GPS Receiver
Photo by Daveynin

Summer is a great time to head for the trail and practice with a GPS receiver. There are several things hikers can do before leaving home. First, make a short checklist so that nothing is forgotten. Begin by checking the electronic setup of the GPS receiver:

  • Take a look at the batteries
  • The coordinate system setup
  • Electronic mapping
  • Review the waypoint management.

Then, tune-up the receiver to maximize position accuracy by looking at how displays and waypoints are managed. Here are a few recommendations to consider.


  • Dump those old AA batteries and put in new ones. If you leave your GPS on all day in the field, expect to change the batteries nightly. Consider using lithium AA’s— they last longer and work better in cold temperatures. Relatively new are the Eneloop rechargeable batteries by Sanyo. These batteries are great for the day hiker— check Costco or
  • “Match the map” with the receiver’s navigation selection options. Specifically, match the coordinate system (e.g., UTM or Latitude/Longitude) and map datum that are found on the map. Consider shifting the receiver’s compass to degrees true.  Further, have everyone in a hiking or hunting group use the same settings— that way, your group will all be on the same page.
  • Keep your navigation simple.  It’s easier to work with a handful of waypoints than a list of 300. Dump the junk—  delete the old waypoints, the ones you will never use again. Log important waypoints (e.g., that lake side camp site) on your PC or in a notebook. Visit or for a place to store waypoints.
  • Install maps on your GPS receiver. Maps on the receiver are a natural complement to your paper field map. Quality maps are available from
  • Adjust your map pages’ zoom setting to see what works best. For general trail hiking, I keep my zoom setting at 800 feet.  This setting allows me to view trails, water sources, roads and elevation contours.
  • Visit the manufacture’s website to see if there are any firmware updates. I do this every couple of months.
  • When the batteries are replaced, calibrate the electronic compass.


GPS Receiver
Photo by Miguel Vera León


  • Verify that you are receiving enough satellite signals. Check for this on the satellite status screen. Four satellites are the minimum. Give older receivers the time to collect satellite data— don’t rush the navigation process.
  • Give key waypoints names. When marking a waypoint, enter names like “camp” and “truck.”  It’s easier and more meaningful to find “truck” in the list of waypoints than it is to find waypoint 542 (or was it 245…).
  • After marking a waypoint, verify that it has been saved to the receiver’s memory by checking either the map page or the waypoint file (select “where to” or “find.”)  If the waypoint is on the map or in the list of waypoints, the hiker is ready to go. If the waypoint is not found, start over.
  • When it’s time to return to a destination, chose “Where To” or “Find” on your keypad or menu. Select the waypoint from the list provided. Press the “Page” button and rotate through the many displays to the “Compass” page. A large red arrow should appear on the face of the compass pointing to the selected waypoint. When on course to the destination, the arrow points to the top center of the receiver. Practice this specific process at home before heading to the field.
  • Navigation is a perishable skill. I recommend that you take the GPS receiver everywhere with you for two weeks before an outing. Add waypoints, delete waypoints and find a saved waypoint. This process develops familiarity with the unit and allows the user to develop confidence with the receiver and his personal ability.
  • Keep navigation simple by deleting old waypoints— delete old track log files and reset the trip computer.
  • Complement GPS skills with a good review of map and compass fundamentals. Learn to back-up electronic position fixing with bearing triangulation. Worst case, a broken GPS becomes a paperweight for your map while afield. For more information visit (click on “Post on Land Navigation.”)
  • When on the trail, compare GPS position data with a map. Compare what is presented electronically with what is on the map.


GPS Receiver
Photo by Blake Miller

I suggest checking out Lawrence Letham’s book GPS Made Easy from the library. This book compliments the GPS owner’s manual. An excellent reference for map and compass use is June Fleming’s Staying Found.

Taking a class can further enhance you GPS knowledge. Classes are frequently offered through the local community college’s continuing education program or at local retailers such as REI.

Have fun this summer while building on your fundamental navigation skill sets. Consider setting up a treasure hunt or a geocach for a family get together. Make it fun, make it simple and explain that these skills could one day make a huge difference if they ever got lost in the woods.

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