Is it time I bought a GPS for walking?

by Peter Walling, Wirral

Some years ago I set of to walk Scafell Pike with a small group of friends. For a change I was not leading and the task was given to my sister-in-law so I decided to sit back an enjoy the ride.

The day started well with a quick trip up Lingmell before starting up Scafell Pike after which we were going across to Sca Fell.

As we approached the summit of Scafell Pike the cloud descended and by the time we got there visibility was poor.

A decision was made to scrap Sca Fell and to simply back track our way down to Wasdale. This is when things started to go wrong.

After short time we realized we had wandered off the path and were lost. I had not been navigating just following the person in the lead and as an experienced walker I should have been checking are position and not trusting the person in front, a lesson for all walkers.

With some difficulty we all got down safely, after this I decided to look at GPS. At the time GPS was still in its infancy and I felt it was not reliable enough to buy.

I look forward with great interest at your forthcoming articles to see whether GPS is now a worth while navigational aid.


Stuart Greig, Cheshire

“Well Stuart - that is all well and good until you run out of batteries, your PDA gets damaged (dropped or wet) or you cannot locate any satellites for one reason or another (an all too regular event). Then you are in deep deep trouble - lost and - since you can no longer check where you are - unable to navigate 'home'.

Instead of relying of gizmos that might let you down why not put your energies into learning how to navigate with a map and compass - its fun and rewarding and you can still use your PDA to confirm your position if you really need to.

Whatever you do - never, never, never go into the high mountains without a proper walking map for the area like the OS Explorer Series, a compass and knowledge how to use both.

Both a map and compass are lightweight, cheap and will take up little space in your rucksack.

If you don't know how to use either - learn. There really is no excuse - this knowledge might just save your life and the life of anyone else in your party.”

Mike (Editor)

“I am a bit bothered by the comments here. GPS is a map aid not a solution, the things are very innacurate in mountains (not true - you can rely on 25m accuracy and will often experience accuracy to with 1 or 2 metres Ed.), mists (also not true - mist has no effect on the accuracy of a GPS Ed.) or tree cover (this is true it will not work under dense tree cover).

The software, a version of Windows 98 is hardly reliable.

What is wrong with a good map and compass?”

Peter Burgess, Worthing

“There is nothing wrong with a good map (1:25,000) and compass and you should never venture into the high mountains without both. However, for those who want it, a GPS can be an extremely useful additional navigational aid (particularly when the mist descends) and I for one never venture into the high mountains without one.”

Mike (Editor)

“Hi there - Just wanted to add to this discussion.

I recently got back into hill walking in order to start training for a 40 mile crossing of the North Yorks Moors later this year.

I bought myself a Garmin Etrex Venture and Fugawi software at 1:50,000 for my area.

Now, I am proficient with a compass, and still take map and compass, but that wasn't the point I got the unit. Surely people don't buy these things and simply go off following the GPS arrow?

That is going to either

• a) Make you walk off a cliff, or

• b) Ensure you miss the countryside you are walking around.

I personally use mine as follows - I take a go4awalk route, plot on Fugawi and load to the GPS.

Also make sure I know the route on my 1:25,000 of the area.

I also add in some other landmarks as non-route waypoints for helping to reference/orientate the GPS to the map (Churches, pubs, peaks etc).

Then off we go.

I use the GPS for general bearings, but mainly use the map. It has been useful when I have strayed for giving a quick grid ref, rather than using a compass and doing a resection.

Most of all though, it records my speed, moving average, times etc which is great for working on my pace (something I'll need for the challenge walk).

Best of all, I get home, upload the route I actually walked, and can save it for walking again, or analyse it.

Superb kit in the right hands”

Paul Malam, Cheshire

“Thanks Dave.

I too commonly get accuracy to 10m (with a Garmin eTrex) - but not in every case.

Indeed the Garmin Owners Manual for the eTrex states:

"The eTrex is accurate to within 15 metres without the Department of Defence imposed Selective Availability. Using differential techniques, the eTrex can be as accurate as 1-5 metres. The eTrex is accurate to within 100 metres under Selective Availability."

