Choosing and using a GPS Device while hunting

A GPS unit is a most important tool for hikers and backcountry explorers. A GPS will give vital information about where you are, where you have been and also where you want to go.

A dedicated outdoor GPS unit offers key advantages, is rugged and water resistant, has field-replaceable batteries, superior satellite reception in remote places and has many robust features developed specifically for outdoor use.

This is why may hunters make good use of GPS units when visiting locations that are new to them. A hunter can walk through many miles of woodland, and the last thing needed, is to be worried about where you are or how to get back.

Armory company, Palmetto State, suggests having a GPS unit with you at all times when hunting in unfamiliar territory. There is nothing more worrying than being lost, and if you don’t carry a means of getting help, then you at least need to know where you are and how to get out.

Outdoorgearlab have produced a very useful article reviewing some of the best GPS units on the market today.

Having said all of that it is still wise to take an old fashioned map and compass with you on your adventure!!

Deciding which GPS unit would be most suited to your needs can appear very confusing to begin with as there are so many features and models to choose from.

To simplify your choice concentrate on three basic areas which are:-

  • The screen size vs the size of the unit, decide which screen size would be most suitable for your needs taking into consideration that the larger the screen the heavier the unit will be.
  • Decide whether you would prefer a touch screen device or one controlled by buttons. Units using button controls being much easier to use if you would be wearing gloves.
  • The more expensive units offer features such as a barometer, electronic compass and wireless transmission.

Whilst all handheld GPS models cover basic navigation the more advanced units can cover barometer and altimeter readings. These can give more accurate elevation readings while also considering barometric data.  This feature will also give the opportunity to gauge weather trends. All GPS receivers can indicate the direction you are moving in, a unit with an electronic compass will give more information such as what direction you are facing while standing still allowing you to plan your route perhaps while taking a rest stop.

Wireless data transfer allows your GPS to communicate with compatible GPS units giving you the opportunity to share data such as tracks and routes with others.

All GPS units come with a simple base map, some units include full-fledged topo maps.  Most units will accept separately purchased topo maps which have been downloaded or on a CD or microSD card.  It is possible to plan trips and maps by connecting your PC and using a program which the manufacturers of your GPS unit provide.

Memory and waypoint totals mean the more you have the more map and navigation data you can store.  Most units will however allow you to expand the memory via a microSD card.

A two-way radio will allow unit to unit calls to enable you to communicate with nearby family or friends in the backcountry to identify where the other members of your group are.  Radio equipped GPS units are particularly useful in a search and rescue situation.

While all GPS models vary slightly it is advisable to read the manual supplied and familiarize yourself with it and perhaps have a practice in your local area until you feel confident with how it works.  Although different models vary, all GPS receivers will carry out basic functions such as:-

  • The Display position which tells you where you are by displaying your coordinates, and will show your position on its base or topo map.
  • Record Tracks – when tracking is turned on a GPS will automatically lay down digital bread crumbs, which are called ‘track points’, at regular intervals, these can be used later to retrace your steps if necessary.
  • Navigate point to point – a GPS will direct you by giving the directions and distance to a location or ‘waypoint’. A GPS unit provides the bearing and distance ‘as the crow flies’ to a waypoint but because trails don’t follow a straight line the bearing will change as you hike. The distance to travel will obviously also change as you approach your destination.
  • Display trip data – this odometer-like function will give you cumulative stats such as how far you’ve come and how high you have climbed.

GPS units come with a software program to enable you to manage maps, plan routes and analise trips.  It is wise to spend time learning and practicing using all of the advice suggested.

When first using your GPS unit it can appear overwhelming, but perhaps begin by doing basic navigation, the position format menu which includes both position format and map datum is the one to set up.

A GPS can display coordinates in dozens of systems and the setting can be changed to whichever system is the most suitable for your needs, however when marking waypoints you should choose the same system as your book, map or other source of location.  Whenever you change a setting the GPS will convert your information to match your current setting.

Map datum is both obscure and important, the idea is that the datum which you set on your GPS must match your topographic maps datum, or any other source of location you are using.  Datum has to do with geographic modeling of the earth at the time a map was produced.

GPS stands for ‘Global Positioning System’, the worldwide network of satellites that broadcasts the signals that a GPS unit receives.  To facilitate the initial satellite calibration go outside, turn your GPS on and let it begin searching. Acquiring satellites after start up takes a few minutes, after which it will easily locate satellites as you travel.

When turning off the GPS unit the satellites overhead continue to move so that your unit will take a few minutes to reacquire satellites each time it is turned back on.  GPS units can display signal strength, and if your unit allows you to customise fields on the compass, trip and map pages the signal strength field is a useful one to have.

Before any outing following basic steps will ensure your GPS unit is set to guide you on your journey.  Begin by acquiring satellites, reset your trip data, and clear the track log.

Set a waypoint at the trailhead, calibrate the compass and calibrate the barometer/ altimeter.

The calibration instructions for the compass/barometer/altimeter can usually be found in the unit itself. It is wise to check the batteries on your unit before each outing.

Rechargeable batteries are suitable for a day hike, but long-life lithium batteries are more suited for overnight trips.  It is a good idea to always carry spare batteries with you. Dimming the backlight and switching to a short screen timeout setting also helps to preserve the batteries.