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How To Use a GPS: Coordinate Systems and Datums

I've been an active Search & Rescue volunteer since 2007 with the Coconino County Sheriff's SAR Team in northern Arizona.

GPS Coordinates

GPS Coordinates

Coordinate Systems and Datums -- and Why They Matter

Relying on a gadget we don't understand can get us into trouble. When we're talking about using a GPS, trouble means getting lost.

So when you use a GPS, it's important to understand not just how the unit receives information but also the languages the unit "speaks." If we don't truly understand these languages, and how, why, and when to change from one to language to another, a GPS can end up being more of a hindrance than a help.

So in this second article in a series, I'll cover the basic principles of coordinate systems and map datums and how they relate to GPS use. And I'll direct you to some additional reading material on these topics in case you want to learn more and get even more out of your GPS.

Did You Miss Part 1?

About Coordinate Systems

In general....

Location information on a GPS is based on two main parameters--a coordinate system and a datum. It's necessary to have a good understanding of both of these concepts in order to effectively use a GPS.

I'll start with coordinate systems, including what they are and then how they come into play with your GPS.

A coordinate system provides a means of defining a location by measuring horizontal and vertical distance and direction on a map. Distance and direction from what? Well, that depends on which coordinate system is being used.

There are two main types of coordinate systems--angular and rectangular. Angular coordinate systems -- like Latitude-Longitude -- are designed for a three-dimensional object like a globe. This isn't a grid system, because the lines don't meet at 90-degree angles, except along the Equator.

A rectangular coordinate system on the other hand -- like UTM (which stands for Universal Transverse Mercator) -- is a grid. This type of system is designed for a 2-dimensional object like a map, and lines meet at 90-degree angles. The Township-Range-Section lines used in the U.S. also form a grid.

Some maps, like U.S.G.S. topographical maps, have both angular and rectangular coordinate systems on them.

One coordinate system is no more or less accurate than another. They are simply different methods of positioning a point.

Coordinate systems

Coordinate systems

The Latitude-Longitude Coordinate System

Latitude-Longitude: Most people, I'm assuming, are familiar with "Lat-Long" at least in name and can point to the latitude and longitude lines on a globe. Many of us learn a little about this system in school. But as a refresher, here are some basic points about this angular coordinate system:

  • Latitude-longitude is expressed in three basic formats:

—degrees/minutes/decimal minutes
—degrees/decimal degrees.

  • Latitude measures north-south angular distance beginning at the Equator, which is the 0 line. These are the horizontal lines on a globe, spaced at an equal distance and never coming together. Latitude should be expressed as being north or south of the Equator.
  • Latitude lines are 15 degrees apart, which is equal to a constant 1,035 miles.
  • Longitude measures east-west angular distance, beginning at the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England. This is the 0 Longitude line. Longitude should be expressed as being east or west of the Prime Meridian.
  • Longitude extends out to 180 degrees at the International Date Line.
  • Though Longitude lines are 15 degrees apart, the actual distance between them becomes smaller as the lines come closer together as they approach the poles. This means that a degree of longitude is not a constant.

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The UTM Coordinate System

UTM: The Universal Transverse Mercator system or "UTM" may be less familiar than Latitude-Longitude, but, to many people, it's easier to use and understand than Lat-Long once they get the hang of it. This is because it's a grid system specifically designed for two-dimensional maps.

With the UTM system, the earth is divided into rectangular-shaped zones.

Imagine a map of the world spread out on the table. On that map, there are horizontal and vertical lines, all intersecting at 90-degree angles. These intersecting lines create a grid--20 rows of 60 boxes. The columns are labeled by number (1 through 60) and the rows are labeled C through X, omitting O and I, so they aren't confused with the numbers zero and one. Each UTM "zone" is therefore expressed by a number and letter. For example, I live in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is in zone 12S. (The "S" should not be confused with the word "south.") Someone in West Palm Beach, Florida would be in zone 17R.

Each zone is centered on longitude line. The lettered rows are based on latitude bands running every 8 degrees.

Coordinate Systems

Coordinate Systems

What a UTM Coordinate Looks Like and What it Means

Here is a coordinate for a location in Arizona....

  • 12S 0437925
  • 3892246

"12" is the east-west zone

"S" is the latitude band number

"0437925" is the "Easting," which corresponds to the number of meters a location is from the west side of the zone. (Eastings are found along the top and bottom of topographic maps.)

