Back Country Navigation
GPS & Putting it Altogether  
Part 1 and 2 

by Dick Blust, Jr., photographs by Mark Furman
Click here to go to page 2

GPS Basics 
Navigation technology has seen a number of giant leaps forward through the ages, beginning with the magnetic compass in China about 200 BC, followed over the centuries by the astrolabe, cross-staff, quadrant, sextant, and marine chronometer. But for ready availability, 24-7 utility, and comprehensive usefulness it’s hard to top a GPS. Think about it - for as little as just under $100, you get a device about the size of a pack of cigarettes that can, within minutes (often seconds), accurately pinpoint your position anywhere on the planet. But, as with anything that’s basically a computer, the key is to make it work for you, combining it with other resources like map and compass - in other words: putting it all together. 

The first global positioning satellites were launched by the U.S. Department of Defense in the late 70s and now form a manmade constellation of 24+ satellites that works in conjunction with its ground stations to provide a worldwide navigation system. 

GPS units are computerized receivers that obtain their information from signals transmitted constantly from the satellites. The satellites themselves serve as precision reference points and the system measures the precise time it takes the signal to reach the receiver. When the GPS unit has acquired signal contact with a minimum of three satellites, what amounts to a triangulation/ resection is performed and translated into a position coordinate, displayed on the GPS unit’s screen. (Each satellite has atomic clocks aboard, referenced to the United States Naval Observatory. GPS technology depends absolutely on accurate time and time measurement; that is why the time as displayed by a GPS receiver that has achieved a “position lock” is the most accurate time you’re ever likely to hold in your hand.)  

GPS Features 
Those who have looked over a display case of GPSs or thumbed through the GPS pages of a sporting goods catalog know what real frustration is. The specifications and descriptions are often baffling and you find yourself worse off then when you started. No one feels comfortable laying out serious money for something when they’re not sure what they’re getting. 

Fortunately, selecting a GPS for back country navigation can be boiled down to a few basic factors. And the good news is that there’s no reason to spend more than $100 to $250. 

If a GPS price tag runs much beyond $250, you’re not getting more GPS; you’re getting more bells and whistles. Let’s approach this from the standpoint of what you don’t really need in a GPS for back country navigation, because these are the features that jack the price up. 

A number of higher-end GPSs offer one form of internal mapping or another, usually from a memory card or through downloads from a CD. Though this approach seems like a great idea, for me it doesn’t work out well in the field; the maps aren’t as detailed and you can only see so much country squinting at the limited area of a small GPS display screen. I much prefer paper maps, whether “store-bought” or computer-generated by MapTech’s Terrain Navigator. They’re not only far more utilitarian, but are part of your backup system: one you won’t have if you’re relying solely on your GPS and it fails. 

Color Display 
Nice if you’ve got internal mapping, which we’ve just discussed. Superfluous otherwise. 

Built-In Compass 
Your compass needs are best served by a quality magnetic compass, as described in detail in previous sections of the essay. Bearings cannot be taken from landmarks with any degree of real accuracy with a GPS compass and you’re far better off with a conventional compass when direction-finding, especially at night. And, once again, if you’re counting entirely on your GPS without a magnetic compass backup, you could find yourself in trouble. 

More Bells and Whistles 
Highway navigation features, restaurant and hotel directories, audible alarms, anchor alarms, trip computers, rates of travel, estimated time of arrival, etc., etc. You just aren’t going to have any use for these. In a car-mounted GPS for highway travel, I’m all for them - and hope Santa brings me one for Christmas soon - but in the back country they are a form of dead weight.  

Bottom line: if you want features like internal mapping, a color display, and a built-in compass and are willing to weather the extra cost, by all means go ahead. Just bear in mind that you won’t be getting an increase in accuracy and speed of operation. Look at it this way - the extra money you’re not spending on a high-end GPS will get you into a quality compass, Terrain Navigator for your state, or maybe both. 

Selecting a GPS 
Eliminating those features you don’t need is 90% of selecting a GPS for back country navigation. Without internal mapping, a color display, a built-in compass, and all the other bells and whistles, (many of which have to do with highway travel), you’re in the $100 to $250 bracket. 

