Fiona Outdoors logo My independent guide to the best of Scotland outdoors

Getting the most out of a GPS on land and water

Written by Fiona

April 06 2021

In 1519 Ferdinand Magellan set off from Spain to try to find an alternative route from the west to the Spice Islands. His journey led to what is widely believed to be the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean.

Five ships and 270 men set off on this journey and only one ship with 18 men returned. This early journey proved the world was round and could be journeyed purely by sea. It was made possible by using the stars to navigate uncharted waters.

Magellan’s name was used to name the Strait of Magellan, which he discovered, and is now synonymous with exploration and navigation. There is even a GPS company named after him.

Luckily, these days you don’t have to rely on the stars or friendly astronomers to help you on your journeys. GPS systems are available for many purposes and can aid hikers, drivers and other outdoor enthusiasts. 

What is GPS?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System and uses satellites to help provide a navigation system. It is used internationally but is American-owned. It can be used for air, land and sea travel and is made up of a network of 24 satellites.

These satellites are structured into groups of four satellites and they operate 13,000 miles above the earth’s surface, travelling at nearly 9,000mph.

In each group of four satellites, three of them are used to pinpoint a position on the planet and the fourth one validates the results. 

There are three segments to GPS

The whole system is split into three segments: Space, control and user. The space segment is controlled by the US Space Force and refers to the actual satellites.

The control segment refers to ground control and is also monitored and maintained by the US Space Force. This segment refers to control stations and antennas. These control stations help the satellites maintain their correct orbits. Monitoring stations are based all across the world in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australasia.

User equipment makes up the third segment. This means the electronic devices, used every day, including smartphones, smartwatches, GPS receivers, and more. 

How can you use GPS to improve your hobbies or other activities?

GPS devices can be extremely useful and one of the most common uses is in Sat Navs. If you are an avid driver you could take some of the best driving routes through Scotland and see an array of landscapes and attractions. A GPS receiver in the form of a Sat-Nav will make sure you don’t get lost.

Many people don’t even realise they have a GPS receiver but as most people own smartphones the likelihood is that you have one in your pocket or near to you right now.

Of course, just because they are convenient and easy to use doesn’t mean they should be abused like the man who decided to travel from Scotland to the Isle of Man with a GPS and jet ski breaking Covid rules along the way.

Here are some of the more responsible ways you might want to use a GPS. 

Combine it with a jet ski

A PWC or personal watercraft is a great way to travel around a body of water and can be good fun for all the family.

Although the most common image of jet ski usage is racing around in the sun across blue waters they can be used for other purposes too. Many people use jet skis for sports racing and in many countries, law enforcement officials use them to combat crime. Of course, they can just be used for towing friends around a boating lake or on the sea, too.

A couple of areas that jet skis are being utilized in is camping and fishing. By using a personal watercraft GPS and a jet ski you could reach some hard-to-access areas for a camping trip with a difference. You could also use the GPS to reach more remote fishing spots knowing you will safely find yourself back again. 

GPS in video games

You thought this was an article about the outdoors right? Well, there is a certain genre of video games that is gaining traction at the moment.

Exergames are video games with a difference. These games combine smartphones or small mobile devices along with GPS, and physical activity. While you may already know the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360 Kinect systems these new exergames are different as they take the player outdoors.

This new way of playing video games outdoors with the use of GPS may lead to improvements in the number of physical exercises adolescents gain. Currently, young people in the UK, USA, and Canada are lagging when it comes to hitting these targets

Wild camping

Many people enjoy camping and this normally involves either an organisation such as the boy scouts or visiting a privately run camping ground. Wild camping is different as it means camping outside of these designated, organised areas.

If you enjoy camping you might want to try wild camping. A GPS device allows an individual or a group of campers to venture into the wild and experience camping away from holidaymakers, campsite restaurants and other conveniences.

In Scotland, the Land Reform Act of 2003 allows people to wild camp so long as they act responsibly. This should mean a leave-no-trace policy so that nature is left to be enjoyed by others as it should be. 

Hiking in the wilds

Another obvious use of GPS is when hiking or running away from built up areas. Using a GPS mapping system allows you to follow a route already planned or work out where you are if you end up a little off track.

Skiing with a GPS

There are now GPS tracking systems that can be used with winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding. These devices are used to locate where skiers are to make sure no one is missing but they can be used to improve progress too. These GPS tracking systems can record the distance, speed and time taken by a skier to complete a run.


Global Position Systems are now a part of most people’s daily lives even if they don’t realise it. The GPS in your phone is used to target specific advertising at you and can stop you from accessing websites that are not available in your country.

You can use GPS devices for fishing, trekking, camping, boating, aviation, sports and even in video games. If you want you could try to travel from Scotland to the Isle of Man, but get a jet ski licence first. Or, you can just use Google maps with your phone’s GPS to find your way home after a night at the pub.

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