"3892246" is the "Northing," which is the distance in meters from the Equator in the northern hemisphere. (Northings are found along the sides of topographic maps.)

There are no negative UTM numbers.

When looking for a UTM coordinate on a map, which you can then enter into your GPS, you'll see that the numbers along the map edges show just the first four digits--the millions, hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands and thousands of meters.

For example, if the Easting is 0437925, you'll actually see just 437 and not the zero in front of it. If the Northing is 3892246, you'll see just the 3892.

You need to measure and add the last three numbers to get the hundreds, tens and single digits.

You can make this measurement using plastic grid readers, which you can buy from the U.S.G.S. or from many commercial vendors. Or you can make a UTM grid reader with a small piece of paper, marking both edges out from the corner in 100-meter increments. You can use the map's bar scale as a guide.

Here's a close-up example of what UTM zones look like.

Here's a close-up example of what UTM zones look like.

Here's a close-up example of what UTM zones look like.

Coordinate Systems and Your GPS

These are some points to keep in mind when using the UTM system on your GPS:

  • Use all seven digits when inputting the Easting and Northing numbers. This means you may need to put a zero in front of the Easting. Your GPS won't take shortened numbers.
  • Don't round off or replace the last two or three digits with zeroes if entering a UTM coordinate or reporting it to someone else. This could result in differences of hundreds of meters, which can be an issue in extreme terrain, bad weather, at night or when looking for something small.
  • If using the Latitude-Longitude coordinate system, be sure you know which format you're selecting--degrees, minutes, seconds (DD MM SS); degrees, minutes, decimal minutes (DD MM.MMM); or decimal degrees (DD.DDD). If giving Lat-Long coordinates to someone else, you need to read the information correctly, or they may think, for example, that you're giving them degrees, minutes, seconds when you're actually reading off degrees, minutes and decimal minutes.

More Reading About Coordinate Systems

Here are some handy links to help you more effectively use your GPS and get more out of it.

While there is some redundancy among these articles, I find that I learned something from each of them. And the more you read, the more these concepts sink in. Of course, then you have to get outside and practice with a map, compass and GPS in the field, because no amount of reading can take the place of hands-on experience.

Horizontal Datums

The backbones of maps

Which coordinate system your GPS is set on is just one part of the equation. The next question is which datum it (and your map) will be using with that coordinate system.

So what is a datum?

A Datum is a mathematical model that calculates the size and shape of the earth.

Datums are necessary for map-making, where the three-dimensional landscape has to be converted to a two-dimensional surface. But there are many different datums, and not all maps use the same one.

A list of just a handful of the datums that exist looks like this:

  • NAD27
  • NAD83
  • WGS84
  • ITRF00

Where to find the datum used to make a particular map:

Maps have an information block, usually in the bottom-left corner. This where you can find out things like who made the map, when it was made, when it was edited, and so forth. Included in this block of information, you may see the words, "1927 North American Datum" (aka "NAD27) or "North American Datum 1983" (NAD83) to name just two that are common in the U.S.

U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps are made using the NAD27 datum as are Forest Service maps. Aeronautical maps like those used by helicopters are made using the global WGS84 datum.

Map Datums

Map Datums

Datums and Your GPS

When and why they matter

Datums are also part of the equation on a GPS. When you take a new GPS out of the box, it will most likely be pre-set to WGS84. You can change the datum at any time if necessary.

It's also important to note that some units, such as the Garmin Extrex receivers, will revert to the WGS84 datum whenever you change coordinate formats (ie. from Lat/Long to UTM). So if you're intending to use a datum other than WGS84, you'll have to reset it.

You MUST set the datum on your GPS to the same datum as the map you're using in order to get accurate position information for using on that map.

Also, if you're exchanging information with another GPS user, you both need to be using the same datum -- or at least know what datum the other person's GPS is set on and convert the information they give you or vice versa. Otherwise, you'll essentially be speaking two different languages and there will be miscommunication.

A difference in datums can result in a difference of as much as 200 meters (about 600 feet). This deviance may not be a big deal in, say, a big meadow or areas where you can easily see your target from several hundred feet away, but imagine what the consequences might be in the Grand Canyon for example, where two points that are 500 feet apart horizontally can be several thousand feet apart vertically. This can also be a big issue in bad weather.

