I remember the first time I got lost on the trail, way in the backcountry of a state park. My horse was green, my riding buddy was clueless as to where we were, and it was getting dark. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried. Luckily, after stumbling around in the woods for a couple of hours, we somehow found our way back to our trailer.
This event occurred a few years ago before Global Positioning System ? GPS ? devices were available for use on the trail. If I'd had one of these amazing tools that day, not only would I not have gotten lost, but also I would've been able to track exactly where I'd come from, how many miles I'd traveled, and the speed at which my horse was traveling.
Here, we'll first explain how GPS devices work. Then we'll give you use and selection tips, and tell you how to share your route with other trail riders. Along the way, we'll touch on GPS applications for smartphones, give you a rundown of GPS accessories, and provide a handy resource guide to GPS device manufacturers.
How They Work
The GPS is most well-known for its use in motor vehicles, where it can tell you exactly how to get to your destination by car, literally talking you through it as you travel.
Smaller, handheld models are used by hikers, mountain bikers, geocachers, and yes, trail riders. They can tell you how to get where you want to go, show you your track as you make it, and present you with the trail you need to follow.
Unlike a map and compass, a GPS device is super high-tech. It receives its information from some of the 24 Navigation Satellite Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) satellites orbiting the earth.
Every 12 hours, each satellite goes around the earth one time. As the satellites orbit, they continuously transmit their positions and a time signal. To get the most accurate detail, your GPS needs to connect with at least four of these satellites at one time.
Handheld GPS devices are able to pinpoint your location within 50 to 100 feet of accuracy. Accuracy depends on atmospheric conditions, geographical terrains, tunnels, and dense trees. The newer the GPS, the more high-sensitivity the receiver chip, which results in greater accuracy.
Trail maps must be stored on the GPS receiver, so the device has a reference for where you're traveling. Most handheld GPS devices come with basic maps loaded already, but if you want to ride on less-traveled single-track trails, you'll need to purchase additional maps for the device.
Although different types of GPS devices are available on the market, the best models for trail riders are those designed for hiking and biking. These devices are ergonomically designed, so they're easy to hold in your hand, and can be fastened to your belt or to your saddle.
A GPS device is a great tool for trail riding, as it allows you to track where you've gone and shows you the way to go if you're following a mapped trail. It also allows you keep track of how far you've ridden and your pace. You can also save any route you take with your GPS, for future reference.
Each GPS is different, depending on the manufacturer and model. But all devices allow you to create waypoints. A waypoint is a spot on your route that you should record for future reference. You should always mark the trailhead where you began your ride or left your trailer.
Create waypoints for places along your ride where the trail diverged into two or more directions. When you want to return to the trailhead, the waypoints will serve as a guild to help you know where you have been and where you are going.
Whenever using a GPS device, it's a good idea to auto-track your route. Auto-tracking leaves an electronic breadcrumb trail as you ride along, marking where you've been. In the event you want to turn around and go back the way youcame ? or if you get lost ? the GPS will show you which way to go to get back to your route.
One of the most exciting features of a GPS device for trail riders is the ability to download trail maps and follow them when you ride. You can purchase trail maps for download online, such as on Amazon.com.
For example, if you have a Garmin GPS, you can download equestrian trail maps for 16 states from USTrail Maps (https://buy.garmin.com/shop/shop.do?cID=255&pID=62138).
You can find other equestrian trail maps by entering "equestrian trail maps gps" and the region you want to search into a search engine.
A search for equestrian trail maps in California, for instance, will result in a list of sites that offer maps for a number of regions in the Golden State.
Before you set out for the first time on a long trail ride with your GPS, practice close to home so you know exactly how to use the device. Familiarize yourself with the manual, then take a walk, practicing using the different features as you do. This way, when you're actually embarking on a new trail, you'll be comfortable with the device's features.
Keep in mind that because a GPS is an electronic device, it's prone to technical failure. Your battery may die, the terrain may block the satellite signal, or your software may freeze up. For this reason, it's important to also carry an old-fashioned map and a compass as a backup.
Investing in a GPS is well worth the money if you're a serious trail rider. To choose the handheld GPS device that's right for you, do some comparison shopping.
Note that there are two types of handheld GPS models: basic receivers and mapping receivers.
