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How To Use A GPS For Hiking


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Kat Pena



Hiking is a thrilling outdoor adventure that allows individuals to connect with nature, challenge themselves physically, and enjoy breathtaking scenery. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a beginner, having the right tools and knowledge can greatly enhance your hiking experience. One such tool is a GPS (Global Positioning System) device, which can revolutionize the way you navigate and explore the great outdoors.


GPS technology has come a long way, and it is now more accessible and user-friendly than ever before. With a GPS device, hikers can accurately determine their location, track their movements, mark waypoints, and even follow pre-planned routes. This opens up a world of possibilities and ensures that you stay on track, even in unfamiliar terrain.


In this article, we will delve into the world of GPS devices for hiking. We will discuss how GPS technology works, the different types of GPS devices available, and how to choose the right one for your needs. Furthermore, we will explore the various features and functions of a GPS device and provide helpful tips on how to use it effectively while hiking.


So whether you’re planning a day hike or embarking on a multi-day backpacking trip, read on to discover how to harness the power of GPS technology to enhance your hiking adventures.


Understanding GPS Technology

Before we dive into using GPS devices for hiking, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of how GPS technology works. The Global Positioning System is a network of satellites that orbit the Earth and provide precise location data. Each GPS device receives signals from multiple satellites and uses them to calculate its exact position.


The GPS system works by measuring the time it takes for signals to travel from the satellites to the device. By comparing the timing of signals from different satellites, the GPS device can determine the distance between itself and each satellite. With this information, it can then triangulate its precise location.


Modern GPS devices also utilize a process called trilateration. Instead of relying on just three satellites, trilateration takes into account the signals from multiple satellites to improve accuracy. This allows for more precise positioning, especially in challenging environments like dense forests or deep valleys.


In addition to location data, GPS devices can also provide other valuable information such as altitude, speed, distance traveled, and even weather conditions. This data is usually displayed on the device’s screen and can be used to track progress, plan routes, and monitor performance.


It’s important to note that GPS devices require a clear line of sight to the satellites to function effectively. This means that heavy tree cover, tall buildings, or canyons may obstruct the signals and impact the device’s accuracy. In such situations, it helps to choose a GPS device with advanced signal-enhancing technology to mitigate these challenges.


Overall, understanding how GPS technology works will give you a solid foundation for utilizing GPS devices for hiking. With this knowledge, you can make informed decisions when selecting a device and effectively leverage its capabilities for a safer and more enjoyable hiking experience.


Choosing the Right GPS Device for Hiking

When it comes to choosing a GPS device for hiking, there are several factors to consider to ensure you find the right device that meets your specific needs. Here are some key considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Navigation Features: Look for a GPS device that offers essential navigation features such as waypoint marking, route planning, and tracking. These features will help you stay on track, find your way back, and make your hiking experience more enjoyable.
  2. Screen Size and Resolution: Opt for a GPS device with a screen size and resolution that allows for clear and easy-to-read maps and data. A larger screen size is ideal for displaying detailed maps, while a higher resolution ensures sharp and crisp visuals.
  3. Battery Life: Consider the battery life of the GPS device, especially if you plan on embarking on long hikes or multi-day trips. Look for devices with long-lasting batteries or the ability to use external power sources.
  4. Water Resistance: Hiking often involves exposure to the elements, so choose a GPS device that is water-resistant or waterproof. This will protect your device from rain, splashes, and accidental submersion.
  5. Mapping Software: Check if the GPS device comes with preloaded maps or if it allows for the integration of additional maps. Having access to detailed and up-to-date maps can greatly enhance your navigation and exploration capabilities.
  6. Ease of Use: Look for a GPS device that has a user-friendly interface and intuitive controls. You want a device that is easy to operate, allowing you to focus on the trail rather than struggling with complicated menus and settings.
  7. Durability: Since hiking can be physically demanding, choose a GPS device that is rugged and able to withstand rough conditions. Look for devices made with robust materials and designed to endure impacts, vibrations, and extreme temperatures.

