Using GPS When Camping

GPS stands for Global Positioning System and was initially designed to be used by the U.S military. The system is made up of 24 satellites which are located 12,000 miles above the Earth and which move in a precise orbit, have an atomic clock built into them and are solar powered. They orbit the earth twice a day and continually send back their precise location. Therefore, by covering the entire surface of the Earth, 24 hours a day, they can send you a detailed description to your hand-held GPS device of your exact location to within less than a hundred metres and often less than that.

How can it be used for hiking and camping trips?

Many of you will have become familiar with GPS through its use in the car. Many motor manufacturers now make cars fitted with GPS as standard and the principles for its use in hiking, camping and, in fact, any outdoor activity are just the same – it helps you navigate a course from A to B.

Hiking in new territory or an unmarked path using a GPS is an excellent way to make sure that you always know where you are. You can track where you’ve been, how far you’ve travelled, work out if you’ve gained or lost altitude. If you spot some interesting caves or cliff pools in a really remote area, you can record the position of your new discovery on the GPS so that you can find it again easily later. It also has other uses. If, say, you’re out mountain biking, you can use it during a rest stop to confirm your location and spot check the distance you’ve covered and at what speed. If you’re planning a hike, you can mark off waypoints of good rest areas and other important spots along the route and there are plenty of websites with log files from many of the hikes others have completed and they often contain co-ordinates you can refer to.

How do I Use it to Get From point A to Point B?

The GPS calculates your current position. You then enter waypoints – i.e. your chosen destination – and the system will offer a course that steers you to that point, the distance to it, the speed of travel occurring and an estimated time to reach the point at that speed and as you continue walking, the information is constantly updated. This can be extremely useful for hikers and campers if they wish to know whether they’ll reach their chosen destination by nightfall. If you start deviating from your programmed route, most good systems will have an alarm built-in to tell you that you are veering away from your chosen route.

Can it Help Me if I Get Injured and can’t Move?

Yes. If you get into trouble and can’t move, you can use your GPS unit to communicate your exact position to within a few metres to rescue teams so that they’ll know exactly where you are and can get to you far more quickly than if they had to search for you.

I walk in very remote areas where I can often not get a mobile phone signal, what use is GPS there?

Mobile phones rely on the ability of the phone to be within a certain range of mobile telecommunications masts which are located on the ground. As GPS relies on satellite communication, as long as you can see the sky, your GPS will still work.

So, Does it Replace a Mobile Phone?

Not really but it can do many things that a mobile phone cannot do. For example, you may be able to call your friend on your mobile to tell them you’re lost but how will they know where to find you? There are, however, some GPS units on the market now which have mobile phones built into them and it’s reckoned that in a few years’ time, GPS may end up being installed onto most mobile phones as standard.

So, I Can Throw Away my Compass and Maps Then?

Not quite. The technology can be complicated to some and true outdoors experts will appreciate that using GPS to facilitate wilderness journeys, whether hiking, biking trails, canoeing or touring remote highways requires detailed planning, including an understanding of map and compass use. Although the signal is by far more reliable than that of a mobile phone in remote areas, there might occasionally be a few problem areas in getting a signal in perhaps steep canyons, high mountains and dense forests so it’s not time to chuck out the map and compass just yet. However, GPS has revolutionised the way we can navigate. Just remember to take spare batteries!

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