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:

In a trail-less wilderness like Grand Staircase-Escalante, I use my magnetic compass extensively.

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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44 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.

  12. Theo Katz Battaglia on October 10, 2019 at 11:58 am

    Hi Andrew!
    thanks for this cool series of articles! I have used GPX Viewer Pro for navigation in my home country, Brazil, as well as in Patagonia and Europe and am very satisfied. For the Pro version, you have to make a one time inexpensive payment and then you are able to download the maps and elevation curves for whatever region you want for offline use. You can also use it to record you route and to open GPX and other types of files. If you are following a GPX route file, the nicest thing is that it will not only show where you are on the map, but also on the elevation profile for the route and this feature I had never seen in other apps.

  13. Craig on November 2, 2019 at 9:32 am

    One thing worth noting about compasses is that if you go to the Southern Hemisphere, not all compasses work correctly due to the difference in the magnetic field. You need a global needle compass. I found that out the hard way on my first trip to New Zealand.

  14. Zachary Robbins on January 6, 2020 at 3:11 pm

    I’ve been using Avenza Maps for 4-5 years now and I really like it. The main reason I’ve stuck with it is because I primarily use Avenza for bushwhacking, and the free USGS quads are all I need for that. Also for NC hiking, Great Smoky Mountains National Park released enhanced NPS USGS quads in 2017 that include far more detail than any map I’ve encountered. They include all of the trails, shelters and campsites, and most peak elevations, waterfalls, and springs in the park. Volunteers and the forest service collaborated on the best available Linville Gorge Wilderness and Wilson Creek maps with unofficial trails and hard-to-reach waterfalls. Also the Pisgah Map Company has some of their smaller maps for free on Avenza. Overall the free maps available for NC are great, but I’m sure one of these days I’ll try out Gaia for another area of the country. I’m also really curious about the CalTopo app whenever it is functional.

    I completely understand your confusion about why the average hiker would still buy handheld GPS devices. I probably wouldn’t buy one now. However, I’ve been using the Garmin eTrex 20 for 6-7 years and am very happy with it. I’ve compared it side-by-side with my phone tracking and have found the Garmin much more accurate with far less signal bounce. I don’t think the GPS receiver in phones is as strong as a handheld unit, and phone tracking still relies on triangulation with towers right? I could be wrong on all of this given the phone advancements of the last few years, but when I check my location on my phone it is usually much bouncier than the Garmin. Additionally, constantly checking location on my phone and tracking a hike is a huge battery drain in combination with taking photos/videos. I get 30-40 hours of tracking with my Garmin on 2 AA lithium batteries. Since most of my day hikes are dedicated to hiking challenges and recording tracks for my website, it makes sense to keep using my Garmin for tracking and my phone for location check. When my Garmin eventually dies I’ll probably try to just use my phone and see how that goes.

  15. Mike on January 28, 2020 at 10:44 am

    Have you reviewed the garmin fenix 6 yet? Pricey little devil but it caught my eye recently with its massive battery life (depending on functions you have enabled) and the ability to view maps on screen. Check it out.

    • Andrew Skurka on January 28, 2020 at 2:51 pm

      I’ve not used it.

      My sense of GPS watches is that the tech is only marginally improving. It’s like debating about the merits of the iPhone X vs 8. The X is better, but the 8 is still really good, and it’s light years better than early-generation iPhones. I’m less familiar with the Garmin lineup, but in the case of Suunto: the Ambit2 Peak was the first really good watch. The Ambit3 Peak was only marginally better. The Suunto 9 is glossier than the Ambit3 Peak, but functionally it doesn’t do that much more for a backpacker.

  16. Padraic McGaugh on January 28, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    Hi Andrew–excellent topic. I’ve been using ABC watches for years and recently acquired a Casio Pathfinder. To my way of thinking, the battery has always been the Achilles heel of such watches since a) constant use of their functions can drain the batteries at inopportune times and b) changing the batteries (unless your ABC watch is rechargeable which has its own issues) can often can compromise the integrity of the unit due to dust, etc–thus the Pathfinder’s solar battery function is a welcome touch in addition to tide information and so on with this particular unit. I had been using Suuntos of various models but my last one was a lemon and my wife told me she’d heard rumors that they acquired quality issues after moving some production from Finland to China. I must confess I’d buy a fenix in a heartbeat if I won the lottery, though.