"Another factor that will effect the accuracy of the GPS receiver is the geometry of the satellites in view of the GPS receiver. A poor geometry situation can provide less accurate position readings, and this especially applies to GPS altitude measurements. The altitude reading on the GPS unit can vary by +/- 450ft (137m) depending on the level of degradation being imposed under Selective Availability. It is not uncommon to see the altitude continuously drift up and down when Selective Availability is being imposed."

As for using it in a forest - under a dense canopy of trees you'll be lucky to get a reading at all - so you'll still going to need you map and compass.”

Mike (Editor)

“Hi Editor,

I read your 2-part article 'The Truth about GPS Devices for Walking & Hiking'. I thought it was a refreshingly balanced perspective compared to some of the 'Flat Earth' theorists/magnetic compass traditionalists who (despite all evidence to the contrary) still claim that GPS has no legitimate role in walking.

However there's one statement I thought seemed either out-of-date or too pessimistic: That is the comment to the effect that 25m is about the best practical accuracy that one can expect.

I'm not sure when the article was written, but do you (or the author of the article) still feel that is valid for modern GPS receivers, etc? I use only a basic GPS eTrex and quite commonly get to well within 10m of my target waypoint.

I also find that for the gentle terrain conditions in Western Australia's eucalyptus forests near Perth GPS is far superior to relying primarily on map and compass alone.

Often in the forests here there are few good landmarks to obtain or re-establish bearings, so GPS is fantastic for navigating to subtle features that would never be found (or re-found) using only map & compass.


Dave Osborne, Perth, Australia


Brian Grayson

“I've had a base model GPS (Garmin ETREX) now for about 2 years, I am also competent at navigation with Map and Compass. During my epic walk from John O' Groats to Lands End on 2002 the GPS proved it's worth.

It was not a replacement for navigation skills but a complement to them. It certainly saved a lot of time when it was necessary to navigate obstructions such as bogs in bad weather and allowed me an extra hour or so in the bar.

I don't really use it too much for setting a route, just for indicating where a target is in relation to present position, and occasionally just to confirm the present position - to date I've always agreed with it.

With spare batteries, it's reliable and accurate - what more could you want.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to compliment you on an excellent site - it's easy to use and from what I've seen provides excellent tutorials. As a long standing Scout Leader, it's good to find clear explanations of methods I've been trying to get over to youngsters for years and being on the web means they will probably believe them!

Keep up the good work.”

Phil Bean

“I've just received a copy of your 1st article on GPS equipment (see Hill Skills > Navigation Skills > GPS Myths and Truths Part 1). Very well set out and I agree with everything you have said.

I have the eTrex Summit and have tried to use it on a day's walk of 8 hours or more to record exact distance, amount of ascent and descent and a profile of the elevation on the walk which could cover 20 miles or more.

With everything switched on the batteries will not last more than 4 hours so you have to be aware of this and change the batteries after 4 hours to maintain the records.

The battery life can be extended to a certain extent by using 'battery save' and by switching off the compass and altimeter.

Garmin also tell me that you will use less battery power if you walk in a straight line and keep on level ground as the computer does not need to make continuous calculations.

You may already be aware of these points but I send them in case you are not.

I look forward to your next article”

Dennis Gilbert

“I bought a Garmin Etrex over a year ago and I find it invaluable. Having walked for over fifty years now I consider it to be the most important item I've ever bought for safe walking. I definitely would not be without one.

I see one contributor mentioned the battery. These devices are a little hungry for battery power, but, I use some Uniross NIMH 2300 milliampere/hour rechargeable batteries which can be recharged up to 1000 times, according to the manufacturer.

When using these I can do at least three long days of walking without any problem at all - and that's with the device switched on for the entire walk. They come in a pack of four so I always carry two fully charged spare ones just in case.

Happy and safe walking in all weathers.”

