Tracking your course: GPS and other gear to trace your route

June 19, 2008

It's rather sobering when the very first product listing on a GPS devices webpage describes that it's "easy for rescuers to know who you are and where you are, worldwide," but that's the harsh reality of the deep woods adventurer, especially in the untamed wonder of the Rocky Mountains. And the same webspace reminds hikers about the idiosyncrasies of electronics: "Consider your GPS as third tool always carry a compass and a map, decide if you need an altimeter, and practice your navigation skills." ( - Selecting a GPS') The Global Positioning System (GPS) relies on ever-present geostationary satellites, which orbit overhead at the same rate the earth turns, providing continuous and accurate tracking for any device which receives its signals. A GPS device collects data from at least three satellites it can see' (assuming no giant shielding buildings or mountains) so it can figure out where the device is compared to where the satellites are. Most GPS information is considered accurate to within 15 metres/50 feet which is pretty good information when you haven't seen a recognizable landmark in a while. If you're more particular, a Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) is available in Canada and the US, It's more affected by obstructions like a forest or hills, but it's accurate to within 3 metres/10 feet. Much more useful to keep your car's GPS robot telling you accurate directions to the nearest coffeeshop or camping supply store. To that end, the most basic option is the Satellite Map: it gives you an idea of where satellites are relative to a ground map, and can show what you might have to avoid should those irritating trees or mountains be blocking the satellite signal from reaching you. Not something you need to know minute by minute when backpacking, but if you're on a bike or in a canoe, the speed of your travel might make this more significant. The kind of tripping you're engaged in affects other GPS options. The screen size, for example, becomes more important when the device might be attached to a canoer's pack instead of being carried in a hiker's hand. Someone on foot would not want the extra bulk and weight of a large screen, which would be no more than arm's length away. The screen size affects only font and icon size, and when you're free to lift it closer to your eyes, smaller and lighter makes sense for several hours of trailblazing. On that screen, almost every GPS device will show you waypoints: locations you've entered into the GPS where you want to be at different times. It can connect these points as you travel past them, indicating your progress, but not necessarily showing the map information mentioned earlier. Map storage space will vary, as will its level of detail and the map's realtime change as you travel. Geography factors like contours, waterways, and even trailheads (or restaurants) can be displayed on many devices, and some allow the user to download information from their PC to acquire the maps for this customized display. A map of an entire national park would not do you much good on a four-day backcountry hike, and this would allow you to customize your maps for each trip. Companies like Garmin and Magellan offer backcountry-specific models ranging from a few to several hundred dollars, the most expensive incorporating all of these options and a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB) which, instead of just receiving GPS information, can broadcast a signal for up to 40 hours to assist search and rescue efforts, should the unforeseen occur. These devices are ruggedly constructed, moisture-proofed to differing degrees depending upon your needs (cycling vs. hiking vs. canoeing), and access up to a dozen satellite signals at once to improve the accuracy of the GPS mapping. Instead of wrist-mounted watches or large-display trip computers, incorporate all of the possible features with surveillance in DPL's inconspicuous school-backpack or world's smallest and most powerful real-time gps tracker." These not only provide invisible tracking abilities for people ("for children and/or teens who run the possibility of being kidnapped") or vehicles, but also audio monitoring of the GPS's immediate vicinity. And with the ever-increasing price range of these exotic devices, they can be rented on a weekly basis. By Ian Larsen - Get Backpacking and Hiking Gear Reviews at Cascade

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