We don’t want you to waste your horses’ hay money buying a GPS unit that won’t work well for you at your current position on the learning curve. 

Using GPS 101

Trying to use a new GPS can be challenging enough. Couple that with then plugging the GPS into a computer and going to a couple of different sites to change the data from one format to another and life can get interesting. Some folks love the challenges that computers offer, others of us—well, we just want them to work.

Special "Thank You" goes to Linda Alldredge — pictured here with her Top Trail Horse, Fuerza— for taking the time to do the research to get an understanding of the GPS then break it down in this informative article for the benefit of Top Trail Riders. If you would like to submit an article that would benefit our members, or would like to suggest a topic to be addressed please email

Let’s start with some basic GPS information. GPS calculates distance from one point on the ground to another using data from satellites. The accuracy of the systems most of us have access to is approximately 12 feet—in any direction.  Elevation is not as accurate. Most of the manuals suggest that it is best to ask for the waypoint at least three times—minutes to hours apart, and then average your results—if you really need to know exactly where you are. GPS systems have their limitations and wise users in the backcountry do not depend solely upon one system. Never forget that the data from GPS units is not perfect (but a whole lot better than trying to do triangulation with a map and compass LOL.) Remember too that all units are not created equal and don’t all work exactly the same. 

Further irritation comes from the fact that GPS measures distance in a straight line.  GPS does not care if you had to climb three miles up a very steep trail to the top of the mountain and then descend three miles down the other side in a straight line. GPS will tell you that you only traveled 4 miles—the distance from one point to another as viewed through a satellite—or, “as the crow flies” for us old timers. So, if you are on a road or a trail and the distance was measured with an odometer on a wheeled vehicle, the distance up and down the hills is measured. You will always measure short on that same trail with your GPS because one system measured the distance traveled and the other measured the distance between two points. That is just the way it is. You could spend hours with a contour map and calculator and probably make the necessary corrections, but for most of us, it just doesn’t matter. And, no doubt some high-end GPS units do a better job with this data than others.

The accuracy of any GPS is going to be affected by how well the unit can find the satellites. The more satellites it can find, the more accurate the information. Heavy forest cover, being down in a canyon, being among tall buildings, moving alongside a rocky cliff or hanging off the side of a mountain all limit the number of satellites available—and the angles to the satellites which are important in calculations. There will be times the GPS is doing the best that it can do.

The maps on most of the hand-held GPS units are generally too small to really be as useful as the folks who sell them claim. If you are headed into the backcountry, take a paper topographical map with you. You can have one made to cover the area you will be exploring, you don’t need to carry 4 different maps because the area you want is in the corner. “” is one site that will allow you to make maps yourself, or order them on waterproof paper. GPS capability is a nice addition to map and compass, it does not replace those items in the backcountry or the wilderness. You not only have to get in and get out, you will also need to find water for your horses and other details that a topographical map will give you. 

And, remember this: electronic devices can freeze up, quit or otherwise just leave you stranded. Maybe you will never need to pull out your map and compass, but take them anyway.

There are many, many different GPS units for sale—as well as GPS apps for phones.  They are not all created equal. Some are much easier to use than others. Some are much easier to connect to the Internet to download your rides than others. And, the cost varies greatly. For some, there is almost no learning curve. For others, the learning curve is so steep that you are going to need a ladder. For now, we are going to concentrate on stand-alone GPS units. The phone apps will have to be covered in another document, preferably written by someone who understands and uses them.

At the most basic of levels, GPS units come in three different types. One is the GPS that was developed as a simple navigation tool.  It was designed to get you to a destination and get you back. There is a pure stand-alone tool. It may be old. There is no way to connect it to the Internet. These GPS units do what they were designed to do, but this type of GPS is not suitable to download your rides to Open Trail. They are not bad units, but they won’t work for this program.

One of the most basic (and inexpensive) of the next step up is the true navigational GPS units. The least expensive is probably the Garmin eTrex 10. You can find it for $80-$100. It comes with a USB cord so you can download your data to the Internet and participate in Open Trail/Top Trail websites. 

You can find units all the way up to $600 or more that work this same way.  Some connect wirelessly, some need the USB cords. All have different features and their own set of fans as well as their own set of folks who are unhappy with the units. We will discuss these units in general in just a minute.

And the third type of GPS is one designed just to monitor fitness activities. They tend to be smaller—often a wrist band arrangement. This type of GPS comes with a “start” and “stop” button. You turn on your GPS, then, once mounted, push “start” for the start of your ride. When you finish, you push “stop.” This makes it very easy to select out your trail ride to export into Open Trail. This type of unit may not give you a whole encyclopedia of possible data readouts, it is designed for a particular purpose. And that can be good.

As long as you can transmit data to the Internet, either of the last two types of GPS units will work for Open Trail. 

There are two more decision points, though. The first is truly your personal         choice. How much do you want to spend?   The range is probably going to be in the     neighborhood of $100 to $1000. Your call, more expensive is not necessarily better.     The second is, “How easy is this unit going to be to track my miles and get them transferred to the Internet?” Getting a more expensive unit with more bells and whistles will not guarantee that it will be easier to use. In fact, the reverse may well be true. 

We are in the process of having members discuss the GPS units that they use and why they like (or dislike) them. Look for that thread on the Top Trail Group on Facebook.

Back to the navigational GPS units… One would think that the least expensive GPS—and we will pick on the Garmin eTrex10 here—would be the most simple to use and have the fewest features. Here is a list of the features offered on the eTrex 10—and that is before you open up options within a feature:

  • Map
  • Where To?
  • Compass
  • Mark Waypoint
  • Trip Computer
  • Setup
  • Waypoint Manager
  • Geocaches
  • Route Planner
  • Track Manager
  • Active Route
  • Proximity Alarms
  • Waypoint Averaging
  • Man Overboard
  • Area Calculation
  • Profile Change
  • Calendar
  • Calculator
  • Sun and Moon
  • Stopwatch
  • Hunt and Fish and Satellite Information. 
    Under “Setup” you can select this Garmin to become more specialized for Recreation, Geocatching, Marine or Fitness.

Are you confused yet? Couple this with the fact that most of these GPS units only come with a “Quick Start Guide” and you have to download the real manual—which often isn’t very good either. Enter Top Trailhere. We are working on putting together input from users about which of these units actually are easy to use and easy to transfer data to the Open Trail website. And the members who have different devices are equally eager to help someone master the demons of the GPS unit they already own.  There probably isn’t a “bad” unit out there, but some are definitely more user-friendly than others, especially when you are just getting started. 

We don’t want you to waste your horses’ hay money buying a GPS unit that won’t work well for you at your current position on the learning curve. Simple can be good—especially when you are just getting started. It's like shopping for horses—if you can get the horse that will be a good fit for your intended use the first time, you will save a lot of money and frustration.

Later on, you are going to have developed more preferences, based on your style and location of riding and you may be looking for a GPS unit that is perfect for your needs. And we will still be here to help you find the gremlins that inhabit that particular GPS unit and help you ferret them out. And you will have become an expert and can help others navigate that path you just mastered.