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How to Use a GPS: Tracks and Routes

As an active member of a Search and Rescue team since 2007, part of our ongoing training is navigation.

Use a Handheld GPS to Get Where You Want to Go and Return to Where You've Been

This is the fourth article in my "How To Use A GPS" series. Here, I'll briefly cover GPS routes and tracks -- what they are, how they're different, and what you can do with them.

GPS brands and models do have some differences in navigation and data entry screens as well as terminology (ie. I have one GPS that uses the term "landmark" instead of "waypoint"), so you'll have to look through your User's Manual and get to know your unit. Still, the concepts below will be the same.

If you have questions, please let me know in the guestbook, so I can improve the series.

GPS tracks and routes

GPS tracks and routes

GPS Tracks And Routes: What Are They?

And what's the difference?

In How To Use A GPS: Waypoints And Go Tos, we went over traveling from a current position a previously marked waypoint -- a Go To. A Go To is a route.

Basically, a route is determined in advance. On a GPS, it is a direct line between two waypoints. A route does not take topography or obstacles into account. For that reason, it may often be impossible to follow a route exactly. And this is one reason not to continuously stare at your GPS while walking ... so you don't accidentally walk right off a cliff!

Where you actually walk, on the other hand, is a track. So a GPS track is created as you go. Using your navigation screens, you can deviate from the predetermined route as necessary and then later return to it. This is why a route (planned) and a track (actual) will often differ as seen in the image here.

Types Of GPS Routes

As mentioned, a Go To is a route from one point to another, which might be from your current location in the field back to your vehicle or campsite.

Routes may also be multi-leg, meaning they can consist of multiple waypoints, which you may have entered by using coordinates from a map, have previously marked from an earlier trip, or were given by someone else. For example, you may want to create a route from a trailhead to a campsite and then to a favorite fishing spot you found years ago and marked at that time.

Man Overboard -- or MOB -- routes are useful when you want to instantly create and activate a route to the last computed coordinates. MOB waypoints will be created by the GPS and titled something like MOB001, MOB002, etc.

A Backtrack Route starts from the last recorded position in your track history and goes to the starting point using saved "bread crumbs." By following this route, you're retracing your steps.

What You Can Do With GPS Tracks

I'm not referring to the type of GPS tracking used to track cell phones, vehicles or wildlife. Rather, I'm talking about what you can later do with the track created by your handheld unit while you're carrying it around.

For one, a track can be used to BACKtrack. You may have had to significantly deviate from a predetermined route on your way to a location, due to significant topographic or even man-made obstacles. So rather than do a Go To route back to your starting point, you may use the track you created as your return route.

Tracks are often used in Search & Rescue to determine what areas have been searched. When returning to base, we'll often hand our GPS units to our leader, who will download our tracks onto a laptop computer and then display all searchers' tracks to help plan our next moves.

Similarly, by saving your own tracks, you can plan future trips to an area. Or you can share your track information with someone else who might be going there.

You can also upload your tracks to your computer and map them (or map them by hand on a topographic map, if you prefer) and keep "track" of where you've been.

Use Google Earth To Show GPS Tracks And Routes

"Many GPS devices come with software that lets you upload files from your device to your PC, and display the data in interesting ways. But none have the display power of Google Earth. This software, downloadable for free, lets you import directly from select GPS devices, or from data files you've saved using your GPS software."

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Find out how on

Other Online Mapping Tools, Software and Products

  • Esri: A Complete GIS and Mapping Software System
    Including a range of ready-to-use, high-quality data for GIS visualization and analysis projects; a complete system for designing and managing solutions through the application of geographic knowledge; and tools which allow you to add mapping to your
  • TNP Terrain Navigator Pro
    Regional collections of USGS topo maps and Software for 2-D and 3-D viewing, customizing, printing, and GPS.
  • AllTopo
    iGage topographic maps, GPS and survey accessories, updates for all topo maps, etc.
  • Garmin BaseCamp
    This free download allows you to plan your next hiking, biking, motorcycling, driving or off-roading trip. You can create routes, waypoints and tracks from your computer and then transfer them to your device. The Track Draw feature lets you trace you

Here's That GPS Navigation Book Again

If you've looked at my previous GPS articles, you've seen this book before. It's the GPS "how-to" text most recommended by our Search & Rescue team's navigation expert.

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 About GPS Units? Share them here.

TTGReviews on January 27, 2015:

This will be useful for when I go hiking on some of the smaller trails.

dinodanfan on July 20, 2014:

Is there any way to consolidate tracks over many trips? Similar to tracing a map with a pencil each trip, frequent paths would become darker over time, while unvisited trails would remain empty.

saburl on July 15, 2014:

I'm looking for something that can track my path when kayaking through mangroves so I can follow it back to where I started. Is that possible? I'd love to explore some mangroves but am afraid I would get lost.

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on May 11, 2014:

@etech67: If you simply want to mark your starting point so you can return to it later, press the "mark" button when standing in that location (at your vehicle) and be sure to save it. If you already have saved other waypoints, be sure to rename your point (ie. "car") so you know which one you need to return to, or write down the number so you don't forget. Later, when you want to return to that point, press "find," then select the waypoint from the list, and then select "go to." Use the compass page to direct you to back to your starting point. Be sure to practice this in a known area (ie. your neighborhood), so you're sure you know how to operate the GPS and do a "go to" before you try it in the backcountry or anywhere you're not familiar with. I would also have another form of navigation with you -- a map and compass -- in case the GPS fails for some reason (ie. runs out of battery).

etech67 on May 11, 2014:

I just bought a gpsmap 62s garmin and can't figure out in simple english what keys to use to create a track when I leave my vehicle and hours later want to return on the same track??? Should be simple enough since that is the main feature of a find your way back. Can you help?

john-pennifold on April 08, 2014:

When following a 'route', how close to each waypoint does one have to pass before the GPS unit realises that it has been passed? At what stage does it start navigating to the next?

mariacarbonara on May 27, 2013:

Really interesting piece

squidootime on April 14, 2011:

Useful stuff - thanks!


anonymous on January 01, 2011:

Great stuff. Another favorite, thumbs up and lensroll from me!

Alisha2010 LM on September 29, 2010:

Wow, learned a lot! Seems like you really enjoy using GPS. Our company is running a contest, winner gets a Garmin Nuvi 1350T. Thought you might be interested, it ends tomorrow,

andreaberrios lm on October 01, 2009:

Very interesting and useful! Thanks. 5*

Trina Sonenberg from Nucla, Colorado on September 29, 2009:

Five Stars from me!

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