An Introduction to GPS Units

basics of gps units and maps
Handheld GPS units are one of the best items to purchase if you plan on hiking or travelling in the woods

There are many useful gadgets that have been invented to help you in the outdoors. Everything from pocket thermometers to digital watches with compasses on them, have been invented to make the great outdoors even greater. By far the most useful of all the gadgets is the GPS unit.

GPS stands for Global Positioning System which was developed by the military as a more accurate means of targeting, finding locations, and keeping track of where the troops are. In simple terms a GPS unit, whether hand held or vehicle mounted finds your current location by tracking satellites orbiting around the planet. The more satellites it can receive a signal from, the more accurate the location reading will be. Your current location is then displayed against a base map on the LCD display of your device and the GPS co-ordinates of your longitude and latitude (such as N43.641922, W79.387668) are provided on your device.

learn to use a gps unit
Handheld GPS units are accurate to within a few feet

The maps can be either topographical, geographical, highway, or nautical depending on your preference. Maps with even greater detail can be downloaded or purchased from manufacturers websites and are well worth the cost. GPS units are capable of finding a location to within a few feet making them an excellent tool to carry with you when out in the woods, driving, or in your boat. Unlike a paper map which shows everything around you, a GPS will show exactly where you are on the map, making it the ultimate device for the person who always seems to get lost or misplaces themselves in the woods.

GPS units can also be used to plan a journey and to stay on that track while travelling. By placing way-points or points of interest (POI) on a map, you can lay out your journey while marking all the exciting landmarks that you want to see. You could plan your fishing trip by marking the location of hot-spots on the map as points of interest. This enables you to find the location of your favourite fishing hole year after year or to find that same location while ice-fishing during the winter when ice and snow cover the water. Another use is to mark your campsite so if you go for a hike or head to the tree stand you can find your way back, even in total darkness.

gps for geocaching
Geocaching with the family is a great way to put your GPS unit to use.

Handheld GPS devices are great for geocaching. Geocaching is a game of hide and seek where someone hides a waterproof canister in the woods, along a road side or basically anywhere that is on public property. The location of the cache is published or distributed to the geocachers who upload the co-ordinates to their GPS, then race to be the first to find the prize.

Usually the prizes are simple such as key chains or other small items hidden under a rock or in a tree, but sometimes they can be a ticket for something better. Multi-caches are geocaches where the first cache contains the co-ordinates of a second cache which contains the co-ordinates of a third cache which ultimately has the prize. Marking geocaches as points of interests (POI) along your map of the trail is a great way to get the family outdoors and to have some fun. For more information visit

Commercial drivers use GPS for planning out their delivery routes and marking the location of gas stations or hotels along the way. This enables the drivers to stay on track and not waste time driving around looking for fuel or a place to stay. Sea captains can program their exact route into a G.P.S. system for their boat or ship. Automatic pilot interfaces allow the boat to basically drive itself along a pre-programmed path. This allows the Captain to program in a route that will maximize fuel efficiency and minimize the time it takes to get the ship to its destination.

radio gps units
There are many types of GPS units such as this model which features a two-way radio in it

As with all electronic devices there is one drawback: batteries. Always keep a spare set of batteries with you when using a GPS, in particular if it is your main navigational aid. You can also back-up many of your settings, maps, and POIs to an SD card. This allows you to import any new POIs you placed while out to your home PC (some GPS devices are compatible with Google Earth as well) or re-load information into your GPS device should you have to change batteries while in the field. For safety’s sake keep a good ol’ magnetic compass with you when travelling in the woods or on the water just in case.

There are several manufacturers of GPS devices. Garmin, Lowrance, and Magellan are the industry leaders and each offer several different styles of devices for the backpacker, driver or boater in your family. For more information on their products visit their websites or your local outdoors store.

Copyright 2019 Mike Wilson