A Quick History of GPS and How it Works.

In this article I thought I would give you a brief history of GPS.

I find GPS to be a really interesting topic and it has opened up a whole new world of tracks, roads and trails for dirt bike riders.

 If you are looking for specific GPS unit recommendations, check out my dirt bike GPS unit reviews.

 To learn more about using your smartphone as a GPS system, click here.

Also, check out my directory of very cool GPX files made by dirt bike riders for downloading into your GPS unit.


#1 The Global positioning system (GPS) cost tens of billions to build and implement but is available to the general public for free.

#2 The GPS system was built to avoid further international incidents such as the Korean Airlines (KAL) flight 007.

#3 The GPS system has 30 satellites in orbit and there will always be 4 satellites above your head anywhere in the world to give you an accurate reading.

#4 The GLONASS system is the Russian version of the GPS system. Both the GPS and GLONASS systems can be used at the same time by modern GPS units to provide the most accurate reading.

#5 Selective availability meant that the accuracy of GPS was reduced for public use and only the military had pinpoint accuracy until the year 2000.


 The GPS system cost literally tens of billions of dollars to build and implement but the general public can access the whole thing for only a few dollars for a decent phone app.

Additionally, Our GPS systems have made the human race a lot safer.

Prior to GPS, getting lost in the wilderness or in the middle of the ocean usually meant certain doom, but with GPS, being found by rescue is easy if you have your GPS turned on.

Also, the GPS system doesn’t require any mobile or internet service to operate, you only need a charged battery and you are good to go. Nice!

In this article I will be chatting about the history of GPS and how it was created.

Also, I will give you a few of my tips for using your smartphone as a GPS tool for exploring tracks on your dirt bike.

GPS history

The global positioning system (GPS) was originally created by the US defense department in 1973 who developed it exclusively for military use only.

As the years went on, the GPS program continued its development until it was finally completed in 1995.

At this point it had 24 satellites orbiting the earth at an altitude of 20,200 kms, which provided coverage to the entire globe.

Since then, the entire GPS satellite system has been replaced with 30 super advanced satellites with a few spares waiting in standby on the ground just in case any orbiting satellites fail or are destroyed.

The reason why the GPS system was released to the public was because in 1983, Russian fighter planes shot down a Korean commercial passenger plane (KAL-007) that was flying over Russian airspace.

This was back in the cold war days when Russia was a hardcore communist soviet empire that didn’t like unauthorized aircraft in their space too much.

Basically, the commercial aircraft drifted into soviet airspace unintentionally and so an inaccurate radar position was to blame for the incident.

In the words of History.com

“On September 1, 1983, Korean Airlines (KAL) flight 007 was on the last leg of a flight from New York City to Seoul, with a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. As it approached its final destination, the plane began to veer far off its normal course. In just a short time, the plane flew into Russian airspace and crossed over the Kamchatka Peninsula, where some top-secret Soviet military installations were known to be located. The Soviets sent two fighters to intercept the plane. According to tapes of the conversations between the fighter pilots and Soviet ground control, the fighters quickly located the KAL flight and tried to make contact with the passenger jet. Failing to receive a response, one of the fighters fired a heat-seeking missile. KAL 007 was hit and plummeted into the Sea of Japan. All 269 people on board were killed.” 

So after this incident occurred, President Ronald Reagan decided that the best way to avoid another incident like KAL-007 occurring again was to declare the GPS system to be available for public.

The GPS system would allow pilots to receive a much more accurate view of their current positions so as to avoid crossing into illegal airspace.

GPS Selective Availability.

Making the GPS system was a successful move, except that the system was purposely reduced in effectiveness so the public would not have the same capabilities as the military.

This was called selective availability (SA) which meant that consumer GPS readers would be off the mark by like 250 meters! which is bad news if you are were trying to keep an accurate course.

It also made it impossible for road use.

Because of this, in the year 2000, President Bill Clinton declared that selective availability would be switched off.

This meant that the public could pinpoint their position down to only a couple of meters.

This move revolutionized the way the world used GPS and it quickly went mainstream.

It was then quickly picked up by all types of sporting activities where staying on course was really important.

