First, What is GPS (Global Positioning System) ? To put it simply, it is a network of 24 satellites placed in orbit whose sole purpose is to tell you where you are. There are no subscription fees or setup charges, it is free. They were originally intended for the military and defense but are now available anywhere in the world at any time of day.

So, how does it work? Well, it all goes back to latitude and longitude. Latitude and Longitude are spherical coordinates on the surface of the earth. These lines serve as an imaginary grid that geographers use to pinpoint locations on earth. This "grid system" was made a long time ago but it is the heart of GPS systems today.

So, why the science lesson? You probably have bought a GPS device and just want to know how to use it. Well, bear with me here, once you understand the principles of how a GPS works, you might be able to use yours more effectively.

OK, let me start at the beginning. Let me explain WHY I started this article in the first place. I've been using my GPS for over a year now and I have highly praised it as the best "toy" I ever bought. Over the summer I have had many people ask me questions about their GPS's, often complaining that they can't use it the way they want to.

The common complaints are
It is too confusing
It doesn't give me the route I want
I don't know what half the stuff in this GPS means.

There are other complaints and concerns, but they usually are a result of confusion. So, my response to these complaints are, "YOU'RE DAMN RIGHT, IT IS CONFUSING".
It is overwhelming too. It just seems that there is too much to learn and there seems to be no order to it all. My advice is to hang in there, don't give up. Keep playing with your GPS, keep exploring all its functions even if you don't know what you are doing. Pretty soon it will start making sense to you. How do I know this? I done it myself. When I got mine I felt an intense feeling of being lost. It took some time, a lot of fooling around, and a lot of patience to get a hold of how to use my GPS. So, the number one lesson, above all of everything I have to say is, DON'T GIVE UP. Keep trying.

OK, here is the deal. This is my approach to learning how to use a GPS.

There is a wide variety of GPS's, and a wide variety of price ranges too. Some have large screens with color maps, and fancy menus, and talk to you, while others are small with black and white screens.

But guess what? Here is what important. The most important thing a GPS does regardless of it's cost and fancy features, is TELL YOU WHERE YOU ARE ON THE PLANET AT THE MOMENT. Let me emphasize that again. Whether you spent $1000 or $200, the most important thing a GPS does is tell you where you are on the planet at the moment. Without that ability, the machine is pretty much useless.

From the most expensive to the least expensive, a GPS tells you where you are. How does it tell you where you are ? With latitude and longitude. That is how. Regardless of what you paid for your GPS, EVERY ONE gives your position on this planet earth in latitude and longitude.

A GPS, any GPS, receives signals from the satellites, using a simple small calculator built-in the GPS, it determines in numbers of latitude and longitude where you are on the planet.

Every single GPS does this. It is the heart of the system. Believe it or not, the rest of what a GPS does is glitter. Everything else besides these numbers of longitude and latitude, is add-ons.

I'll give you a "for instance" When I turn my GPS on, my relatively low end GPS tells me in numbers where I am, it will read 43.108761 and -75.275004. A high priced fancy one will take those numbers, relate them to a map in it's built-in computer, and a voice will tell you "You are on Cross St. in Yorkville New York".
Both the high end GPS and the low end GPS did the same function of reading it's position from the satellites and came up with the numbers of latitude and longitude. But, that's where the similarities stop. The high end GPS has a bigger computer in it and more detailed maps. So it doesn't even usually tell you the latitude and longitude, but instead shows you where you are on a map. OK, so HERE IS THE BIG DIFFERENCE. The more expensive the GPS the more detailed and colorful are the maps. The less expensive models have less detailed maps and smaller screens. The KICKER is there is NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE EXPENSIVE GPS'S AND CHEAPER GPS"s IN THEIR ABILITY TO GIVE YOU PRECISE COORDINATES OF WHERE YOU ARE. Got that? The difference are the maps, screen size, and color.  

All this brings me to questions I've been asked like "How do I make a route" or "I don't like the route my GPS gave me, I want to change it". I will answer these questions, but we must learn a little more before I can explain it.


You bet your butt there is going to be homework!

Homework: Enter the coordinates to my house as a waypoint on your GPS
Latitude:43.108761  Longitude -75.275004
(decimal degrees)

TIP: No joke! If you can enter those coordinates into your GPS as a waypoint you are well on your way to using your GPS more effectively. Seriously, if it is not in your GPS manual, and if you have to call Garmin, or Magellan, and use their help line, then do it. It is that critical.