Why this technology is a must-have addition to a photographer‚’s bag.

Navigate trails, lakes, oceans and cities with the pocket-sized, waterproof Magellan Crossover GPS. It comes preloaded with street maps of North America and topographic maps of the 48 contiguous United States. Navigate trails, lakes, oceans and cities with the pocket-sized, waterproof Magellan Crossover GPS.
It comes preloaded with street maps of North America
and topographic maps of the 48 contiguous United States.

If you’ve ever experienced the frustration of being lost in a wilderness or a city, for that matter, or of not being able to retrace your steps to a choice location, then it might be high time to pick up a GPS. It’s one of those things you might not think about until you need it, and in situations like that, there's usually a predictably exasperating outcome.

Granted, a lot of photographers aren’t trying to replicate the Lewis and Clark expeditions. And you certainly aren’t going to lose your bearings in the local arboretum or botanical gardens. But if you travel to unfamiliar places, hit the trails in national parks and wilderness areas in North America or abroad in search of unusual and fresh places to photograph, having a handheld GPS in your gadget bag makes a lot of sense.

In our issue last month, George Wuerthner wrote about photographing old-growth forests and stands on the East Coast. Many of these areas can be difficult to find just once, let alone returning to them. Still others have yet to be discovered, so if you happen across what might be a new tract when you’re out hiking, giving the exact location to a conservancy would be most appreciated, I can assure you.

Beyond that, on trips I’ve taken into the Sierras of the West Coast or roaming around the red rock canyons of Sedona, Arizona—even with maps, a compass and trail guides galore—I still have trouble getting places. It’s so easy to lose your bearings in these vast places and others like them.

Since I typically have anywhere from three days to a week to get some shots worth the expense of traveling somewhere, I like to be efficient and organized in my approach. In terms of finding locations as quickly as possible, returning safely and then being able to retrace my steps on a different day, a GPS device is really helpful.

Whether on land or water, the Garmin GPSMap 76S can save up to 1,000 of your favorite places in 24 megabytes of internal memory. Whether on land or water, the Garmin GPSMap 76S can save up to 1,000 of your favorite places in 24 megabytes of internal memory.

GPS Basics
How this technology works, if you don’t already know, is the GPS unit receives signals from at least three U.S. government satellites orbiting above the Earth. Location and distance is triangulated and displayed on the LCD as coordinates, typically latitude and longitude, because these numbers account for the curvature of the Earth.

Since every square foot of the planet has its own GPS "address" each position is epresented b a unique set of coordinates. All GPS receivers will have various ways this information is displayed or converted into other visual representations.

Most GPS units will give you compass readings, an audible warning if you stray off course and estimated time of arrival based on the distance and your current speed.

They also use up battery power like a starving bear. With continuous use, which is really the point of having one along, you’ll want extra batteries. A lot of units take AA batteries, and others require a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Depending on the unit and how much power it needs, you’ll get anywhere from five to 16 hours of use.

So always, always bring more batteries than you think you’ll need.

Lowrance iFINDER Explorer Lowrance iFINDER Explorer

Finding Locations


1 Some GPS units have maps already installed, and all manufacturers will have additional maps you can purchase. Or you can download them for free from a Website like The selection is quite extensive and broken into categories. So if you’re going to, say, Grand Teton National Park, their GPS map has six ready-to-use hiking routes and 400 waypoints, which translated, means points of interest and their specific GPS coordinates.

Some GPS units have internal memory to support importing maps, while others have no memory, so the map has to be on an SD card. If this is the case, you’ll have to download the map onto your computer, then save it on an SD card with an SD card reader/writer (which will cost less than $20 bucks, if you don’t already have one).

2 Then when you arrive at Grand Teton, you can select one of the six ready-to-use hiking routes, or you can pick from the waypoints on the map, which appear on the LCD like blips on a radar screen—each one representing points of interest, ranger stations, parking and so on. A short description for each waypoint can be viewed, although the number of characters displayed will depend on the capability of your GPS receiver.

If there’s a certain waypoint you want to visit, you first have to determine your current position, which is really easy because GPS receivers do this automatically once they're turned on. If you’re not using a high-sensitivity GPS receiver, you’ll need to stand with a clear view of the sky.

Garmin Rino 530HCx Garmin Rino 530HCx

On the map screen, you should see an arrow marking where you are. If you don’t, you may to need check the availability of satellites and the signal strength in the "satellite status" screen. Three satellites will give you a 2D position fix with latitude and longitude coordinates, and four satellites will give a 3D position fix, which includes elevation.

When there’s enough information to determine where you are, GPS units typically cue back to the map screen automatically, where you’ll see the arrow marking your position.

3 Press the "go to" button, and select your destination waypoint on the map. The GPS unit will create a simple, straight-line route. Then, when you start walking, the arrow will move in the same direction, so you can see if you’re going the right way.

