A GPS or global positioning system is a device that determines a position on the globe using data from three or more satellites. Experienced hikers and campers use GPS systems to locate points of interest along a trail or to locate remote areas. Some hard core outdoors people swear never leave home without your GPS unit and others feel that one is not necessary. Who is right?
Types of GPS Units
There are several types of GPS units. Many cell phones have a GPS chip in them to help locate the phone. Installing a GPS system in a car will help with finding specific businesses or other locations. A handheld GPS unit is used for camping, hiking, and geocaching (a high-tech treasure hunt). Another type of GPS unit is very important for hikers, climbers, skiers, and campers who venture into remote areas. It is a unit that transmits a signal that helps to locate lost or distressed individuals. GPS units such as these can be the only way for rescue units to locate you.
When is GPS Useful?
A GPS unit is required when geocaching because the location of the “prize” is listed in GPS coordinates. The units that transmit your location if you get into trouble should be required equipment for anyone entering remote areas or avalanche prone areas. They are also very useful for senile and elderly individuals to carry with them. Our most mature citizens sometimes become disoriented due to health conditions or medications. A GPS transmitting unit can help locate them quickly.
In all other instances a GPS unit is useful but not mandatory. You do not need a GPS unit to hike short, well marked trails in city or local parks. The chances of becoming lost are slim under these circumstances. For those who love to hike and camp in remote places, a GPS unit is a wonderful and useful piece of equipment until the batteries die or you find yourself in a situation where satellite signals cannot reach such as crevices, deep valleys, and caves. If you depend on your GPS system and it is not functioning correctly, it may be a life threatening issue.
Alternatives to GPS
There is an alternative to using a GPS system. A trail map combined with a compass and topography map is the most reliable system for campers and hikers. Trekking into the back country or remote areas without the knowledge of how to read a map and use a compass is a recipe for disaster. Get proper training in orienteering before you decide on heading out into the wilderness. While many guidebooks and websites give the GPS coordinates for points of interest and trailheads, the same information can be obtained with a map, a trail guide, and a compass. The map and compass may be your only way out if GPS and cell phone service fails.
GPS units are not necessary when backpacking or hiking in wilderness areas but they are fun and very useful. However, they do not replace the more reliable low-tech alternatives. Bring the GPS unit on all of your excursions into the wilderness, just make sure to bring the maps and compass as a backup.