Tips and Techniques For GPS Usage In The Desert


The availability of reasonable priced GPS (Global Positioning System) units has made desert exploration somewhat easier and far safer PROVIDED the user knows and understands the workings of a GPS unit.. There are many models on the consumer market with numerous bells and whistles. Just like the age old argument of which car is better, a Ford or Chevrolet, the same points and counterpoints exist for GPS units. Buy what YOU like and feel comfortable with, however in the next few months this page will contain my preferences and tips to which unit you may consider purchasing.

I happen to own a couple of GPS units and use them many times in my daily routine, plus of course when I am out with Desert Survivors on a trip. This GPS page will be a "work in progress" with tips and techniques in using and enjoying your GPS system.

I personally consider a GPS a "must have" item rather than a "safety" item. However most GPS units are basically useless unless you have a map of the area along with you too. I say most, because newer units on today's market contain built in maps. I'm sure you have all seen higher end automobiles advertised with GPS built in maps. The hand help units of some models are similar to those. I would suggest purchasing a model that contains built in or up loadable maps but more on that later.

Garmin is one of the well known GPS manufactures. If you would like to read more on GPS use, here is a good link to follow.

Exactly what is GPS and how does it work? Try this link for starters.

For this week, if you do happen to own a GPS or would like to start thinking about getting your own GPS here is a fun link for Desert Exploration that gives you an understanding of GPS usage. We will start with a past DS trip that Steve Tabor led that was posted on the website.

February 15-17 (Sat-Mon)
Death Valley Carcamp (M)

We'll camp and hike the three days of Presidents' Day weekend in Death Valley. Explore Red Amphitheater one day, hike to Indian Pass the second, walk the valley floor near Furnace Creek on the third. Hikes will be mostly gentle and at low elevation, below 3500'. I'll have geology maps along for interpretation. Not sure where we'll camp, but bring money for park fees. Help me enjoy my first car camp to the valley floor in five years. It's a full-moon weekend, another good reason to come along.
Contact Leader: Steve Tabor (510) 769-1706

Hey, that sounds like an interesting trip, so lets "check it out". Red Amphitheater, now where is that?

Fortunately, The USGS-- US Board of Geographic Names, has an online Query Form for US Geographic Names link at

For the Feature Name we type in "Red Amphitheater" and for the State we select the dropdown of "California."  Then click the Send Query button.

The Feature Query Results is:

Feature Name:

Red Amphitheater

Feature Type: basin
State: California
County: Inyo
USGS 7.5' x 7.5' Map: Echo Canyon

Notice the Latitude and Longitude. These give you the EXACT location of the Red Amphitheater.

So you say, now what do I do with this latitude and longitude information? Ah ha... You enter these co-ordinates into your GPS, so that when you go on your hike the GPS unit will "point" you towards the direction of Red Amphitheater. Even better, the GPS will detail the track compass direction, how many miles, or kilometers if you so wish that you must hike to your destination, time to destination, sunrise, sunset and ... Is it lunch time yet? Probably far more information than you care to know in some cases.

Oh yes, and it also tells you that you have "arrived" at whatever point you were hiking towards. How many times have we hiked beyond our intended point. One other thing too. It also puts an end to the age old question of "Are we there yet?"...

Many GPS units that have built in mapping will show the "trail" that you walked as you made your way to the days point of interest. Sometimes this is invaluable in finding your way back to where you cam from.

But, even more importantly, at your car, BEFORE heading out to the Red Amphitheater you again enter the co-ordinates of the location of your car as you stand beside it.. Hmmm, you muse to yourself, I am getting the idea now. When you get to Red Amphitheater the GPS will point you back home to your car. On our last hike, in which we returned at almost nightfall, that little pre entered waypoint was a blessing.

In a nutshell that is the use of a GPS. In reality there is far more to it than that BUT you can quickly see many uses for a device that both can tell you EXACTLY where you are and tell you how to get to where you want to go, how far it is and how long it should take to get there at your present hiking speed.

Desert Survivors has clinics at certain times of the year for GPS use and map reading skills. On many trips a member may have a GPS with them and will be happy to explain the inner workings of this truly space age satellite device. Check the trip schedule for GPS and Compass clinic dates.

One IMPORTANT safety point. Like any consumer electronic unit, a GPS may fail. The batteries may go dead, (carry spares) the unit may be lost, dropped or just refuse to work. Desert Survivors know that you always need a "Plan B". Keep this point in mind, plan accordingly and hike in groups and stay together. A GPS is a wonderful, truly space age satellite device, don't depend on it for 100% of your navigation. Always know where you are!

One last point. Aircraft pilots are taught to "believe their instruments", the chances of a GPS displaying incorrect information is remote. Heat in the desert may make your thought process want to "disbelieve" the GPS. Learn to use all of your senses, compass, maps and GPS together. That is part of your "Plan B"...

If you do "get lost"...

Stop immediately, get together with your group and figure out your location BEFORE heading off any deeper into your trip. Plan on your GPS failing, plan on loosing your compass, plan on getting your map so wet that it becomes impossible to read. By planning upon needing to use your "Plan B", you will find that your GPS will work perfectly all the time!

For me, a GPS is a fun gadget to have. It brings a level of safety to hiking in the unknown. However, it is useless unless you feel comfortable with it and can trust it. The place to "test" your GPS skills is in a known area, not in the middle of the desert at 8pm with twilight quickly disappearing over the horizon.

So, run out and buy yourself one and check back later after you at least know where the "ON" button is located...

Stay tuned to this page for more next month on the continuing story of using a GPS unit.

Dave Launchbury
GPS User and Hi Tech Gadget Hiker.


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