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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Handheld GPS 101: Geocaching

Geocaching container

This is the fifth in a series of posts designed to help introduce beginners to the use of handheld GPS receivers.

Geocaching is a sort of high-tech treasure hunt and a great way to learn to use your handheld GPS. To begin, go to geocaching.com and enter your zip code. You’ll likely find coordinates for hundreds of nearby caches. You’ll need to register (free) to be able to download them directly to your GPS.

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Handheld GPS 101: Routes vs. Tracks

Routes-vs-tracks This is the fourth in a series of posts designed to help introduce beginners to the use of handheld GPS receivers.

I’ve covered both routes and tracks in this series, so now it’s time to do a direct comparison. Here are some key differences:

  • Routes are about where you are planning to go; tracks are about where you have been
  • Backcountry routes typically use straight-line, “as the crow flies” navigation; tracks more accurately reflect the shape of the trail, with all its twists and turns

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Handheld GPS 101: Tracks

This is the third in a series of posts designed to help introduce beginners to the use of handheld GPS receivers.

GPS-101-tracksTracks 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.

Trackback

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.

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Handheld GPS 101: Routes

This is the second in a series of posts designed to help introduce beginners to the use of handheld GPS receivers.

GPS-101-route Routes are used for navigation. As the name implies, they are about where you are going. Routes consist of a series of waypoints, navigated to sequentially in the order you specify.

Most GPS receivers allow you to create a route from waypoints stored on the device. You can also create a route with mapping software and then transfer it to your device. My personal favorite for this task is Garmin MapSource, which allows you to click from waypoint to waypoint to create a route. It’s hard to get any simpler than that!

Backcountry GPS routes are generally laid out as the crow flies, giving you the straight line distance to the next waypoint (as seen in the screenshot at left, which shows a loop route). This is a very important point; the route in the image is 4.2 miles in length, while the actual distance on trail is 6.4 miles. Don’t be fooled into thinking your outing is shorter than it will be!

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Handheld GPS 101: Waypoints

This is the first post in a new series, designed to help introduce beginners to handheld GPS receivers.

GPS-101-waypointWaypoints 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.

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