How to navigate || Part 3: Watch, compass, altimeter & GPS device

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:

Alan Dixon and three clients contemplate the route ahead.

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.

My preferred system of navigation equipment consists of a GPS watch, magnetic compass, smartphone with GPS app (plus a charger on longer trips), and two pens.

Inputs

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.

Equipment overview

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.

Time

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)
  • Smartphone
  • 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.

Bearings

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.

Good, better, best. The Silva Starter (left) is sufficient for occasional and basic use. The Suunto M3-G (right) is best for extensive navigation. And the Suunto M3-D Leader (center, old version) is a more budget-friendly alternative than the M3-G but more advanced than the Starter.

Altitude

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.

Writing instrument

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.

Taking route notes in the Brooks Range

GPS technology

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.

The options

Backpackers have four general GPS options:

  1. GPS watch (my pick)
  2. Smartphone with GPS app (also my pick)
  3. Handheld GPS unit,
  4. Satellite messenger (I carry one, but I don’t use it for GPS)

Their pros, cons and feature set vary:

GPS watches

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.

Select GPS sport watches like the Suunto Ambit3 Peak offer the features of an ABC watch plus much more, including tracking distance, pace, and vertical.

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).

A screenshot of the 7.5-minute layer, as seen in the GaiaGPS app

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?

Satellite messenger

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.

The inReach Explorer+ (orange left) combines inReach messaging with the functionality of a handheld GPS unit. With the older SE (left) and Mini (orange right), you must use the Earthmate app.

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.

Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content

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Posted in on August 28, 2019
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23 Comments

  1. Thomas on August 28, 2019 at 4:16 pm

    Andrew, thanks for putting this all in one place.

    As an old and someone who managed to destroy his phone/GPS (water damage) in the middle of nowhere in Utah this Spring, I wholeheartedly agree that it is important to have paper maps/compass along. What I learned also during that episode is that it is important that the format in which the location information is displayed on your watch and/or inreach be the same as on your printed map.
    It does not help if your printed maps have UTM grids and your inreach displays the information in decimal minutes. I did wish fervently that I had thought of that beforehand. When the pdf manuals for both backup electronics are on the defunct phone you are kind of up the creek without a paddle.

    Gaia has been good for me as it also has foreign map sources, France and Spain in my case. Caltopo does not as far as I know. That said, the “Print” function on Gaia for the production of pdf maps is substandard, at least in some browsers/operating systems, in comparison to that of Caltopo. Support came up with a work-around, alas after I had burned way too much time banging my head against the wall. Must have something to do with guys being unable to ask for directions.

    Last a question: you and Alan teach creating a route in Caltopo and then importing it into Gaia. Is this just the way you’ve always done it and therefore you continue to do it that way, or is there a deeper technical reason that is not apparent to me? (As opposed to creating the route in Gaia directly)

    • Andrew Skurka on August 28, 2019 at 4:38 pm

      Lessons are best learned first-hand…

      On a GPS watch or an inReach, you should be able to change the lat/long units, in this case to match your map. I prefer decimal coordinates (e.g. 38.4532 N) because they’re easier to punch into a smartphone — I don’t even know where the degree symbol is buried on my Android keyboard.

      I don’t actually import my routes from CalTopo into Gaia. I create and print my maps in CalTopo which currently is the better web platform, and only download the clean base maps into Gaia. If I use Gaia to find myself, it’s easy enough to copy that location onto my paper maps. And if I need to find a bearing in Gaia from where I am to a waypoint, I can quickly create that waypoint in the app — it doesn’t save me much time to download a bunch of waypoints beforehand, and it would clog up the map with all of my data.

      • Jeremy on August 28, 2019 at 5:26 pm

        As you say, you should be able to change the display on the inReach. I know I did! It’s one of the first things I do with new apps or devices.

        Mine is set to USNG (or MGRS, I haven’t pulled it out in a while, but it’s the same thing really). This gives a few benefits:
        1. it maps directly to the UTM grid
        2. it’s easier to jot down or communicate locations, since a 3×3 coordinate is usually sufficient
        3. it maps easily to distance: both the coordinates and the map grid are all in kilometers, hundreds of meters, or similar, so distances are easier to guestimate at a glance, both on the map or when looking at coordinates. (Perhaps less useful for the Americans, but that’s part of the price…)
        4. communicating locations in lat/lon has a very good chance of someone getting the format wrong, e.g. going to 38° 45′ N instead of 38.45°.

