you on where to go, and it can take you back to where you have come from. You can use the GPS feature on your phone, but a handheld GPS is handier.

A modern GPS incorporates the features of a traditional GPS, the features of a smartphone plus the benefits of a compass. Modern GPS systems have made hike planning easier. GPSs have pre-loaded maps and trail-plotting features to help hikers mark waypoints and check topographical hurdles in advance. It gives hikers the opportunity to plan their trip and replay the experiences. Also, if you are a group of hikers, it is much easier to share route information.

How to Use a Handheld GPS for Hiking

Wayfinding during hiking

A GPS is useful before and after a hike. A GPS device can help you when out, and you venture off the trail, and you are unable to locate landmarks. It will give you the altitude, direction, whether you are heading east, west north or south, it will provide you with coordinates, latitudes, and longitudes and you can also use it to communicate.

The information provided by the GPS will help you get a working solution if you are lost. You can call for help and give specific details of your location. You can locate alternative routes or go backward and try to retrace your steps. The data is also critical during an emergency situation such as an injury. Rescue operations will be done accurately because of the real-time information.

A GPS also makes it easier for a hiker to go back to a past hiking spot easily whether it is a campsite, waterfall, lake or river. A hiker can track various things during a hike including average speed, miles covered during a trek and elevation change. It becomes easier to re-visit a route.

Important features in a GPS

A handheld GPS is valuable during an outdoor trip. The size of the GPS unit really matters. When hiking, you are heavy-laden because you have a back-pack. Consider buying a GPS unit that can fit in your hands and of light-weight to avoid operator fatigue.

Besides that, consider a unit that uses a button menu and not a touchscreen GPS because you may need to use your GPS while wearing gloves. You also need a GPS with many other features including wireless transmission, a barometer, and an electronic compass.

A GPS with a barometer or altimeter gives you more features by providing weather trends and barometric data. An electronic compass, on the other hand, will provide you with details of the direction you are facing when you are stationary.

A GPS without an electronic compass only gives directions when you are moving. On the other hand, a wireless data transfer feature gives you an opportunity to share information including waypoints, tracks, and routes with other people.

All GPS have simple maps. Try as much as possible to get a GPS unit that is preloaded with trail and topographic maps. Also, you should be able to connect your GPS to a computer and load essential maps on it. You can find such maps online. Alternatively, you should be able to use a CD or microSD card with maps on your GPS.

You need a GPS unit with a good memory to be able to save all your hiking data including maps, waypoints, and important hiking notes. Alternatively, you can use a microSD card or CD. In addition, a GPS unit with geocaching functions will have an advantage because you will be able to do paperless geocaching.

Other notable features to desire in a GPS system include a digital camera, which can geotag photos and a two-way radio communication.

Also read: California Hiking Trails That Are A Must See For Every Outdoor Lover and The magnificent Florida hiking trails: Discover 10 hidden treasures

Learning to use your GPS

After reading the GPS user manual, now it is time to understand how it operates. First, understand how a GPS operates before learning how to run it. What are Waypoints? They are marker or points to indicate important locations.

If for example, you have coordinates of where you are going, you can plan your hiking trip while at home using those waypoints. You choose the starting point and mark the entire route until your hiking destination. You upload the information in your GPS, and you will be guided from waypoint to waypoint until you reach your final hike spot.

How does a GPS determine location? Do you remember studying some topics in social studies that didn’t make sense? If you didn’t grasp longitudes and latitudes or you have forgotten what you were taught, then it is time to refresh your brain.

Reading coordinates requires an understanding of longitudes and latitudes. A GPS takes coordinates (longitudes and latitudes) and places them on a grid, and that is how a location is identified, whether it is in the East, West, North or South.

Now it is time to operate the GPS. The first step you need to take is to practice using your GPS. While at home, enter coordinates of a neighborhood mall, park or local store. Use your GPS to guide you to the place. Check the distance features carefully.

The distance to a waypoint decreases as you near the area. If you are heading in the wrong direction, the distance may increase, showing you that you are getting lost. Choose a location free of dense coverage, in an open space where signals interruption is unlikely. Always refer to your user manual for directions.

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Hiking with your handheld GPS

GPS systems have improved wayfinding for trekkers. GPS units are constructed with a software program that enables you to plan routes, analyze trips, check distances and manage maps.

A GPS will show you how far you have trekked. But you still need to observe the fundamentals of hiking to be a successful trekker. If you are a beginner hiker, it is important to be accompanied on your first trips until you get a bit seasoned in hiking. Also, stay on established trails. Take short hiking trips initially. It is also important to plan trips that are manageable, taking into consideration trip duration, weather, and other factors.

Ensure that you have a power back-up for your GPS. Put your GPS on satellite lock so that it does not lose information. Your GPS and smartphone can fail. If the trip is manageable, you will be safe, and you will eventually find your way back.

How to use GPS devices safely


You don’t want to get lost when you are out enjoying yourself. Therefore take as many safety precautions as possible. Understand the trekking route as much as possible. And please remember that a physical printed map and a compass are quite essential in case your phone or GPS fails you. Happy trekking.

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