There is a lot of debate among hikers regarding the wisdom of carrying a GPS or GPS-enabled smartphone while hiking. Even those who recommend its use in some wilderness areas are less inclined to bring one along on the John Muir Trail, with its general lack of navigational challenges. I’m not going to wade into that argument, other than to say I think carrying one is worth the money and weight.
If, after examining the advantages and disadvantages, you decide to carry one, why not get the most out of it? Here are a few uses that might not be immediately apparent:
Note: in this article I will often use the term “mark.” By “marking” a position, I mean establishing a waypoint at a particular location in order to find it later. GPS devices are good at that. Just make sure, prior to your hike, you learn how to mark a location, and how to use your device to return to that spot.
Mark your campsites and break spots.
There are several reasons for this: you can record locations that were particularly good or bad, you can leave your campsite for a side hike (or a short walk to another campsite) and find it easily when you return, even in the dark, and, should you leave something at a spot where you took a break, the GPS will give some idea of how far you need to backtrack to recover it, as well as exactly where it is.
Mark where you leave your gear if you are bagging a peak.
One usually doesn’t want to haul everything to a nearby summit, but you don’t really want to leave your stuff right next to the trail, either. Instead, hang your gear on a tree (to discourage marmots, pikas and mice from exploring), mark the spot, and know that you’ll be able to find it later.
Mark spots of particularly amazing photos.
Lots of cameras now have a GPS built right in, but a GPS is a heavy power user. Should you decide to save your camera battery, or if your camera doesn’t have a GPS, consider marking the spot you took a particularly good shot, like the one of the bear trying to get into your canister.
Many GPS devices will tell you the exact time for sunset and sunrise.
Many hikers like to stop, eat dinner, and then hike a while longer before turning in for the night. Knowing when the sun will set can help you decide when to make that stop for dinner and just how much light you have left.
One final note: one area where GPS devices sometimes do NOT excel, even though they have a readout that appears to be quite accurate, is in calculating elevation.
Good hiking, Ray