      • Paul Beiser on September 4, 2019 at 11:56 am

        Andrew,
        Thanks for that tip on not importing routes into Gaia – brilliant! We always carry paper maps with the routes done in CalTopo, so your idea is something we had not thought of. And it’s a bit of hassle importing into Gaia. Thanks again very much, and this is another great series from you.

        best
        Paul

    • Douche P. on August 29, 2019 at 3:13 pm

      Thomas, I found this year when planning for Peru that you can use Caltopo out side of North America, you just have to use certain layers, i.e. NF Outdoors or the Open Street map/Open Cycle maps. It might not give you everything you want/need in a layer though

      • Loup on August 29, 2019 at 3:55 pm

        Regarding map sources outside of North America, it can be pretty variable. Open Street Map does the job, but if you are hiking in Spain or France, it’s nice to download the IGN tiles because they display the principal trails in the area, as well as refuges/refuigios. The only place that I was badly stumped was in Turkey, where it was hard to find a topo map better than what you get from the Google Terrain tiles.

      • Thomas on September 5, 2019 at 11:23 pm

        Thanks, that’s good to know!
        Peru is the next major destination I am going for. I have the Alpenverein paper maps, so I will just need a primitive base layer to help me be found on my online map, which I can then correlate with my more detailed paper map.

  2. Jeremy on August 28, 2019 at 8:12 pm

    > They [GPS watches] have small low-res screens, low quality maps (if any at all), and rudimentary buttons.

    Strongly agree. I wouldn’t want to use one for mapping. However, I wouldn’t mind one that showed coordinates (just not in lat/lon). One of my other preferred apps is MilGPS (iPhone only?), and I’ve customized the display to show my location in *really large* numbers. A quick glance is enough to tell me if I’m making good progress, how far away I am from my intended goal, etc. (I have things like altitude shown a bit smaller.)

    That reminds me… many smartphones have barometric sensors these days. I use an app called “Pro Altimeter” (again, simple interface, very large numbers) that shows both GPS and pressure elevation. You can manually calibrate based on your map, or pull from nearby airports if you still have service.

    > To me, handheld GPS units seem like technological dinosaurs. Am I missing something?

    Likely not; they’re indeed slow, low-res, and the map options are costly, complicated, or both. By the time you address those issues, you’re essentially holding smartphone sans sim. However, I suspect they’re more power-efficient if you want to record detailed tracks over long distances, and the ability to swap in spare batteries also helps with that. I generally don’t do that, which means I use Gaia.

    > Hence, I strongly recommend the inReach Mini over the other inReach models.

    I purchased the original Delorme inReach SE (the non-nav model) for this reason; it offered no compelling advantage over my iPhone and paper map. However, it still displays your coordinates, which means that between the three devices (paper, phone, inReach) I have redundancy for both maps and GPS functionality.

    • Sean on September 2, 2019 at 4:51 pm

      My old garmin tank that I bought originally for geocaching back around the turn of the century still can last a few weeks on lithium batteries and is great for trip tracking but that’s about it. It also tends to hold onto a signal in spottier territory than most of my smartphones I’ve tested but really that’s about it.

  3. Arne Lannoo on August 29, 2019 at 3:50 am

    Great article Andrew. I agree with many of the points you mention & my naviagtion ‘system’ has been based on your experiences & earlier writings; thanks for that.

    However, I’ve been using a Garmin Forerunner 945 for two months now. It includes mapping & it’s possible to transfer a .gpx to it. I’ve used on several small backpacking trips & find it incredibly convenient to check my position on my watch.

    It’s possible to install other maps on the watch, but it’s limited to OSM or variants of those.

    Since I use the watch anyway for recording data during a trek, I find this very handy. The map is worthless for overview, that’s when paper maps & Gaia GPS comes in.

    The downside is price (I bought the watch as a upgrade to a old Fenix 3 and it’s primary using is running) & battery life. The Suunto’s seem to be doing much better in that regard. Still, I can navigate & record for 3 days (roughly 24 hours) whilst using all the bells & whistles (GPS at 1 second, optical HR, Bluetooth, …).

    Combined with paper maps (& compass), Gaia & Inreach Mini I feel confident in most if not all conditions when walking out there.

    Thanks for all the great content.

  4. Loup on August 29, 2019 at 7:59 am

    First off, I will confess to being cheap….er, I mean, frugal. So, for my needs, I have found that a combination of the AlpineQuest application and the computer-based Mobile Atlas Creator (MOBAC) has worked well for my smartphone based navigation.

    The only real advantage of this approach is that AlpineQuest requires a one-time purchase fee of about $10 (which I paid in 2012), and then you can use it for life. With MOBAC, I can use my computer to download the topo map tiles from any number of sources (USGS, IGN, Openstreet map, Google, etc) and create a AlpineQuest topo map that is stored in my phone which means I can navigate using the battery conserving Airplane Mode. Sometimes I create two or three maps of the same area from different sources. So, I believe that I get about the same functionality as Gaia for a lower cost, but possibly requiring a bit more screwing around.

    Otherwise, I am pretty much on the same page as you. The combination of a Timex wristwatch, paper maps and compass, and the SmartPhone app works for me. Perhaps one day I’ll smarten up and get the Inreach too.