It’s also worth considering additional features that may be beneficial for your hiking adventures, such as a built-in compass, barometer, or camera. Remember to consider your budget as well, as GPS devices can vary in price range based on their features and capabilities.


By carefully considering these factors, you can choose a GPS device that aligns with your hiking needs and preferences. Whether you prioritize advanced navigation features, durability, or ease of use, selecting the right GPS device can greatly enhance your hiking experience and give you the confidence to explore new trails with ease.


Preparing Your GPS Device

Before setting off on your hiking adventure, it’s essential to properly prepare your GPS device to ensure accurate and reliable performance. Here are some key steps to take when preparing your GPS device:

  1. Read the User Manual: Familiarize yourself with the user manual provided with your GPS device. This will give you a better understanding of its features, settings, and operating procedures.
  2. Charge the Battery: Ensure that your GPS device is fully charged before heading out. This will help prevent your device from running out of battery power mid-hike. If you are going on a longer hike, consider bringing a portable power bank or extra batteries as a backup.
  3. Update Software and Maps: Check if there are any available software updates or map updates for your GPS device. These updates can improve the device’s performance, provide new features, and ensure that you have the latest maps and trail information.
  4. Set the Date, Time, and Units: Verify that the date, time, and units (such as distance and temperature) are correctly set on your GPS device. This will help ensure accurate tracking and data recording during your hike.
  5. Customize Settings: Take the time to customize the settings on your GPS device to suit your preferences and hiking needs. This may include adjusting the screen brightness, selecting the measurement units, and enabling or disabling specific features.
  6. Create Waypoints: If you have specific waypoints you want to mark during your hike, such as trailheads, campsites, or points of interest, pre-create them in your GPS device. This will make it easier to navigate and track your progress along the trail.
  7. Backup and Share Data: Consider backing up your GPS device’s data before setting out on your hike. This will help preserve your hiking routes, waypoints, and other valuable information in case of device malfunctions or data loss. Additionally, you can share this data with fellow hikers or upload it to online platforms to enhance your hiking community and provide insights to others.

By following these steps, you can ensure that your GPS device is fully prepared and optimized for your hiking adventure. Remember to double-check your device and settings before hitting the trail to have a seamless and hassle-free hiking experience.


Acquiring Satellites

One of the crucial steps in using a GPS device for hiking is acquiring satellite signals. Acquiring satellites is necessary for your GPS device to accurately determine your location and provide accurate navigation information. Here are some tips to help you acquire satellites efficiently:

  1. Choose an Open Area: To acquire satellites more quickly, step outside and find an open, unobstructed area with a clear view of the sky. This will minimize any interference from buildings, trees, or other obstructions that may hinder the signals.
  2. Allow Sufficient Time: When turning on your GPS device, give it enough time to acquire satellites. This process may take a few minutes, especially if you’re in a new location or your device hasn’t been used recently. Patience is key as the device scans the sky for signals.
  3. Stay Still: While the GPS device is acquiring satellites, it’s important to keep the device and yourself as still as possible. Avoid moving around or holding the device in a way that blocks the antenna. Movement can disrupt the signal acquisition process and result in longer waiting times.
  4. Check Signal Strength: Most GPS devices have an indicator that shows the strength of the satellite signal. Keep an eye on this indicator during the acquisition process. If the signal strength is low, reposition yourself or the device to improve reception. Also, be aware that the signal strength may fluctuate in areas with dense foliage, canyons, or tall buildings.
  5. Assistive Technologies: Some GPS devices come with assistive technologies that can help speed up satellite acquisition. These technologies, such as HotFix® satellite prediction, utilize historical data to predict the position of satellites and reduce the time needed to acquire signals.
  6. Update Firmware: Occasionally, GPS device manufacturers release firmware updates that improve satellite acquisition performance. Checking for and installing these updates can enhance your device’s efficiency in acquiring satellites and overall GPS performance.

