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Garmin GPSGPS (Global Positioning System) devices are receivers that pick up signals from a set of satellites orbiting the earth. By calculating the time for each signal to reach the device it can work out its position using a sophisticated form of triangulation. If the device can 'see' three satellites it should be able to calculate its latitude and longitude on the surface of the earth. Add a fourth satellite and it should be able to make an estimate of its altitude as well.

In many places a GPS will be able to receive signals from six, seven or eight satellites and be able to calculate a position within a few metres. However the precision of the position should never be taken for granted, particularly if you are moving or have only recently turned the device on. Weather conditions (such as cloud, wind or rain) do not generally affect the reception of the satellite signals, but the proximity of a building or rock face, or being immersed in a forest, can. Hence a GPS position should always be considered in conjunction with your knowledge of your location from the paper map.

GPS devices can simply be used to give you a grid reference to transfer onto the paper map. Many people are happy to carry a GPS simply to use in an emergency, perhaps in poor visibility to confirm their location or when calling for help. However more and more devices are capable of showing your location on a 'proper' Ordnance Survey map.

ViewRanger screenThe ability to track your position on the map can be extremely useful and give you confidence in your route-finding abilities. But it is important to use the technology to supplement your map and compass skills and not to supplant it. For one thing you want to be sure that you can navigate should the device fail or simply run out of power. Equally, while a GPS can very accurately show you where you are and even where you have been, it will not tell you where to go. For that you need a map and, very often, a compass.

There are plenty of useful things you can do with even the most basic of GPS devices to provide yourself with an additional safety net. To make the most of the device you should:
  • ensure that it is correctly set to the grid reference system of the paper map you are using. In Great Britain this will be 'OS Grid', while in Europe you may need to reset to a system such as UTM.
  • learn how to 'mark' a position and save it as a waypoint in the GPS. This can be very helpful if a member of your party is injured and you need to send people down to call for help, as they can take the GPS with them.
  • learn how to use your GPS to 'track-back' along the route you have come. This can be a lifesaver if you become lost and need a simple way off the hill.
  • make a habit of marking your start point and saving it before you set off. Again this can help you to get back if conditions become difficult.
Choosing a GPS

There are many different GPS devices on the market, with varying capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. GPS experts GPS Training can help you to pick the right one, either by talking with you on the phone or enabling you to try out all the options on one of their training courses. Find out more at www.gpstraining.co.uk

GPS on your mobile
If you have a smartphone (iPhone, Android, Symbian) you may well be able to install a GPS mapping application on it. ViewRanger is a fully featured GPS app for which you can get proper Ordnance Survey mapping. You can prepare and download routes, track your position and even share your location in real time with others. The ViewRanger app is free to download and will display free 'open source' mapping. You can upgrade to the OS mapping if you wish.

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