Now let’s talk about what you do need - or want - in a GPS.  

First and foremost: a 12- or 14-channel receiver. Fortunately, this is easy: virtually all new GPSs are 12- or 14-channel these days. (This wasn’t always so and explains much of the bad press GPSs got in some articles and books in the early and middle 90s. They were dealing with pre-12-channel models that didn’t perform nearly as well in adverse conditions such as thick timber. (And while we’re on the subject, if your GPS is an old, pre-12-channel model, you’d be well advised to retire it.) 

Second, a GPS that is WAAS-enabled is good idea and won’t affect the price much, if at all. GPSs that are WAAS-enabled can be accurate to within three meters 90%-95% of the time (at least in North America), while non-WAAS units are typically accurate to within 15-25 meters. It’s not much of a difference, but if the price isn’t impacted much, why not? (WAAS stands for Wide Area Augmentation System and refers to a series of GPS ground stations that broadcast data to supplement the data sent from the satellites, thus enhancing accuracy.) 

Third, if you choose to use Terrain Navigator’s computer-generated maps, you’ll want to a GPS that offers - as a separately-purchased option in most cases - a cable enabling you to connect your GPS to your computer. Thus set up, you can transfer information from Terrain Navigator to your GPS and vice versa in seconds. (This information, mostly in the form of waypoints/landmarks, can also be entered manually; it just takes longer.) 

In terms of brands, I see a lot of Garmins, Magellans, and Bruntons that people bring to my training courses and I own a couple of each. It’s Ford vs Chevy and more so every year; the main thing is to focus on the features and options we’ve just discussed. 

GPS Setup 
Regardless of manufacturer, any GPS needs to be set up according to North Reference, Coordinate System, and Map Datum. (Note that once you’ve made your selections in these three areas, you don’t have to “re-select” them every time you use your GPS - they stay locked in unless you change them manually or allow your unit’s batteries, including its backup battery, to run down completely.) 

In addition, a new GPS or one that has been transported a great distance must usually be re-initialized; more on that shortly.  

North Reference 
The options available here are Magnetic North and True North in older GPSs, and Magnetic North, True North, and Grid North in newer models. If you’re using a magnetic-only compass such as those covered earlier in the essay - a British prismatic, an M-27 or the Brunton Combi - then select “Magnetic” for your North Reference. If you opt for a declination-adjustable compass, go with “Grid North,” then set your compass’s declination for the same “Grid North” declination. (If your GPS doesn’t offer the “Grid North” option and you’re using a declination-adjustable compass, select “True North” and set your compass’s declination accordingly. Remember, everything needs to match.) 

Coordinate System 
Here you’ll find a long list of options, as there are dozens of coordinate systems used worldwide. You want “UTM” or what is often shown as “UTM/UPS.”  

Map Datum 
Though we discussed Map Datum earlier in the essay, it’s very important, so we’ll go over it again. 

The Map Datum issue starts out sounding complicated, but it’s something that is dealt with very quickly and simply. 

Map Datums are of tremendous importance in surveying, mapmaking, and GPS use - they are the system or model that was used by the surveyor to relate the actual location of ground features to coordinates and locations on the map or system of maps.  

Your GPS will offer up a very long list of options under “Map Datum.” What’s important here is that the Map Datum option you select for your GPS matches the Map Datum on the map - the individual topo - that you’re working with. New GPSs come from the factory defaulted to WGS 84 (World Geodetic System 1984), but because virtually every "store bought" USGS topo for the United States uses the NAD 27 Map Datum - I’ve yet to encounter one that doesn’t - select NAD 27 (North American Datum 1927) if you're using these off-the-shelf maps. If your GPS offers different breakdowns of NAD 27, choose NAD 27 CONUS (North American Datum 1927 Continental United Sates) if you’re in the lower 48 and, if you’re in Alaska, select NAD 27 ALASKA. (If you're in Alaska but your GPS doesn’t offer the NAD 27 ALASKA option, just stick with NAD 27.) 

In any event, you can always double-check the Map Datum for your particular "store bought" topo. Every USGS topo map identifies its Map Datum, usually near the lower left-hand corner of the sheet. 

