Using just a topographic map, I can competently navigate in areas like the High Sierra and Colorado Rockies, which generally have distinct landforms and open views. Even so, for added accuracy and unusual circumstances, I also carry select navigational tools, personally a GPS watch, magnetic compass, and smartphone with GPS app.
These instruments become more mandatory, not just merely optional or marginally helpful, in less favorable landscapes and conditions. Imagine, for example, hiking cross-country on a rolling ridgeline during a whiteout.
In Part 3 of this series on how to navigate, I discuss the pros, cons, and optimal applications for specific types of navigation equipment. Follow these links to the remainder of the series:
A system of navigational equipment
Over the past 10 to 15 years, backpacking has become increasingly high-tech. Consider that when I walked across North America in 2004-05, my most notable gadget was my ABC watch (short for Altitude, Barometer, and Compass). In contrast, nowadays I usually have with me three GPS-enabled devices — a smartphone, watch, and two-way messenger — that duplicate the ABC functions and that also pinpoint my location, navigate to waypoints, and track my route, speed, distance, altitude, and vertical change.
Today, it’s no longer a challenge to get information. Instead, the challenge is to develop the lightest, least expensive, and most electrically efficient navigation system that still quickly delivers the information you need and want.
What information do you need from your system to inform your navigational decisions? I think the most basic system needs to:
- Tell me the time;
- Find and transpose bearings, especially true north;
- If I’m in a mountainous area, display my altitude;
- Provide a way to mark my locations, jot down route notes, and draw bearings on my maps; and,
- Pinpoint my precise location on a map.
Additional GPS capabilities will enhance the value and functionality of your navigation system, but I don’t think they’re as essential.
Now, let’s discuss the options for providing all of this functionality.
I write succinctly, or at least try to, but this post still reached 2,000 words. This chart helps to summarize and tease its information.
When hiking on-trail, dead-reckoning is the single most useful navigational technique. Knowing the time is also useful for planning mid-day breaks and camps, and for communicating those plans with a group.
For these functions, a basic $15 watch will suffice. However, you may spend more for a comfortable band, big numbers, a positive display, back-lighting or glow-in-the-dark hands, and a scratch-resistant face. My everyday watch, the Bertucci A-2T, would be ideal, and you can wear it to the coffee shop, too.
The time can also be pulled from other devices, which I will discuss later on:
- ABC watch
- GPS watch (my pick)
- Handheld GPS
- Satellite messenger
Overall, I strongly recommend “a” watch — whether that be a basic, ABC, or GPS watch — so that you can quickly reference the time. It’s less convenient to use a device that you probably carry in a pocket or attach to the outside of your pack, like a smartphone, handheld GPS, or satellite messenger.
On any trip, including easy on-trail itineraries, I want the ability to orient my map. If this is the extent of your needs, buy an inexpensive baseplate compass like the Brunton TruArc 3 ($16, 1.1 oz).
If you can tolerate greater error or user-unfriendliness, you could also use a:
- Keychain compass, which will be less precise, or or
- ABC watch or GPS watch, which have hard-to-use digital compasses.
On trips with more extensive map-and-compass use — particularly those that are off-trail, in dense forests, or through indistinct topography — I carry and recommend the Suunto M-3G Global Pro Compass ($80, 1.6 oz). It’s not an inexpensive product, but it will last years and it has the right feature set — specifically, adjustable declination and a fast global magnetic needle, and it does not have a heavy bulky mirror. For my guiding program, I bought a fleet of these to loan out. Read my long-term review about the M-3G for more details.
The functions of a compass can be replicated with GPS devices, specifically a smartphone with GPS app, handheld GPS unit, and some satellite messengers. However, overall they are inferior. While they are excellent at finding a bearing on a map — they’re faster and more accurate than using map-and-compass — they are more difficult to use for everything else (e.g. finding a bearing in the field, and transposing bearings in the field and on a map) while also consuming battery power.
In a mountainous environment, elevation is a very useful data point. With it, I can:
- Rule out false summits and passes;
- Double-check uncertain landmarks like an unmarked trail junction;
- Contour across a slope or around the head of a valley without losing or gaining elevation; and,
- Confirm my location on a map by cross-referencing my current altitude with nearby topographic features, like a creek confluence.
Altitude is less useful in flat landscapes like Nebraska or southern Utah, because it does not help tremendously in narrowing down your location. For example, if your watch reads 3,100 feet, you could be anywhere within a 1.5-square mile area on the Brigham Tea Bench above the Escalante.
When GPS technology was less ubiquitous, backpackers tracked their elevation with an ABC watch like the Suunto Core ($220, 2.2. oz). Nowadays, the better options are:
- GPS watch (my pick)
- Smartphone with GPS app
- Handheld GPS unit
- Satellite messenger
In some circumstances I will check my elevation regularly, and therefore prefer to have it displayed on my wrist, like the time, not on a device that’s tucked away in a pocket.
A writing instrument will not be given the same level of attention in this post as other navigation equipment, but that’s not to understate its importance. On my guided trips, it’s a required item.
