Sunday, March 18, 2012

14 tips for your new handheld GPS

HIll Walking in the English Lake DistrictIf you got a new handheld GPS, I’m hoping the weather is nice enough for you to get out and play with it. Here are some tips to help get you off on the right foot:

Play with it around town – Learn to set a waypoint and navigate to it, and how to follow a track or route, before going off into the wilderness with it. And if you don’t know what those words mean…

Learn the terminology – We’ve got a handheld GPS 101 series just waiting for you.

Let it bake – Not in the oven! Take it outside, turn it on and let it sit motionless under open sky for half an hour. It will fully download the satellite almanac so when you want to use it over the next few days, it should lock onto satellites very fast.

Protect it – Before going out in the woods with it, get a screen protector. The investment is well worth it.

Go green, save green – Most handheld GPS receivers these days just aren’t optimized for alkaline batteries. Get yourself a good set of Eneloop rechargeables; keep a spare pair charged and you’ll always be good to go.

Calibrate it – If your unit has an electronic compass, learn to calibrate it. You should do this every time you change batteries. And if it has a barometric altimeter and you’re an adventurous backcountry explorer, find a USGS benchmark and calibrate the altimeter too.

Backup your GPS – This one will take awhile but connect it to your computer and just copy the entire GPS drive over; you’ll always have a backup.

Get some free maps – If you got a Garmin, head on over to GPS File Depot for some awesome free topos and trail maps. They’ve got some great tutorials too. The best way to do this is to put them on a microSD card; that way if you run up against the rare incompatibility issue, all you’ll need to do is pull the card out.

Try geocaching – Many models include a free 30 day trial membership at, allowing you to experience the full joy of paperless geocaching

Update it – Unlike auto GPS, handhelds often get new features with firmware updates. Here are some resources for updating your DeLorme, Garmin or Magellan unit.

Download some tracks – Want to have the trail shown on your GPS? Download the track from one of the many .gpx file sharing sites; my current favorite is Garmin Connect.

Create an “if found” splash screen – This tutorial is geared towards the Garmin Oregon, but it should work for just about any of the newer Garmin models.

Grab some BirdsEye aerial imagery or topos – If you got one of the more recent Garmin models, check out their BirdsEye aerial imagery and BirdsEye Topo US and Canada.

Don’t get lost – After all, that would be pretty embarrassing. And believe me, there are plenty of ways to get lost with a GPS.

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. These are great tips for all new GPS users. Definitely checkout the free maps before you buy any topo maps from Garmin. Updates today include making it easy to find topo maps for each states.

  2. How can I create an “if found” splash screen on my Garmin 64st?

  3. Ah those were crazy times when handheld GPS navs were just starting out. Just to think that these days we have it right in our phones that we carry with us all the time!

  4. There is a lot of great technology around and yet people manage to drive into lake!

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