An outdoorsman’s guide for putting satellite navigation to work
Maybe you’ll get a GPS device as a holiday gift. Or maybe you were given one last year, but you still haven’t figured out how to use it to navigate through the backcountry.
Here’s some practical advice from the interface between the manufacturer techies and the customers who buy their products:
“Learning GPS is very much like using a VCR: Don’t be afraid to push buttons,” said Mark Beattie, assistant manager at Mountain Gear in Spokane. “If you can’t program something, look for a 12-year-old; they’re wiling to push buttons and risk it all.”
The benefits are worth the effort, as millions of GPS users have learned.
Hikers are logging the best cross-country routes from Point A to B;
Anglers are setting waypoints so they can return precisely to their big-lake honey holes.
Hunters are marking kill sites or GPS navigating to hunting blinds in the dark or fog.
Bicyclists and runners are plotting their routes to get details on distance and elevation gain for fine-tuning training.
Victims of backcountry emergencies have called in or delivered location coordinates for speedy rescues by searchers or pilots.
This is just a sampling of the uses for GPS.
In September, while off-trail exploring along the Shedroof Divide in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, I became confused as to which of the nondescript rounded peaks was which. To get oriented, I simply searched for Shedroof Mountain on my GPS device’s “where to” menu. An arrow pointed toward the destination and told me the exact distance I’d have to travel.
One evening in October, one of my elk-hunting companions was bushwhacking back to camp after sunset through the dense Pend Oreille County brush and timber when he became disoriented in the maze of little dips and gullies.
Luckily, he had set a waypoint at camp before he’d set out that morning. His GPS device had him back on track in no time. He didn’t even miss happy hour.
“I was going 100 degrees the wrong direction,” Derrick Knowles said back in the glow of the campfire. “It was sure comforting to know exactly where I was, which way I had to go, and how far.”
Told of the incident, Beattie applauded Knowles for avoiding a common rookie mistake:
“When you leave the trailhead or camp or wherever you’ll want to return, you need to mark a waypoint,” Beattie said. “I call that leaving a few bread crumbs. That first way point is very important, but a lot of people get in a rush to get on the trail and they don’t do it.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
First you have to learn to use GPS.
“A lot of people don’t even know that GPS means Global Positioning System,” Beattie said. “Some people are surprised that GPS hand-held devices navigate by triangulating satellite signals, not by cell phone towers.”
While new smartphones have GPS technology, they’re not nearly as precise as dedicated GPS units that range from $70 on up, experts say. And they may not work in the backcountry away from cell towers.
Most serious users are going to spend $180 to $500 for hand-held units with maps, display and features they’ll need in the field
The typical new GPS user considers a GPS unit an adventure in itself.
Beattie had several teaching methods that help people get started.
First, he said, experiment with the unit in a park or close to home before heading out cross-country across the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“I’m not a tech geek by any means,” said Beattie, as he tested a new Garmin Oregon earlier this year. Knowing how to operate one type of unit is no guarantee that you’ll immediately be able to operate another model efficiently, he said.
But after viewing online video instructions or reading the manual – a novel approach – and some trial and error, he soon began logging tracks and navigating to waypoints with ease.
John Higgins, a product expert and GPS guru at REI in Salt Lake City, also emphasizes trial-and-error practice before you really need it. In a story that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, he recalled testing a new unit in familiar backcountry. He tried to locate a waypoint which he knew from reading a map was only 2 miles away. The GPS was telling him the spot was 80 miles away.
He eventually realized the unit was on a “route by road” selection and not direct to point.
“We get a number of people who want to return them because they think the unit is inaccurate,” Higgins said. “It usually turns out to be a menu setting that is not appropriately entered, and it just takes a second to correct.”
Batteries are among the biggest pitfalls of relying on GPS devices. People who use vehicle-mounted GPS navigation sometimes forget their hand-held device is likely to run out of juice in a day.
I was pretty smug heading out for two days of trail research with fresh batteries and two spare pairs of rechargeable batteries. The second day out I learned that the spare batteries I’d recharged two weeks earlier had lost ALL of their charge.
As GPS technology has leveled off, manufacturers are creating more options to help distinguish their devices from the crowd. Cameras, phones, touch screens and MP3 players are appealing to some users, but the extras have a thirst for power that reduces battery life.
Beattie says users should explore the battery-saving options found on most new units, including shorter screen illumination times and automatic power-down.
The two most common points of advice experts have for GPS users:
• Carry a map for the area you’re exploring as a cross-reference and a backup to your GPS device.
“Knowing how to use a standard map and compass is an important part of your risk-playing and activity management,” Higgins said. “People think paper maps are obsolete, but a GPS can do nothing for you if it is dead. A paper map won’t just stop working like a GPS can.”
• Don’t forget to look around and take note of landmarks – and the scenery.
“I don’t live my life through technology,” Beattie said. “My cell phone is eight years old. GPS units are useful tools. But people can miss a lot of the outdoor experience and even get hurt if they’re focused on a GPS screen.”