Remember, acquiring satellites is an essential step before you can effectively use your GPS device for hiking. By following these tips and allowing sufficient time for signal acquisition, you can ensure that your device establishes a strong and reliable connection with the satellites, enabling accurate positioning and navigation throughout your hiking adventure.


Marking Waypoints

Marking waypoints is a fundamental function of a GPS device for hiking, allowing you to save and reference important locations along your hiking route. Whether it’s a scenic viewpoint, a water source, or a trail junction, marking waypoints can help you navigate, track your progress, and plan future hikes. Here are some steps to effectively mark waypoints on your GPS device:

  1. Identify Key Points of Interest: As you hike, be on the lookout for significant landmarks or points of interest that you may want to mark as waypoints. These could include trailheads, campsites, geocaches, or even unique natural features. Pay attention to GPS coordinates, visual landmarks, and other identifying information.
  2. Record Waypoints: When you come across a point of interest, use your GPS device to record a waypoint. This is typically done by accessing the “Mark” or “Waypoint” function on your device and saving the current location. Some devices may allow you to assign names or labels to your waypoints for easier identification later.
  3. Add Descriptive Information: To make your waypoints more informative and meaningful, consider adding additional information. This could include a description of the location, any notable features, or any relevant notes or reminders for future reference.
  4. Organize Waypoints: As you accumulate waypoints, organize them in a logical manner that matches your hiking itinerary or personal preferences. You may create folders or categories to group similar waypoints together, such as “Water Sources,” “Scenic Views,” or “Campsites.” This enables you to easily find and access waypoints during your hikes.
  5. Customize Waypoint Symbols: Some GPS devices allow you to customize the symbols or icons associated with your waypoints. This can be helpful for quick visual recognition on the map screen and can help you differentiate between different types of waypoints.
  6. Utilize Waypoint Navigation: Once you have marked several waypoints, you can use your GPS device’s navigation features to guide you to specific waypoints. By selecting a waypoint as your destination, the device will provide you with a compass heading, distance, and estimated arrival time, helping you stay on track.
  7. Backup and Share Waypoints: To ensure the safety of your valuable waypoints, consider backing up your waypoint data regularly. This can be done by connecting your GPS device to a computer and transferring the data to a backup folder or utilizing cloud storage. Sharing your marked waypoints with fellow hikers can also be beneficial for collaborative trip planning or sharing hidden gems.

By effectively marking waypoints on your GPS device, you can create a digital breadcrumb trail of your hiking adventures and enhance the accuracy and convenience of your navigation. It’s a valuable tool for documenting and recalling important locations, contributing to a safer and more enjoyable hiking experience.


Plotting and Following a Route

Plotting and following a route on your GPS device is a useful feature that allows you to plan your hiking path in advance and navigate it with ease. By creating a route on your device, you can stay on the designated path, avoid getting lost, and make the most of your hiking experience. Here are the key steps to effectively plot and follow a route:

  1. Plan Your Route: Before heading out, determine the desired route for your hike. This can be done by studying trail maps, guidebooks, or online resources. Take note of important trail junctions, landmarks, or waypoints along the route.
  2. Create a Route: Access the route planning function on your GPS device or compatible mapping software. Follow the prompts to plot your route by selecting waypoints or designated points along the trail. Some devices allow you to manually create routes directly on the device, while others require you to connect to a computer for more detailed route planning.
  3. Customize Route Settings: Adjust the settings for your route, such as desired pace, navigation preferences, or alerts. Take advantage of features like automatic rerouting, audible prompts, or visual cues to enhance your navigation experience.
  4. Review and Edit: Once your route is created, review it on the map screen of your GPS device. Confirm that the plotted route matches your intended path. Make any necessary adjustments by modifying waypoints or adding additional intermediate points to ensure accuracy.
  5. Follow the Route: Once you’re ready to hike, select your pre-planned route on the GPS device and start navigating. The device will provide you with turn-by-turn directions, distance to the next waypoint, and estimated time of arrival. Follow the prompts and stay on the designated route as closely as possible.
  6. Stay Aware of Surroundings: While following a route on your GPS device, remember to stay aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to trail markers, signs, and any changes in the terrain. Don’t solely rely on the GPS device but use it as a useful tool to complement your navigation skills.
  7. Monitor Progress and Performance: Throughout your hike, use the GPS device to monitor your progress along the plotted route. Keep an eye on factors like distance covered, elevation gained or lost, and estimated time left to reach the next waypoint or destination.
  8. Adjust and Adapt: Be flexible during your hike and be prepared to adjust your route as needed. Trail conditions, weather, or unexpected obstacles may require you to deviate from the original plan. Make use of your GPS device to plot alternative routes or find a way back to the original route if necessary.

