Handheld GPS basics

So, you have heard about this GPS stuff, and are maybe considering buying one because they sound really nifty, and they are. But, maybe you don’t know very much about them, and all of the choices and techno-babble are just confusing. Never fear—we will break it down here.

GPS, or global positioning system, was made possible by the installation of 24 Navigation Satellite Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) satellites above the Earth. Each satellite transmits a signal back to Earth. On the ground, a receiver can pick up this signal and by a process of triangulation, getting a signal from several satellites at a time. A computer chip in the receiver calculates its location on the Earth.

This technology is useful for numerous applications: from guiding missiles to far-flung targets, to finding your way back to your car after a hike. The civilian applications of this technology have rapidly grown in the last few years, making a handheld GPS an almost-essential piece of equipment for outdoor adventurers (like bone hunters).

What are some of the considerations you might make when considering which model to purchase? First, think about your uses for a GPS. Are you only going to use it when driving to a friend’s house you don’t visit often; do you want to mount it on your mountain bike and track your progress over rough terrain; are you a hiker or runner and want to track your distances and speed; are your going to use it to find your way back to camp when you have wondered off during a day hunting or to get back to the clubhouse after a day of golf; or do you need one in your canoe so you don’t get lost paddling around the Everglades?

There are many features that you can get, and perhaps many that you will not use, so there is no sense paying more than you need to for your purpose.

For example, many newer cell phones have a GPS built in (in fact, all of them do to an extent; if you dial 911 the phone can transmit your location to rescue workers). You may be able to contact your cell service provider and just turn on the GPS mapping and tracking capabilities you already have. For example, Verizon offers this service for a monthly fee, and you can turn it on and off on a whim.

However, if your usage of a GPS is going to be very rugged at all, you likely want a unit that is designed with this as its primary function. Most units are at least water resistant, and some are water proof—a handy feature in boating, hunting, and fishing, applications. Additional features you can find on them include: barometric altimeter; electronic compass; heart rate monitor; two-way radios; ability to communicate with your computer to download and upload information; monochrome or color screens; and cameras.

Which one is right for you all depends on you. In future posts we will further explore their features and see some of the different models.

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