In Canada, the situation is a bit more complicated, as the Centre for Topographic Information’s National Topographic System is currently revising all existing Canadian topographic maps (1:50,000 and 1:250,000 scale) from NAD 27 to NAD 83 (North American Datum 1983), which, for all intents and purposes, is identical to WGS 84. The principle is the same: always check the map you’re using and make sure its Map Datum is matched by the Map Datum setting for your GPS.  

If you opt to use MapTech Terrain Navigator, you'll find that you can set the program's Map Datum for NAD 27, WGS 84, or NAD 83. Again, it's important that everything matches. If your GPS is set for NAD 27, select NAD 27 in Terrain Navigator. If you're running WGS 84 on your GPS, choose WGS 84 in Terrain Navigator. (The same thing applies to NAD 83). 

Any new GPS needs to be “Initialized.” (This usually also applies when a GPS, though previously initialized, has been moved a very long distance.) Initialization is easy; when you first turn on a new GPS, it will tell you it needs to initialize - you need only follow the instructions. This usually involves entering the state or province of your location and the instrument takes over from there. Initialization normally takes up to 20 minutes or so; much longer than it will take to routinely acquire a position lock later. 

The issue of how far a GPS is moved before a new initialization is required has a lot of variables. What I’ve found to work best is to fire up your GPS once you arrive in the general area of your new location in another province or state. If it acquires normally, you’re in business. If it needs to initialize again, it will be apparent right away and you simply perform the initialization process. 

Basic GPS Operation 
A GPS has three basic functions:  

- It plots the instrument’s current position and identifies that position’s coordinate on the display screen. 

- It marks (saves) positions - called “waypoints” or “landmarks” depending on the brand of GPS - in its memory. These positions are created and stored when the user is physically present and marks the position with his GPS, is physically elsewhere and enters the position’s coordinates manually, or transfers them electronically from a computer mapping program like Terrain Navigator to the GPS. 

- It identifies the distance and bearings from the instrument’s location to stored positions, that is, “waypoints” or “landmarks.” (“Waypoints” and “Landmarks” are the same thing. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to them as “waypoints/landmarks.”) 

We see, then, that a GPS provides the same resources as map and compass: position plotting and direction finding. The key, however, as has already been pointed out, is to make your GPS work for you, combining its utility with other resources like map and compass. 

I advocate a “turn it on, turn it off” approach to GPS. Turn it on, acquire your position. Use your GPS to determine a distance and bearing to a stored waypoint/landmark. (Usually by using your GPS's "GoTo" feature, which we'll be covering shortly.) Turn it off and shift to your map and compass. That’s it. This may seem like an oversimplification, but that’s basically all you need your GPS to do.  

Now, let’s start to put it all together with map and compass, using examples, as we have done previously in the essay. 

Marking (Saving) Your Position 
A GPS can store hundreds of waypoint/landmarks. Before starting off on a new trip, it’s usually best to delete those already stored, or download them for storage on Terrain Navigator. 

To mark your position, begin, of course, by turning on your GPS. It will take your GPS a few minutes to seek out its satellites and achieve a “position lock.” Once it locks on to a minimum of three satellites, your GPS will identify your position as a UTM coordinate on the display screen. (In most cases, depending on make and model, the position coordinate will appear immediately. In others, you’ll have to cycle ahead through a screen or two to see the coordinate.) 

Next you mark (save) your position as a waypoint/landmark, according to your GPS’s particular functions. You will be given the option of naming the waypoint/landmark; if you choose not to create a name, the GPS will automatically assign it the next number up in its memory. (Unless the name you assign a waypoint/landmark is specific and unmistakable, like “Camp” or “Truck,” use the number the GPS assigns the waypoint/landmark and keep track of what your numbered waypoint/landmarks represent in a small notebook. Assigning names like “tracks,” “spot,” “meadow,” “elk,” etc., in your GPS invariably leads to confusion.) 

Figure 50 depicts an area on Cabin Creek in the Washakie Wilderness in northern Wyoming, where the current Grid-to-Magnetic declination - as confirmed by TopoZone at - is 12 degrees east. We’ve saved a total of seven waypoint/landmarks - one named “Camp” and the others 1 through 6 - and plotted them onto the map, using steps described earlier in “Introduction and Map” section of the essay. 

