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How to Use a GPS: Waypoints and Go-Tos

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


Learn How To Mark, Save and Return to GPS Waypoints

At this point, you know how a GPS works and how to obtain a good signal and the most accurate position information.

You also have an understanding of coordinate systems and datums and how they apply to GPS use.

And now you're ready to practice moving from waypoint to waypoint (or coordinate to coordinate) with your hand-held GPS unit. Just don't go too far afield until you've gotten the hang of it.

And don't forget to bring your map and compass, too!

The First Two GPS "How Tos": Need to review before moving on?

What Is a Waypoint?

A waypoint -- also referred to as a landmark on some GPS units -- is a specific location defined by a set of coordinates using a designated datum. (That's my definition, anyhow.)

Your GPS will allow you to save a large number of waypoints, any of which you can rename to something that you will recognize rather than using the default name. These default names are usually a set of letters and/or numbers the GPS will assign to each waypoint that is marked. (If you're not going to change the name on your GPS, it's a good idea to jot down a short description of what each waypoint number refers to, so you don't forget.)

It's a good idea to delete waypoints that you no longer need or save them elsewhere in order to free up space on your GPS and avoid confusion when using the device.

How To Mark a GPS Waypoint

The coordinates of your current location

Marking the waypoint of the place where you're standing is easy. Or at least it has been on every GPS unit I've used. You either hold the "Mark" button down, if your unit has one, until the screen indicates that the point has been recorded, or choose the "mark" function on your unit's menu (like the one pictured here, at the top of the menu). Your user's manual will give you this specific information.

Just be sure, as we covered in How To Use A GPS: The Basics and Background, that your GPS is in 3D mode with a low "estimated position error" (EPE) and there are four or more satellite connections in a good configuration. If not, move around a bit until this is the case if at all possible.

After marking the waypoint but before moving on, double-check to be sure the point is on the list in your GPS, then pull it up and look at your distance to that point. Since you haven't moved, that distance should be 0 or very small (due to the EPE) -- no more than a few feet. If your GPS says the waypoint is a mile away, well, then you know there's a problem.

How To Enter A Waypoint Into Your GPS

That is, a waypoint that's not from your current location

It's one thing to mark the point where you're currently standing by just pressing a button once or twice. It's another thing to enter waypoint information into your unit and do so correctly.

This you'll need to do if you've measured a waypoint on a map or been given the information. First, you'll need to set the datum on your GPS to the same datum as the map you're using or that the person or other source of information is using.

You'll also need to set the coordinate system information to the proper format, be it UTM or Lat-Long or other. If it's Latitude-Longitude, you'll have to choose either degrees-minutes-seconds, degrees-minutes-decimal minutes, or decimal degrees.

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You'll have to check your GPS user's manual to see the specific instructions for your unit, but, in my experience, you'll need to press the "mark" button the same as you would for marking your current location and then edit that information or press "enter" to do so. Then you'll use your keypad to change each digit or letter as necessary.

Be sure to save the waypoint and then double-check your waypoint list to make sure it's in there.

How To Do A "Go To" With Your GPS

Returning to a waypoint or landmark

Many GPS units have a dedicated Go To button and all have the Go To function, perhaps the most common use for these units. "Go To" means just what it sounds like--you want to go to a waypoint of your choice from your current location. This will allow you, for example, to mark the location of your vehicle or campsite before you start out for a hike and then find your way back to it later by following the directions provided by your GPS.

When you press the Go To button or select that function, you then need to select the proper waypoint from your list. This is where renaming waypoints can come in handy, or at least write down which waypoint is what on a notepad, so you don't accidentally select the wrong one.

Once you've selected the desired waypoint, you can then use various navigation screens--like the compass screen pictured here--to aid your travel back to that point. Before you start out, though, estimate the distance and direction in degrees to that point and compare that to what your GPS is telling you. If it's way off, you'll want to double-check this on your map. You may have made a keypad error and selected the wrong waypoint.

Video: How To Mark And Find A GPS Waypoint

Chris will show you how to input waypoint information and go to that point with his eTrex Legend, but the same principles apply no matter which GPS you're using. On different units, you'll have different buttons, toggles or even touch screens to maneuver through the pages and information, but most of the labels will be identical.

A Good Book On GPS Navigation

And Finally.... The Fourth Article in my How To Use A GPS Series

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

Do You Have Comments or Questions About Using A GPS?

Magietha du Plessis from South Africa on February 18, 2014:

Thank you for all your lenses on GPS. I do not know all that much about the subject and I will have to stude your lenses to get to know GPS's well. I used a TomTom but I had some problems, maybe the technology was just a little bit old.

anonymous on June 21, 2011:

You write very good articles about GPS. I hope you will write one about your adventures using an Android GPS device.

Rhonda Albom from New Zealand on January 03, 2010:

I love my Garmin! Great job describing waypoints and go-tos.

hlkljgk from Western Mass on September 22, 2009:

great how to. we love geocaching.

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