By effectively plotting and following a route on your GPS device, you can confidently navigate through unfamiliar terrain, explore new trails, and optimize your hiking experience. It adds an extra layer of safety, convenience, and peace of mind, allowing you to focus on the beauty of the outdoors without the worry of getting lost.


Using GPS for Navigation

GPS devices are powerful tools for navigation, especially when hiking in unfamiliar territory or challenging environments. By utilizing the navigation features of your GPS device effectively, you can stay on track, find your way, and have a safer and more enjoyable hiking experience. Here’s how to make the most of GPS for navigation:

  1. Track Your Location: The first and most basic function of a GPS device is to track your current location. Make sure your device has acquired satellite signals and displays your precise coordinates on the screen. This will help you understand where you are in relation to your planned route or waypoints.
  2. Refer to Maps: GPS devices often come with built-in maps or support the use of external maps. Take advantage of these mapping features to get a visual representation of your surroundings. Use the maps to identify landmarks, track your progress along the trail, and explore nearby trails or attractions.
  3. Follow Waypoints: If you’ve marked waypoints along your hiking route, use your GPS device to navigate from one waypoint to another. Simply select the desired waypoint as your destination and follow the on-screen prompts that indicate the direction and distance to the next waypoint.
  4. Use Compass and Directional Information: Many GPS devices have built-in compasses or provide directional information to help you navigate. Pay attention to the compass display or directional arrows on the device’s screen to ensure you’re heading in the right direction. This is particularly helpful in areas with poor visibility or when the trail might not be clearly marked.
  5. Utilize Trackback/Backtrack Features: If you need to retrace your steps or find your way back to a starting point, make use of the trackback or backtrack features on your GPS device. These features allow you to follow the recorded trail back to your starting point, ensuring you don’t get lost or disoriented.
  6. Navigate Off-Trail: In situations where there is no established trail or you decide to veer off the beaten path, GPS devices can be invaluable. Utilize the device’s ability to plot routes in real-time or follow a compass bearing to reach your intended destination. This can be useful for bushwhacking, exploring scenic spots, or finding alternative routes.
  7. Be Mindful of Battery Life: While using GPS for navigation, be mindful of your device’s battery life. GPS navigation can consume significant battery power, especially if the screen is continuously on or if you constantly refer to maps. Conserve battery by dimming the screen, putting the device on standby when not in use, or carrying backup power sources.
  8. Stay Oriented: Remember that a GPS device is a tool, not a substitute for good navigation skills and situational awareness. Stay observant of your surroundings, take note of trail markers, and rely on traditional navigation methods like reading maps and using a compass. Use the GPS device as a helpful aid, but still rely on your own judgment and common sense.

By utilizing GPS for navigation, you can confidently explore new hiking trails, venture into unknown territories, and maintain a sense of direction even in challenging circumstances. Enhance your navigation skills, stay safe, and make the most of your outdoor adventures with the assistance of GPS technology.


