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Hiking Accessories - GPS and Smartphones

Why use a GPS for Hiking?

Many people walk these and other paths - the worn track you are following now might not be the one you started on.
Visabilty can change quickly on the mountains - if you are walking in thick mist formed by low cloud you can quickly get disoriented.
Paths often cross scree or boulder fields, and if visability is poor the path is difficult to follow, and marker cairns hard to see.
Every year hundreds of people get lost on the mountains and need to be rescued by Mountain Rescue teams.  As hikers try to find their way they are more likely to have accidents and become injured.  Mountain Rescue teams in Snowdonia they are trying to decrease the number of calls they have by putting grid references on gates and styles - but these will only help if the walker has something with them to interpret the numbers to understand where they are.

The paths up Britain's highest mountains are well marked with cairns and footpath signs, and very well trodden, so why should you need a GPS when hiking to the summit?

Well, these are some of the reasons:
A word about Geocaching
A traditional map and compass should always be taken on a hike up a mountain (any electronic device can fail or run out of batteries!), but a GPS device is an extremely useful guide to navigating your path. 

Can I just use my Smartphone?

There are a number of walking and mapping apps available for smartphones, and indeed the Snowdonia National Park Authority have produced an 'Enjoy Snowdonia App' as another measure to try to stop people getting lost.   But the main drawback to using a smartphone as a GPS is battery life when running GPS apps.  Using a phone for navigation is very power draining, and devices may be out of battery after just three hours.

What are the benefits of a GPS?

A GPS for hiking is made for that purpose.  It should be rugged and waterproof, so if you slip and drop it on a rock, or into a puddle you won't be faced with a blank and cracked screen.  If you drop your iphone you probably won't be as lucky, and remember, having a working phone is essential in cases of emergency!  It's better to keep your phone safely wrapped in plastic in your rucksack.

A good GPS should have a battery life and the ability to replace batteries on the go.  Purpose built GPS units are meant to be left on the entire time, even if you've paused for a picnic.  They save the path that you have walked so if you lose your way it's easy to retrace your steps. 

Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports are a UK store specialising in outdoor clothing and equipment have a range of GPS units for hiking.

What should I look for when buying a GPS for Hiking?



-It should be waterproof and strong
-Long battery life and be able to take spare batteries
-A bright screen which you can see in sunlight
-A map display - some only show a numerical longitude/latitude position.
-The ability to enter waypoints so you can plot your route
-Ability to lock onto multiple satellites (some can lock onto up to 20)
-WEIGHT - you don't want to be carrying a brick up the mountain!
-The ability to load different maps

Accuracy of a GPS



A GPS will give you an approximate position which will be fairly accurate.  The precise level of accuracy will depend on the number of satellites it can lock onto at any given time.  It can have an error rate of up to 15m, although most of the time it will be more accurate.

Common sense is required - just because it shows a path on the edge of a crevasse doesn't mean you should get too close!

What is Geocaching?



Once you have a hiking GPS, or even an app on a Smartphone, you will start to see the term 'geocaching'.  The information that follows is mainly taken from the Geocaching website so do check it out for fuller details if it interests you.  As the word appears so often I thought it might be useful to describe what it's all about.  Particularly as you may well buy a GPS which lists this as one of its uses. 

Origins of Geocaching



The accuracy of GPS technology improved by 10 times on the 2nd May 2000.  A computer consultant called Dave Ulmer thought he would test the accuracy by hiding a container in the woods contained various prizes.  The waypoint of his 'stash' was shared online.

Two different readers had found his container within 3 days, and they too shared their experiences.  This sparked other people to start hiding and finding containers.  Within a month the name Geocache was termed to replace the word 'stash' which could have different connotations! 

Jeremy Irish, a web development from Seattle after purchasing his own GPS when reading about the activities and finding it a thrilling experience to find his first cach,  started a hobby site for geocaching. 

How does Geocaching Work?



Details of caches are posted on a listing site, and geocaches take the co-ordinates and go to find the cache.  The details of their find and noted in a logbook and on line.  The rules are that you must replace the cache how you found it.  If you do take what's in the cache you must replace it with something of higher value.  There are many different types of cache, some are not physical objects, but require an activity.  There are night caches which usually can only be found at night and involve using a flashlight to reflect off reflectors. 

Where to find out more about Geocaching



There are too many variations to go into here, but if you're interested in finding out more please visit Geocache.com



See also

Guide for Buying Walking Boots
Why use Walking Poles and Which to Buy
Good Rucksacks for Walking
Maps, Compasses and Other Useful Items
Wet Weather Wear - Waterproofs
Hiking Equipment Reviews
Winter Walking Equipment