Woods & Mountains
E-mail Article to a FriendPrint ArticleBookmark and Share

Hiking with GPS

Sometimes it’s good to get off the beaten path
By Mike McQuaide
Published: July 1, 2008
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re out on a hike when you spy a little off-shoot trail snaking across a ridgeline where you bet the views are amazing. Except this little, unknown trail isn’t on your map. Of course, you’ll have to explore it, but what happens if a fog rolls in? What if the trail winds back and forth so much that you get completely turned around? Is it worth the risk to check out that trail and the adventure it promises? If you have a GPS unit and fresh batteries with you, you bet.

A GPS unit calculates where it is by figuring out the distance between it and three (or more) of the 24 global positioning satellites that are constantly circling the earth. They’re generally accurate to within 50 feet. Along with telling you where you are — obviously a great function if you’re lost — they can tell you where you’ve been.

Suppose you follow that ridge trail with your handheld GPS unit. If you’ve set waypoints along the way, it’s like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind you. But animals and insects can’t eat these digital breadcrumbs. Should that fog set in, or you get turned around, you can simply follow those set waypoints back to where you left the main trail.

With GPS, “It’s like you’re out there with a buddy who knows the trail like the back of his hand,” a GPS-toting hiker once told me.

Better Technology, Less Cost

In recent years, GPS unit capabilities have increased exponentially. You can download maps and set multiple routes ahead of time, or store new routes you create while out in the wilderness. Some units come with barometers so that you’re not caught off guard by changing weather conditions. You can even get turn-by-turn driving instructions on how to get to the trailhead, which is extremely useful if you’re hiking in faraway places you’ve never been to before. You don’t even have to buy a separate GPS unit; you can have GPS tracking capability embedded into your cell phone.

Some models are small units worn on the wrist like a watch. These high-tech gadgets would make even James Bond jealous.

Prices have come down too. Smaller handheld models that offer just the basics — where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going — can be had for just under $100. Good wrist models start at about $150. Of course, as capabilities and options are added, prices rise accordingly up to about $600 and more.

Don’t Neglect Low-Tech

One thing to remember is that a GPS unit is only a tool and shouldn’t be your only method of navigation.

Batteries can wear down (pack extra!) and sometimes the unit is unable to pick up a signal — things you never have to worry about if you’re also carrying a map and compass — and know how to use them.

Even with all the advancements in technology, it’s a good idea to have some basic outdoor skills. You never want to find yourself in a place where you’ve over-relied on the technology that’s just broken, run out of juice, or toppled out of your hands and smashed to pieces. Not even James Bond could get himself out of that mess.

Bellingham, Washington’s Mike McQuaide often takes the road less traveled and so far he’s always made it back. He is the author of five books, including Day Hike! Central Cascades (Sasquatch Books).
Related Issues
Subscriber Only Content
Subscriber Only Content
Look for this icon. This denotes premium subscriber content.  Learn more »
Become a Member
Register online for access to more valuable resource information.
Don't miss your connection to the reader forums, projects, photo galleries, and more.
Subscriber and Member Login

Free Twice-Monthly E-Newsletter

Receive useful tips & inspiration from Cabin Life