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Learn to Use GPS in the Backcountry (Intro) | Learn About Your GPS Receiver | Set Up Your GPS Receiver | Practice Recording Locations | Interpret your Data: Recording and Using Tracks

Set Up Your GPS Receiver

by Phil Romig Jr.

Setting Key Parameters in your Receiver
Modern hand-held GPS units have two main components:
  1. A receiver that can detect and decode signals from GPS satellites to calculate location
  2. A powerful computer that can translate the location into many different coordinate systmes, display it on topographic maps using different datums or projections, overlay them on road or trail maps or satellite photos, save many locations in memory, use those locations to calculate speed, direction, distance, and much more.

This computer is both a blessing (because it can do so much) and a curse (because you have to know so much about what it is doing). For example, if you and a fishing buddy agree to meet at a particular location defined by a latitude and longitude, and if your GPS is displaying location in UTM coordinates, the two of you never will find each other.

New GPS units are delivered with a set of “default” parameters set at the factory. Normally, these are the most-common parameters used in the country where the unit was sold (although sometimes they are the most-common parameters in the region around the factory). However, before you start using your new GPS (or before you rely on it for a trip in the back country), it is important that you ensure that the settings are appropriate for your use.

Once you are familiar with your receiver, look for something with a label like “Settings.” Click on the icon or press the button and check each of the options. Following are a few typical parameters that can be set to optimize operation of the GPS for your purposes.
  1. GPS Mode — Newer units have modes (such as WAAS) which can improve accuracy.
  2. Language — The language used on all of the displays
  3. Battery type — Optimizes the power drain for alkaline, lithium or rechargeable batteries.
  4. Map selection — Displays a topographic map, road map or trail map, or combination
  5. Map datum — WGS84, WGS72, NAD27 CONUS, many others
  6. Position format — Lat/Lon (dec deg, deg-min, deg-min-sec), UTM, many others
  7. Navigation — North (true or mag), Deg or Mil, Bearing or Course
  8. Map orientation — Magnetic or true north, or direction of travel at the top of the screen
  9. Track recording preferences — Recording interval, show or hid on map, track color
  10. Units — Distance (ft, m), speed (mph, kph), temperature (ºF, ºC), Pressure (in, mm, mb)
  11. Time — Format (12/24 hour), time zone
  12. Sounds — Turns audio on or off and changes the tones used for alerts, etc.

Modern units have many more “convenience” settings with which you can experiment, but these are ones that you should check before every trip with your GPS unit.

Next, Practice Recording Locations

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