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GPS Basics

by Retired: Senior Social Media Specialist ‎07-09-2013 05:21 PM - edited ‎08-08-2013 01:45 PM (3,223 Views)

Just getting started with GPS? This page helps to explain the basics of GPS technology and how you can use GPS to hike, drive and even work out.


How can I familiarize myself with my new GPS receiver before taking a trip?


For your first outing, instead of plotting a course to a far-off destination filled with unfamiliar turns and landmarks, plot a course to someplace you go regularly. This gives you the opportunity to see how your GPS receiver delivers information on roads and points of interest in the real world, without the distraction of being in a new location.


More tips for getting started


Be patient: The first time you turn on your GPS receiver it may take a few minutes to get a signal.

Go outside: To help ensure you get a signal, avoid trying to set up your new receiver in your home or garage.

Call a friend: When you're ready to give your receiver a real-world test, take along a friend and let them drive while you familiarize yourself with the GPS unit and its controls.

Ensure a clear signal: Your GPS receiver needs clear line of sight to three satellites in order to pinpoint your location. Occasionally, something as small as a tree can block the signal from one satellite. If you're having trouble, try locating a clearing to get a better signal.


How can a handheld GPS device help me while hiking?


A handheld GPS helps you get where you want to go in the great outdoors, keeps you on track and on the trail, and then guides you back home. But it can also help you determine altitude and barometric pressure, provide an electronic compass, hunting and fishing calendars, sun and moon information and tide table charts. It's a handy resource for the serious outdoors-person.


If I purchase a handheld GPS, will it help me with hiking trails anywhere in the U.S.?


Trail maps may involve additional cost. Most handheld devices come preloaded with base maps that display bodies of water, large towns and cities, railroads, airports and political boundaries. But if you are a serious hiker, you might consider updating your GPS with add-on maps that provide topographical information and trail maps specific to your trip, like U.S. National Parks. Consider potential map needs when you purchase a GPS to make sure it has the memory for maps you may want to add later.


Will a handheld GPS get reception anywhere, in any kind of terrain?


For the most part. GPS receivers get positioning information by locking onto three or more GPS satellites out of 24–36 circling the earth, so your GPS must be able to locate at least three satellites. Certain atmospheric factors, dense foliage, canyon walls, and other sources of error can affect the accuracy of a GPS, so if you anticipate these conditions, you may want to choose a GPS receiver with Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) or other proprietary microcontroller chips.


Does my GPS need a lot of memory to add detailed maps?


If you require detailed topographical maps, yes. However, small area maps without topographical information can also be small files. Most GPS units come preloaded with simple base maps, while more advanced models may already contain extensive topographical maps. Still others have hard drive space to download maps from the Internet. And higher-end models may have memory card slots creating limitless map space since the maps reside on very small SD or microSD memory cards. Our recommendation is that you determine an idea of the type and size of maps you will need on your GPS, and then tailor your GPS purchase to that need.


How can a GPS help with my fitness routine?


Fitness GPS units help you plan and execute your running or cycling workout and then monitor your progress, tracking your distance, pace and calories burned. Many units include a heart rate monitor, too. Some fitness GPS devices allow you to store personal data and track your progress on the device as well as on your computer. Still others allow you to mark waypoints and train with a virtual competitor to maximize your fitness routine.


Are there GPS receivers specifically for runners and cyclists?


Some GPS units provide an additional attachment that connects directly to your bicycle to measure your pedaling cadence and wheel speed. Others have devices that attach to your foot to collect and send precise data about your movements as well as gather data about speed and distance traveled. These GPS units allow you to learn more about your body's movements, store and analyze the data, and fine-tune your course for world-class training.


Can I use a handheld GPS in my car or a portable GPS on the trail?


Sure. You can purchase mounting kits that will allow you to view your handheld GPS on the dashboard without impairing your driving. However, note that a handheld device may not include voice prompts that announce your next turn (though some will beep as you approach your turn). Additionally, taking a portable vehicle GPS on the trail is feasible as long as you treat it with care. Handheld devices are usually built for the rigors of hiking, with rugged designs and water-resistant or waterproof casings. Also, a GPS designed for use in a vehicle may not have the long battery life you'd desire for a long day on the trail.