GPS is a term thrown around a lot these days but when it all comes down to it, something with GPS can show where you are on a map.
In this article:
What is a GPS?
GPS and Cell Reception
GPS units vs phone apps
What is a GPS?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It’s a series of satellites floating around the earth that talks to an antennae in your GPS unit or phone. Using the signal from multiple satellites and some very complicated math, the GPS can figure out where you are on a map.
When you have a clear view of the sky, the GPS can clearly see more satellites and it’s location will be more accurate. If you are in dense tree cover, amongst many buildings or in a canyon, there aren’t as many satellites to see and accuracy will be lower.
GPS and cell reception
GPS connection and cell reception on your phone are different things. You can have a GPS connection to the satellites but be too far from any cell tower to get voice or date for your phone. This is important for map data.
GPS apps on your phone usually need two things: GPS reception to figure out where you are and data connection to download maps. If there’s no data to download maps then your phone will know where you are but can’t download the street or terrain maps to show it. But most apps can go offline to solve this.
When you download maps offline, you’re eliminating the need for data when you’re off the grid. When the maps are downloaded to your phone, you won’t need a data connection, just GPS. If you move into a new area where you don’t have maps downloaded, then you won’t be able to see anything. Some apps automatically download these maps for you, but for most, you have to find the download option and pick which ones you want.
GPS units vs phone apps
Right now there are 2 main groups of GPS: dedicated GPS units and phones.
Dedicated GPS are like a Garmin 64 series GPS that are just a GPS. That is it’s only function. They will show you a map, track where you’ve been and let you navigate to waypoints and routes.
Phones obviously do a lot more. With an app on your phone you can see your location on a map, track where you’ve been, navigate to waypoints and routes and take photos. After you’re done, you can use everything else on your phone or upload the tracks and images to websites online.
Dedicated GPS usually have larger GPS antennae than phones do and so can connect to more satellites for a more accurate signals. They also can have much better battery life. Dedicated GPS usually have battery life measured in days where as phone battery life is measured in hours when using the GPS.
GPS is an in-depth topic. Dig in to these other articles.
- Garmin Montana 700i GPS Review
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- Garmin Basecamp: Send a track to your GPS
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- Gaia GPS App Review
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- Satellite Communication: Can a GPS unit help you get rescued? (Part 2)
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- 15 Ways to Extend your GPS Battery Life
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- Garmin Basecamp Series: Everything you need to know about Garmin’s GPS Software
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- Garmin Montana 600 GPS Review
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Other Backpacking Gear
You’ll need more than just a GPS to head out backpacking. Here are guides to all the other gear you need for backpacking.
- Free Ebook: Backpacking Gear for Beginners
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- Backpacking Stoves
If you want a warm meal on your backpacking trip then you’ll need some way to cook it or at least heat up the water. Some people go stoveless on… Read More »Backpacking Stoves
- Cameras for Backpacking
There are 2 camps when it comes to hiking photos: those that never take a picture and just soak it all in and the rest of us. For the rest… Read More »Cameras for Backpacking
- Headlamps: How to Buy One for Hiking
When the lights go out in the backcountry, it’s dark. Like really dark. If you want to do anything safely after dark, or get that dawn patrol in before work,… Read More »Headlamps: How to Buy One for Hiking
- Backpacking Tents: Everything You Need to Know
Small, light backpacking tents are what most people use for shelter when they’re out backpacking. There are other options like hammocks and tarps but they require a little bit more… Read More »Backpacking Tents: Everything You Need to Know
- Backpacking Packs: Everything You Need to Know
Small backpacks are great for day hikes and travelling but when it comes to staying out in the backcountry for multiple days we need something a bit bigger. It needs… Read More »Backpacking Packs: Everything You Need to Know
- Hiking Boots
Everything you need to know about hiking boots
- GPS for Hiking
Answers to all your questions about GPS units and phone apps.