    For old-school landnav my personal choices are compass (Brunton TruArc, which eliminates the northern/southern hemisphere issue), notebook (Rite in the Rain with Fisher spacepen), relevant topo map in meaningful, common scale and protractors from MapTools in said scale, and binoculars (currently a neat little set I got for free for renewing my membership with an outdoor organization). If the batteries in one’s GPS go flat and you’re in unknown territory, I find that binocs can be really helpful with terrain-association, especially when confronted with a long series of forested ridges that to the naked eye appear indistinguishable. For GPS I use my old Garmin Rino 110, since all I really want is to know my precise UTM coordinates and be able to backtrack on a “breadcrumb trail”…

    anyway, my two cents.

  17. Bill on January 29, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Just received the Garmin Instinct watch from Christmas. Pretty good price ($200 on sale) for a durable (some sort of milStd rating) for a watch with altimeter, GPS, HR (not super accurate or my need), tracking, etc. Links via bluetooth to my phone when around town for fitbit/apple watch type stuff. But found it’s worked really well during short hikes so far in it’s airplane type mode for those basics – time, altitude, and finding your GPS location (UTM, lat/ong, etc.) quickly. Best of all so far even when connected to my phone, battery has lasted 6-7 days between charges (though I turn it off when I take it off at night, thus not using it for an alarm). Looking forward to using it this summer on BP trips to the Sierra.

  18. Bob Kerner on February 1, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    Would you still select the Suunto 9? I ask because there’s been some grumbling on social media that they are not updating the software/firmware anymore. It seems everytime I decide to purchase a smart watch for hiking and skiing the company decides to let it sundown. I’ll never buy the competitor; too many dissatisfying customer service experiences with their bike and car products.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 2, 2020 at 7:34 am

      It depends on your end-use. For backpacking, I still say that the Ambit3 Peak is the best option out there, due to battery life. For everything else, or mixed, seems like the Suunto 9 is a better option.

      Suunto doesn’t seem to get that these watches are part of a large ecosystem. They make a great watch, but then don’t follow through with great platforms to host and interpret the data from the watch.

  19. Bill on February 1, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    Another tool I’ve found helpful is the app PeakFinder AR. Uses GPS and includes compass features to allow you to use your phone screen and camera to identify moutains peaks (& elevation) you can see. When you activate your phone camera, the screen overlays PeakFinder’s black horizon outline with the actual image on your screen. As you pan, peak names and elevations appear overlayed to the camera image. Mostly been using it for fun to identify the peaks we are seeing from camp or on trail hiking and backpacking. have used it in the Sierra and local San Gabriels and it is accurate. But could also useful for orient your live 3D view with your 2D map.

    • Zachary Robbins on February 1, 2020 at 8:56 pm

      In concept the peakfinder apps are really cool, but I have found them inaccurate in NC and GA. Most of the time the labels were 10-15 degrees off, and the app was a huge drain on the battery in the short period of time I’d try it at open views. After using PeakFinder and a related app on a few hikes I uninstalled.

  20. Maggie Leber on February 1, 2020 at 10:01 pm

    I’m a fan of http://www.gpsessentials.com on Android.
    My main outdoors activity is flying a small airplane, so my use cases are a bit different from a backpacker unless I crash in the wilds, where they converge rapidly.
    I wear the Feenix-derrived Garmin D2 Charlie, which has had unexpected benefits helping me focus on healthy behavior.

    • Phillip Smith on February 2, 2020 at 11:47 am

      It’s been awhile since I caught up on comments here. The input is superb with much helpful information from the user community at large. Goes to show how Andrew’s compositions generate great feedback.

      I’d forgotten to ask in my previous posts about tools such as the Garmin InReach. I’ve got a PCT thru permit beginning May 9 in Campo. I’ll be going solo. I’ve carried ELB’s on a few remote kayaking and mountaineering trips, but never hiking on established trails. To be sure, I recognize that the simplest of injuries like a twisted ankle can stop a person in their tracks. I always carry sufficient emergency gear to at least shelter in place, and keep warm for a night.

