The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 124: Getting Around GPS

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Finding your way there, and finding your way home. In the wilderness, it's not always so easy. This week on The WildeBeat; Getting Around G-P-S.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one twenty four.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: There's an almost magical product that you can buy that promises to keep you from getting lost in the wilderness. It's called a G-P-S. But can you trust it, or is it too good to be true?

STEVE: I'm talking with Stephen Hinch. He's the author of the Wilderness Press Book, Outdoor Navigation with GPS. Stephen, welcome to the WildeBeat.

STEPHEN HINCH: Hi Steve, thanks a lot for having me.

STEVE: Let's start out with, what does G-P-S stand for? A lot of people have probably heard of GPS units, but maybe they don't know what it means.

STEPHEN HINCH: G-P-S stands for Global Positioning System. It's a system of twenty four satellites that are operated by the Department of Defense, originally for military applications, but it's now used much more for commercial and recreational activities.

STEVE: So why are you the expert to write the book on outdoor navigation with G-P-S?

STEPHEN HINCH: My day job is in the high-tech industry. And that means I'm indoors a lot... I know the technology, I know how G-P-S works from a theoretical standpoint, I do that in my day job. But actually using it to get out and enjoy the wilderness is something that I wouldn't do just stuck behind a desk all day, and so I've made this as a homework assignment for myself, basically, as a way for myself to get out and enjoy the wilderness more.

STEVE: So when somebody says to you, "Dude, I bought a G-P-S," they don't mean they bought a satellite.

STEPHEN HINCH: No, that's correct. They bought a little hand-held device that works with the satellites to identify your position very accurately, no matter where you are on Earth.

STEVE: Without getting too deeply technical, how does it do that?

STEPHEN HINCH: So the satellites send signals that your G-P-S receiver tracks, and by tracking a minimum of four satellites that are spread out across the sky, it can calculate it's position very accurately.

STEVE: So I have one of these things, and I look at the display of it. What does it actually tell me?

STEPHEN HINCH: The most important things that it can tell you are where you are, and it can guide you in the direction that you want to go. It can tell you the direction and distance to your destination, as long as you've programmed that destination into the receiver ahead of time. Those are really the key things. All of the other things that a G-P-S receiver can tell you are fun, useful information, but they're not as critical as those two things.

STEVE: So, let's say I want to shop for one of these things... what do I need?

STEPHEN HINCH: There are two basically different types of G-P-S receivers on the market today. And if you go to the local electronics store... what you will find are receivers that are designed for highway navigation... But they're not designed for the backcountry user that's hiking out in the wilderness. For outdoor use, and I talk about outdoor use I don't mean highway use, I mean people that are hiking, hunting, fishing, kayaking, whatever, you want the kind of receiver that's designed for the outdoors, and ...the least expensive ones you can get these days for under a hundred dollars up to the most expensive ones that are in around the five hundred dollar range. The real breakpoint here, is whether the receiver has the ability to have built-in maps or not. The inexpensive ones don't have any kind of maps showing roads or streets or anything, and the more expensive ones do. And then it's a matter of just how much memory and other features that they have to drive the price up... I do just very well with a receiver that's within the hundred to hundred and fifty dollar price range all the time... The built-in maps are great in order for you to drive to the trailhead, it shows you the best way to get there, but once you're out on the trail, the built-in maps really don't do you any good, because they don't show the trails.

STEVE: I'd like to go down some of the different options someone might have for navigating on their backcountry trip.

STEPHEN HINCH: So let's start with sort of the simplest thing. If you're not going too far afield is to just follow the trail, follow the signs. And that's pretty straightforward, it doesn't need any special training, any special gear. And again if you're, you know, hiking through the local park, or around town, that's an easy way to find your way without having to worry about things. If you're going any appreciable distance out in the wild, and that doesn't necessarily mean far, far away from civilization, but anywhere where it's possible to get lost, even for a few hours, a few hours might be nightime and it might be even harder to get back then. If you're going to be doing that, then you need to understand more than how to just follow a trail. For years that meant map and compass navigation. And map and compass navigation is still something that many people should understand how to do. But these days G-P-S makes it even easier, because you don't have to know anything about how to follow a compass bearing very well. You just turn on the G-P-S, and it will continually point you in the right direction for where you want to go. The only thing the G-P-S needs to know is where is it that you want to go. So you have to be able to program that information into the G-P-S before you start using it.

STEVE: What do you think are the important things for people to learn about G-P-S receivers before they start using them?