Basic receivers are inexpensive (usually less than $100), but have limited capabilities. With a basic receiver, you'll be able to establish your location with coordinates. The compass heading, elevation, and time of day will be displayed, along with your satellite strength.
With this type of device, you'll be able to calculate how far you have ridden, track your path using waypoints, retrace your steps using a "breadcrumb" track, and navigate routes.
However, basic receivers don't have mapping capability, which means they don't display a map on the screen. Mapping receivers allow you to display maps on your device. The device will come already loaded with maps, or you can upload them from your computer via an external device, such as a CD-ROM.
Mapping receivers tend to be a bit larger than basic receivers, because they're designed to show map detail. They're also slightly more expensive, starting at around $150 and ranging up to $500, depending on features.
You can connect your GPS mapping receiver to your home computer. Then you can mark starting and ending points on trail maps on your computer, and download them to your GPS. You can select a route, mark it, and put it on your handheld device, so you can follow it when you ride.
As with all electronic devices, your GPS receiver comes with a finite amount of storage memory. If you have a lot of information you want to store on the GPS, purchase additional memory in the form of a larger memory card or a plug-in compact flash drive.
Some handheld GPS units use regular alkaline batteries, while other use rechargeable batteries that can last from 12 to 16 hours.
Here are some additional features you may want to consider:
* Waterproof housing. If you ride in inclement weather, choosing a GPS that has a waterproof housing is a good idea. A waterproof receiver can also be a blessing should you drop your device while negotiating a water crossing.
* Heart-rate monitor. If you're conditioning your horse for long rides, competitive trail riding, or endurance racing, you may want to consider purchasing a GPS with a built-in heart monitor. This can help you track your horse's heart rate as you ride.
* Expanded memory. If storing a lot of maps and routes is important to you, consider purchasing a GPS with a great memory capacity. Twenty-route storage is typical, but you can also find models that will store 50.
* Screen size. Since your horse will be the one carrying your GPS, you might consider getting a device with a large screen. Although it adds weight to the unit, a large screen will make reading the display much easier.
* High channel receiver. A GPS with a 12-channel (or greater) parallel receiver system will help you get a better signal in heavily wooded areas.
Share Your Ride
An extra bonus of using a GPS when you ride is the ability to share the trails you map with other trail riders. A number of websites allow trail users to upload their routes, along with descriptions of the trail and photos, so other site visitors can download them.
With smartphone GPS applications, you can also take video as you ride and e-mail both video and still photos of the route to your friends.
If you find a trail you want to ride that's been uploaded to a file-sharing website, you simply download the route onto your GPS device, then follow the trail as shown.
Navigating websites that allow you to upload and download GPS data can be a little tricky. Your GPS device must be compatible with the software being used by the website, so you'll need to locate the site's specifications. Most sites have a help section that can guide you through the process.
GPS Smartphone App
If purchasing a GPS device isn't in your budget, but you own an iPhone or Android smartphone (or touchpad), you're in luck. For little or no money, you can download applications that use your phone's GPS capabilities to help you track your ride.
The most popular app for this purpose is called EasyTrail. Available for both the iPhone and the Android, this app not only allows you to track your destination as you ride, it also permits you to take photos along the way and post them in real time, along with details of each waypoint, to Facebook or elsewhere online.
The basic version of EasyTrail is free, although by purchasing the Pro version for $3.99, you'll skip the ads, and gain the option to upload and post video of your ride.
In addition to your GPS, you should have certain accessories on hand to make the most of your device.
* Belt clip. It's important to purchase a belt clip that you can attach to your clothing or your saddle as you ride. The clip will also provide some protection to your device should it fall while you are riding.
* Extra battery. Extra battery power is invaluable if you'll be on a long ride. Should your GPS device (or smartphone) get low on battery power, an extra battery can be a lifesaver.
* Car adapter. Keep an adapter in your car so you can recharge your device when you aren't using it. This will save your rechargeable battery for when you need it on the trail.
* Carrying case. Consider buying a hard case that will protect your GPS when it's not in use. If you accidentally drop it, you'll be glad you invested in one of these.
Audrey Pavia (www.audreypavia.com) is a freelance writer based in Norco, California. She's the author of Trail Riding: A Complete Guide (Howell Book House) and Horse Health & Nutrition for Dummies (Wiley). She rides competitive trail with her Spanish Mustang, Milagro.
Trail GPS Resources