How To Read GPS Coordinates

We have been meeting the term GPS a lot in many spheres of our daily lives. Most of us usually use a GPS navigation system in our cars or a GPS tracker on our smartphones. There are also the avid hikers and hunters that use appropriate GPS tracking devices when in the wild.

But do you have a basic understanding and know how to really read the GPS data? Or are you limited to simply following the directions provided by the GPS navigation in your car?

Do not worry if you don’t have any in-depth knowledge of coordinates, reading them and understanding all the numbers that should tell a certain position.

Keep reading and we will explain all this in very simple everyday terms everything you need to know and you will definitely have a better understanding of GPS coordinates by the end of this article.

Imaginary lines that divide the Earth

The Equator is at 0 degrees, the imagined horizontal line dividing the Earth into two halves. Everything above the line is the North Hemisphere ending with the North Pole at 90 degrees; below the line is the South Hemisphere ending with the South Pole also at 90 degrees.

Going up and down from the Equator, at every degree, there are horizontal lines called parallels, which represent the latitude.

Going up from the Equator, the longitude is denoted with a designation “N” after the number for example 15°N of 40°N, denoting North of the Equator. Everything south of the Equator is denoted with the letter “S” after the number, for example, 27°S or 45°S, indicating South of the Equator.

The vertical lines are called meridians and they represent the longitude. The meridians stretch out and connect the Earth’s Poles, the Earth is divided into 360 degrees, starting with the Prime Meridian at 0 degrees. Every meridian east of the Prime Meridian is represented with the letter “E” indicating East: 15°E, 30°E etc.

At the other side, every meridian west of the Prime Meridian is presented with a letter “W”, Indicating West like 60°W or 100°W.

The east and west side of the meridians go up to 180 degrees and this line is known as the 180th meridian or antemeridian, which when connected with the Prime Meridian, separates the Earth in two halves, dividing it in the Eastern and Western Hemisphere.

What does it mean?

Every location on the Earth can be expressed as a set of numbers. The parallels and meridians around the Earth form a coordinate system – basically a grid, so when you input the GPS numbers in this grid and appropriate map you get the exact location you need.

There is a rule that the first number is always the latitude, followed by the longitude, or for example the GPS coordinates for the Statue of Liberty: 40°41′21″N 74°2′40″W. This means that the Statue of Liberty is located 40 degrees, 41 minutes and 21 seconds north of the Equator, and 74 degrees, 2 minutes and 40 seconds west of the Prime Meridian.

Mostly these coordinates are represented in a DMS format (Degrees, Minutes, Seconds) but there are also degrees decimal minutes (DDM) and decimal degrees (DD).

The coordinates for the Statue of Liberty in DDM are 40°41.35N 74°2.6667W, and in DD the same coordinates are represented as 40.689167 -74.044444. The minus sign in the longitude in DD coordinates represents West from the Prime Meridian, and a minus sign in latitude presents South of the Equator.

All USA coordinates have a positive number for latitude, denoting above the Equator and negative number for longitude, denoting west from the Prime Meridian.

How to obtain GPS coordinates?

The use of a simple GPS app makes it very easy to obtain precise GPS coordinates. All GPS apps have a menu option that shows their exact position in the appropriate format. Depending on the design of the app, the display of the coordinates is most likely to be displayed in DMS format or DD format.

Another way to get the precise GPS coordinates for every place on the Planet is to use Google Maps. You only need to do a left click on the desired location on the map and you will get the latitude and longitude of the location. The coordinates in Google Maps are displayed in both DMS and DD format.

GPS enabled devices and their applications

All GPS enabled devices are using the GPS satellite system and get the necessary info through low-powered radio waves.

In order to show its exact position, a GPS enabled device needs to communicate with at least three GPS satellites and when it receives the signals, it determines the exact location via a set of simple equations.

GPS Navigation devices

Many companies produce devices with the sole purpose of GPS navigation. Many of these come in different designs and sizes and different applications. The vehicle GPS navigation unit usually looks like a smartphone or a tablet and is programmed with the different places of interest and possible routes.

The personal GPS navigation unit has a more compact design and is meant to be handheld or in some cases even worn. These are programmed with particular locations and possible routes and are meant to be used in hiking, hunting, trekking, and in extreme sports.

Smartphones and computers

Most more expensive smartphones are equipped with GPS, and with the use of an appropriate app, these can be used as GPS navigation or GPS location devices.

Some manufacturers of laptops and netbook computers also equip their devices with GPS and again, with the use of the appropriate app these can provide GPS navigation information or GPS location coordinates.

To sum up

The GPS coordinates are an essential way to locate a place or a person on a digital map. There are several formats of representing the GPS coordinates, the DMS, DDM and DD formats are most commonly used.

If you have some issues with the formats, there are plenty of online conversion tools that will convert the coordinates between these formats.

Once you know the basics you will have no problems understanding the GPS coordinate numbers that have seemed confusing at first glance, and you will be able to find your way everywhere.