Hiking GPS

When you’re out hiking, it can be easy to get lost—especially if not on a well-established trail. GPS devices, however, can be part of the solution to keeping track of where you are and ensuring you don’t get lost, especially when used in combination with a map, compass, and other navigational skills. When you first start looking at a GPS tracker for hiking, however, it can be easy to be overwhelmed.

Fortunately, we’re here to help! Let’s look at the features you should consider in a hiking GPS tracking system, as well as what other hiking tips you should keep in mind when out adventuring.

How does a personal locator beacon work?

Personal locator beacons (PLBs) are an extra layer of safety you can consider when looking at a GPS tracker for hiking. PLBs are handheld devices that, when activated, send an emergency signal to Search and Rescue. While PLBs can be purchased as their own stand-alone devices, there are also plenty of GPS hiking tracker options that include a PLB function.

But how does the PLB let a Search and Rescue (SAR) team know where you are and that you need help? The short version is by piggybacking on the GPS system and other satellite systems, but let’s take a little more time to better understand how it works.

The PLB (in the case of GPS trackers that includes a PLB function) notes your current location and sends an emergency radio signal to satellites. The satellites then forward that message to ground receivers and appropriate Rescue Control Centers (RCCs), and those RCCs in turn dispatch a SAR team.

The best personal locator beacons send a digital signal at 406 MHz to the SARSAT Search and Rescuer satellite system, and that system forwards the message appropriately. Then, when SAR teams get closer, they pick up on a honing signal at 121.5 MHz that helps them find you even if they don’t have an exact GPS location.

The bonus part of using a GPS device that includes a PLB is that it ensures that if you do get into trouble, a SAR team can come find you. That said, be careful not to inadvertently trigger your PLB without needing that emergency response, as SAR teams (especially in wild and dangerous terrain) often literally risk their lives to make rescues and don’t tend to appreciate being called in to rescue someone who simply got tired, for instance. Packing your ten essentials and being well-prepared for your outdoor adventure are good ways to limit the likelihood you’ll feel the need to activate and use your PLB; we’ll discuss those ten essentials and ways to best prepare for a hike in a following section.

If you do need the assistance, however, a PLB can quite certainly save your life, and PLB-enabled GPS devices have saved numerous lives previously.

Consider these 5 things you might not know about PLBs:

  1. PLBs are often confused with satellite messengers, and there can be an overlap in their function, but they are not the same. PLBs do not allow you to send a message, unlike satellite messengers. Instead, their sole function is to allow you to call for help.
  2. PLBs run on their own satellite system, the COSPAS-SARSAT, designed specifically for this sort of rescue purposes. The system uses both low Earth orbit (LEO) and high Earth orbit (GEO) satellites, and, when you use a GPS-enabled device, can transmit your exact location to rescue teams.
  3. COSPAS-SARSAT is an acronym that represents the original system devised by France, Russia, and the United States, first for marine vessels, then airplanes, and then, in 2003, to hikers.
  4. PLBs actually alert the military. That is, if you press the button for help and are hiking in the United States, the U.S. Military gets a notice and passes on the info to the relevant SAR teams.
  5. Since their origin in the 1970s, PLBs have saved at least 30,000 lives. What if your life is one of the next lives saved by a PLB?

How does an emergency beacon work?

Similar to a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), an emergency beacon can let rescue teams know you are in trouble and need help. Not all emergency beacons are PLBs, however. For instance, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is tied to a vessel, such as a ship. The black boxes on airplanes are another example of an emergency beacon. Like PLBs, they rely on the SARSAT network to transmit a signal; like PLBs, they transmit a distress signal at 406 Mhz and a honing signal at 121.5 Mhz.

The biggest difference is that when people refer to emergency beacons, they are generally referring to beacons tied to objects, rather than personal locator beacons an individual might take with them. When looking at hiking GPS tracker options, you’ll want to consider PLB-enabled devices to best ensure your safety, especially if you spend significant time engaged in risky or dangerous activities or in backcountry areas.

Cost of GPS trackers

What is the best GPS tracker for hiking?

When it comes to hiking GPS trackers, there are numerous options to consider. For instance, how important is battery life? If you normally only take short day hikes of a half-day or less, battery life will be far less important than if you are considering a GPS tracker for hiking multi-day backpacking trips. Similarly, if most of your hiking is in front country or small local parks, you will have far less need of the ability to call for search and rescue help than if you’re regularly backcountry skiing, rock climbing, or otherwise spending time in remote or dangerous areas.

That means there is a wide range of options, depending on what you need. Let’s look at some of the best GPS trackers for hiking, however, so you can an informed choice.

