Stay Safe With a GPS for Hiking

Updated on October 16, 2018
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I have been researching and writing about consumer electronics for over 13 years.


Using Hiking GPS for Beginners

Hiking is a wonderful outdoor activity. It's a great source of exercise as well as a chance to get outdoors and explore nature. Using a rugged GPS for hiking can make the experience easier and safer.

Certainly, there are a variety of things hikers need to take along on the trail but at a minimum, a GPS device allows them to:

  • avoid getting lost by mapping their way and marking waypoints beforehand.
  • share information with others so they know the hikers planned route to help in an effort to them should they become lost (or just share tips with others).
  • have communication with others if a two-way radio is included.
  • better plan for hiking trips by showing altitude and other topographical information (determine how rugged the trip will be)
  • assist in finding a way out if they get off the trail

In this article, you can learn a bit more about the features of these devices and how to go about choosing one to suit your needs.


Buying Tips

There are a number of reputable manufacturers of GPS devices that can be used for hiking, backpacking, and other outdoor activities. Here are some things to consider when choosing your rugged handheld GPS:

  • Size
    Certainly, if you'll be hiking or backpacking with a GPS unit, you want it to be lightweight and small. However, you'll also want to be sure it provides a screen size that is adequate to easily read.
  • The Screen
    Clearly, a larger screen tends to be more readable, but brightness and resolution count as well. A black and white screen can save you money and battery power, but a color screen can show much more detail as far as the terrain and elevations. Having any buttons on the sides of the unit can help reserve more room for the screen. If you get your hands on the unit before buying, it's wise to test it in direct sunlight since this is the condition in which it will be used most often.

    Some of these devices provide a touchscreen which certainly allows for a larger screen as well. However, these are more difficult to operate with one hand if that is something you want to be able to do.
  • Durability
    A good GPS unit for hiking should be rugged. It should be able to survive being dropped as well as being exposed to moisture due to humidity, rainfall, or a douse in a stream.
  • Sensitivity and Accuracy
    One of these units requires a good signal to perform its job. These devices need to work in environments where tree cover and canyon walls should not disrupt them. Devices with WAAS tend to provide the greatest accuracy. Shoppers should check manufacturer information to determine the level of accuracy the device typically provides. For instance, it should pinpoint locations within 10 feet or so.
  • Maps
    A GPS for hiking will be only as good as the maps it uses. Maps are the brains of the unit and what determines how much detail you can get from the unit. Most hikers and backpackers need topographical maps rather than just street maps. These maps will show trails, streams, rivers, lakes, parks, terrain contours, elevation, and such. The more points of interest included, the better the map will work for you. Some maps even include a 3D view to give hikers a better feel for the terrain.
  • Features and Functions
    Some of the best GPS devices used in outdoor sports and recreation include a compass and perhaps a barometric altimeter to help determine elevation/altitude, provide ascent/descent information, plot barometric pressure over time for projecting weather conditions, and so forth. It may include an odometer and a special mode for geocaching.

    Some GPS devices offer a 2-way radio function which is useful if you are hiking with another group of people. Others include a camera.

    Users should be able to mark waypoints. Shoppers should compare these devices by noting how many waypoints can be recorded. Clearly, the more that can be marked and stored, the more detailed guidance the device can provide. Being able to store waypoints and routes allows the user to retrace their steps to find their way back or to return at a later date and enjoy the same hike. Many of these devices also offer wireless connectivity and the ability to share such information with other hikers.
  • Memory
    In order to store all of the waypoints, maps, routes, and so forth, a hiking GPS needs memory. Shoppers can compare internal memory capacities and also the availability of a slot to add flash memory in the form of an SD or microSD card.
  • Convenience
    Downloading maps online can take up time. If the unit you choose has a USB connection this will make the process faster and easier.

    Clearly, these devices operate off of batteries. Rechargeable batteries can help hold down costs, but you'll also want to know how long the device will operate on a single charge. No one wants to be halfway through a hike and have the batteries die.
  • Portability
    Of course, pretty much any hiking GPS will be portable. However, while most are handheld, there are some that are wearable and can be strapped around the wrist. This is, of course, convenient, but keep in mind the screen will likely be smaller.


A Few Additional Safety Tips

If you've got a hiking GPS and a cell phone, you've got some critical gear to assure your safety when you're in an uninhabited area. But there are a few other things you might want to remember:

  • Be sure you have fresh batteries and take extra batteries.
  • Have a paper map in case things stop working.
  • Plan your route beforehand and be sure to have loaded the maps you need.
  • Be sure you get a signal and set a waypoint before starting out on your hike.

A Quick Look for Beginners

Geocaching with GPS

Being outdoors for some of us is the ultimate leisure time activity, for others, it's a more serious endeavor. But if you are looking for ways to add more fun to your outdoor time, geocaching is one possibility. A hiking GPS is a perfect tool to do this.

If you are a beginner, then an explanation is in order. Geocaching is basically a satellite-guided game of hide-and-seek with a bit of scavenger hunt thrown in.

Participants can go to geocaching websites to find the location of various geocaches (waterproof containers with items inside). By using your GPS, you then go in search of the items. Once you've located and opened the geocache you can sign the logbook found inside and take any item (treasure) that is included. You then replace it with an item of your own for the next participant to find. If you hide a geocache, you post the coordinates on the geocaching site for others to find.

You can find these stashes of items all across the globe, making it easy to include this activity in nearly any place you travel.

A search online will help you locate geocaching sites; is one of the largest.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Christine Mulberry


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    • Corin profile image


      9 years ago

      I didn't know that there was GPS for hiking: I always use my old map. I would have to get one. Thanks for this useful review.

    • Cheryl J. profile image

      Cheryl J. 

      9 years ago from Houston, TX

      These are really cool. Thanks for the nice written hub on GPS for hiking. No one will ever get lost again. Nice hub.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi Christine, this is a great hub. Lots of really useful information. Thanks.

    • Daddy Paul profile image

      Daddy Paul 

      10 years ago from Michigan

      Good hub!

    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 

      10 years ago

      Definitely a GPS for hiking and other adventures. If you have ever been lost in the wilds, you know what I mean….

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      10 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      I should suggest this on my French holidays blog, there are a lot of woodland paths and trails around our holiday property but it is also quite easy to get lost. This would be the perfect solution to that problem.

    • Ann Nonymous profile image

      Ann Nonymous 

      10 years ago from Virginia

      This would make a great gift for the campers in my family Thanks for the review and information, Mulberry!


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