1 – It tells you where you are. You can switch it on, and simply find out your location. Most modern GPS devices will lock onto the satellites pretty quickly and provide you with a grid reference. Just make sure that your GPS is set to British National Grid and that you can transfer your grid reference to your Map! If in doubt, check out the downloads on this page for some general advice on map reading.
2 – You can follow a route. If you want to use the GPS to navigate alongside a map, then you can upload a route to your GPS. You can create a route in a digital mapping program such as Tracklogs or Memory Map, or you can download them from websites such as (Walk Eryri). By the same token, you can swap routes with others. If you’re desperate, you can create a route on your GPS by manually entering the waypoints. There’s just not enough jelly babies in Wales to persuade me to do that. While it may be tolerable to input a waypoint or two, the tens you’ll need to create a proper route should be manually input by masochists only.
Once the route is in the GPS, set it to navigate the route, and on my Garmin, it beeps each time you pass a waypoint. Sat in my pack like that, I know I’m on the right route without having to get the map out unless I have to.
Digital mapping costs anything from £25 upwards, and if you do most of your walking in one area, can work out reasonably cheap. You can also print your routes out as Ordnance Survey maps as an added bonus.
3 – It can tell you when you’re due to arrive home. Well, at the end of the walk at least. If you’ve put a route into the GPS, then the trip computer will tell you how far the end of the route is and when you’re likely to arrive there at your current speed. On mountains, it’s a little off when you’re going up hill as mine doesn’t take the ascent into account. So a little common sense needs to be used too. I tend to take more notice of this when I’m on a descent, or where the walk is level (ish). It was reasonably accurate on my last two walks, being within 20mins of the actual time.
Even if the time isn’t accurate enough, you’ll always know exactly how far it is to your destination.
4 – Free contour maps. Ok. This depends on your GPS. You’ve got to have a Garmin that lets you display mapping. One way to tell is if it’s compatible with the rather expensive Garmin Topo software, then you can put free contour mapping by the SMC onto it. You’ll need to be a bit techy, but nothing extreme.
You will need a copy of Garmin Mapsource that may or may not come with your GPS, to install the mapping and you should add something like the Garmin Mapsource Roads and Recreation to add roads, coastlines and lakes. You can usually pick this up very cheap on eBay. Makes the GPS much more user friendly in the field. Add a waypoint in for each summit, and you’re laughing.
As you can see from the screen grab of the MapSource program, it’s perfectly capable of being used to design or edit routes. If you’ve received it with your GPS, then you can dabble with digital mapping of a sort for free.
5 – Logging a route. This is my favourite feature, and definitely the only one that I always use whenever the GPS is on. It basically records the route you walk. You can then save it to your PC, swap it or follow it as a route on your GPS another time. For me, it’s most useful used with digital mapping as you can see your route right there on the screen. If ever you’ve walked up a mountain on a path that’s not on the map, this lets you see where it is or was.
It can also be used as a tool to improve your navigation. A number of times I’ve gone off track, relocated my position and then found my way back somehow. Looking at the recorded route on a map I can double check that I was where I was meant to be!
Of course, there are a few things you’ll need to bear in mind. A GPS is useless without batteries. That’s why all my gear uses AA batteries wherever possible, so I’ve always got plenty of spare batteries, but might have to go without my camera. My head torch uses AA batteries for the same reason.
A GPS is a useful addition to your navigation, not a replacement. For the same reason, a GPS won’t take you over a cliff unless you really don’t know what you’re doing. The only time a GPS tells you where to go is when you’ve put a route in. If it takes you over a cliff then something needs to be said about your route planning abilities, not the usefulness of GPS devices!