This is the third in a series of posts designed to help introduce beginners to the use of handheld GPS receivers.
Tracks are a record of where you’ve been. People often use the term “breadcrumb trail,” a la Hansel and Gretel, to describe tracks. Your GPS receiver creates this record as you go along, allowing you to follow the electronic breadcrumb trail back to your starting point. A sample track is shown at left. A hike of a few miles can have 1,000 or more track points, which make up the track (also known as the tracklog — and if you guessed that’s where this site got its name, you’re right!).
Once you return from your outing, most handheld GPS receivers allow you to download the track to your computer. With mapping software, you can view your track on a topo map or aerial photo.
Your GPS probably has a trackback function, allowing you to navigate back along the track. Various brands may differ in how they handle this, but generally speaking, it takes a few dozen of the most significant trackpoints and creates a route from them.
To be honest, I’ve never found this feature to be very useful. Having the GPS tell me there is another turn in the trail ahead, which I can see right in front of me, just isn’t that helpful.
Here’s an alternative way to use the track to navigate back to your starting point: Let’s say you’re taking an out and back hike. To me, it’s much more useful to view the map screen, showing the track created before the turn around point. Keeping an eye on your progress on the screen, you can verify that you haven’t gotten off the trail or made a wrong turn. I’ll qualify this by saying that the trackback feature may be more useful in certain conditions, such as when visibility is limited – just don’t walk off a cliff!
Homework: Take a look at your GPS receiver and familiarize yourself with the track options and settings. Make sure that track recording is enabled.
You can load other people’s tracks to your GPS, giving you an accurate trail to follow on your screen. There are many services that allow you to download such files; two with extensive libraries are EveryTrail and Garmin Connect. Another good way to find these tracks is to search online for .gpx (a standardized GPS file format) and the name of the park or trail you are looking for. The Flint Creek track in the image above actually came from the Carolina Mountain Club website. Such tracks are often more accurate than printed trail maps and are a good way to estimate trip length ahead of a hike.
Other posts in this series: