GPS, New Age Pole Star – Spice Route and Touchdown magazines

This article was published in the October issue of the official magazine of Mumbai airport – Touchdown, and later reprinted in Spice Jet’s inflight magazine – Spice Route. The lead picture and subject matter expertise was courtesy my adventure traveller and photographer husband Nitin Gera.

Continue reading for the full article.

Two things essential for surviving lesser travelled paths are toilet roll and GPS. The former being self-explanatory let’s understand the need for the latter i.e. GPS – Global Positioning System. It is a satellite based navigation and positioning tool that can be used in vehicles and also as a handheld device. This technology, though originally developed for military applications, is widely utilized by adventurous travellers to stay aware of their whereabouts and also find directions.

Currently GPS is the world’s only fully-functional navigation system with global coverage, developed and maintained by US Department of Defense. Anybody with a device capable of receiving GPS signals and suitable software can access this network of satellites without having to pay for setup or subscription. A GPS receiver times messages sent continually by GPS satellites to compute its distance from at least four satellites. This data and each satellite’s location are used to compute position of the receiver which is then displayed on a moving map. The real-time nature of this process allows interactive navigation along roads and even when there are no roads.

The available navigation solutions can broadly be classified by the way they handle navigation. Those based on a preloaded database of roadmaps do “route calculation” giving directions from one position to another; while others allow you to follow predefined tracks providing “track navigation.”

Route Calculation

It was 2200hrs. We had been driving from the western edge of Gujarat and were still about 200kms from the night halt at Barmer in Rajasthan. Without going into the need for such an ambitious drive let me just emphasize that we were keenly looking for shortcuts. National Highway 15, though a smooth tarmac, was a longer route with heavy truck traffic. In our GPS we changed the route calculation algorithm from “faster route” to “shorter route.” The software came up with a detour from a point where the highway drifted further into an extended “U” till Suigam and put us on a straight line to the town, reducing the distance by more than half.

However the night’s sleep was not to be earned so easily. Somewhere midway the road vanished. There was a mound of earth ahead of us and a JCB loader parked besides. Refusing to retrace our path to the highway we consulted the preloaded Google maps on our GPS. Zooming in several levels of detail we saw an alternative road through a village little off the road. With the confidence of this knowledge and guidance from the villagers we were back on track and on an even smoother road to Suigam.

That was just one of the instances when we had to rely on GPS to reduce travel time or avoid bad or even broken roads. Once on the way to Kausani the state highway ahead of Bhowali to Almora was broken due to landslides and we found a detour through Ramgarh. The return journey became even more pleasant than the original route could’ve been as we took yet another detour through Ranikhet, driving past idyllic hamlets of Uttarakhand with a backdrop of Trishul and its neighbouring peaks.

Such driving directions can be easily accessed through dedicated devices, GPS-enabled smart phones, PDAs and laptops. Popular manufacturers such as TomTom, Garmin, Magellan, MapmyIndia and SatGuide produce a variety of standalone devices and software. Typically such systems show interactive maps with points of interest such as landmarks, fuel stations, banks etc, and give step-by-step routing direction to the selected destination often through voice guidance. The latest products for cars come with usability features such as touch screen GO LIVE by TomTom and nüvi by Garmin, while RoadMate by Magellan also flaunts a 7 inch widescreen display. MapmyIndia and SatGuide offer a range of in-car navi-tainment devices. Some high-end cars are packaged with inbuilt or retrofitted systems. Dedicated devices designed for motorcycles such as zūmo by Garmin and Rider Pro by TomTom have features like glove-friendly interface that ensure ease of use while riding.

Besides the ones developed specifically for use in automobiles, a wide range of handheld devices are also available. These are suited for outdoor activities such as hiking, though these can be used in vehicles as well by using a simple mount. Magellan offers eXplorist and Triton models and Garmin has Oregon, GPSMAP, Dakota, and eTrex series of handheld GPS.

Many developers also create software that can be run on GPS enabled phones and PDAs. Google maps and Garmin Mobile XT work with smartphones and Pocket PCs, while Nokia offers its own mapping solution – Ovi Maps. There are software available for laptops too, these alongside a GPS receiver can be used to navigate, such as Garmin Mobile PC and Microsoft Streets & Trips.

