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Your GPS translates signals from space into UTM or longitude/latitude coordinates.

UTM longitudinal zones for the United States. The traditional longitudes (in degrees) are listed at the top.

UTM latitude zones are represented by letters.

Topo map with UTM grid. Note labeling of easters (72000, etc.) and northers (83000, etc.) on each side. Use these to plot your GPS coordinates and identify your exact position.

Some GPS units can upload topographical maps and generate a route based on the waypoints you enter into memory.

This GPS unit includes an electronic compass. It will also provide travel times, distance and speed (while you're moving). The extra features are nice but add to the cost of the unit. In any case, you should still bring your map and compass with you, since there are times when you won't be able to get a satellite signal, or the unit stops working for some other reason.

Using a GPS Unit - The Basics

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If you’ve never used a hand-held GPS unit, here’s how it works: Imagine you’re standing out in the field and want to find its exact position on your map. Alternatively, you might be looking for a certain spot and know its GPS position already, but not know how to get there from where you’re at now.

In either case, you'll turn on the unit and activate its satellite search function. After a few moments, signals from space respond to your call and some coordinates appear onscreen. For example, you might see 14T 0240615E and 5329341N. This is your current location. 

"14T" represents the UTM zone you're in. (The map you're carrying should include this zone. Otherwise, you've brought the wrong map.) To understand what a zone is, check the two maps on the right side of this page. One covers zones 10-19, which are longitudes, while the lower map uses letters to identify latitudes. Thererfore, the number 14 on your screen is the longitude zone you're in, while the T represents your latitude. Together the number and letter represent a rectangular chunk of geography.

Once you've got your UTM zone identified, you can start honing down your position to an exact footprint. The first coordinate written to the right of "14T", in our example, is "240615E". This is known as an easting.   The "E" stands for East and represents a longitudinal (vertical) coordinate. But the number 240615 is an actual measurement in meters. This is the distance that your position lies from the zone’s reference (border) line on a map. Check the third map in the next column on this page, and you'll see how these big numbers are marked on the UTM east-west grid lines, at the top of the map, running left to right. (It' may be hard to read, but it starts at "12 S 72000" and climbs in 1000-meter increments.)

Here's how to plot the sample coordinate 14T 0240615E on your paper map of the area you're in (assuming you have the correct map with corresponding numbers):

  1. Find the grid line marked 240,000 at the top. 
  2. Now you need to move 615 meters to the right of that line to mark your exact longitude. To figure out how far that is, find the conversion scale provided in the legend on the map.
  3. Use a string or pencil to carry the measurement over to the line at the top. (It's the same as using a mile scale on a road map.) Mark the spot.

Next, you'll find the latitude on the map and locate that point as it lines up with your longitude mark. The second number listed on the GPS screen in our example, "5329341N", is called a norther.  (The "N" stands for North.) And the figure "5,329,341" equals the number of meters your position lies north of the Equator. To find it:

  1. On the map, follow the range of numbers marked on the left and right borders. In the sample map on the right, you can see the north to south UTM grid lines and the number range. 
  2. Use the legend and a string or pencilto find the exact latitude just as you did for the longitude.
  3. Mark that latitude spot on the map where it intersects with the first mark you made for the Easter.   This is the exact position where you’re standing, within a meter or so.

Just as you use GPS to find out where you’re at on a map, you can identify an easter and norther on the map before or during your journey, then enter those coordinates into a GPS unit to get directions. When you do this, your display should produce a map, hopefully with a path and compass bearings to get you from where are you currently to your destination. (See photo on the right.)

Any location (i.e. at UTM location or longitude/latitude coordinates) entered into a handheld GPS memory is known as a waypoint.  It might be a mountain peak, trailhead, campsite or parking lot. Before setting off on a trip, it's a good idea to enter a waypoint in advance for each place of interest you'd like to visit. To do this, you simply take the coordinates off your map and enter them into the unit. Of course, if for some reason the GPS stops functioning you will have to rely on your paper map and compass, so be sure not to leave those items behind when your journey begins.