Brian Hill, Builth Wells

“After some research I finally purchased the Garmin Etrex handheld GPS as an 'entry level' device and fully prepared to find it was just a gadget with no real use.

Well, I've 'road tested' it this weekend and I'm hooked! Even for those situations where you are not trying to get down off a mountain in the dark and fog (i.e. just normal daytime walking that most of us do), I can see the GPS will add a new dimension, especially to those interested in navigation per se.

I realise already that it will be better to buy the connection lead and software, in order to download routes, but that's costly and so meantime I'll enter the data the longwinded way. The go4awalk routes with GPS data are going to very helpful for this.

As a word of advice - don't try to take on board everything in the instruction book immediately. Take things a step at a time and use what you have learned in practice before moving to the next stage. That way you become very familiar with what buttons to press on the GPS when you're on the move without having to have the Get Started guide in one hand.

GPS doesn't replace the fun of "map and compass" - it enhances it!.”

Chris Baker, Congleton

“Here's my two penn'orth for the GPS forum.

I've just bought an Etrex GPS after the embarrassment of becoming benighted between Wasdale Head and Styhead Pass last November.

It was pouring with rain and every path had turned into a torrent.

Not wanting to become a Mountain Rescue statistic I backtracked to the Wasdale Head hotel where an extremely helpful lady booked us into Mrs Buchannan's farmhouse B&B, this was followed by a couple of beers in the Climbers Bar - no more mind as most of my money was still in Borrowdale with my car and mobile phone.

Had I had the GPS then I could have reasonably confidently continued, as it was my night-time navigation skills were found to be less than adequate.

Remember that GPS is a tool to be used carefully, not an excuse to venture beyond one's capabilities.”

Mark Dixon

“GPS is an underestimated tool regarded by some as a 'gadget'. That is because they do not know how to or have never used one. To these people I would suggest they try navigating open fell top terrain at any time of day, when the cloud base has lowered and 'removed' their view.

Whilst not trying to suggest a GPS should supplement a compass, I always use a compass alongside a GPS and have (on more than two occasions) found the GPS invaluable in this type of situation.

One important point is that, on one of these occasions the ability to navigate with some accuracy by the GPS led to the rest of the group feeling far less concerned about their dilemma (which was not a dilemma at all).

Feeling safe in the knowledge that their 'leader' was about to bring them down from the mountain to civilisation without danger was very important to the morale of the group.

A GPS is as important as a Compass, Map, Suitable Clothing, Suitable Footwear and so on...”

Len Martin

“I bought a Garmin E-trex and found it astonishingly accurate when testing it out.

It will do me for why I bought it, namely:- when visibility is virtually nil I can get a grid reference (deviation or no deviation) which is a lot closer than my estimate {you know, I have been walking at roughly 4.2354 km/hour and should be here!} and then work out a compass bearing to where I want to get to.”

Dermot Sweeney

“I must admit that initially I was definitely in the sceptic's camp. Raised on map and compass (and experience 'reading' the landscape) I thought GPS devices where 'toys for boys' and offered little to enhance your experience in the hills. If anything I thought they would somehow remove part of the point of being there.

However, having tried one I realise what a valuable navigational aid it can be. While a GPS device can never be a substitute for your map, compass and experience - it will give you a pretty accurate indication of where you are (to within 25m at least - and often closer).

This means that your next decision, about where to go or what to do, is based on sound, accurate information about your current location - leaving you more time to enjoy and savour the scenery.

And isn't that the point of being there?

Just make sure you've got some spare batteries!”

Mike (Editor)

For more information about GPS Devices for Walking and Hiking see

Hill Skills > Navigation Skills > GPS Myths and Truths Part 1 and

Hill Skills > Navigation Skills > GPS Myths and Truths Part 2

For walks with downloadable GPS Waypoints see Walks with GPS Waypoints and GPS Data

For more questions & answers (Q & A) about GPS Devices for Walking see Questions & Answers about GPS Devices for Walking and Hiking

Hope this helps

Mike (Editor)

The views expressed by contributors are not necessarily those held by

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