Navigating Back to a Starting Point

When hiking, it’s essential to know how to navigate back to your starting point, especially if you’re heading out on a new trail or exploring unfamiliar terrain. GPS devices can be incredibly useful in helping you find your way back, ensuring you don’t get lost and enabling a safe return. Here are some tips for navigating back to your starting point using a GPS device:

  1. Save Your Starting Point: Before you begin your hike, make sure to mark and save your starting point as a waypoint on your GPS device. This initial waypoint will serve as the reference point for navigating back later.
  2. Track Your Trail: While hiking, enable the tracklog feature on your GPS device to record the trail you are following. This creates a breadcrumb trail of your movements and can be helpful when retracing your steps later.
  3. Pay Attention to Landmarks: During your hike, take note of specific landmarks or notable features along the trail. These landmarks can be visual cues that help you recognize where you are relative to your starting point when you’re ready to navigate back.
  4. Utilize the Backtrack Function: Many GPS devices come with a backtrack function that allows you to navigate back along the recorded tracklog. Simply select the backtrack feature, and the device will guide you step-by-step along the trail you took, leading you back to your starting point.
  5. Follow the Compass or Directional Arrow: If your GPS device does not have a backtrack function, you can use the compass or directional arrow feature to guide you back. Set the device to point towards your saved starting waypoint and follow the direction indicated. You can also use the distance measurement provided to gauge your progress.
  6. Refine Your Route: If necessary, you can adjust and refine your route back to the starting point using the mapping features of your GPS device. This can be especially helpful in circumstances where the original trail is obstructed or if you want to take a different path back.
  7. Refer to Maps and Landmarks: Use the built-in maps or external maps on your GPS device to get a visual representation of your surroundings. Compare the maps with the landmarks you observed along the way to verify your location and ensure you’re navigating in the right direction.
  8. Be Prepared and Alert: While using GPS for navigating back to your starting point, it’s essential to stay alert and be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to trail markers, follow the natural flow of the terrain, and look out for any familiar features or landmarks you encountered on the outward hike. Trust your instincts and don’t solely rely on the GPS device.

With the assistance of a GPS device, navigating back to your starting point becomes much easier and less stressful. By following these tips, you can confidently retrace your steps, avoid getting lost, and ensure a safe and successful return to your beginning location.


Saving and Sharing Your Hiking Data

When using a GPS device for hiking, you have the ability to save and share your hiking data, allowing you to preserve your experiences and engage with the hiking community. Here are some tips on how to effectively save and share your hiking data:

  1. Backup Your Data: Regularly back up the data stored on your GPS device. This includes waypoints, routes, tracklogs, and any other important information. Backing up your data ensures that you won’t lose valuable hiking information in case of device malfunctions, loss, or data corruption.
  2. Utilize GPS Software or Apps: Connect your GPS device to a computer and use GPS software or apps to manage and organize your hiking data. These tools allow you to view, edit, and export your data, enhancing your ability to analyze and track your hiking adventures.
  3. Export Data to External Platforms: If you want to further analyze or share your hiking data, export it to popular external platforms such as Google Earth, Strava, or AllTrails. These platforms provide robust features for visualizing and sharing your hiking data with others.
  4. Join Hiking Communities: Engage with online hiking communities and platforms where you can share your hiking experiences and connect with fellow outdoor enthusiasts. These communities often allow you to upload and share your GPS data, creating a network of shared experiences and valuable information.
  5. Create Trip Reports: Write detailed trip reports describing your hiking adventures, including key waypoints, memorable moments, and any challenges you encountered along the way. Include GPS data, maps, and photos to provide a comprehensive account of your hike. You can publish these reports on personal blogs, social media, or hiking forums.
  6. Contribute to Mapping Projects: Some GPS software or platforms allow users to contribute to community mapping projects. By sharing your GPS data, you can help contribute to the accuracy and detail of hiking maps, benefiting the entire hiking community.
  7. Respect Privacy and Copyrights: When sharing your hiking data, be mindful of privacy concerns and respect others’ intellectual property rights. Avoid sharing sensitive information about private lands, personal addresses, or copyrighted material without proper permission.
  8. Seek Inspiration from Others: By exploring other hikers’ shared data and trip reports, you can discover new trails, learn about interesting waypoints, and gain inspiration for your own future hikes. Engaging with the shared data of others can deepen your knowledge and appreciation of the hiking world.

