Sunday, March 18, 2012

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.

Entering waypoints

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).

Waypoint management

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.

Waypoints 201

  • 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:

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. Is there a way to sync waypoints? I have a Garmin handheld and a Nuvi. A lot of times I’ll add a waypoint on one that I’d love to have on the other. I can obviously manually download and re-upload to both units, but I wonder if there’s a better way?

    • John D-
      If you held onto your Garmin Trip and Waypoint Manager Software that should’ve come with your handheld unit, then you can store your waypoints on your computer using that software and load them onto both your Nuvi and handheld units. Otherwise, the only other real option would be to enter it manually. Currently, Garmin offers wireless data transfer of waypoints only on their newer units, like the Oregon and Dakota series, but give them a couple years and I’m sure we’ll be able to do data transfers on the vast array of units.

  2. That’s the best way, AFAIK. One of these days we’ll have universal connectivity. Or maybe a nuvi with the wireless communication built into their newer handhelds.

  3. I go mushroom hunting with my brothers every spring in Michigan. I am not familiar with the area. We will park the vehicle at a point and my brother tells me “were gonna head out toward the west, keep the sun on this shoulder. when your coming back keep it on the other. Check your compass often.” We have radios with us but in the up and down terrain the reception is not that great all of the time. Needless to say I have gotten lost several times, one time for almost 2 hours.

    With a handheld GPS can i mark the position of the vehicle so that I can assure myself of getting back to it every time? If so, what model would you recommend for an amateur woodsman?

    • Morgan-
      If you’re solely going to use it for mushroom hunting, I’d save yourself $70 and go with the Garmin Etrex H. The Venture HC is a great little unit, but if you’re not going to be downloading any maps for it, it’s kind of more than you need. I sell GPS’ at an outdoors store, and that Extrex H is my number 1 seller for hunters or hikers that just want to know how to get back to their vehicles after trekking out. Just a suggestion, but either way you go you’ll be getting a good unit! 🙂

  4. Yes, you can mark the vehicle and the GPS can direct you back to it. A lot depends on how much you want to spend. The lowest level unit I recommend is the Garmin eTrex Venture HC. From there you can go up and get touchscreen units, ones that will accommodate aerial photos, etc.

    Watch for the next post in this series, due Tuesday. It will talk about following your “track.”

  5. Trying to down load waypoints from Garmin 60csx to that I can transfer them to my new 60s. EasyGPS keeps stating there is no GPS connected then states there are no way points in the GPS. How do I get EasyGPS to accept the waypoints?
    Thanks for all your HELP


  6. Just got off the phone with Garmin Tech support. Not only do they NOT have a work around for the firm ware upgrade on my 655T, they don’t even have the old version 2.9 available to send out and fix this problem. The Tech said he see’s where this “error” in the software will be corrected in the new version of the firmware but he has no idea when this update will be released. What has happened to Garmin?????

    Just a bit frustrated right now as I expected them to stand behind there products/software much better than this.

  7. Very disappointed to find there is no “enter waypoints” on mty new Garmin 550. I lost three Garmin Gps units in a home fire, I really liked them all. This is a big let down. Are all the later units like this? If so, I’ll change brands. I do off road exploring with my Jeep (staying on all the trails), geocaching.. and general stuff… to me this is almost a catastrophe.

    • Just use Mark Waypoint. If you want to enter coordinates for another location, then choose Save and Edit. That’s how all Garmin handhelds have worked for years now.

  8. Has anyone used to Off Course feather with the 655T? I set it up and got it to work with waypoints but when I tried it with a track it did not work. Not sure if I am doing things right or not. Is there a way to convert a track into a route? I am wondering if this is what I need to do to get this feature to work like I want it to.
    Thanks in Advance

    • I think that will only work with waypoints and perhaps routes. There is a convert track to route function in Basecamp… Track-Convert Track to Route

      • Thanks Rich, I did try converting the track to a route and then doing the off course under teh marine settings and it works. I know routes do not have as much storage associated with them but for the life of me I do not understand why Garmin limits this off course alarms to just way points and routes. My wife rides in events called endurance rides (25-100 mile horseback rides) and they are using GPS’s more frequintly to lay out the courses. She bought an Oregon 550 as it was suppose to give her an audible alarm when she got off course. She thought this would happen in tracks as that is how the ride managers transfer there trails to the various GPS units. Guess I have to be a bit more involved now to get these things over to work like she hoped they would. Thanks again for the reply, it was a BIG help….

        • I think it’s a great idea, and something they might try to implement. I suggest letting them know via

          • Rich
            Sent them a note about this, not sure they will do it but worth a try. Also the new base camp is even more of a pain than I thought. Trying to geo tag photos I took with my 655T and I still don’t know how I got them there. Sure wish they would use teh “KISS” principle when developing simple tasks like doing a geotag. Hope your having a good day and thanks for all your doing for us newbys.

  9. I am having a hard time inputtimg coordinates then going it stops me from allowing me to put certain numbers in sometimes any ideas how to work around this so I can

  10. steve coulton says:

    use gps to run straight lines on land having two waypoints 180 opposite at the same half mile distance. gps needs to measure in feet, and must have the nearest waypoints page, to make work. does etrex 10 have these two features? my old garmin did

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