How to Use a Handheld GPS for Hiking

How to Use a Handheld GPS for Hiking

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If you plan to hike, there are various items you need to take with you. However, a GPS is the most valuable tool you have to stay safe, on track, and not get lost in the woods.

A GPS or Global Positioning System uses a series of satellites that send and receive signals to your receiver, informing you of your exact location at all times. GPS systems have various features that allow hikers to stay on track or get back on track if lost.

This article discusses how to use a handheld GPS for hiking. We want to discuss their various features, how to set up a GPS for hiking, and much more. So, let’s get to it.

How to Use a Handheld GPS for Hiking

Before using a GPS for hiking, you must set it up and learn how to use the features.

Setting Up and Calibration

The first thing to do is initial satellite calibration. Then, go outside, turn on your GPS system, and let it search for the closest satellites; it will take a few minutes.

Once it has done this, when you travel, it will locate satellites as you move. Remember that every time you turn your GPS on, it will take a few minutes to find and connect to satellites.

Dense tree cover, mountains, and other obstacles can block the satellite signals from reaching your receiver. Therefore, if you are under thick cover, the satellites will take another few minutes to connect to your GPS once you come out from that cover. Also, you don’t want to keep your GPS under a lot of clothing in your backpack, which may block the signal.

The startup involves acquiring a satellite signal, resetting old trip data, and clearing the old track log. This will differ from one GPS unit to another, but it is done by going into the memory and resetting everything.

You will need to calibrate the compass, barometer, and altimeter if your GPS features them. Again, how you calibrate these things will depend on the GPS unit, so read the instructions that came with your unit.

A Word on Battery Life

GPS units generally have pretty good battery life and last for days. However, some use disposable batteries, so you should carry spare batteries. Even better is if you have a rechargeable GPS unit, in which case you’ll need to bring a battery bank.

Always ensure your GPS is fully charged before you set off on your trip. You should dim the backlight of the GPS display to extend the battery life. Some GPS units come with battery-saving modes to preserve battery life. A GPS that dies mid-hike is no better than a paperweight.

How to Use a Handheld GPS for Hiking

Download Maps and Set Waypoints

Next, you will want to download the maps you’ll need. Therefore, research the location you’ll be hiking and download the appropriate map from the map store.

The GPS unit will likely have the map preloaded if you are hiking in North America. However, wherever you are, you want a clear and detailed map of your location. On that note, you might want to download the proper topography maps for your area.

Standard maps will not show you elevation, but topography maps will, and they’ll also reveal hills, mountains, bodies of water, and more. This will allow you to plan your trip more accurately. Once you have downloaded the required maps, go to your starting point. You should set several waypoints to help make staying on track much more straightforward.

Waypoints are like markers along the way that allow you to know you’re still on track. Each time you reach a waypoint, you will get instructions to reach the next waypoint until you get to your final destination

Recording Tracks

Another cool feature your GPS unit should have is the “record tracks” function. When you turn on tracking, the GPS unit will automatically lay down what is known as “breadcrumbs.” These are also known as track points.

These points are laid down at regular intervals and serve as waypoints to allow you to retrace your steps. Therefore, you can easily find your way back along the path you have traveled.

Normal GPS Functionality

A GPS tells your exact coordinates at all times. To use this function, go to the regular GPS map and look at your location.

These usually also come with a compass, so you know what direction you are facing. Simply look at the map, read your coordinates, and look at the compass to determine where you are relative to your surroundings.


These are the basics to know for using a handheld GPS for hiking. If you understand the essential functions, hiking is much easier and safer.

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