GPS Basics: What Is a Waypoint?

When it comes to understanding GPS technology, this particular term is one of the most common, most important, and simplest to understand of the lot.

What is a waypoint? Simply put, it’s the coordinates to a specific location, usually described using one of two coordinate systems: Latitude-longitude or UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator).

Conceptually, the terms waypoint and coordinates are interchangeable. So why do we say, “How far to the next waypoint?’ instead of “How far to the next coordinates?” What’s the point of the term?

Consider a point of relevance. Elevating a location to the status of waypoint indicates that it is navigationally significant, as opposed to just any old coordinates out there. For example, trailheads, trail junctions, mountain summits, shelter and campsite locations, and springs are commonly used backcountry waypoints. Saved waypoints typically appear on a GPS unit’s map screen. In contrast, “coordinates” are everywhere, ad infinitum, with no sense of emphasis to the term.

Waypoints can be saved to a GPS unit in multiple ways. Most simply, you can save your present location to the GPS unit, which is known as “marking a waypoint.” Alternatively, you can manually enter a known waypoint or connect your GPS unit and download waypoints directly from an online or desktop source.

You can name waypoints to make them easier to identify, though this can be an annoying process on many GPS units. You may want to consider developing a shorthand system to make entering waypoint names faster (“TH” for trailhead, for example.)


About the Author…

Matt Heid


Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear expert: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.

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