Personally, I pack two pens, one as a backup. My favorite model is a retractable ballpoint that FirstBank gives away freely to its customers. I’ve also tried non-retractable/capped pens and gel ink pens, but found them less satisfactory.
I make extensive notes on my printed detailed maps, probably but not necessarily for the purpose of a future guidebook. Clients use them for drawing bearings on their maps, and for tracking their progress with quick remarks like, “Lunch spot,” “Scary ford,” and “Avalanche debris.” They can quickly reference these notes to re-find themselves on the map.
Even seven years ago, I was staunchly anti-GPS. But GPS technology has evolved, and so too has my thinking. GPS is now an essential part of my navigational system, and I think it should be an essential part of yours, too. Most critically, a GPS unit can:
- Store a library of backup maps and imagery (as explained in Part 2); and,
- Pinpoint my precise location on a map.
A GPS device has additional functionality, but I consider these two functions to be the most crux.
Almost always I can “stay found” by correctly using my map, watch, and compass. But sometimes I want extra validation, and occasionally I need to know right now and can’t afford to fuss with old-school methods. In this sense, GPS is an ace in my sleeve.
Backpackers have four general GPS options:
- GPS watch (my pick)
- Smartphone with GPS app (also my pick)
- Handheld GPS unit,
- Satellite messenger (I carry one, but I don’t use it for GPS)
Their pros, cons and feature set vary:
A GPS watch will add a significant expense to your navigation system, so I think they’re only justifiable for endurance athletes who would already own one, or who would really benefit from one. In my case, I started using a GPS watch to better track my running, and realized later on that it was also a great backpacking watch.
The information displayed by a GPS watch can be viewed easily, and they excel at recording things, notably distance, vertical, and your track. Battery life is excellent, and they can be recharged quickly in town or with a small battery pack.
But the GPS functionality of these watches is otherwise limited — it’s like “GPS-lite.” They have small low-res screens, low quality maps (if any at all), and rudimentary buttons. For example, a GPS watch will display your lat/long coordinates, but you need to “play battleship” with a paper map to determine where you are.
I only recommend two GPS watches for backpacking, the:
Most other Suunto models do not have adequate battery life or memory for multi-day backpacking trips, and none of the Garmin models do. The Suunto 9 Baro and Ambit3 Peak are head-and-shoulders better, with the Ambit3 lasting about 200 hours when set to 60-second GPS pings. At this setting, accuracy is okay, as discussed here.
Smartphone with GPS app
A smartphone with a GPS app like GaiaGPS has the same recording capabilities as a GPS watch and is better for the remaining functions, specifically:
- Pinpointing my location on a map,
- Creating waypoints and navigating to them.
If you don’t want to buy a GPS watch, a smartphone can be your sole GPS device. If you have a GPS watch, the smartphone is best used as a supplement. Personally, I use the watch to record data (e.g. distance, vertical, track), but I use the smartphone for everything else.
GaiaGPS may be the most widely used GPS app. There are others, like Backcountry TOPO, CalTopo, Avenza, and hunt-specific onX; but I’ve never felt compelled to experiment — Gaia checks my boxes for functionality and user-friendliness, and I appreciate that the founder Andrew gives my clients a free 6-month subscription so that we can teach GPS navigation on our trips. Gaia is free to download, but costs $20 to $40 per year to unlock its full functionality.
If you would like to advocate for or offer feedback about other GPS apps, leave a comment.
To maximize the battery life of a smartphone when using it as a GPS, switch it into airplane and battery-saving mode. On longer trips (5+ days) or any guided trip, I bring my Anker PowerCore II 10k to recharge my phone, as well as my GPS watch, satellite messenger, and now my Black Diamond Iota Headlamp (my review).
Handheld GPS unit
If you own a smartphone, the case for a dedicated handheld GPS unit like the Garmin eTrex 20x is lost on me. At best, its operation is less compromised if the screen is wet.
Otherwise, a smartphone has many advantages over a conventional handheld GPS unit:
- No weight penalty, since I never leave my phone in my car at a trailhead;
- Little additional expense, since I already own the phone and just need software;
- A bright, large, and high-resolution touchscreen;
- Access to topographic map and imagery layers that are far superior to the primitive proprietary layers found on handhelds.
To me, handheld GPS units seem like technological dinosaurs. Am I missing something?
The final GPS option is a satellite messenger. Some devices like the Garmin inReach Explorer+ (long-term review) have the same functionality of a handheld GPS unit, in addition to their messaging capabilities. With less featured models like the Garmin inReach Mini (preview), essentially you must use the Earthmate smartphone app.
Since many backpackers already carry an inReach and pay for a monthly or annual subscription, using a satellite messenger does not add cost or weight, unlike a smartphone app or a handheld GPS, respectively.
However, the inReach devices share the same drawbacks as handheld GPS units (i.e. small low-res screens, clunky buttons, and inferior proprietary maps), and the Earthmate app is not as smooth as dedicated GPS apps like Gaia.
Personally, I think inReach technology is wonderful, but I think it should be decoupled from GPS navigation. Hence, I strongly recommend the inReach Mini over the other inReach models.
Leave a comment!
- What questions do you have about my navigation system, or the options in general?
- Share your navigation system, and the rationale for your choices.
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