Map, Compass & GPS

Map, Compass & GPS
Wild flowers along Fall Creek on the way to the Green Lakes - Oregon

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Buying A GPS Receiver

Looking for a GPS?  Here are a few suggestions.

Buying your GPS receiver is a lot like shopping for your a car. You want reliability and simplicity in providing transportation from Point A to Point B. There are many outdoor opportunities that may impact what kind of GPS model suits your specific needs. As a hunter or hiker you need to shop intelligently. Here is what you need to know:

         Start with a quick education of common GPS terms, and why they’re important.
  • Waypoints – These are your navigation coordinates that you have saved to memory within the GPS. Most receivers will hold 500. That said, you only need to keep a few on your GPS all the time. Use the free program at to store the rest.
  • Find/Go To – This is the navigation function of the receiver. It is this function that will “steer” you to your destination.
  • Coordinates: This refers to a geographic grid system and pinpoints your position in the world. The most common is Latitude and Longitude though many outdoorsmen quickly shift to Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) because of its simplicity.
  • Compass – An electronic counter-part to your magnetic compass. The GPS compass is dependent on batteries, like the rest of the system, so don't leave your magnetic compass at home.

Every GPS has these basic features. Anything additional are bells and whistles. It will be up to you to determine which ones are functionally important. For example, I am both a hunter and backpacker. I like a GPS with a Barometric altimeter because I use that function to monitor atmospheric pressure at high elevations. I know through personal experiences that when the pressure drops the weather is changing - I may be looking for shelter.
When looking to buy a GPS receiver consider the following:
  • Decide how much you want to spend. If you don’t know what a GPS might cost, visit, and to get a good price baseline. Check the manufacturer’s web site (such as for rebate offers. Then research the web with for reviews on specific models.
  • Ask friends with GPS’s what they use theirs for and what their recommendation would be. One size definitely doesn’t fit all! An avid geocacher would have different needs than a hunter. A hunter might opt for a model with a two way radio such as the Garmin Rino series.
  • Older folks and those not “tech savvy” seem to do better with a GPS that has buttons on the front (GarminMap 62/64 series); it seems to be more intuitive. As an instructor, I've found that buttons along the side can become frustrating for people with less steady hands.
In the store, pick up the receiver, look at the controls and hold it as you would when using it.  Ask yourself: 
  • Does it feel like a good fit?
  • Can I read the buttons and comfortably push them? (With gloves?)
  • Is the screen size adequate? 
  • Is the GPS simple or just too complex for me?
  • Mapping programs are nice but expect to pay $100.00 or more.  Ask a friend with a GPS and see for yourself if the mapping is an asset for you.  Can you read what is presented on the screen or is it just clutter?  Visit GPS File Depot for free maps to load on your GPS.
  • Find out what the store’s return policy is on electronics and what their return rate is with various models. 
  • Whatever you buy, hang on to that receipt and register the product soon after purchase. 
 Once you buy a GPS:
  • Keep fresh batteries in it.  Don’t put it in the closet, or store it in your survival kit. Take it out and use it; now.  You can’t break it,.
  •  You should practice your GPS and map and compass skills often.  Your  wilderness land navigation skills could, given a bad turn of weather or situation, become  a matter of survival. 
  •  Visit the manufacturers website once every six months or so.  The manufactures frequently offer free up-grades allowing the GPS’s internal software to run more efficiently.  It is usually a simple down load to make your GPS current.
A good way to learn is to take a class where you will learn the basics and how your receiver works.  Check with your local Community College’s continuing education program or Sporting Goods stores to see if they offer classes.

And don’t forget: a GPS is no substitute for a map and a quality compass and the knowledge of how to use them.  The most expensive GPS on the market is only as good as its batteries.  Anything electronic can fail and they do so at the most inconvenient time.

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