  5. Jeff Moravec on August 29, 2019 at 5:03 pm

    I activate my pair of (DeLorme) InReach SEs only when my daughter and I go to Isle Royale, as we hike toward each other from opposite ends of the island. I am activating now for an upcoming trip, the first in two years. Garmin let me reactivate my “freedom” plan on both ($24.95 activation plus $34.95 monthly fee each) but now tells me I can assign only ONE device for use at any time. What? Why would I pay for two devices if only one can be active?! Guess I need to get on the phone…

  6. Phil Smith on August 30, 2019 at 12:46 am

    It’s a bit clunky, but I’ve carried a Garmin Foretrex w / spare batteries as a backup on many trips. I recall heading up the east lateral moraine of Mt. Hood’s Eliot glacier one mid-fall season 12 years ago. Paper map and compass are always part of the arsenal, too. I set a way point at a small cairn when I began, and 2 or 3 more ascending. 6 hours later when descending from tie-in Rock, unexpected foul weather moved in fast, spilled over Hood’s summit, and visibility narrowed to a stone’s toss, at best. As I meandered down I targeted that initial starting waypoint on the Foretrex with conventional compass cross-checks for general bearing and periodic coordinate verifications / agreement on the detailed glacier map. It all tied together within 6 ft. of the initial waypoint / cairn! I decided it was the best hundred bucks I ever spent back then.

    • Lance on August 30, 2019 at 4:01 pm

      An advantage I’ve found with GPS digital apps is the ability to switch between Topo, Satellite, and Hybrid (both) when in the back country. I’ve found it particularly helpful in route planning around rock outcrops, thick vegetation, overlooks, and even locating water sources.

  7. Christopher Sinclair on August 31, 2019 at 9:28 am

    A good pen I think is a very underrated tool – I’ve had many freeze on me in cold weather or inconsistently draw in very hot weather. The military style space pen is probly my favourite, but it’s pricey. Recently I started buying packs of the disposable PowerTank pens which use a similarly pressurised internal cartridge and I pretty much immediately started using these for everything. They always work, they’re relatively cheap, and the larger width I find pretty comfortable. Highly recommend.

  8. Byron on August 31, 2019 at 11:37 am

    Topo Maps+ is an app I have been using for about 5-6 years. Free to download and free to use if you like their low resolution maps (the USGS maps in low res look pretty good but others do not). You can also pay for their higher resolution maps, that come from CalTopo. Just another option to Gaia.

    • Brian on September 1, 2019 at 10:04 am

      I use Avenza Maps which has great USGS topo coverage.

    • LarryBoy on September 8, 2019 at 8:41 am

      Regarding smartphone apps:

      Backcountry Navigator Pro: I’m a long-term BCN user, and have found it to be perfectly adequate, while being significantly cheaper than Gaia (a one-time $10 purchase, versus a more expensive annual subscription). It has a decently wide variety of layers, including helpful ones for outside the US. The largest drawback is the download functionality, which is more than a bit clunky if you’re trying to download a large area (i.e. a large western state in max resolution).

      The Caltopo app looks promising, but isnt quite there yet in terms of stability and user experience. I suspect it will becime my weapon of choice in coming years as the app matures. The integration with the main Caltopo site is a big plus.

  9. Brian on September 1, 2019 at 9:58 am

    The elevation of Brigham Tea Bench is 5300 feet, not 3100 feet. Because Glen Canyon Reservoir is at 3700 feet when full, nothing in the region is at 3100 until you get down to Grand Canyon drainage (or Paria).

    Of course, that’s what you were saying in part one: Knowing your local environment is often as powerful as a map or GPS.

  10. Bob S. on September 3, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    “Most other Suunto models do not have adequate battery life or memory for multi-day backpacking trips, and none of the Garmin models do.”

    You could always buy the new Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar for a cool grand.

    • Andrew Skurka on September 4, 2019 at 8:03 pm

      I’m going to assume that Garmin did their research and thinks there is a market at that price point. But if I was considering spending as much on a GPS watch as on a flagship Apple phone, I’d hopefully see the lunacy of that proposition before handing over my CC.

  11. Will on September 12, 2019 at 1:15 pm

    I’m wondering if, or how, your battery pack choice would change if you were to re-do any of your long routes (Great Western Loop, Alaska-Yukon Expedition, etc). Thinking specifically about how you would handle the need to recharge, or exchange, the battery pack. There are some packs that can fully charge from a wall outlet in less 5 or 6 hours, at the size you use.

    • Andrew Skurka on September 12, 2019 at 1:40 pm

      Good question, and not one that I have thought much about since my trips nowadays are about 10 days max, and and usually 3 to 7.

      In some respects, a thru-hike is not that different — it’s a series of short hikes, with resupplies every few days. Some resupplies are quick; others you intentionally let consume more time.

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