When datum doesn't really matter:

If you are NOT using a map in conjunction with your GPS or exchanging information with another GPS user but are, instead, only using your GPS to mark points to return to them later, then it doesn't matter which datum you're using.

More About Datums: Understand them even better and be a better navigator

This is the #1 book recommended by our Search & Rescue team's expert in navigation. He says that if we buy just one book about GPS navigation, this is the one to get.

Want To Take a GPS Class?

Some opportunities....

The REI Outdoor School offers navigation and GPS classes at store locations throughout the U.S. To see if there's a location and class near you, visit and click on your region to the right. Then scroll down to the "Navigation" section.

Also, the U.S. Geological Survey offers a free GPS, map and compass class each month at the Denver Federal Center. Arrangements can be made for instructors to travel to other areas for large group presentations. If you live outside the Denver area, all instructional materials are available for download. Call 303-202-4689 or e-mail for information or reservations.

The Garmin eTrex 32

In the first article, How To Use A GPS: The Basics And Background, I showed you a couple of good handheld units, both of which I've used for Search & Rescue work. Neither have an excess of what I call "bells and whistles" which would increase the cost.

Here, though, is a very good Garmin unit that's a step or two up from the eTrex 10 and Legend.

A Video About the eTrex

Moving On To The Next GPS "How To" -- Recording landmarks and navigating to them....

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Deb Kingsbury

Comments Or Questions? - What else do you need to know about GPS use, datums, or coordinate systems?

anonymous on May 13, 2013:

Very good lens - thanks for the info

mariacarbonara on May 05, 2013:

Another fantastic lens with plenty of detail.

JeffGilbert on February 25, 2013:

No having used one of these, this is great information. Great lens!!

cmadden on July 19, 2012:

Well presented!

Prosperity09 on June 10, 2012:

I should have paid more attention in Maths and Geography, but in my defense had it been this interesting I would have. Thanks for the info

SayGuddaycom on April 19, 2012:

A big High Five on this lens because, like your other lenses, you provide practical, understandable and most importantly of all, useful data. PS - I KNOW I have Liked this lens before but it showed that I hadn't ...another ghost in the Squidoo machine I guess.

blogalexg on February 26, 2012:

Thanks for sharing! Great information! Very clear and interesting!

I hope you can do a follow up on Geocaching!

Have a good one!


anonymous on February 22, 2012:

thanks for sharing this information,

anonymous on March 21, 2011:

Awesome lens! Blessed by a Gadget loving Squidoo Angel on 3/21/2011. Have a great day!

anonymous on January 01, 2011:

Thank you for this great explanation. I purchased a GPS watch a while ago and the instructions were so basic that I had no idea what I was doing. Now I can finally use all the features!

jups on October 20, 2010:

Maybe this gps portable navigator reviews will help you to choose cheap and good gps for car and motorcycle.

Loren Gross from Jacksonville, Florida on September 28, 2010:

A friend of mine loves his hand held GPS system. He and his kids do this thing called Geocaching on weekends. Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. So far they have found a bunch of "Junk" like happy meal toys and church tracks, but they have a great time and that is what counts. Love the lens and thanks for the Roll. Back at cha on this one. :)

eclecticeducati1 on March 31, 2010:

Lots of great information here! Thanks for explaining all of this. Great lens. Blessed by an Angel.

Delia on February 27, 2010:

great informative lens!...5*...I dislike our Garmin, "she" has gotten us lost more times then I want to admit...going to New Mexico we ended up in Colorado...fine cause we had to finally go North anyway...I figured out my husband did not read any instructions(those got lost now, will have to find a new instructions)

anonymous on October 26, 2009:

Right on! Great information - thanks. This is a great brief on GPS coordinate systems. -Will share with my high school GPS - GIS - Engineering Surveying class here in Cody, WY.

Know what you mean about the AT. In 1979 I walked from Springer Mtn. to the CT. border, then went to work as the site caretaker at Liberty Springs along the AT in the White Mountain National Forest. That wonderful summer journey lasted for 4 summers and made an indeible impression.

-Good luck, happy trails.

-Mountain Goat Miller

WindyWintersHubs from Vancouver Island, BC on October 05, 2009:

Cool! Now I know what all those numbers stand for on the map! Hubby makes think I would know! Thanks! :)

Kate Phizackerl1 on September 22, 2009:

A good idea and well executed

Bambi Watson on September 21, 2009:

Great info ~ Thanks!

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