This is the first post in a new series, designed to help introduce beginners to handheld GPS receivers.
Waypoints are perhaps the single most important handheld GPS term, since they are key to navigation. So here’s our definition: A waypoint is a location which can be stored in your GPS receiver in the form of coordinates, allowing you to navigate to it. Each waypoint has a unique name or number assigned to it.
Select a waypoint and your handheld GPS can point you towards it and tell you the distance to the waypoint. Just remember that, with handheld units, the distance is generally given “as the crow flies” — a straight-line distance to the waypoint that doesn’t include all the twists and turns and switchbacks of the trail.
You may already be familiar with some specialized waypoints, such as geocache coordinates, or the points of interest (POIs) pre-loaded in auto GPS navigators.
There are multiple ways to enter waypoints into your receiver:
- Mark it manually – Get into the habit of marking the trailhead before starting off into the wild, allowing you to navigate back to it if necessary. This technique is also useful for marking field locations you wish to keep a record of, such as where you camped each night on a backpacking trip, deer stands, an awesome viewpoint, etc.
- Manually entering coordinates – Not recommended; it is simply too easy to introduce error.
- Mark waypoints using desktop mapping software – This is great for planning extended hikes with multiple waypoints. Consider marking trail junctions, stream crossings, peaks, benchmarks, and alternative trailheads, as well as your destination. Mapping software designed for GPS receivers will allow you to transfer the waypoints to your unit, via the cable supplied with most receivers. A few personal favorites are USAPhotoMaps (free), National Geographic TOPO (great for printed maps), and TopoFusion (free version available).
If you’re an avid outdoors person, you’ll soon find that your waypoint collection is growing exponentially. To help manage them, here are a couple of things to try:
- Use a prefix – Consider adding a two or three letter prefix to each waypoint for a given park or area. For example, the screenshot above uses RF to designate the Rocky Fork tract, a recent public land acquisition near the TN/NC border.
- Don’t store them all in your GPS – This is another reason to use mapping software, as it gives you a desktop management tool, allowing you to have a backup of all your waypoints and manage them without having to deal with the small screen on your receiver.
Homework: Mark a waypoint in the field and then navigate back to it using the compass screen on your unit. Also, familiarize yourself with the options listed for individual waypoints on your GPS receiver.
- Reposition here – If you use mapping software for trip planning, don’t expect your waypoints to be spot on. Many GPS receivers allow you to update a waypoint’s position in the field. On Garmin units, look for the menu item “reposition here.”
- Waypoint averaging – Some units allow you to set them down on site and use a waypoint averaging mode, where multiple readings are taken and the waypoint coordinates are set using the average.
Other posts in this series: