Hiking GPS: Do I Really Need It?

What is the hiking GPS used for and who needs it?

After reading our different articles about hiking tips and tricks, you may be wondering why we haven’t covered the famous hiking GPS. Quite simply because it is not its function (wonder)!

With quite small and light, the hiking GPS has many interesting features. Hiking GPS is also accurate and efficient and can be very useful for certain categories of users or in certain specific contexts.

To know everything about hiking GPS, from its applications to its weak points, follow the guide!

Hiking GPS: what is it?

Before we dive into understanding its usefulness and the types of people who can use it, it is necessary to know what is a hiking GPS. Holding in the hand, it comes in the form of a small box. It is manufactured in such a way to withstand extreme temperatures, high humidity, shocks, and very often a possible fall into the water.

In short, the hiking GPS is an electronic navigation system designed to be taken on all your hikes! Like any navigation system, it connects to American satellites which are used to find one’s bearings in space: the famous GPS system.

Compared to cycling or car GPS, it is quite different when looking at its different functionalities.

The different functions of a hiking GPS

One of the strong points of these hiking GPS is their versatility. That is to say, they offer several different functionalities. These functions give you the possibility of using it in many sports and allow you to find the exact location you need.

Your live position

The basic functionality of such a device is the live positioning of the device relative to its environment. In other words, as soon as you turn it on, you see your current position. This is very handy when you are lost or looking for a nearby path!

Note that depending on the model of GPS purchased, you can view your position directly on an IGN map or simply the Lambert coordinates of your situation. There are therefore great differences in use and operation among devices available on the market.

Garmin GPS Visualisation
Figure 1: Example of positioning displayed on an IGN map on a device from the manufacturer Garmin

Recording of the route taken

If you turn it on at the start of the hike, the GPS is able to remember your entire route. This is one of the interesting features as it allows you to check that you are not going back on your steps! It can also have the advantage of saving a route that you liked or you have just discovered. You can then customize your own loops, unearth new paths or replace certain sections with others.

Garmin GPS Trace
Figure 2: Example of recording GPS tracks on a Garmin brand device. The course is highlighted by the pink line

Ability to follow a route

Following a route often seems to be the primary function of a car GPS, but this is not necessarily in the case of a hiking GPS. Since the trails are very often marked and the accuracy of navigation systems is around 10 meters, the route function is not necessarily very useful. Especially if you have prepared your day’s hike well in advance.

Garmin Montana GPS is now known to have this feature. However, several manufacturers offer the route creation function. From the IGN map digitized in the GPS, you create the itinerary for the next day yourself. When you turn on your GPS on the day of the hike, all you have to do is follow the route that you imagined before.

Garmin GPS Itinerary
Figure 3: The route materializes directly on a digital IGN map in order to clearly visualize the route

Compass, barometer and altimeter functions

Thanks to the position of at least 4 satellites, your hiking GPS is quite capable of giving you the direction of north and your altitude at the moment T.

Be careful though because it is not quite a compass: This is a heading indicator. In other words, the needle will not point north but will show you the direction in which you are heading. It can be east or south… Also, your pedestrian GPS will give you an unreliable elevation because estimating height is much more difficult to perform than length or width.

Also note that the most recent models incorporate a barometer to monitor the atmospheric pressure live. This allows the GPS to warn you when sudden meteorological events are forming (storms, depressions, etc.).

Who might need a hiking GPS?

This is certainly the question that every hiker asks: is a hiking GPS better than a map? Is it reliable? Or even “Are GPS made for all hikers? “. We will try to answer all these problems!

Difficulties in using the device

A hiking GPS basically has the same strengths and weaknesses as any other electronic device. It can be a great tool from the moment you know how to use all its features.

However, many hikers can quickly turn away from this device because of its poor ergonomics. Very technical, the hiking GPS is not made for everyone. It can be difficult to take in hand for those who are already not comfortable with computers or smartphones. Thus, programming a new route requires good knowledge and the insertion of new cards requires knowing the basics of computing.

Even when this step is done, it can be abstract to read the maps offered by the different devices because the positions are sometimes indicated in Lambert coordinates.

Sometimes, your position is indicated in degrees of latitude and longitude and it is then necessary to have solid bases in topography or maritime charts to succeed in interpreting this data. The very small size of the screens, which vary between 2 and 4 inches diagonally, can also be a barrier to purchase while people who do not have excellent near sight can be handicapped by this aspect.

GPS Technical Data
Figure 4: Example of technical data to use to find your way or direction

A tool for specific needs

Finally, a hiking GPS has no real interest for hikers, even those who leave on a long hike. We have already seen it, but long hikes are very well-marked hiking trails, so they present only a low risk of getting lost. The possession of such a GPS is absolutely not necessary.

But then, for what needs and for whom is the hiking GPS useful? It may be of interest to survival or bushcraft enthusiasts. Indeed, to check your route or plan a trail, you will be able to record points of interest such as a water source or a place of shelter.

Skiing or snowshoeing enthusiasts may also need it because the hiking GPS will be the best ally for finding safe paths in the middle of the immaculate white snow. It will help you find a path hidden by the snow several days after your previous passage with an accuracy of between 5 and 10 meters.

Also, individuals and athletes and mountain professionals can then use it.

Our favorite 3 best hiking GPS




Hiking GPS: FAQs

What is a hiking GPS used for?

A portable GPS is very useful for hiking, trekking and mountaineering because it makes it easy to find your way even if the visibility is poor or the topography has few or is not distinguishable.

Handheld GPS units have several advantages over smartphones, which are often used for navigation by hikers. GPS devices are more durable and their battery life is much longer.

What is the best hiking GPS?

The Garmin eTrex 32x is one of the smallest and lightest pedestrian GPS on the market. It is easy to slip into one of your pockets and its autonomy is dizzying (up to 25 hours in GPS mode with 2 batteries). It combines two satellite systems; GPS and Glonass. You are sure to find your way where your phone might be lost. Also, it offers a satellite view called BirdEye if you are not comfortable with the topographic map.

How much does a hiking GPS cost?

On average, it takes between 150 and $300 to get an excellent mid-range hiking GPS. Some models however cost up to $500. Our favorite model, the Garmin eTrex 32x, currently costs around $280.

How to use a hiking GPS?

Develop steps to follow whenever you are at a trailhead. The routine will vary depending on the features of your GPS device, but should include several of the following:

  • Acquisition of satellites
  • Trip data reset
  • Clear Track Log
  • Set a landmark at the start of the trail
  • Calibrate compass
  • Calibrate barometer/altimeter

Compass and barometer/altimeter calibration instructions are usually found in the device itself. Once these steps have been completed, you will be ready to follow the route that you have previously loaded into your device or that you have just configured.

Final Thoughts

The hiking GPS is one of the most reliable electronic navigation tools. Constantly linked to the satellites of the GPS network, it gives you your live position, the history of your routes, your average altitude as well as the evolution of the atmospheric pressure over several hours.

Be careful though because contrary to popular belief, it does not guide you on a route, unlike car GPS. It is also very interesting for mountain sports enthusiasts such as snowshoe hikers or skiers. It is almost useless for day hikes or even famous long hikes. Because of very technical in its operation, hiking GPS can be incredibly difficult to use for people who are already not comfortable with a Smartphone or a computer.

In summary, the hiking GPS is for people who go off marked trails for several days and who take the maximum risk of getting lost. But it is also designed for mountain professionals and enthusiasts.


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