Yesterday we ran a GPS training course in the hills above the Vale of Clwyd, and it reminded me that I intended to write a blog post about it…
Our GPS training courses are normally held in North Wales, and are priced rather attractively at £55.00. Most of our customers are already owners of one GPS device or another and often want to gain confidence in how to use it properly, or they use the basic functions but want to know more about what it can do. Others are in the market for a device, but first want to know if they will actually get any use out of it!
The course covers the basic functions common to most GPS receivers – marking and navigating to waypoints, following a pre-entered route, tracking your progress and, most importantly, how to use it to tell you where you are! We also look at geocaching and the common mistakes people make whilst using a GPS.
If you look through outdoor forums related to hillwalking and climbing then you tend to get two points of view on GPS devices – they are either the work of Satan himself or the best thing since sliced bara. The former see GPS devices as an insolent newcomer to the world of navigation, something that is no replacement for a map and compass and can only lead to laziness and poor navigation skills. The latter probably own two or three GPS-enabled devices such as phones or watches that can pin-point your position anywhere on the globe (unless you are underground, in a building or the batteries have died!) and will fight to the death to defend their electronic navigators.
So which is in the right? Well, both actually – allow me to explain…
Let’s start with the basics. GPS stands for ‘Global Positioning System’, and the first system was created by the US military in the 1970s and made available to the civilian market in the late 1980s. A network of 24-32 satellites orbiting the earth at about 12,000 miles/20,000km transmit signals towards the earth. These signals contain information on the position of the satellite, and the time it was transmitted, which are then received by the GPS device. Once the device receives a good signal from a minimum of four satellites it can work out where it is, using a process called trilateration.
GPS became cheap enough (and the devices small enough) for the average hillwalkers or mountaineer about 10-15 years ago, and since then most new electronic devices such as cameras, mobile phones, watches, computers and tablets have the ability to receive and interpret a GPS signal.
The wide availability of GPS-enabled devices has led to their popularity with UK hillwalkers, and an increasing reliance on them by the users. Smartphones in particular are the device of choice, as most people own one anyway and a free or cheap app will turn it into a mapping GPS – but at the cost of using up the battery in a couple of hours. The over-reliance on these devices is often quoted in the arguments against these devices, and is blamed for increasing mountain rescue callouts.
It is true that a GPS, smartphone-based or otherwise, is NO substitute for carrying a map and compass and knowing how to use them but they do, I believe, have their place in the outdoors. As long as you don’t rely solely on the small electronic gizmo then you can use it to quickly work out the distance to the summit, verify your position in a whiteout or find a geocache. Combined with a 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey map and a good compass you can make your life a little easier.
My favourite use is to quickly waymark a good spot where I have wildcamped or bivvied so I can return to it another time, or if I cache food or other supplies somewhere for a long-distance walk. Of course I could just make a note of the grid references and navigate to them in a traditional way, but saving it somewhere in an electronic brain prevents my rather disorganised human one losing the scrap of paper…