Savvy hikers in the backcountry also program in extra waypoints along the trail from the starting point to finish. This helps them avoid getting lost. These waypoints may include the spot where two roads meet, where a trail meets a bridge, or any landmark that can easily identified.

A sequence of waypoints entered into a GPS unit is known as a route.  You can retrieve information about a waypoint by using the "GoTo" or "Find" function. Once the waypoint comes up, ask the unit for a bearing to that location from your current position.  Some units also calculate travel time and the rate of elevation change between your current location and the waypoint. 

A GPS unit is a huge asset to travelers in areas where there's low visibility, afeatureless terrain, snow-covered landscape or an open sea. Moreover, latitude and longitudinal coordinates on traditional topogrophic maps are provided at 2.5 minute intervals, whereas a UTM grid hones in on exact locations. Also, with the metric system in play, thousands of meters can be condensed into a few kilometers simply be moving your decimal three digits the the left.

Unlike a compass, however, you can’t simply point a GPS receiver at a landmark and retrieve any useful information. Yet in unfamiliar terrain, the device may allow you to keep track of the route you're taking.  This is known as recording a “track”. Keep the device steady by hanging it on your pack, rather than carrying it in your hands.  Then, on the return trek, simply retrieve the track from memory. Now you can navigate your way home by using the LCD screen. Needless to say, this feature is really useful if you have to travel back in the dark.

Nowadays, most GPS models provide many additional features, such as a barometric altimeter, electronic compass, the ability to upload and view topo maps, and wireless data sharing (including photos of your trip). Garmin is the top manufacturer of handheld units in the United States. Keep in mind that like all electronic gadgets, GPS units are a convenience rather than a survival tool. Make sure the batteries are fully charged and carry an extra set. 

In bad weather, thick forest cover, alongside a high cliff wall, down in a canyon, or when other overhead obstructions are present, you may not be able to get a signal from four satellites. In recent years, a new application called the Wide Area Augmentation System, or WAAS, has improved the ability of GPS units to retrieve signals even when obstructions exist. Before purchasing a product, check to see if this invaluable feature is included.

Weather in space can also affect signal strength, since GPS satellites orbit high above the earth.  For best results, take readings whenever you’re in a clearing or high point of elevation. If the temperature drops below freezing, the LCD screen may stop working, so keep the device insulated and warm.  If water penetrates into the GPS unit, it could short-circuit the electronics, so you should always pack it in a waterproof container.

And before you jump on Ebay to purchase somebody's old 1995 model for what seems like a steal of a price, don't forget that the kinks in this new technology are still being ironed out, so later models are your best bet.

The UTM Grid in more detail

When examining a world map, you'll notice that the distance between meridians and parallels begins to shrink as they converge at the two poles.  This creates distortion in global mapping, since the planet is fat in the middle, but skinny at both ends. To get around this problem, a grid system (or dadum) called the Universal Transverse Mercator was developed in the 1940s.  It’s included on USGS topographical maps and is nowadays a standard feature of handheld GPS units. UTM coordinates are derived from a mathematical grid of 60 longitudinal-like zones, each 6 degrees across, for a total of 360 degrees, and a lesser number of latitude zones measuring 8 degrees high.  UTM coordinates are more exact than traditional latitude/longitude readings.

All recently published USGS maps, as well as standard GPS software, conform to a UTM standard known as WSP84.  Older USGS maps use the 1927 North American Datum, abbreviated as NAD27, or a later version known as NAD83  Check to see which dadum is listed on the map you’re using. If it's not the default WSP84, you'll have to change to it in the preferences or settings menu of your GPS unit.  Otherwise, your coordinates will be slightly off. Your GPS unit should also provide the option of using traditional longitude and latitude coordinates to navigate.


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