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Find North with GPS or an Electronic Compass?

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/31/2009

This article describes the somewhat antiquated manner in which GPS technology would provide the user with a directional heading. Then we delve into what the built-in electronic compass found on many devices now is and which of the best brands and models come with one installed.

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    GPS Directional Tracking

    Many of the best portable GPS devices, especially the ones designed with outdoor enthusiasts in mind, have a built in electric compass which is separate and distinct technology from the location tracking capabilities of GPS. On the older GPS devices without them, direction would be estimated only if the device was moving based on where you were and where you're heading. You would therefore have to walk a little while watching your device’s screen in order to get a GPS based north finding system result (or any other direction for that matter). This is almost as annoying as trying to find a spot where your cell phone will work. GPS direction tracking is based on the same concept of marking the place you were on a map and drawing a line to the place you now are and then using the compass embedded on your old school paper map to determine the direction of your movement.

    But with a built in electronic compass, which is a feature on many portable GPS devices now, you don't have to be moving to get a directional reading nor are you relying on the satellite technology which has no way of determining which direction you’re actually facing. It functions on separate hardware built into the device and it’s very accurate.

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    Popular GPS Brands and Models that have a built in Electronic Compass

    Garmin GPSMAP 60CSxDeLorme Earthmate PN - 40Garmin Colorado 400TGarmin Oregon 400tLowrance iFinder H20 C Hanheld GPS
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    Should Your Batteries Die or the Device Malfunctions

    Should your GPS device ever fail you in the outdoors, it is important you know a little of the wisdom of the ancients to determine where north is by referring to the sun or the stars. But you really should have an old fashioned compass on you as a backup if you're anywhere remote. During the day on the southern hemisphere, the sun will be due north at noon while in the northern hemisphere at noon the sun is due south. Therefore, bring a watch and know what hemisphere you're in.

    As the goodness of the night sets upon you, use the most easily recognizable constellation, the Big Dipper (known as Seven Persons to the Blackfeet Tribe) to determine where the North Star is.