How To Use A Handheld GPS For Hiking
There are several things that I want my GPS to do for me on a hike. I want it to keep track of my elevation, my location, where I am on the trail, and my progress. This is the checklist that I use to set up my handheld GPS to get the greatest benefit out of it. The procedure for performing the tasks listed is different for each hiking GPS, so please refer to your owner’s manual.
Prior to my first hike with a new GPS, I go the setup page and enter basic information like what language, type of batteries used, background lighting and time out settings, battery save options, map orientation, track and routing settings, measurement units, and time zone settings. It may sound like a lot of preparation, but it isn’t too hard; just follow the directions in the owner’s manual. Many of the setting are already set in a default mode.
Once I arrive at the trail head, I set the elevation by allowing my GPS to self calibrate. Then I always make sure that my GPS elevation matches the elevation listed at the trailhead or on the map. If it doesn’t, I enter the elevation manually. Now I can keep track of how much elevation change I am encountering as I hike. Now is a good time to check the battery level. Change batteries if needed. I use lithium batteries; more expensive, but last longer.
Next, I mark the trailhead as a way point. If I should ever get off the trail, I can always get back to the trailhead by using the “go to” function.
I like to record my starting GPS coordinates which then become a part of my Hiking Guide for our local area. If you aren’t doing a hiking guide or a blog, then you probably don’t need the coordinates.
“Clear the Track” is next on my check list. I want the GPS to begin recording data at the trail head. So I use the “Clear Track” function to reset all of the tracking and mapping functions for this particular hike.
“Clear Trip Log” is likewise done to reset the computer generated trip distance, speed, and hiking time for this hike to zero.
Off we go with the handheld GPS ready to give me fresh and accurate information. Most of the time, I keep the GPS display showing the Trip Computer page. This shows my current elevation, trip odometer, average hiking speed, current speed, moving time, and stopped time. This is helpful information as I make decisions about how far to hike before heading back or can we continue to the planned destination. On occasion, usually while resting, I switch to the map page to see where I am at in relationship to the trail head, the destination, and the surrounding terrain. It’s nice to keep track without pulling a map out of my pack.
Sometimes I am hiking where there is no trail to follow and the trail is not in the GPS data base. Then when my destination is reached, I save the track in the GPS database as a named track. It then becomes my GPS trail the next time I return to this particular hike. Sometimes, the trail is already in the GPS database (or I have loaded it from one of the Garmin Map Sources). Now I can compare my present GPS location to the GPS map trail to make sure I didn’t make a wrong turn. Usually, however, I am hiking a well marked trail and the map page on the GPS isn’t of much value, except as a matter of curiosity.
Once at my destination, I note my times. How long did it take and how much of that time was spent walking vs. resting. I also like to note the elevation. I save the destination as a waypoint and save the track for future reference. Before heading back, I clear only the trip log, so as to reset my timer to zero, so I can keep track of my hike out time. I don’t clear the track log, so that my GPS position should follow the same track that was just created on the hike in.
With a little practice, you too can enjoy the benefits and safety features of a handheld GPS. But be sure not to become so focused on the GPS that you forget to enjoy the wildflowers, the deer sightings, the streams, the majestic mountain views, and the pleasure of the company of your fellow hikers. Stay balanced and stay safe.