A traveller has a multitude of options to choose as per personal preference. Many people rely on a combination of gadgets, software, and also printed maps for backup. Besides sometimes it is better to roll the windows down, hail someone and ask directions, even if it is just to verify.

Track Navigation

The other usage of GPS is to follow a track. A track is a record of actual path that you take, often described as a “breadcrumb trail.” GPS devices can be set to record a track as you go. A recorded track can then be retraced. This kind of navigation is used in activities like trekking, bicycle touring, and off-roading. Navigation tracking software show a track as a line superimposed on a map and your current position as an arrowhead. Navigation then is as simple as moving in such a way that the arrowhead follows the line on the screen.

Internet is a good resource for sharing and searching GPS tracks. A device independent GPS exchange format, .gpx is commonly used to upload tracks which can be installed on most of the devices. These tracks become a lifeline during extreme excursions such as trekking through the Himalayas or off-roading in Thar desert.

Driving through the Rann of Kutch, for the sheer pleasure of being one with the serene vastness, is unimaginable without a known trail. Though a mere compass and traditional celestial navigation methods such as following the sun or other stars and constellations can ensure that you are not completely disoriented, but being surrounded by nothing but flatland till the visible horizon without any clues for the right way forward is an uncomfortable feeling.

There was a time when we were smitten by a sunrise over the White Rann and walked deep into it and lost sight of the BSF watchtower at the entry checkpoint. We could allow ourselves to get lured into white-out because our GPS was recording our trail and we knew that to wake up we would just have to backtrack to our campsite.

We could get similarly adventurous while moving along a desert rally convoy, following the tracks which had been prepared after weeks of recce by the organizers. We were using OziExplorer, a popular mapping software for Windows, with a Bluetooth connected GPS receiver for positioning. An obvious benefit of using a laptop for navigation is the larger screen area, besides this software allows greater control over editing the track. Obediently following the twisting line on the screen we moved through sandy tracks, riverbeds, and narrow patches lined with bushes. Waypoints had been placed along the track marking check points. It is an important feature that allows locations to be stored as you move along a track. Waypoints can be used to ensure safe passage around obstacles or implemented as “Points of Interest” i.e. any location of interest such as a heritage site or of certain use such as a fuel station.

In such ways GPS navigation makes outdoor adventures safer and driving around roads convenient. Up-to-date maps and strong GPS receivers can provide precise and elaborate information in a portable package. This can be achieved by keeping maps updated and staying aware of newer and improved gadgets which are regularly being manufactured to keep up with increasing demand of GPS solutions.

The ability to interact with maps and their level of details enhance our understanding of the places we visit. Besides, local knowledge and sharing of experiences amongst other travellers prepares you for an enriching and enjoyable experience. In most of my travels GPS has helped in making the journey better, roads or no roads.

Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System – IRNSS

Indian counterpart of US DoD’s GPS is being developed by Indian Space Research Organisation, ISRO. It is envisaged to provide satellite based communication and navigation systems for rural connectivity, security needs and mobile services. The first of the seven satellites planned for the system is planned to be launched by the end of 2011. Once completed IRNSS will provide coverage of Indian landmass and about 1500km around it in all weather and at all times. Various other regional and global navigation systems are being developed around the world. European Union is developing Galileo while People’s Republic of China is expanding its regional system Beidou into global COMPASS. Russia is restoring its once functional GLONASS.


Geocaching is an outdoor activity similar to a treasure hunt using a GPS or other navigation methods. The participants, called geocachers “hide” a geocache and then share its location on an online community which allows other participants to go out and “seek” it. It makes this activity a game of hi-tech hide-and-seek. A geocache contains a logsheet which finders use to note their details. Various knick-knacks can also be placed which the visitors can trade with something of their own. Geocaching has been active since a decade and there are millions of geocaches and participants worldwide.


Geotagging is adding of geographic identification metadata to photographs and videos. Some cameras are equipped with built-in GPS and some support an external GPS. This allows for a smarter organization of personal photographs. Geotagged photos when uploaded on online sharing communities can be placed on a map depicting the location where they were taken.

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  • Nitin October 14, 2011  

    the article has been written and structured really well! 🙂

  • Dinesh Mehta May 14, 2012  

    Very much interested in GPS..
    Where do I buy it in India at a reasonable price.
    Pl. guide me..