Monday, December 26, 2011

GPS: When to use, when not to use on hike

By using satellites, the global positioning system can find your spot on the Earth to within 10 feet. With a GPS device, you can preprogram the trailhead location and mark key turns and landmarks as well as the hike’s end point. This mobile map is a powerful technological tool that almost certainly ensures you won’t get lost – so long as you’ve correctly programmed the information. GPS also can calculate travel time and act as a compass, a barometer and altimeter, making such devices virtually obsolete on a hike.

In remote areas, however, reception is spotty at best for GPS, rendering your mobile map worthless. A GPS device also runs on batteries, and there’s always a chance they will go dead. Or you may drop your device, breaking it in the process. Their screens are small, and sometimes you need a large paper map to get a good sense of the natural landmarks around you.

So which should you use, paper map or GPS? Simply put, GPS isn’t enough. I recommend carrying both paper maps and GPS. Being a technogeek, I like to mainly use GPS, but there have been a number of times I was glad to have my paper topo map with me. Regardless, I do all of my planning on paper maps and then program it into my GPS device.

When buying a GPS device, the tradeoff almost always is between being lightweight and the number of functions it can perform. If you want to program in map routes and have a compass/altimeter/barometer, you’ll need a heavier (or at least more expensive) model.

Familiarize yourself with the GPS device and practice using it, perhaps at a local playground, before heading into the wilds. The unit won’t do you much good on the trail if you don’t know how to use it. Finally, make sure you get a waterproof case for it.

Of course, to keep hiking inexpensive, you can dispense with GPS altogether. Paper maps and compass cost virtually nothing and do the same thing.

Read more about day hiking with children in my guidebook Hikes with Tykes.