How To Survive In The Wilderness With Only A GPS

If you are an outdoor enthusiast, chances are that you can scale more mountains, explore greater caverns, and cover more exotic terrain with a GPS system.


While there are certain challenges to be aware of when using a GPS device, they can be circumvented, and a GPS unit can make the logistics involved in planning a hiking trip much simpler – meaning you have more time for adventure and exploration. While a GPS unit is not meant to replace a map or a compass, the old hiking standbys, it can work very well in conjunction with them.

Step 1: Basic setup – First and foremost, make sure the batteries are fresh and fully charged. After you turn the GPS unit on, you must check your settings. First is DATUM, which is important, because if the receiver is set to show a position in a different datum than the one on your map, the position the GPS indicates could be hundreds of meters off. For example, one such commonly used datum is NAD27, though some newer topographic maps use WGS84 or NAD83.

Step 2: The Position Format Option – This option decides how the position will be displayed by the GPS unit. The easiest to use by far is the UTM because all up-to-date topographical maps show the UTM grid. If you are using a map that does not happen to have the UTM grid, set the unit to Degrees.Minutes or Degrees.Minutes.Seconds to configure it. Make sure you’re doing all of this while using a good old-fashioned map to double-check your coordinates.

Step 3: Customize for your trip – For outdoor activities, you are probably looking for a convenient setup. This is really a matter of personal preference, but here’s one way to make following the guide a little easier:

Under ‘UNITS,’ set BEARING to ‘MAG’ for magnetic, which makes the unit display course and bearing according to the position of the Magnetic North compass reading. Keep in mind that this is not the same thing as is True North, and local magnetic fields may throw off the reading in ways the GPS does not necessarily recognize.

Under ‘UNITS,’ use the ‘METRIC’ setting with the UTM format. While ‘STATUTE’ may be more familiar to people in the U.S., using the metric system is a better idea because UTM coordinates will sync up perfectly, which could make the difference between getting lost and staying on course.

Step 4: Enjoy your adventures! Using your GPS device with the right settings can really heighten the outdoors experience. With your GPS in tow, feel confident in safely scaling mountains and exploring terrains!

Author Note: The safest way is not to measure UTM coordinates in the wilderness on a paper topo map (always fun in the middle of a storm with the rest of the party hurrying in the wrong direction), but to plan you trip at home and upload a route with numerous verified waypoints to the GPS (all in WGS84). If the GPS can display topo maps it’s yet better/safer.

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One Response to “How To Survive In The Wilderness With Only A GPS”

  1. chai
    May 13, 2008 at 10:54 am #

    Hmm… Maybe you should rename this article to “How to Survive in the Wilderness with only a GPS, Map, Compass, oh, and you might want to think about shelter, water purification, food is sometimes nice, appropriate clothes help, ah forget it, just go nude with a GPS, you’ll do fine!”

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