The GPS Craze: Understanding the Global Positioning System

Along with the Ipod, cell phone, and personal digital assistant, the GPS receiver is rapidly becoming the newest “must have” techno-gadget. From cellular phones to wristwatches, GPS units are everywhere.

GPS receivers come in all shapes and sizes, nearly every color, and range from very affordable to elaborately expensive. Arguably, the most common are the handheld models.

Handheld GPS units are popular for their well-roundedness, including hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, skiing, climbing, kayaking, navigating around town, or nearly any other outdoor activity. For example, bicyclists and runners use these handheld GPS units to follow courses, keep an eye on speed, and monitor distance. Skiers use GPS to keep track of the trails and clock their top speeds. Anglers mark the hot pockets where the big fish strike. And hikers use them to backtrack to camp or maintain better trail navigation.

Another popular GPS unit is the dashboard-mounted model. These unites are good for automobile navigation and work well for everyone from the delivery driver to business traveler to the soccer mom. Many automobile manufactures are now providing upgradeable installed GPS packages.

However, like most modern technology, users are incapable of fully utilizing the benefits of GPS because they don’t understand how it works.

GPS for the public is a relatively new phenomenon. The Global Positioning System is funded and controlled by the U.S. Department of Defense. On May 1, 2000, GPS became available to the civilian user. Twenty-four evenly spaced satellites, each circling the globe in twelve-hour orbits, send a signal back to the earth. The GPS receiver (commonly referred to simply as the GPS) uses multiple signals to calculate location and elevation. The unit then takes this data to provide other features. Accuracy generally depends on the receiver, and the typical handheld unit is accurate within two to nine meters.

A common misconception is that GPS will prevent a person from getting lost. Another is that Search and Rescue teams can simply find people with a GPS unit. These ideas are about as accurate as thinking that merely having a cell phone will prevent a mugging. The GPS unit reads a basic the signal from space. If the receiver does anything else, like send out its own signal or give directions, that’s a feature of the specific receiver, not a function of the Global Positioning System.

Thoroughly understanding how to operate the GPS receiver is the key to good GPS navigation and it allows the user to get her money’s worth. Owners should go through the operator’s manual, cover to cover. It’s best to play with the unit and find ways to practice navigating with it. If the wilderness is involved, a map and GPS should be used in conjunction. A virgin GPS user should have confidence with the receiver before having to depend on it. And if in the outdoors, they should always remember to take along extra batteries.

An excellent way to master the GPS receiver is to go Geocaching. Basically, a person stashes a goodie-box of some sort and then posts the grid coordinates on-line at Then, another person with a GPS may go locate it, trade inexpensive trinkets (mostly for the kids), and sign the logbook. So many people are geocaching, in fact, that many of the handheld GPS receivers include features to assist in this new activity. claims to have over 222,000 caches hidden in as many as 219 countries. Geocaches are found in mountains, in parks, along hiking and biking trails, and some are even found in populated city areas.

Geocaching is a great way to spend time outdoors with the family while learning how to use the newest techno-gadget.

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