How to Plot a Map Using GPS Coordinates

Written by chris dinesen rogers
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How to Plot a Map Using GPS Coordinates
A GPS unit will display your real-time location. (compass image by Paula Gent from

GPS units today are more sophisticated than their predecessors. They are more accurate, have more features and have evolved to become more user friendly with intuitive menus. Mapmaking, therefore, is a relatively simple process. Features used for plotting maps will vary with the particular GPS unit and the mapping software. However, the basic process of collecting data is the same. As with any unit, open areas without topographical obstructions or a heavy tree canopy will yield the most accurate data collection.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

Things you need

  • GPS unit
  • Waterproof field notebook
  • Mapping software

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  1. 1

    Turn on your GPS unit and allow it to initialise. Initialising your device is the process by which the GPS unit will gather location information and locate GPS satellites. This process can take several minutes. The GPS unit's main screen will display when it is complete.

  2. 2

    Note the DOP or dilution of precision error. A commercial GPS unit is not 100 per cent accurate. That degree of sophisticated technology is limited to military devices. The DOP measures the error caused simply by the geometry between the user and the satellites. This information will tell you the accuracy of your map. Refer to your manual for information on how to find the DOP.

  3. 3

    Begin by setting a waypoint at your starting location. A waypoint is a user-defined location that records the point's GPS coordinates. Some GPS units will have a button on the outside of the unit. Others may require navigating to a menu. Refer to the user's manual for instructions.

  4. 4

    Decide whether you want to plot your map with a track or a route. With a track, the GPS unit automatically records GPS coordinates along your direction of travel at a predefined distance. A route shows a path of waypoints that you collect manually as you go. If you are unable to travel the entire distance of the area you want to map because of topography or land features such as wetlands, a route is the better option.

  5. 5

    Follow the perimeter of the land you wish to plot. Note any unusual features by setting a waypoint. Most GPS units will allow you to add a description. Refer to your manual. You may want to consider bringing along a waterproof field notebook for more detailed descriptions.

  6. 6

    Return to your beginning waypoint. If you set up a track, stop the tracking feature through your GPS unit's menu.

  7. 7

    Upload the GPS coordinate data to your computer. Some GPS units, such as Garmin or Trimble devices, have proprietary mapping software that can be purchased with your unit. Newer devices will use a USB connection, while older devices may require the use of a serial port. Refer to your mapping software instructions on connecting your device and uploading data.

Tips and warnings

  • Record your data more than once for a more accurate map, especially if your DOP was high.
  • If you have a large area to cover, set the automatic tracking at a greater distance to avoid using up your device's available number of recorded points.
  • Always carry a compass and map when going into the field in case of device failure. A GPS unit is not a substitute for these items.

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