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Outdoor GPS navigation - the basics

Outdoor GPS navigation - the basics

Wed 25th October 2017

Everyone loves a map. But what if your map could automatically tell you where you were, where you’ve been and which way to go? With a GPS unit it can… we look through the basics.

Outdoor GPS units work using both the American and Russian satellite systems and will give you an exact location of where you are, anywhere in the world.

In most modern units it will show you this location on a map. With a little bit of planning (either on the unit or on a PC/Mac) the GPS unit will navigate you along the trail or route you are wanting to walk/ cycle along. As they are made for the outdoors the purpose-built GPS unit can be drooped or even submerged in water and best of all the screen is made for the outdoors so the brighter the sun gets often the screen gets even better, which is very unlike any other portable devices many of currently use.

The basic functions you get on a GPS:

1. Finding your location and how to use it with an OS map.

To find your location with any good quality outdoor GPS unit is as simple as switching the unit on and waiting for it to locate some satellites (which should take less than 1 minute).

Once it has a fix the unit will give you a 10-figure grid reference (if in the UK) and it will also show you your location on an Ordnance Survey map which has been pre-loaded onto your GPS unit.

2. GPS waypoints.

To navigate using an outdoor GPS you need to use ‘waypoints’.

As the current crop of GPS units sees the Ordnance Survey as an image file (i.e. it has not routable data like a car satnav) you create a waypoint to navigate to.

You can also link a number of waypoints together to create what is called a ‘route’. Then the GPS will guide you from one waypoint to the next and take you on a walk/ cycle ride.

3. Tracks - what are they and how do you use them?

When you are out walking your outdoor GPS will create a ‘track’ which is a breadcrumb trail behind you. Therefore at any time you can do a ‘backtrack’ and the GPS will take you back the way you have come. Great if you are in an emergency situation.

Many people have started sharing these tracks as you can navigate either way along them on your GPS. So if you are thinking of cycling the C2C you can’t do any better than downloading the track from somebody who has already done it (who did not get lost) and following the route (which is really a track) that they have already done.

4. Digital maps - the options available.

Most current GPS units come with full UK Ordnance Survey maps or rather you should not be buying a GPS without them. This is a common mistake people make and it can be a costly one as buying the maps at a later stage can be expensive.
If you are heading overseas there are some very affordable maps around and as your GPS can be used anywhere in the world it is ideal for exploring those far flung countries.

In the last few years Garmin have produced to clever software that when you plug your GPS unit into a PC or Mac you can view the maps on your unit on your PC/ Mac making route planning very easy.

5. Finding pre-programmed routes and tracks.

There are so many places where people share their routes and tracks. In the Garmin software mentioned above you can just search for the location you are wanting to explore and all the other Garmin users have uploaded the walks, cycle rides and other outdoor activities so you can just download these ‘Garmin adventures’ onto your unit.

There are many other commercial and non-commercial web sites sharing these ‘.gpx’ files of local walks/ rides and also all the long distance trails both in the UK and overseas.

Outdoor people are friendly folk and like to share their experiences.

6. What about smart phone GPS’s?

There are a number of issues about using your smartphone to navigate outdoors. Even if you do have a built in GPS in your phone you will soon get you into problems.

- Battery life – we all moan about the battery life on our smart phones but just wait until you start navigating with it, the battery life will be halved or even a third of normal battery life. With an outdoor GPS you can change the battery and even replace with standard AA batteries so if you are doing a multiday trail it’s not a problem.

- Screen – How many people have we seen with broken screens on their smartphones, an expensive slip. With an outdoor GPS unit you can hit the screen with a hammer and it stays intact.

- Map – Usually on a mobile phone the maps are streamed onto your phone and often you have no signal when out in the countryside. Taking all this in mind an outdoor GPS unit is pre-loaded with all the maps you need.

7. What about compass’ and real maps?

The map and compass will never be redundant. Any GPS unit is an electronic device and occasionally something goes wrong (often user led) so a paper map backup is always needed.

But saying that you can print out the maps on your GPS using your PC/ Mac so no excuse for not printing your map out before you go, just in case.

You can find out more about GPS units on the Shepherds Walks web sites here.

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