STEPHEN HINCH: G-P-S is just a tool that you use to find your way around, but it's not the only tool, and you need to understand basics of navigation even without G-P-S. Particularly if you're going to go anywhere far afield from civilization, because you have to worry about what happens if your G-P-S the batteries fail, or you drop it or break it, and so there's more to outdoor navigation than just using G-P-S... it uses satellites in order to calculate positions, so if you're standing under trees, or you're in a narrow canyon and you can't pick up those satellites, it won't be able to calculate it's position. Many people don't understand that, they just figure that you turn it on, and it'll work.

STEVE: So I can't walk down to my local outfitter, buy one of these things, shove it into my day pack, go out on a hike, and expect it to get me home?

STEPHEN HINCH: If your objective is to go out on a hike and not get lost, the only thing you need to do is store the location of where your car is parked... Now every G-P-S does that a little differently, so there's no hard and fast rule for exactly what you do, but ...the only thing you need to do read the instruction manual so that you know how to store what's called a waypoint... So store the location of your car, and then you can go out, and wander around wherever you want, and your G-P-S will always show you how to get back. In my book I actually call that the cardinal rule of G-P-S navigation, and that is that it doesn't do you any good to know where you are, if you don't know where you want to go. So the G-P-S is very good at telling you where you are, but you really want it to tell you where you want to go, and for that you need to store that information ahead of time.

STEVE: A few weeks ago I went into a lake in the high Sierra, I did a ski tour, and there was no road, or trail signs, or any other markers to that lake... if one were to try to find that lake without having been there before, how would one do that with a G-P-S?

STEPHEN HINCH: There are several ways to do that. The easiest way is that if someone else has been there before and recorded the coordinates, then get that information from that person. There are a couple of ways to do that, the easiest way is to go on the Internet, and do a search... National Geographic has a site that they use where people can enter coordinates of interesting locations. So that's one way is to get the coordinates off of the Internet.

STEPHEN HINCH: If you can't do that, if this is a place that you want to map out a very custom route for, then you can do that using maps. Either paper maps or what I like to do is use software maps that I can just pull up the map on my computer, use my mouse to mark exactly the locations where I want to go, and that then gives me the coordinates of those locations that I can download directly into the G-P-S receiver.

STEVE: In one of our recent shows we talked about ways people could call for help from the wilderness... And at the end of the program, Tim Kovacks, who is the communications director for the Mountain Rescue Association said, quite emphatically:

TIM KOVACS: Never rely on technology to solve your problems in the backcountry.

STEPHEN HINCH: That's very good advice, whether that be a personal locator beacon, or a G-P-S receiver, you need to have these backup skills...

STEPHEN HINCH: really do need to understand map and compass navigation. And so map and compass navigation basically involves four things. First thing is, you need to be able to know, what your current position is, second you need to decide on your destination, third is, you need to decide on the best route to get there, and the fourth is to navigate that route as best you can, making adjustments as you're navigating through terrain that may be difficult to get around. So, in order to know your position, -- that was what the G-P-S told you, but if it's now broken, the best thing to do is as you're hiking... Bring the map along, and be regularly correlating your position with the map so that if the receiver does get broken you know pretty much where you are, and that makes it a whole lot easier to find your way back... You need to know how to use a compass, but if you know how to use the compass, and you know roughly where you are on the map, then it's a fairly simple exercise to get back where you started from.

STEVE: If a person is starting out and needs to learn those map and compass skills, what do you think is the best way to go about that?

STEPHEN HINCH: You can pick up a book and read about it. The best thing to do though, is to go out and practice with somebody that knows how to do it. Find a ...local club of some sort that has people tat know how to do navigation with map and compass, and go out with an experienced person. ...It really doesn't sink in until you've tried to do it in the field, and that's what I would encourage, is just get practice. The best thing there is to get practice in areas where if you do get lost, it won't take a search and rescue team to find you.

STEPHEN HINCH: Orienteering is definitely a great way to learn map and compass. And there are orienteering clubs that are in the bay area, and certainly all around the country that can really help you get that skill.

STEVE: Stephen Hinch is the author of the Wilderness Press book, Outdoor Navigation with G-P-S. Steve, thank you for appearing on the show.

STEPHEN HINCH: Thanks for having me, Steve. I appreciate it.

STEVE: We'd like to hear about your opinions and experiences about navigation with or without G-P-S. And we're always interested in any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can download an extended version of this show on our web site.

STEVE: This edition was produced with funds provided by our WildeBeat members. For the next few weeks, WildeBeat members can get deep discounts on outdoor gear. Also, new members can get up to five books by Wilderness Press. Our way of saying thanks for your support.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Insitute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one twenty four. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- forest admission.

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