GPS Basics: Tips, Tricks And Free Tools To Get The Most From Your Handheld GPS Receiver

Leszek Pawlowicz June 24, 2010

Field Help/Training Session Sunday, June 27th, 10-12 (details at end of talk)

Topics To Be Covered 

Tips and tricks to make GPS work better for you Basic functions of handheld GPS units What kind of data can GPS display and record Using a GPS with paper maps Moving data from a GPS to your computer, and displaying it on a map     

Creating position points/tracks on your computer, and transferring them to your GPS 

Putting maps on your GPS Free data and software to use with your GPS 

What Is GPS?
GPS = Global Positioning System
³The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a space-based global navigation satellite system that provides reliable location and time information in all weather and at all times and anywhere on or near the Earth there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites.´ - Wikipedia
Or « GPS tells you where you are.

My GPS Receivers Over The Years

Motorola Traxar - 1993

Garmin eMap - 1999

Garmin 60Cx - 2006

Magellan Triton 2000 - 2008

RTFM- Read The Friendly Manual
Even for old GPS units, the manual is usually available for download on the manufacturer's website in PDF format. 

Basic operating instructions Advanced functions Other useful info (batteries, how to hook it up to a computer)  

And while you're at the website, check for a firmware update. 

Firmware = The software that runs your GPS. Updates fix bugs in software, add new features. Check the manual or website for instructions on how to update firmware.  

Before you take your GPS outside ... 


Get a case Get a screen protector ( Check your sunglasses (non-polarized best) Pack spare batteries

GPS On => Satellite Acquisition

Open bar => Satellite signal acquired ± all data not yet acquired Filled-in bar => Satellite data acquired (time and position) Height of bar => Signal strength

GPSr needs to acquire data from four or more satellites widely spaced across the sky to calculate a position; this takes time.

What's My Position?
All GPS units (even the oldest) have a ³data screen´ that lets you display your current coordinates, and often other data (speed, altitude, time, distance, etc.).

More recent units may have a ³map screen´ where you can also choose to view your current coordinates and other data.

Modifying The Data Screen

Many GPS units let you choose which parameters to view on this screen.

Some units let you display fewer parameters, but with larger text.

What are coordinates without a map? Just numbers ...
Older GPS units may not display maps Newer units do but screen size too small for sense of geographic context Built-in map on many units often inadequate for navigation 

Most importantly: GPS units can break or fail (e.g. dead batteries) => Unless you're thoroughly familiar with an area, you ALWAYS need a paper map (and compass) as backup

Sources For Free USGS Topo Maps
Single maps LibreMaps Arizona Regional Image Archive USGS Map Locator (PDF format) Go to and click on the ³Map Locator´ link DDS MapFinder ± Google Earth link US Forest Service updated topo maps

Seamless maps USGS Seamless Server USAPhotoMaps (free Windows program)

Old USGS Topo Map

Updated USFS Topo Map

Printing USGS Topo Maps On A Small Printer
Standard 1:24,000 USGS topo maps are 22´ x 27´; printing them on a 8.5´ x 11´ sheet of paper can shrink detail to where it can't be seen clearly. Options: 

Open map in a graphics program, crop out everything except a small area, and print just that small area. 

Use a graphics/printing service that prints larger (³poster´) sizes (WalMart, Staples, OfficeMax, Sams Club, Kinko's, etc.) 

Chop map image into small subsections (tiles) that will each fit on a single sheet of paper, then tape all subsections together into complete map 

Graphics programs Posteriza Posterazor Picasa Printer driver or support software

Tiling with Canon printer driver

Using the coordinates on the edge of the map

Map Coordinate System Info ± Usually Found Somewhere On The Map

N o r t h i i g UTM Easting

Display coordinates need to match the ones you're using on the map

Coordinates set to latitude/longitude

Coordinates set to UTM

Datum set to NAD27

Recording your position with your GPS
Waypoints ± ³planting a flag´ to mark your position

Most GPS units let you mark a waypoint with a single button that brings up a data screen, modify the waypoint, and save it

You can display a list of your saved waypoints ...

