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Gear Matters: GPS in Your System

Gear Matters-active European travel advice on walking gearEvery month our resident guide, John Millen, brings you an anecdote, update, or tip on the gear you are likely to use on a walking or cycling holiday. Always from his personal point of view.  This month we have a look at global positioning systems (GPS) which are becoming increasingly popular with walkers and cyclists for following existing routes or creating new tracks. They can normally locate your global position to 100 metres or less and are a system in use by many walkers and cyclists. 

Gear matters: GPS in Your System

GPS originated as a military system controlled by the US, although other countries such as China have their own military versions, it has now been in the consumer domain since the early 1990s. The units have  decreased in price and become much more efficient over that time. The devices track satellites and normally four of those are needed to provide a global location. It usually takes a unit less than 5 minutes to locate itself assuming there are only minor obstructions to the sky.

As well as the traditional GPS handhelds such as Magellan, Garmin and Satnav, which are walker and cyclist friendly, you can also get software for your Android, Windows or iPhones. These do pretty much the same job. Both are different to the car navigation versions though, they don't shout at you in a voice of your choosing from a list including Darth Vader!


United Kingdom Walking Guide with GPS device - Sherpa Expeditions

The walking or cycling GPS models change every couple of years, and the best way to get a feel of the differences is to read online reviews on the devices or in walking or cycling magazines, such as Walk. We would recommend GPS devices with larger screens in terms of using them with maps. The budget models may only give you a Grid Reference and show you a route line or gradient graph without showing you where you are. In those cases you may want to transcribe this information to a map. Do make sure that you have your GPS device set up for the relevant map, e.g. 'OS British Grid' or 'IGN France'. 

More expensive units generally have water resistant casings, SD card slots for expanded route memory and pre manipulated maps on memory cards available detailing popular routes such as the Coast to Coast or Tour du Mont Blanc. With these you can walk more or less exactly along the route. The map systems are also very detailed, at least in countries where the mapping is already good, in others you may be presented with a very generalised representation.

You can also download GPS coordinates from different sites such as the LDWA Long Distance Walkers Association website in the UK or from the various long distance path sites. You can also laboriously preload a route by working out the grid references manually by using a map and typing them in to your GPS handheld. Once you have walked your route, recording it on the GPS, you can download the results on programmes such as 'Memory Map' to generate statistics and route graphs. It's amazing to see your trip represented like this!

Interested in more? Read our 5 points to Keep in Mind When Using GPS article, or for more information on using GPS devices on your walking on cylcing holiday with Sherpa Expeditions, please contact our team of experts in our London office

5 Points of Advice When Using GPS

Global positioning systems (GPS) are becoming increasingly popular with walkers and cyclists alike. They can be real life savers because they can normally locate your global position up to 100 metres or less! We advise to combine using your GPS device while walking or cycling with our route notes. Here are some five reasons why!


How to use a GPS device on your walking holiday?



Referencing to your GPS system and its maps can, especially in cold weather, drain power from your GPS device. The life of lithium batteries has improved to around 10 hours of use; nevertheless it is essential to make sure your unit is powered up each night. Perhaps a device such as a Power-monkey, which is a larger lithium reserve battery that can be used on the go in an emergency, is also worth carrying.



The base maps available on memory cards vary in quality. With OS in the United Kingdom or IGN in France, the GPS versions are excellent. Unlike big traditional maps that you can fold out, the electronic maps are shown on a relatively small LCD panel. For an overview of your route including details, a combination with a traditional paper map can be convenient. Here you can easily follow or plot routes from point A to B.


Signal Strength

Luckily with the advanced, modern GPS devices, signal loss is usually temporary. The handhelds have become more powerful and trees don't provide the problems they used to! However cliffs, gorges and proximity to mountainsides can affect reception, or bounce signals giving spurious readings.


Using a GPS device on a walking holiday


Blind Following

Following your GPS device usually gets you where you want to go, but not always by the best route. There are often many nuances to any walking trail, and these can best be appreciated by looking at the larger printed maps. In low visibility your signal might be 100 metres out and you will have to be careful on the ground making micro navigational decisions in areas of steep ground or cliffs. Last year, Coniston Mountain Rescue in the English Lake District reported a surge of assistance that had to be given to people who just carried a GPS into the mountains without a map.


Oops, Wrong Turn

Using GPS systems solely, can restrict a user’s relationship and understanding of the landscape. Using a good map makes you mentally interpret features, appreciate distances and look and wonder at place names. Sometimes the path on the ground may not exactly match the preloaded GPS route and there maybe variations to the original route set up. Carrying a route map will quickly help you solve these issues.



At Sherpa Expeditions we suggest using GPS devices in combination with the maps and route notes we provide make for your most enjoyable walking or cycling experience. For information on the GPS systems available around Europe and using GPS on your Sherpa Expeditions holiday, please get in touch with our team of active holiday experts


Images courtesy of ©Richard Dorrell