Navigating with a GPS is a new thing for me. I’ve always been more comfortable finding my way around the woods with a map and compass than a high-tech Global Positioning System. However, my canoe buddy, Andy, spoiled me this Christmas and gave a Garmin GPS. I felt a tad guilty. I just bought him a cheap bottle of Scotch. His reasoning for the elaborate gift was simply because he was getting tired of me asking him for directions on our trips all the time. Now we both own one. Problem solved.

It took only a week of practicing with the GPS and my compass quickly became my backup rather than my main navigational tool.

Global Positioning Systems have come a long way. I remember back in the early 1990s when the models we used in the field while working in forestry were massive and the possible error could be off by 200 metres or so. We still thought the contraption was awesome, however. Now look at us. Most cars have a GPS to show the way and it’s rare to find a backcountry camper who doesn’t have a high-tech navigational device packed away. The cost of these gadgets has dropped in half. The receiver itself is more accurate and can now determine your position between 10 meters. Problems with correcting for declination on your compass becomes a thing of the past. You can also enter map coordinates (latitude and longitude or UTM) and the receiver will provide a compass bearing, distance and time required to get to the desired location. And its best ability is to punch in your present position, save it as a waypoint and easily find your way back home, record a favorite campsite or even mark a productive fishing hole.

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Global Positioning Systems are based on three separate parts: a network of satellites orbiting the earth that sends out electromagnetic frequencies (radio waves), a number of control stations that track and control the satellites, and the GPS unit itself which receives the satellite signal and calculates your position by using latitude and longitude or UTM coordinates.

A GPS becomes an excellent tool to have along when you want to quickly find a bearing to a given point or that the act of triangulation is next to impossible to complete with just a map and compass due to the lack of obvious landmarks.

With that said, a GPS does not replace a good map and compass. Remember, if you do not know how to navigate with a map and compass, not only does it become impossible to use a GPS properly, you also won’t have a clue how to follow the instruction manual when you buy one. Basically, if you don’t know how to navigate without a GPS, you’ll be just as hopeless with one.

Check out the video I recently put up on my KC Happy Camper YouTube channel. It covers how to navigate in the wilderness with a GPS (Global Positioning System) and explains latitude and longitude. I also go over the history of the GPS, how it works and the pros and cons of using your phone rather than a dedicated Garmin GPS unit.