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Five steps to assure GPS accuracy in the field

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If we would have followed my GPS’ recommendations, we would have ended up lost in the desert. Here is what to do when the GPS  directions just don’t look right.

From Leon: My brother Mike Pantenburg,  friend John Nerness and I were hiking in the

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Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area recently,  headed for Badlands Rock. I have made that three-mile hike many times, and am familiar with the terrain and where the rock should be. I established the car’s waypoint on my Garmin Venture, plugged in the coordinates for Badlands rock and we took off.

We hadn’t hiked together in almost a year, so most of our attention was on gabbing and catching up. I paid perfunctory attention to the GPS. At one break, though, I noticed that the directions to Badlands Rock were way off. According to the GPS, we were 30.5 miles from our destination! Some quick work with map and compass got us back on track.

I take all my navigation questions to survival and navigation instructor Blake Miller. I asked Blake – what went wrong? It was a clear day, I am very familiar with my GPS’ operation, and there was nothing that should have affected that receiver.

Here’s Blake’s reply:

by Blake Miller

Ever have one of those “GPS days” when the darn thing is providing a bearing that looks way off the mark….”that can’t be right?”

The Oregon Badlands are superb for practicing land navigation skills (Pantenburg photo)

The Oregon Badlands are a superb place for practicing land navigation skills (Pantenburg photo)

Our GPS receivers are very accurate – what should the hiker do when the information displayed just doesn’t look right?

Here is the typical scenario: As the hiker leaves camp he marks “camp” as a waypoint in the GPS. Throughout the day the hiker maneuvers about the forest and by late afternoon it is time to return to camp. He selects “find” and calls up the waypoint for camp.

The GPS indicates that camp is two miles out on a bearing of 330 degrees; but that doesn’t look right. The hiker compares the receiver’s information with map and compass. After a bit of analysis the hiker recognizes there is a problem. What should he do?

I have a few recommendations to help improve the inaccuracy the hiker is experiencing.

  • First, calibrate the electronic compass. Always calibrate the compass after installing new batteries. (Check the owner’s manual to determine if your GPS has an electronic compass.)
  • Second, turn off the GPS, turn it back on, select “find” and evaluate the new data to return to camp. Check the satellite view screen to ensure that at least four satellites are being tracked. Consider moving to an area that has an open view of the sky.
  • Third, if the information present still looks in error, take five to ten steps in the direction recommended to see if movement effects the data displayed.
  • Fourth, open the battery compartment and remove one of the batteries. Keep the battery out for 10-20 seconds and then return it to the GPS. Power the GPS back on and repeat the process by selecting “find” to return to camp.
  • Lastly, it may be that the saved position of camp was made before a solid satellite lock was achieved. Compare the saved coordinates for camp with the plotted position of camp.

Usually, taking these five steps will clear up the issue.

Remember, never leave map and compass at home.

Blake Miller

Blake Miller has made a career out of staying found and knowing where he is at all times. His formal navigation training began when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1973. He served as an officer aboard several Navy ships over his twenty-year career; many of those tours included the duty of Navigator. Blake began working with satellite navigation systems at sea in 1976, culminating with the then-new Global Positioning Systems aboard the Battleship WISCONSIN in early 1990.

In 1998 Blake started Outdoor Quest, a business dedicated to backcountry navigation and wilderness survival. Blake has taught classes to wild land firefighters, state agency staffs, Search and Rescue team members, hunters, hikers, skiers, fishermen and equestrians. He regularly teaches classes through the Community Education programs at Central Oregon (Bend) and Chemeketa (Salem, OR) Community Colleges.

As a volunteer, Blake teaches navigation and survival classes, to students in the local school district and conservation groups. He is a member of a Search and Rescue team.

Contact Information :

Website: www.outdoorquest.biz;

Phone: 541 280 0573;

Email: outdrquest@aol.com

  • Leon

    It doesn’t take courage – I encourage and appreciate feedback, good, bad or indifferent. Glad you like the site.

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    Hi! I’ve been reading your web site for some time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout
    out from Lubbock Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic job!

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