GPS Basics

I get many questions about what GPS to use, not just for the Distance Derby, but pleasure riding, as well.  If you have done any searching at all, you will find there are hundreds to choose from with different ranges of functionality.  Some are affordable and some with complete mapping abilities can be quite pricey.  I can't tell you what GPS will work for you, but I am going to tell you what I use and how I use it which you might find helpful when choosing a GPS.

I will mention that you probably want to stay with a name brand.  I am familiar with Garmin.  It is what I use on the trails and its the GPS in my car and the app on my iPhone.  I use it because it works and that is their business.  They offer good support when they don't.  There are other name brands out there that I am sure are just as good, but I am not familiar with their functionality.

I will also mention that you most likely will not find anything that will work well in an indoor arena.  GPS units use satellite technology and it needs the sky to operate.  Some people have had limited success with smart phone apps in an indoor arena, but have mentioned the doors need to be open and its still spotty at best.  So don't blame the GPS.  They were made to work with the sky in mind.

I use a Garmin Foretrex 301.  I’ve linked you to the Garmin page which is full retail price.  If you Google, you can find them for around $120.  You may also see the same model in a 401 or 501.  They offer a little more functionality, thus a little higher priced.  There is also a Garmin eTrex which has pretty much the same functionality as the 301 and can be purchased for $96 from Walmart online.  That's the lowest priced unit I could find in the Garmin family.  Of course you could look on eBay for used units, as well.  I like that it is on my wrist and not affixed to my saddle.  But I know many who use a handheld and are just as happy with their GPS.  It is all personal preference at that point.

 For the Distance Derby, the Garmin Foretrex 301 (or eTrex) will have the tools you need to record your mileage, upload to Garmin Connect and give you a few bells and whistles which you might find entertaining and perhaps useful.  Don’t listen to my husband, it did get us out of the mountains in Wyoming.

I am going to give you just the basics of what I use on the GPS.  I am in no way an expert and it took me years to get this far.  Do not call me for tech support.  I have no patience for my own equipment when it does not work.  I would never make it in an India call center or working for Dell or Garmin.  Making it work is up to you.  But you might find these screens helpful in that quest.


When you boot on your GPS (that little red power button on the bottom, left hand side), this screen with appear.  You might want to read up on Waypoints in your manual – they are helpful if you are riding in unfamiliar area – but that isn’t what this tutorial is about.  And as an aside, Waypoints is the only menu item I use on this screen.  I haven’t messed with the rest of it.


If you click on the Page Button on the bottom of the GPS, it will page you to the screen above.  There are options that you can set on this screen, but I choose to see the Time (time of day) and Total Time, which tells me how much time has elapsed since I turned on the GPS and started the ride.  When I was tracking hours for some of my ride programs, this was helpful if I was trying to meet a certain hourly goal or if competing in Competitive Trail where you are given a window of ride time.  The round circle is a compass.

You can change these fields to reflect what interests you by depressing the Enter button and then Change Options.  Your manual will give you more detail.


Press Page and go to this screen.  This is the basics - and the meat - of what I use when riding in the Distance Derby.  It provides me with my max speed – which is there for fun.  If I want to take off on a gallop, I don’t want to watch my wrist while I run but it will tell me where I maxed out at when I finish the sprint.  (My top speed was 32 mph on my husband's mare, Ginger in 2011).  I can see how far I rode (Trip Odometer), my Moving Average and Speed that I am traveling at the moment.  If you just want the basics, this will give it to  you.  When you complete your ride, look at the Odometer for your miles and there you have it.  When you start your next ride, you can reset the data from this screen simply by pressing enter and Reset.

You can press the Enter key and change all these fields to ones you might find more appropriate.


From the "meat" screen I just discussed above, you can use the little black arrows at the bottom of your GPS and scroll down to see other information.  I have mine set to see Elevation (fun for mountain riding) and the Sunset time so I can make it back to the trailer in time.

As you page through your GPS, you will see the tracks from your ride.  As you learn more about the GPS, you may find this useful.


I also have an App on my iPhone called Garmin Fit.  I don’t remember what I paid for it but someone recently said the one for the Droid is 99 cents - one time charge - so I assume the iPhone app was about the same price.  The app does not have all the functionality that a GPS would have, but it does track time and miles.   Simply select the app when you turn on your phone.


Follow the Continue key until you get to this screen shown above.  (I don't enter all the data they ask; I just bypass until I get here.)  Wait until it locates the satellite and then press Start.  I will warn you that it sucks the life out of your cell phone battery so you might want to do some test runs with it first to see how long you can go before it dies.  It will save what you have up to that point.  I did buy a case that will charge my iPhone on the go and that gets me a few more hours of battery life on the trail.  Also, check it periodically.  In this really cold weather, my iPhone has shut off on its own and I have lost some precious miles.


The Garmin Fit app does provide some nice graphics and features. 


If you are really techno-nut, you might set up an account in Garmin Connect so that you can upload details of your ride.  For the Foretrex 301, you will need to plug your GPS into your computer to do this.  For the Garmin App, it automatically loads it to Garmin Connect.


There are some neat features and reports offered by Garmin Connect which you might find useful and fun.

That is the very short version of GPS 101.  As I mentioned before, there are a lot of nice features on a GPS that trail riders find useful.  I have used more and I know others who have used a lot more.  There are tools out there to help you learn.  Youtube is your friend and I have heard Cabelas offers a class.  But hopefully this will get you to the first step in that learning curve.

You are welcome to share your thoughts on what works for you in the comments section on this page.

~Tammy Vasa



  1. Nice report Tammy, I was working on a blog like this today too, you beat me too it :-)

  2. Put another one up from your perspective. All info is good info!

  3. Thank you Tammy. I also have a Garmin 301 but still don't know how to work it that great. Garmin Connect is GREAT!

  4. You have helped me figure out a few things and setup the information I want to see. Thanks Mary

  5. I have the 310 XT & love it! Still not entirely sure what all it does, but I have figured out how to record my rides & overlay the ride route onto Google Earth!


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