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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hiking Tips: Failsafe GPS Navigation in the Wilderness

Garmin GPSmap 76CS, handheld GPS receiver, por...Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia
GPS has become ubiquitous in our complex, “civilized” lives. It’s in our cars, it’s in our cell phones, and now it’s out in the wilderness. So, what’s it doing out there, one might ask?
Well, there’s no right or wrong answer to that question. It’s there, and that’s it. Many people hiking or backpacking in the wilderness use a handheld GPS receiver for navigation. So, let’s take a look at this device and how you can better utilize it in the backcountry.
GPS is simple to learn. My dog could learn to use it. You just push a few buttons, and a sweet female voice tells you all the turns you need to take.
Well, using GPS (Global Positioning System) to navigate in the wilderness isn’t quite as simple as using one to navigate in your automobile on the freeways. There are a few things you need to learn to be truly competent and safe while attempting to navigate with one in the backcountry.

Within a system of a couple dozen satellites orbiting the earth, three or four satellites peer down at you wherever you are and fix your position through triangulation. Your position then, by way of an internal computer, is displayed with longitude and latitude on the screen of your handheld GPS device.
For the satellites to “see” you and communicate with your device, you must be in a place where the sky is unobstructed and visible. Their signals won’t reach your GPS if you’re in a cave or even in some deep canyons and valleys.
We have talked about how a GPS device can tell you where you are. But, even more important is its ability to tell you how to get where you want to go.
If and when you purchase a GPS receiver, read the instructions carefully and learn the following four navigational skills:
1. Marking a waypoint by storing your current position in the GPS memory;
2. Successfully returning to your stored waypoint by following a bearing;
3. Programming your ultimate and intermediate destinations (waypoints), with longitudes and latitudes, into your receiver;
4. Navigating from waypoint to waypoint to your final destination.
I recently had a chat with the copilot of the Boeing 737 aircraft on which I had been flying. I was exiting after landing and got a peek into the cockpit. I spotted on the instrument panel, positioned among other modern and sophisticated navigational instruments, a relatively ancient navigational device dating back to World War II. This instrument, an Automatic Direction Finder (ADF), had been a staple for my navigation in Central Africa during the 70s as a bush pilot.
I asked the copilot what it was doing in such a modern aircraft. He replied that it was a failsafe backup for the other navigational instruments. And all the pilots and copilots had to know how to use it.
Just as pilots of modern aircraft don’t rely solely on one instrument for navigation, safe hiking and backpacking requires you to have a backup failsafe system for your handheld GPS receiver. That system is simply a good  compass and a local and current topographical map.
For failsafe wilderness navigation, learn how to use a handheld GPS receiver. And also take with you a topographical map and a good compass along with the skills for using them competently.
You never know what you might drop into the creek.
By Richard Davidian, Ph.D.

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