How to Get Started with Handheld GPS for the Great Outdoors

There was a time when GPS was considered a high-end appliance, but nowadays, GPS receivers are fairly ubiquitous. The technology has dropped in price to the point where GPS has become an everyday gadget for consumers, who use it for driving, hiking, boating, geo-caching and much, much more. But not everybody has a GPS. If you are getting ready to shop for your first handheld GPS for outdoor use, this article will help you choose the perfect unit and start using it.

What Are the Basic Functions of a Handheld GPS?

Once you have selected and purchased a handheld GPS for outdoor use, and next step will be to read the manual and learn how to operate basic and advanced features. Regardless of the brand and model you choose, even your most basic handheld GPS should be able to provide you with the following simple functions:

1. Personalized navigation from one point to the next

This is the primary purpose of GPS technology. Each point on the map you are traveling to or from is known as a “waypoint.” You can mark these in advance at home, or add them as you are traveling. What is handy about this is that you can customize waypoints as needed. So a waypoint does not necessarily have to be something most people would recognize as a destination (i.e. a hotel or restaurant). It can also be something you recognize as a destination, like the head of a trail, your own campsite, or any other location which you wish to find your way back to. In short, GPS maps are customizable.

2. Information on your present position

While GPS can help you to find your way to where you are going, it also can help you understand where you are. The device will display your exact coordinates and display your position on the map relative to your surroundings.

3. Path tracking

Need to keep track not just of where you are headed, but also where you have been? Turn on your GPS’s path tracking feature and the unit will display “track points” at intervals as you travel. You can use these to see your path thus far—very useful if you ever need to retrace your steps (perhaps to find exactly where you left your sweatshirt in the middle of the woods).

4. Stats

Both for reasons of fitness and general interest, you may be interested in seeing statistics on exactly what you have accomplished on your trip. How many miles have you hiked or cycled? How high have you climbed in elevation? Your GPS can display this data for you.

How Do You Set Up Your GPS for Initial Use?

Now that you know the basics, what do you do after you read the manual? How do you get your GPS set up so that you will be ready for your first trip?

Basic Options

When you first turn on your device, take a deep breath—because you may initially feel overwhelmed. The setup menu on the typical GPS offers a diverse array of options, any or all of which you can customize.

Rather than get lost among all these setup options, you may wish to ignore most of them begin with, and simply start with the position format menu.

In this menu, you can select a system of your preference for displaying coordinates. As to the system for marking waypoints, you should stick with the same one that is used in the maps that you are using. That way the information will be presented in a consistent manner, reducing the likelihood of navigational errors.

Then there is the map datum. Be sure to set up the map datum on your GPS so that it matches that which is in the key for your topographic map, trail guide, or other information source for location data. If you do not do this correctly, the GPS will get position coordinates wrong.


Next, you will need to set up the connection between your GPS and the satellite network overhead which the unit relies on for positioning. To do this, step outside and turn on the device. It should automatically go into search mode, and after several minutes it should begin to find satellites overhead. Every time you turn your device off and then back on, you will need to repeat this procedure, which should take several minutes each time.

Note that this process will go as smoothly if you are in an unobstructed area, but cloud cover is not important.

What Do You Need to Do at the Start of a Hike?

Once you have finished with the basic steps above, your GPS will be ready for your first trip. But after you step out of your vehicle at the start of the trail, there are still a few basic steps that you need to complete before embarking on your adventure. These steps are not entirely the same from one unit to the next, but they should be quite similar across all brands and models.

First, you will need to acquire satellites. If you have already done this recently (as part of the initial setup process for example), it should not take that long. You will then need to reset your trip data and clear any track log that you might currently have displayed.

Once you’ve done that, you can set your initial waypoint, which will help you return to the trailhead and your vehicle when you are ready to make your way back. Next, if your GPS comes with a compass, altimeter, and/or barometer, you will need to calibrate these features. Once that is done, turn on path tracking if you want the device to leave breadcrumbs on the map. Then, you are ready to embark.

How Can You Maximize the Battery Life of Your GPS?

What if you will be traveling for several days without a chance to stop it at a store to pick up new batteries for your GPS?

Maximizing battery life starts during the shopping process, as mentioned previously. If your hikes usually begin and end on the same day, rechargeable batteries are a great option. If however you frequently go out on longer expeditions, look for a unit which takes lithium batteries. These batteries last extra long. You should bring a number of extra batteries with you, even if you do not expect to need them. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

Most GPS units have power settings that you can modify to extend the life of your batteries. You may be able to turn down the backlight on the screen, and you may also be able to set the screen timeout to a shorter duration.

One more thing to consider is investing in a small foldable portable solar panel designed for hikers and backpackers. You can use this to charge your GPS and other devices while you are off the grid.


Getting Started With A Handheld GPS for Outdoor Use Is Easier Than You Think

It is common for new GPS users to be overwhelmed by the thought of purchasing their first handheld outdoor unit and setting it up. While it is true that there are numerous different features and options available, the most basic functions are the same from one device to the next, and you really only need to a basic initial setup to get started with your first expedition.

Over time, as you explore more features of your GPS, you will gradually become an expert. As you will discover, equipping yourself with a handheld GPS can enhance your safety while boosting your enjoyment of your outdoor adventures.

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