Top 10 GPS Trackers for Hiking

Garmin GPSMAP 78sc. This is our favorite waterproof GPS model, with the added benefit of floating, so if you drop it in the water, it won’t be lost or damaged. Additional fun features include an electronic compass and barometric altimeter, wireless route sharing, and 2.6-inch color TFT display.

Garmin Rino 755t. One of the most reliable GPS models, the 5-watt FRS/GMRS 2-way radio is an additional nice touch, as is the 8-megapixel autofocus camera, electronic compass, accelerometer, and barometric altimeter.

Garmin eTrex 30x. The increased internal memory is great for holding more maps, and the barometric altimeter is great for tracking your elevation gain and descent. The 2.2-inch display has great resolution, and the shaded relief is a nice touch on the base map screen. (The eTrex 20x is also a worthwhile option, but we’re just a little partial to the 30x.)

Garmin Oregon 600. This might be our favorite touchscreen display, and the dual battery system (either a NiMH battery back or 2 AA batteries will power it) is a nice touch, too.

DeLorme inReach Explorer. With 100 hours of battery life, the inReach Explorer is best for big adventures, and with the added features like satellite messaging and SOS tracking capabilities should you need SAR. Should you want to use it as a GPS tracker, you can, with reports anywhere from every 10 minutes to every 4 hours. While the screen is small (only 1.8 inches), it’s one of the best big adventure units you could ever consider.

Garmin GPSMAP 62St. One of the most rugged devices out there, the GPSMAP 62St is great even in bright sun (which can make many screens hard to read) and works well with Custom Maps, an app that allows you to turn paper maps into downloadable ones.

Garmin Foretrex 401. While admittedly not as feature-laden as some of the other Garmin devices on this list, the Foretrex 401 still offers plenty of bang—and at a lower price than most other comparable units, it’s probably the best budget GPS device.

Garmin Oregon 450t. One of our favorite backcountry GPS trackers, the Oregon 450t may lack some of the extra features of the inReach Explorer, but in exchange offers waterproof protection.

Garmin GPSMAP 64St. Perhaps the only drawback is the 16-hour battery life—and even that is plenty long enough for most one-day adventures. With dual battery systems (rechargeable NiMH battery pack or 2 AA batteries), 8 GB of expandable internal memory, and a beautiful 2.6-inch display, it just doesn’t get any better.

Garmin Montana 680. Of course, the Montana 680 offers nearly as many great features in addition to an 8-megapixel camera, 250,000 pre-loaded geocaches, and Track Manager to help keep your waypoints organized. As a result, this is definitely the best option for geocaching and possibly the best option for orienteering or navigation competitions as well.

You’ll note that there are quite a few Garmin models on that list—9 out of the 10. The truth is that while there are a few other brands that also make good GPS tracker for hiking options (DeLorme, for instance, which had the 10th model on the list, as well as Spot and Magellan, both of which make some great GPS trackers). Garmin simply offers the best choices, and that was reflected in our list.

What is the best handheld GPS on the market?

So what’s the best handheld GPS on the market? Call it a cop-out if you must, but we’re of the opinion that the best handheld hiking GPS tracker is the one that helps encourage you to hike more and puts your mind at ease when you are out adventuring. Think about the features you need—whether that’s waypoints, navigational map, satellite messaging, the ability to send an SOS signal, or whatever else—to best support your adventures.

Do you know the other advantage of our list above? Each of those 10 we chose is best for a particular feature or use. So, without further ado:

  • Best geocaching GPS: Garmin Montana 680
  • Best one-day adventure GPS: Garmin GPSMAP 64st
  • Best one-day backcountry GPS: Garmin Oregon 450t
  • Best budget GPS: Garmin Foretrex 401
  • Best rugged GPS: Garmin GPSMAP 62St
  • Best display: Garmin Oregon 600
  • Best battery life/best big adventure GPS: DeLorme inReach Explorer
  • Best multi-use GPS: Garmin eTrex 30x
  • Best reliable GPS: Garmin Rino 755t
  • Best waterproof GPS: Garmin GPSMAP 78sc

Beyond that? Check out our 10 best GPS tracker for hiking options in the section above and do your research. There are lots of great options out there, so make sure you get the model that best fits your particular needs and desires.

 

Hiking Tips

Of course, just having a great handheld GPS hiking tracker is not enough for getting the most out of your hiking adventures. Just keeping from getting lost, after all, won’t necessarily keep you from other potential issues.

So let’s look at some of the best advice you can consider to help ensure you make the most of your hiking trips, both staying safe and having an enjoyable time outside.