Since walking a straight-line trajectory the whole way isn’t usually possible, some of the latest GPS units will take note of your twists and turns and automatically update the route so you’ll always know which way you need to go.

The other option is to create a multileg route ahead of time by selecting (or creating) a series of waypoints along the way to your final destination. GPS units will typically store anywhere from 50 to 100 routes, with up to 50 waypoints for each.

Marking Locations

Perhaps the single easiest thing to do on a GPS, besides turning it on, is saving a position for future reference. Most, if not all, current GPS units will simply have a button to push called "mark" or something similar. Then it will prompt you to give the mark a name, and that’s it. Nice and simple.

Magellan eXplorist 600 Magellan eXplorist 600

If you want to time your shooting for the position of the sun or moon, a lot of GPS units will give you the time of sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset for a specific location and day of the year. You can see those times for your current day and position, or you can see what they’ll be at a destination next week, six months from now or whenever.

Lost Prevention
And just in case you need help returning from where you came, GPS receivers will typically have a "backtrack" feature that automatically and continuously tracks your movement with a trail of electronic breadcrumbs. These breadcrumbs, or tracks, can be used to generate a return route to your starting point, and they can also be converted to a multileg route that you can save.

GPS Receivers
Like most things, there’s a variety of GPS units out there, from basic to sophisticated, with lots of specialized features. Lowrance receivers go from less than $100 to more than $700 for marine GPS with dual-frequency sonar down to 2,500 feet. Their iFINDER Explorer is worth checking out if you’re looking for more than just a bare-bones model. It’s waterproof, has easy point-and-map navigation and route planning, plus dual easy/advanced operating modes. A MMC/SD card slot is built in for extended mapping and recording capabilities. You can save up to 1,000 waypoints and 100 routes, and there’s an optional accessories pack that includes MapCreate USA Topo mapping software, one digital MMC/SD memory card and an MMC/SD card reader/writer with USB connector. List Price: $200.


Brunton Atlas GPS Brunton Atlas GPS

The Garmin Rino 530HCx is rather unique because it has a FRS/GMRS radio, so you can communicate with another FRS/GMRS radio up to 14 miles away (line of sight on GMRS frequency). In addition to the high-sensitivity GPS receiver for maintaining navigation even in heavy cover and deep canyons, it’s waterproof, has a barometric altimeter, an NOAA weather radio and a Position Reporting feature. Position Reporting lets you send your exact location to other Rino users so they can see where you are on their maps. You can store 500 waypoints and 50 routes, and it has a microSD card slot for MapSource data cards. List Price: $535.

The waterproof Magellan eXplorist 600 is a WAAS-enabled GPS receiver with a three-axis electronic compass, a barometer and a thermometer, and a barometric pressure altimeter, plus it has the ability to download maps via the USB port and store them on SD cards. It has four easy-to-use navigation screens—Map, Compass, Locator and Satellite Status—with simple menus, one-button shortcut to key features and joystick control. The built-in North American or European basemaps show major roads, parks, waterways and many points of interest. It also comes equipped with TrueFix technology for reliable accuracy to within three meters, and a Geocache Manager—a PC application to download and organize coordinates from the Internet. List Price: $349.

With the Brunton Atlas GPS, you can plug in one of their Atlas MMC cards and get maps, as well as topographical data on a 1:24 USGS scale. It also has "Easy" or "Advanced" modes of operation, an antenna port for connecting an optional external GPS+WASS FA-8 antenna, a built-in background road map of the U.S., including Hawaii, and you can create personalized maps after downloading MapCreate and TopoCreate software. The waypoint capacity is 1,000, with routes being limited to 10. List Price: $229.


Mio DigiWalker C710 Mio DigiWalker C71

Mio's DigiWalker C710 is great if you want a GPS navigator and a portable entertainment system all in one. With 2 GB of flash memory, you can view photos, watch movies or listen to music stored on SD/MMC memory cards. Sound can be heard via the built-in speaker or a headphone jack. The high-sensitivity SiRFstarIII, WAAS-enabled GPS receiver can give fast, accurate navigation in dense forests, deep canyons and in cities with tall buildings. Maps of Canada and the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, are preloaded and ready to use. It also has a Bluetooth cell-phone interface, a USB port and comes with a host of accessories: carrying case, device holder, windshield mount, car charger, USB cable, AC adapter, an application CD, a map DVD and a TMC Traffic Reports for Smarter Routing antenna, which plugs into the headphone jack. List Price: $490.

Brunton | (800) 443-4871 |
Garmin | (800) 800-1020 |
Lowrance | (800) 324-1356 |
Magellan | (800) 707-9971 |
Mio | (866) MIO-4-GPS |

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