Saving and sharing your hiking data allows you to document and relive your hiking experiences while contributing to the broader hiking community. It fosters connectivity, fosters collaboration, and enables you to learn from others while sharing your own adventures. Embrace the digital age and leverage the power of GPS technology to enhance your hiking journey.


Troubleshooting Common GPS Issues

While GPS devices are reliable tools for hiking, occasional issues may arise that can impact their performance. In such cases, understanding common GPS issues and knowing how to troubleshoot them can help you overcome any challenges you may encounter. Here are some troubleshooting tips for common GPS issues:

  1. Weak or No Satellite Signal: If your GPS device is struggling to acquire satellite signals or shows a weak signal strength, try moving to an open area with a clear view of the sky. Avoid dense tree cover, tall buildings, and canyons that may obstruct the satellite signals. Also, ensure that the GPS device’s antenna is not blocked by your body or any other object.
  2. Inaccurate Positioning: If you notice discrepancies in your GPS device’s positioning or accuracy, double-check that the device has acquired a sufficient number of satellites for a reliable fix. Additionally, ensure that the device’s date, time, and time zone settings are correct, as inaccuracies in these settings can affect positioning.
  3. Poor Battery Life: If your GPS device’s battery life is shorter than expected, consider adjusting the device’s power-saving settings. Dimming the screen, reducing backlight time, and disabling unnecessary features can extend battery life. Carrying spare batteries or portable power banks can also be useful for longer hikes.
  4. Freezing or Unresponsive Device: If your GPS device freezes or becomes unresponsive, try resetting it by removing and reinserting the battery or following the device’s specific reset instructions. It may also help to update the device’s software to the latest version, as updates often include bug fixes and performance improvements.
  5. Slow or Inaccurate map Loading: If you experience slow or inaccurate map loading, ensure that you are using compatible and up-to-date map software. Clearing cached map data and optimizing the device’s memory storage can also improve map loading speed and accuracy. If necessary, free up storage space on the device by deleting unnecessary files or maps.
  6. Bluetooth or Connectivity Issues: If you encounter connectivity issues between your GPS device and other devices (e.g., smartphones or sensors), make sure that the devices are within range and that Bluetooth is enabled and functioning correctly. Restarting both devices and ensuring they have the latest firmware or software updates can help resolve connectivity problems.
  7. Calibration Errors: Some GPS devices incorporate sensors like accelerometers and compasses for additional features and accuracy. If you notice calibration errors, such as incorrect compass readings or inaccurate elevation data, follow the device’s calibration instructions to recalibrate these sensors. Calibrations are typically done by rotating the device in specific patterns or laying it flat on a stable surface.
  8. Interference from Other Electronics: In certain situations, interference from other electronic devices or high-power transmission equipment can affect GPS signals. If you suspect interference, try moving away from these sources or turning off nearby devices to see if the GPS device’s performance improves.

By troubleshooting common GPS issues, you can overcome technical hurdles and fully utilize the capabilities of your GPS device during your hiking adventures. If persistent issues persist, refer to the device’s user manual or reach out to the manufacturer’s customer support for further assistance and guidance.



Using a GPS device for hiking can greatly enhance your outdoor adventures, providing you with accurate navigation, peace of mind, and the ability to explore new trails with confidence. Throughout this article, we have explored the ins and outs of GPS technology for hiking, from understanding how it works to selecting the right device, preparing it for your hike, and effectively utilizing its features.


With a GPS device, you can mark waypoints, plot and follow routes, navigate back to your starting point, and even share your hiking data with others. These functionalities enable you to stay on track, track your progress, and make the most of your hiking experience.


However, it’s important to remember that a GPS device should be used as a supplementary tool to your own navigation skills and common sense. It is not a substitute for proper preparation, map reading, and understanding of your surroundings. Stay observant, be aware of trail markers, and always carry a paper map and compass as backup in case of battery failure or device malfunctions.


By mastering the use of a GPS device for hiking, you can confidently explore new trails, conquer new challenges, and make unforgettable memories in the great outdoors. So, gear up, select your GPS device wisely, and embark on your next hiking adventure equipped with the power of GPS technology.