Among other things, we’ll look at the ten essentials, a framework first proposed by the Mountaineers (a Seattle-area mountain safety and education group) in the 1930s and since used in various forms by outdoor groups as varied as the Boy Scouts of America. These ten essentials aim to help outdoorspeople answer two basic questions:

  1. Can you safely spend a night (or more) outside if an accident occurs or your time frame is different than what you originally planned for?
  2. If you are involved in or come across an accident or emergency, can you respond positively?

Note that this framework helps ensure your self-sufficiency and responsibility as well as helps ensure that you would be able to help others if they need your help. We’ll look more at what that means, though, in just a moment. First, those 10 hiking tips for beginners!

Top 10 Hiking Tips for Beginners

  1. Start small and with the right trail for your fitness. Until you have more experience, it’s hard to know how to estimate how long a hike might take you. In general, though, you should know that you won’t be able to walk as fast on hilly terrain or technical trails as you would on flat surfaces and that the trail itself may well determine how much you can. Start with an estimated pace of 2 miles per hour, then add at least an hour for every 1000 feet of gain on the trail. After you’ve been out a few more times, you’ll better be able to adjust your estimates, but at least at first, assume trails will take you longer than you think they will, and consider starting with some out-and-back trails until you get a better sense of your hiking fitness.
  2. Do your research. Make sure you have the appropriate map, have read about the trail, and know what good scenic points are along the trail, for instance. You should also be aware of any trail junctions where you might make a wrong turn, for instance.
  3. Check the weather. And know that it might change. This will help you pack appropriately.
  4. Tell someone about your plans. Give them an itinerary and in addition to a time when you expect to be done, give them a time at which they’re allowed to start worrying. This is a good idea even if you carry a SPOT tracker or other PLB, or a hiking GPS tracker that includes an SOS option, for instance.
  5. Pack your 10 essentials. (More on the 10 essentials in just a minute…)
  6. Wear the right shoes and socks. It’ll take you a little bit to figure out the footwear system that works best for you, but no one likes getting blisters or wearing uncomfortable shoes. Also, good socks are worth it! (As is including blister materials in your first aid kit.)
  7. Dress appropriately. As a general rule, “cotton is rotten” (it gets damp and stays damp), and light layers are important so you can layer up or layer down as weather or your effort changes. Similarly, as part of your 10 essentials, you should pack a few extra layers as appropriate.
  8. Don’t overpack. There are plenty of ways to carry your 10 essentials and everything you need without overpacking. Simply pack the lighter versions where you have that option, such as a light rain jacket that you can also wear for warmth or wind protection, rather than one of each, or a travel tube of sunscreen rather than 16-ounce bottle.
  9. Pace yourself. It’s easy to get excited and hike hard early in the day. The problem with that is that you’re likely to bonk and run out of energy later in the day, especially as the sun gets hot and you’ve been out for a few hours. Instead, pick a pace you can keep all day and instead of getting miserable as you run out of energy later in the day, your smiles will stick around.
  10. Leave no trace. Take the time to read up on the leave no trace (LNT) principles. The guiding motto of “take only pictures, leave only footprints” is one to keep in mind, but you should also take the time to learn the seven principles so that your time in the great outdoors is sustainable.

 

Now about the 10 essentials. Let’s look at the 10 things you should have with you on every hike, also known as the 10 essentials!