      However, I’m 63 now and fully aware that even though I maintain a high level of fitness, the likelihood of injuries is significantly greater than 30 years ago. That said, I’m curious what Andrew, and the community thinks about carrying a Garmin InReach for an epic thru hike. One side of me reasons there are so many thru hikers on the PCT these days, if one was injured near the trail, it wouldn’t be long before someone came by. I haven’t purchased one yet, though I’m leaning towards the InReach as opposed to the mini version. When I review hiker posts, there’s not a lot of mention, but many of the photos shared show the little orange units on a shoulder strap.

      • Andrew Skurka on February 2, 2020 at 11:55 am

        From an emergency perspective, it’s probably not necessary, because of the traffic on the trail and the ubiquity of these devices among these hikers. There are few emergencies along the PCT, and only a fraction of those was it perhaps useful that the distressed hiker had their own unit.

        But you might want one anyway so you can communicate with those back home even when you don’t have cell service.

        If you get one, definitely go with the Mini.

  21. Phillip Smith on February 2, 2020 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks much! I’d forgotten about the utility of communication in no / patchy cell service. The mini will be my choice, after all. I’m shaving ounces in this game, and the smaller size of the mini appears significant.

  22. Matthew Farris on March 7, 2020 at 10:44 am

    I am a map and compass guy along with decades of on the ground experience. I appreciate the info here as I am new, like three weeks, to the smartphone world. I have been using GAIA and find it great. However, I cannot seem to operate it in any of the battery saving modes. It just does not work and GAIA tells me that when I try. Looks like a charger is in my future. Thanks Andrew.

  23. John Gillespie on March 27, 2020 at 1:44 pm

    M-3G compass updated version vs previous model, how do they compare?

    Just received an M-3G compass in the mail off amazon, expected I’d receive the older version but got the new. The “Suunto” printed on the face of this new dial is atrocious but something one can learn to deal with I suppose. There are a couple of international stores still selling the older M-3G online, though for a higher price.

    The important question – does an older version perform better than a newer one?

  24. Thales Ferreira on April 24, 2020 at 7:14 am

    Thanks for share your practical knowledge. It’s hard to find in books. I’m map adept as you. For navigation backup I use smartphone with Locus Map. It has a free version and a pro version (unique payment) with support offline topographic map and satellite imagery.
    Now, I’m considering use a GPS backup device. But, in doubt between handheld GPS unit or GPS watch.

    Did you compare them in terms of signal quality? In your table you put GPS watch as Limited. Is it in terms of signal quality and precision?

    • Andrew Skurka on April 24, 2020 at 7:50 am

      A GPS watch is “limited” because it has crude (at best) mapping features, in comparison to a smartphone GPS app or most handhelds. It’s like 1990’s-era GPS, where it’s mostly just good for giving you coordinates and telling you the distance to waypoints (which you ideally stored in the watch using a computer or phone).

      Accuracy is more than adequate to pinpoint your location. The reception is probably not as a strong as a handheld device, but still plenty good enough.

  25. Jon Freivald on July 19, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    For the question of why a dedicated GPS over a phone with software:

    In my experience, GPS software *churns* through battery on the phone like crazy.

    I have a Garmin Montana 680T which I use primarily for Geocaching, and an eTrex Touch 35T that I use for hiking, camping, hunting. The 680T has a rechargeable battery but will also run off of 3 AA batteries. The 35T runs on 2 AA batteries. Using eneloop rechargeables I get about 8 hours continuous use on the 35T. Using lithium batteries, I have gotten more than 24 hours continuous use on the 35T. 4 spare batteries is 3.7 ounces. A battery pack big enough to run my phone 72 (GPS running) hours will be a whole lot heavier.

    It’s my experience also that both of the dedicated units are significantly more accurate than the phone.

    I also carry an inReach (MINI) and have it paired to my phone. With my phone in airplane mode with Bluetooth enabled, I can get several days out of a single charge on the phone, and have the benefits of using the Earthmate app to simplify interacting with the inReach.

    So yes, I’m carrying a map, a compass, a phone, a GPS, *and* an inReach along with spare batteries for the GPS and a power pack for the phone and inReach. (And a mechanical altimiter!) I see the 11.6 ounces (the 35T with spare batteries and the custom screen cover I made) weight well spent.

  26. Jacob Ireland on August 19, 2020 at 1:37 pm

    Does the All Trails App differ from Gaia GPS? Or does it function the same?

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