The map in Figure 50 reflects a common hunting scenario. Camp has been set up on Cabin Creek and the plan is to hunt the draws upstream both north and south of the creek. The waypoints/landmarks are outlined as follows: 

Camp -  12 06 03 685 E
_________49 12  332 N  

Your major “return point,” - camp, your truck, etc. - should always be saved in your GPS as a waypoint/landmark and plotted on your map before you begin scouting or hunting. That way, you have the plot to assist you in map-and-compassing your way back in the event your GPS crashes.

Waypoint/Landmark 1 - 12 06 03 042
_____________________49 12 672

Waypoint/Landmark 2 - 12 06 02 791
_____________________49 12 647 

Waypoint/Landmark 3 - 12 06 02 710
_____________________49 12 427 

Waypoint/Landmark 4 - 12 06 02 219
_____________________49 11 845 

Waypoint/Landmark 5 - 12 06 03 416
_____________________49 11 792 

Waypoint/Landmarks 1 through 5 represent spots of interest encountered during the hunt or scout, such as tracks, droppings, rubs, beds, or anything else of significance. Once a waypoint/landmark has been saved (and notes taken concerning its relevance), you can pull it up on your GPS at any time and get an accurate bearing and distance to it. Out, then, come the map and compass and you can return to that spot, as described in “Compass and Direction Finding.” If the spot is of particular importance, plot it on your map. (Plotting your waypoints/landmarks on your paper map as you go is always a sound practice. It’s an important element of "Staying Found," which is simply defined: have a good idea where you are at all times.) And if your GPS crashes or is lost, because you have a UTM-gridded map that enables good triangulation/resections, you can switch over immediately to a map-and-compass navigation mode.) 

Waypoint/Landmark 6 - 12 06 03 390
_____________________49 12 286 

Waypoint/Landmark 6's significance is as a navigation guide. Let’s say you’re at waypoint/landmark 1, 2, 3, or 5 and you’re ready to return to camp. Instead of hiking directly toward it in a straight line, go instead for waypoint/landmark 6 after consulting your map. When you reach it, all you need do is walk downstream until you reach camp. If you’re at waypoint/landmark 4, walk down the draw until you strike Cabin Creek, then move downstream, first to waypoint/landmark 6, then on to camp. (These are examples of using the baseline/handrail approach to navigation: instead of navigating to a specific objective, navigate instead to a baseline/handrail (in this case, Cabin Creek and waypoint/landmark 6 on Cabin Creek) that leads you to your objective. 

Over the course of a scout, hunt, or other trip, your GPS’s list of stored waypoints/landmarks - combined with your field notes for each - add up to a chronicle of important information available as long as you choose to keep it. With Terrain Navigator and a connecting cable, you can transfer them all within minutes to your home computer, where Terrain Navigator can plot them on a topo map with a few mouse clicks. And you’ll always have the option of zapping your waypoint/landmarks from your computer and Terrain Navigator back to your GPS. 

Creating and Saving Waypoint/Landmarks,
Both on the Computer and in the Field 

On the Computer 
There’s been a lot written and said about doing a much of your scouting and hunting at home with your maps, long before you leave for your trip. This is good strategy, and Terrain Navigator makes the process not only faster, but much more thorough and efficient.  

Refer to Figure 51 for an example here. You’re on your computer and you’re looking over the Terrain Navigator map along the Hidden Creek drainage in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness. You’ve picked out a timbered bench at “A,” and two small meadows just west of the bench, marked “B” and “C” as spots you’d like to investigate. By simply moving the cursor to these points - and saving them as “landmarks” in Terrain Navigator - you identify their coordinates as follows: 

A - 12 05 88 120
______48 81 898

B - 12 05 87 826
______48 81 917 

C - 12 05 87 545
______48 81 883 

You can now transfer these saved "landmarks" (what we’ve been calling “waypoint/landmarks”) from Terrain Navigator directly to your GPS. And because you have them in Terrain Navigator, they will also print out on your UTM-gridded map, as shown in Figure 52.