Never get lost again with these GPS tips  

Even if you have a smartphone app, there's a case to be made for owning a standalone GPS device from Garmin or another major manufacturer. If you've ever missed your turn in heavy traffic because of an incoming call, you know this already. A standalone GPS won't chew up your data plan or your phone battery, either. The one advantage apps have over a standalone GPS is that their maps are frequently updated. Garmin devices receive software and map updates as well – you just have to know how to get them.

Joining the Express lane

In most cases you'll use Garmin's own Express software to update your in-car GPS device. If you start by setting up a myGarmin profile on the company's page, you'll be prompted to install it as part of the process. If you have an existing myGarmin profile from an older device, but don't have Express installed on your computer, you can do it manually. Locate the tab for it on the company's main page – or type a phrase such as "Garmin official software page" into your favorite search engine – and follow that to the download page. Connect the GPS to your computer and click the "Download" button, then follow the prompts to install the software and register your device. As the program installs on your computer, it will also update the GPS software on your Garmin to the current version.

Updating without a direct computer connection

The classic map-on-a-screen GPS devices for cars and trucks typically update through a USB connection to your computer, but newer models such as the DriveSmart 51, and many of Garmin's sports-oriented devices for non-driving use, offer Wi-Fi connectivity as an option.

To transfer updates and user information, the device must be connected to the same Wi-Fi network as the computer running Garmin Express. Other Garmin hiking, sailing or fitness-oriented products, including several models in the Approach, Edge, fēnix, Forerunner and quatix ranges, can connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone running Garmin's Connect Mobile app. With Connect Mobile, you can update in the car or anywhere you have a cellular signal.

When you need to update your maps

If your device comes with lifetime maps or a free first-time map update, you'll be prompted to install it when you install and run Garmin Express. After that, maps are updated about three times a year.

If you make a point of periodically plugging in your Garmin, Express will prompt you any time maps are available. If you have lifetime maps, it's worthwhile to always have the very latest. If you don't, you'll have the option of purchasing lifetime maps or a one-time update. If you live in a fast-growing area, it's relatively easy to make a case for lifetime updates, because local roads and streets frequently change. Otherwise, wait until you find that the maps are outdated enough to interfere with navigation.

Broadening your horizons

If you are traveling outside the United States and want to bring your Garmin with you, that's another good reason to update your maps. Some devices include Canada and Mexico, but if you want to go further afield – to Europe, for example, or an epic road trip through South America – you'll need to purchase those maps separately. Click the "Store" icon in Garmin Express, and choose a map set that covers the area you plan to visit. You can also pair many Garmin devices to your smartphone, and use Mobile Connect to receive updated traffic alerts or parking information, available for a modest fee.

Going with third-party maps

Garmin isn't the only source for maps, even for a Garmin device. A number of third-party sources offer maps, many of them created using Garmin's own mapping technology. The company hosts a list of these providers on its own website, mostly niche providers targeting specific countries such as Turkey and Ukraine or specialized usages such as navigating the Canadian Oil Patch. For general-purpose use, you might turn instead to crowd-sourced maps. These are compiled by volunteers and uploaded to a central site called OpenStreetMaps, where they are free to download and use. The maps vary in quality, but can be very good in densely populated areas or places with a dedicated mapping community.