One of the most interesting and fun research projects I’ve done in a long time was figuring out the best GPS unit to bring on my backcountry hikes. This is the first of two articles I’ll write concerning GPS and what device to bring in the backcountry. I approached this in 3 different ways.

Safety Alot of times I go “out there” by myself. If something were to happen, or go wrong, what device to I want to bring? Should I bring a Cell Phone, and a GPS? Maybe a Tracking Device?

Navigation What’s the best GPS Unit that I can use if I am totally lost and need to find my way out of a “situation”. We never get lost right? But that one time where I need to find my way back to the trailhead, what the best software and unit to have? Waypoints being the key word here

Artist's conception of GPS satellite in orbit
Image via Wikipedia

Tracking I want to let others experience my tracks. Is there such a thing as “live tracking”? The answer is yes. One of the purposes of this site, is to let others experience a trail in a multi-media way. A slideshow or GPS cordinates is not my idea of getting a real feel for a trail. I want to bring both photo’s, video, txt, and GPS Tracking all together in one post. The post by the way, might be written on the trail. MMMMMmm? Well, I might have already tipped my hand in what kind of device I need.

Let’s look at what GPS is, and the different types.

One of first revelations was there were some differences in GPS. For a Hiker, they are important to know. First things first when talking GPS.

GPS tracking is not always possible. Global Positioning System (GPS) indicates that the system can be used everywhere on Earth, on land, at sea and in the air. A GPS device receives signals from the GPS satellites, high in the sky. If it receives strong enough signals from three or more different satellites, it can calculate its position. As these signals are very weak, in some circumstances it can be difficult to receive even three different signals. This is the case in towns with high buildings and relatively narrow streets or under trees with thick foliage. Under these conditions real-time GPS tracking could be troublesome. GPS tracking inside buildings is seldom possible

A GPS device does NOT send any signal, not to the GPS satellites, nor anywhere else. It can only receive. So, if we want to know where the GPS device is, we will need a second technology to send this information to us. For this we often use a cellular network. This means that a GPS tracking device must at least contain a GPS receiver and a cellular phone modem.
The modem can be programmed as a mobile phone with its own phone number, capable of sending SMS short text messages (Short Message Service). If you call the modem’s phone number, using your own mobile phone, the device answers your call with a SMS message with the co-ordinates of its position. With the appropriate software and maps installed on your mobile phone, the SMS messages can be translated to positions on a map on your mobile phone screen. SMS technology can be very important to have in the backcountry. You don’t necessarily need a direct cell phone signal nor a GPS signal to send a SMS message, or text.

What about Tracking? What about a device to call for help?

One of the other ways GPS units work is simple. They simply “track” your location. This is the oldest of GPS technologies. They use both Cell and GPS. This was first introduced for Trucks as they drove across the country. You may have seen alot to do about Findmespot. Findmespot uses the same GPS technology with emergency 911 service. Basically it uses the same SMS Modem Technology. Which means even if you can’t get a GPS signal, it will try and “text” message to a 911 Call Center, who then in return, call 911.

In my next Article, I will write about the choice I made. Look for it in the Articles tab.

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Feel free to contact me at any time. Started Backpacking in 2003 and have never looked back. My all time favorite hike was last April when I hiked the Sycamore Wilderness Canyon. No trails, no signs, just wilderness and a 3,000 foot steep drop into the Canyon. I ran out of water my third day. Why? There was no water in the Canyon. You can check out my video on the "backpacker.tv" page. Thanks for dropping by.

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