10 Essentials of Hiking

  1. Navigation. Depending on where you are going, this may be a map, compass, GPS system, or (ideally) a combination of all three—as well as the knowledge of how to use each piece. You should be familiar and comfortable using a topographical map, a compass, and your GPS unit so that you aren’t struggling should you find yourself lost in the backcountry.
  2. Sun protection. This means sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat. If you’re going to be out, you need to be able to protect yourself from the sun, especially if you aren’t used to being out for a long time or at the elevations you are hiking. Not only can the sun do tremendous damage to your skin, but it can also wear you out, overheat you, dehydrate you, and make keeping a good pace on your hike more difficult.
  3. Insulation. Of course, you also need to be prepared if the weather isn’t hot and sunny, especially as weather can change quickly and unpredictably. You should have extra layers that reflect the most extreme weather conditions you could encounter. In the mountains, for instance, you might experience snow and hot sun within a few hours of each hour, and you need to be prepared for those sorts of temperature swings if it might occur in your hike area.
  4. Illumination. For most hikers, this probably means a headlamp. Even if you are only expecting to be out for an afternoon hike, having a headlamp can save you if your hike runs late and it gets dark before you get back to your car. You should also remember extra batteries.
  5. First Aid Supplies. Be sure to modify your kit to fit your surroundings and trip plan, too. Check expiration dates and replace items as needed, and if your first aid skills are rusty at all, consider including a small guide so you know what to do if faced with an unfamiliar medical emergency. (And if you’re someone that spends lots of time outside, consider taking a wilderness first aid or even wilderness first responder course. The skills you’ll gain are well worth the investment!)
  6. Fire. Even if you are unlikely to need to make a fire, you should have materials so you could make a fire if you needed to, as it can be a good way to signal for help or stay warm on a cold night. We recommend waterproof matches, a few fire-starting materials (such as cotton balls soaked in vaseline and other lightweight fire materials), and a good lighter. (If you want to learn how to make fire with flint or friction, by all means—but if you ever have to make a fire in an emergency, you’ll want real fire-starting supplies with you.)
  7. Repair kit and tools. Even just a few basic tools (such as a good multi-purpose tool like a Leatherman), some duct tape, and a knife can go a long way. A small mirror can also be great for both fire-starting (simply focus the sun’s rays on a hot, sunny day) and signaling (flash the mirror to reflect the sun at anyone out searching for you).
  8. Food. This means above what you think your minimal needs will be. If you think it will be a 2-hour hike, for instance, but then you roll your ankle, do you have sufficient food to stay out until help can get to you? A general rule is an extra day’s supply of food on a day hike, preferably no-cook items that will help keep your energy up.
  9. Water. This means above your minimal needs. Even if you aren’t carrying significantly more water than you think you will need, you should have ways to get water, such as a knowledge of where water is and the equipment to filter it, whether by packing a water filter or something similar and smaller, such as a Lifestraw or Steripen.
  10. Shelter. Finally, if an emergency occurs, you should be able to comfortably spend the night out. While in some places an emergency space blanket may be enough, in other locations you will need a tarp, bivy, or even a tent so you are prepared if you need to spend the night out.

 

Finally, consider what you can do to build up your skills and gain experience in controlled settings. Local hiking clubs are always a good option, as are classes offered by community resources such as your local REI. Similarly, if you’re someone that spends a great deal of time outside or in remote areas, you should definitely consider investing in a wilderness first aid (WFA) course at a bare minimum, or even a wilderness first responder (WFR) course. Even if you rarely have to practice those skills, the instance in which you do may save a life—potentially even your own.

Additionally, there are quite a few apps out there that can also help ensure you make the most of your adventures outside. Consider these 10 best free hiking apps.

10 Best Free Hiking Apps

  1. Gaia. When it comes to map and navigation apps, Gaia is one of the best, including topographical, satellite, road, and NatGeo Trails Illustrated maps. It can also track your location, pace, distance, and elevation, and if you’re worried about service in the area where you’ll be hiking, you can pre-download maps for off-grid access, just as you can print maps from the app in advance, too. While the app itself is free, some of the best features require membership.
  2. Cairn. Cairn has many of the map features of Gaia, but offers the added bonus of breaking down where previous hikers have found cell coverage, carrier by carrier. As a result, it’s great for when you need to update friends or families or make an emergency call. You can also set it up to send an “overdue” notification if you aren’t back to a predetermined location before a set time, so others know to look for you.
  3. Mountain Collector. While only available for Android, this is a great app for peak baggers, as not only does it offer a vast repository of peak information (including access points, statistics, and more), but also allows you to tick peaks off your list.
  4. MapMyHike. Think of it as MapMyRun, but for hikers. The best part here is the community, but it also offers features like calorie tracking that can come in handy for those looking to boost their fitness, too.
  5. AllTrails. One of the most popular map apps out there, AllTrails may lack the depth of Gaia or Cairn, but makes up for it in some ways in access, as it has information on more trails than most other free hiking apps. Like Gaia, it also offers better (paid) versions.
  6. ViewRanger. The best feature here is, well, the views. Not only can the app help you better visualize where you’re going, but you can also use it to share your photos from your adventure.
  7. National Parks by Chimani. Our favorite of the many National Parks-focused apps, the wealth of information available on each of the 400+ National Parks, Monuments, and more is simply astounding.
  8. First Aid by Red Cross. One of the most approachable first aid apps is also our favorites in how easy it makes it to determine what first aid you should be offering in nearly any emergency situation.
  9. Strava. While there are lots of ways to log your activity, Strava is one of our favorites simply for the breadth of top-level athletes using it for their hikes, runs, and bikes. If you’re competitive, you can try and work your way up the leaderboard for various segments; if not, it can still be fun to see how many other people have been in the same places and become part of the community.
  10. Relive. Relive helps take your GPS data and photos to create a video of your adventure. While used most often with other apps like Strava (including GarminConnect, MapMyHike, and more), it can work with any GPS data and photos to create a video memorializing your fun.