Select one, choose ³Go To´ ....

And see where it is relative to you, and what direction you need to go in to get to to it.

GPS Tracks ± A Virtual ³Trail Of Breadcrumbs´

Working With GPS Tracks
Turn track recording on and off View a list of tracks stored on your GPS Change track parameters Show them on map Navigate back along them. Set how frequently a ³breadcrumb´ is ³dropped´. 

How Accurate Is A GPS Position? 

Many GPS units display ³accuracy´ value

95% confidence that GPS-derived position is no farther than accuracy value from true position 

IMHO, this number is conservative for newer GPS units, and the GPS position can be much closer to the true position « 

« but there's always a level of uncertainty Accuracy depends on many parameters 

More info on how to maximize position accuracy / minimize uncertainty:

Getting Your Data Off Your GPS And Onto Your Computer


Plot it on a map Share it with someone else Combine it with other people's data for mapping projects  

Save it so that you can delete it from your GPS, and put it back again when you need it 

Save it so that if you lose your GPS, or get a new one, you can transfer the data back onto it 

How Do You Connect Your GPS To A Computer?

- Newer GPS units usually connect with a USB cable - Older units may require a special cable and computer interface - Read The Friendly Manual to find out how to do this with your GPS unit.

GPS Software: From The Manufacturer

DeLorme ± Topo 2010 (comes with unit) Magellan: VantagePoint, MapSend Lite

Garmin: Basecamp

GPS Software: Third-Party
(May be only option for older units)
Free programs EasyGPS ( OKMap ( GPSMaster ( Prune (works on Mac) ( USAPhotoMaps ( Free for basic functions; paid for advanced use GPS TrackMaker ( OziExplorer ( Commercial applications (time-limited demo) ExpertGPS ( TopoFusion (

Basecamp Software Demos On YouTube

Part I ± Part II - Part III -

Garmin Basecamp demo

Options for maps
1. Buy maps Garmin CityNavigator, Topo 2008, Topo 24K DeLorme ± Comes with topo maps, can download subscription maps Magellan ± Can buy maps from Magellan, National Geographic Topo maps 2. Get maps for free ...

Sources for free US/AZ maps
GPS File Depot
High-resolution (1:24K-equivalent) topo maps for most of US Pre-packaged for easy installation

Desert Packrats
Thematic maps of AZ: Geology, faults, vegetation, wells, dams, mines, etc.


Demo of Arizona topo maps in Basecamp software

Demo of MapInstall

Map selection

Turn maps on and off in map selection screen.

Transparent map: Map details displayed on top of second map

View of map detail on GPS

³Normal´ detail level

³Most´ detail level

Field session

Sunday, June 27th, 10 AM ± ~12 noon Buffalo Park, Flagstaff ± park/meet near the buffalo Lat/long: N35.21782, W111.63275 Datum: WGS84 Prerequisites: A Garmin GPS unit you can bring and use Limited to 8 people (sign-up sheet) Water, hat, hiking boots, etc.

Optional ³Homework´ For Field Session
Read the manual (download and print it out if you don't have it) Turn on your GPS, and get a position fix at where you live Save that position as a waypoint; change its name and description Walk away from that position, set the just-created waypoint as your destination, and navigate your way back Make a track by walking along a linear feature (road, fence, etc.) Save that track under a new name Make a track around an area, and save that track Download and install Basecamp on your computer If compatible, connect and download the waypoints/tracks on your GPS to your computer, and view them in Basecamp Save them as a GPX file Download and install the free Arizona topo map from GPS File Depot View your tracks/waypoints in Basecamp with the Arizona topo selected If compatible, upload the topo maps for the Flagstaff area to your unit Download the topo map for the field session area (Flagstaff West) Print out a copy of the map Create a waypoint for Buffalo Park from the given coordinates 

For individual GPS training, custom maps, and software consultation: Leszek Pawlowicz Check out my blog at Articles on GPS, GIS, maps, data sources, and much more...

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