This also meant that sailors no longer had to use the stars to navigate. (although that is a very cool skill to have)

How does GPS work?

For your GPS unit to give you a perfectly accurate reading of exactly where you are in the world, it needs to receive signals from at least 4 satellites.

So because of this, the GPS satellite system is designed to orbit in a pattern around the globe where there are 4 satellites above your head at any given moment, no matter where you are on the globe.

The GPS system can still operate on 3 satellites but you will not receive a piece of data, such as altitude.

These GPS satellites contain atomic clocks that transmit their time and location back to your GPS unit.

With this information, your GPS unit will know the precise distance from all 4 satellites. It will then crunch all the data and provide you with your position with almost pinpoint accuracy.

No doubt you have noticed that GPS doesn’t work too well if you are undercover in a car park, indoors, cloudy days or under thick foliage.

This is because the GPS satellites need a clear line of sight from the satellite to your GPS unit in order to work properly.

Aside from this, the GPS system requires no internet service or no telephone service to operate and is independent of any other network.

Just as long as your battery is charged, you will receive data from GPS.

The GLONASS System.

So not to be outdone, Russia decided to build their own version of GPS called GLONASS in 1976 (Global Navigation Satellite System).

GLONASS satellites are basically the same setup as GPS except that there are 24 GLONASS satellites in operation and orbit slightly differently and emit a slightly different signal.

The GLONASS system has been the most expensive space program ever conceived by the Russians and has consumed 1/3 of their total space program budget!!

GLONASS has no advantage over GPS and they emit pretty much the same thing with the same accuracy.

Used together however, users can receive up to a 20% improvement in coverage according to Garmin.

Today, most of our modern smart phones and modern GPS units use both GPS and GLONASS together to provide maximum service.

history of gps
A Russian GLONASS Satellite! Hectic.
history of gps
GLONASS orbit patterns (LEFT) GPS orbit patterns (RIGHT)

Unlike our modern units and smart phones though, GPS units back then were super basic and all you had to read from was a basic LCD screen that gave you altitude, longitude and latitude coordinates.

You would have to use a piece of paper and a pencil to plot a course. They were also bulky, expensive, they broke easily and were not waterproof.

history of gps
A gps brick from the 90s.

So basically, completely useless for dirt bike riders!

GPS Units for Dirt Bike Riders.

These days we are spoiled for choice with GPS units.

But if you are planning to use GPS for dirt bike riding such as adventure, then the best solution is to have a dedicated GPS unit attached to your dirt bike, as your smartphone can get damaged from impact, water and dirt.

You will also need a bunch of essential features if you want it to last the entire trip.

It has to be able to withstand hard knocks and the elements, the size and weight has to be right, it needs a decent screens size, good mapping features and the ability to upload custom mapping routes.

For adventure bike riders, you will also want a GPS unit that can either be hardwired to your bikes power system or you will at least want one that runs on rechargeable batteries.

 If you are looking for specific GPS unit recommendations, check out my dirt bike GPS unit reviews.

Three Dimensional Mapping.

GPS units these days are also pre-loaded with a base map that includes major roads and trails but also includes rivers, tracks and other points of interest.

A dedicated GPS receiver will also allow you to pre-plan your trip on a PC or MAC and then load the information into your GPS.

Finally, at the end of your trip you can download all your data from the GPS to your PC which lets you replay your adventure even in 3D.

All GPS manufacturers have their own different versions of software so it’s really worth taking your time with them to figure out which type suits your needs the best.

In addition to the standard maps that come with the GPS unit, you’ll also need detailed road and topographical maps covering the areas that you want to ride in.

The standard road map is great but the topographical map gives you much better detail of the terrain, whether its steep hills or slopes.

With topo maps you can make better informed decisions if you are say, at a fork in the road and need to choose a direction.

GPX Files.

The GPS unit you choose should also support GPX which means that you will be able to transfer routes and way-points across to your riding buddies, regardless of what brand of GPS unit they use.

GPX is awesome as it allows you to grab other rider’s great rides that they have already mapped so you can experience the ride for yourself.


That was a basic introduction and history to GPS. If you liked this article please let me know in the comments below and give it a share on social media.


Happy riding!

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