What are the 3 elements of GPS?

First developed by the United States military, the Global Positioning System (GPS) relies on a network of satellites and synced atomic clocks to provide positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services. There are three components or elements that make the system work for individual users: 1) the space segment, 2) the control segment, and 3) the user segment. The first two of those three segments are the responsibility of the United States Air Force. Let’s look at each segment more closely.

The space component or segment is the satellite arm of the system, utilizing a minimum of 24 orbiting and operational satellites. Each of these satellites transmits a one-way radio signal that included an encoded sequence relating to the atomic clock time; the one-way radio signal also includes information about the current GPS satellite position.

The control component or segment is the worldwide system of monitoring and control stations which help maintain satellites in their proper orbits, including making any clock adjustments or orbit manipulations. These command centers track each of the satellites, upload navigational data as it is freshly updated, and maintain the health and status of the constellation.

Finally, the user segment is your end and consists of GPS receiver equipment. Your GPS receiver takes the one-way radio signal from the satellite and uses that transmitted information to determine the distance from each satellite. Using a method known as trilateration (which we’ll discuss in greater detail in just a moment), the receiver can then determine location information for positioning and navigation purposes. Your GPS receiver can also use the satellite info to determine the time. Your hiking GPS tracker will utilize each of those functions to help keep you from getting lost.

Even better, all three of these components and the services they enable are available for civilian service, which is available freely and on a continuous basis all over the world. Additionally, some applications are available that can help augment GPS systems and techniques.

So trilateration: How does GPS work? If it helps, think of your receiver as the center of a three-circle Venn diagram. When your receiver gets a signal from a satellite, it can calculate the distance to the satellite, helping draw a circle of all possible locations that distance from the satellite. When you add the signal from a second satellite, you suddenly have a couple of intersection areas. A third satellite helps narrow it down further yet, and a fourth helps ensure that you also know the elevation data of the point at which you are currently located. That’s obviously a gross oversimplification, but you get the general idea of how GPS works in your hiking GPS tracker.

How accurate is the most accurate GPS?

Different levels of GPS are progressively more accurate. For instance, the oldest civilian GPS receivers may only be accurate within a fraction of a kilometer or a tenth of a mile, for instance. As newer models are readily available, however, GPS accurate continues to improve. The newest cellular network GPS receivers, for instance, may be accurate within a few feet. Military applications may be even more accurate, though that information isn’t always readily available.

So while most currently available smartphones, for instance, are usually fairly accurate within a range of 5 meters or 16 feet. A GPS tracker for hiking may be of similar accuracy, depending on the model and the location in which you are using, as well as other surrounding factors (such as cloud cover, for instance). The biggest reason military applications are more accurate, however, is that they may use 2 receivers instead of 1, as (contrary to popular belief) the military does not degrade civilian GPS service as they once did, using Selective Availability in the 1990s.

Do clouds affect GPS?

Of course, even the most accurate GPS receiver can be affected. Clouds, however, are not one of those things that affect your GPS signal, so if you’re out in the woods and notice a bit of cloud cover, that won’t be enough to disrupt your hiking GPS tracker.

What affects GPS signal?

Lots of other things can affect your GPS signal, however. For instance, cold can affect your GPS signal—less because the cold affects the signal (it doesn’t), and more because the cold can affect the battery of your unit, making it less effective. (This isn’t the case for all GPS tracker for hiking, of course, but can be a consideration in cooler weather.)

There are quite a few major considerations of which to be aware, each of which may disrupt your GPS signal and as a result affect your location accuracy and, consequently, your positioning and navigation may suffer. Consider the following 5 factors that most disrupt GPS signal:

  1. Satellite signal blockage (because of buildings, bridges, trees, or mountains, for instance)
  2. Satellite signal reflection (such as bouncing off the side of a building or wall or mountain)
  3. Indoor or underground usage
  4. Satellite maintenance or gaps in coverage
  5. Radio interference or jamming

In general, though, no matter where you are on earth, you should be able to get a good signal from at least three (if not four) satellites.

Can car GPS be used for hiking?

The short answer? Probably not. That said, if your car GPS is a portable model, you might be able to use it in a walking or pedestrian mode, which will optimize your route for walking rather than driving. If this is an option with your car GPS, simply switch to pedestrian mode and enter your destination and follow the prompts or directions just as you normally would. This still only works for street navigation, however, unless you have a specific crossover model. For extensive hiking, however, you’re going to be better off with a handheld hiking GPS tracker.

(Another consideration: Most car GPS receivers have short battery lives, often less than a few hours, so if you do take your car GPS hiking, consider turning your unit off when not in active use.)

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