Why backcountry GPS units are overrated

This is another post in a series of “how to” articles I’ve written recently. If you’d like me to address a particular subject in the next installment, leave a comment for me. If you’d like to read more content like this, then consider buying my book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide.

Navigating around Alaska, the old-fashioned way, with an 11″x17″ USGS map (created with National Geographic TOPO! software) and a simple baseplate compass (located in my side pocket, attached via the lanyard to my shoulder strap).

I adore some GPS applications, like when driving in unfamiliar areas. But in the backcountry, a map and compass combination is the most reliable and most functional navigation system; it’s also much less expensive. I struggle to describe GPS units as anything more than “gadgets.”

A map and compass is more reliable:

  • No batteries
  • No electronics that can malfunction
  • No screen that can break or freeze up in cold temperatures

With a map and compass I can do everything that a GPS can do:

  • Pinpoint my location to a relevant degree of accuracy (maybe not within 3 meters, but I’ve never needed to know my route within three meters anyway), by paying attention to my pace and surrounding landmarks
  • Determine the distance and direction to my next destination
  • Mark my route, by writing on the map with a pen
  • Share my route virtually, by re-drawing it in TOPO! and/or Google Maps, or converting my TOPO! file to a .kml file (Google Maps) via GPSbabel freeware.

And, in fact, with a map and compass I can do even more:

  • Identify the path of least resistance to my next destination, unlike a GPS which can only tell me the distance and direction. Whereas a GPS might send me across a canyon or lake, into the thickest brush, and through a series of pointless ups-and-downs (PUDS), by reading the map I can avoid all of that.

When might a GPS be better than map & compass?

In landscapes that are topographically subtle and/or visually limited (e.g. tree cover, fog), GPS units are admittedly more user-friendly. But I have traveled extensively through this type of area and it’s not difficult to overcome these challenges and rely solely on map and compass.

  • Plan routes that follow a natural topographical feature, like a river or ridgeline. If those are unavailable, then simply take a compass bearing and stick to it.
  • Follow your progress carefully: note every feature you pass, and “dead reckon,” whereby you multiply your assumed rate of travel (MPH) by the time you have spent hiking.

Why I like paper maps

While there are GPS units with high-resolution screens and detailed map packages, but I’d still rather use a paper map, for the reasons listed above and because viewing an 11″x17″ map is much more pleasant than a 3″x4″ LCD screen, plus the expense and unreliability of said map packages.

For more information about maps, read this post about how to create a custom mapset using TOPO! software.

Do you use a GPS? If so, why? What has bee your experience using a map and compass?

Posted in on March 21, 2012


  1. Bandanna Man on March 21, 2012 at 6:51 am

    Can you recommend the best hands-on map & compass orienteering course for someone here on the East coast (NJ)? The freebies I have taken at places fall way short. Where / how did you learn?

    • Andrew Skurka on March 21, 2012 at 6:58 am

      I don’t know of any specific courses in that area. My experience with map/compass/navigation that practice makes perfect, so during a course that is only several hours long — or even a day — can only scratch the surface.

      I will also offer a shameless plug for my guided trips. Especially on the 7-day trips, we spend a lot of time traveling off-trail. In fact, all of the routes are about 50% off-trail. I have taken out backpackers with zero off-trail experience and had them near experts by the end of the trip. Details on the trips are here: http://www.andrewskurka.com/guided-trips

    • John Hartman on March 21, 2012 at 6:33 pm

      Consider attending orienteering meets. They often often offer instruction, and give intense practice and feedback.


  2. Garret on March 21, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Interesting points. In my experience, I think for x-country travel where you’re picking your own route, map and compass are the obvious winners. For attempting to follow a pre-determined route like a trail, I find it quite easy to turn on my GPS, have it tell me where I am, then transfer that point in my mind to my paper map. Yes, this can be done with map and compass triangulation, but GPS is just really easy and accurate for this in my experience (and easy under forest cover, or landscape without significant landmarks on which to triangulate). I’m also not sure I buy the expense argument 100%. Magellan got me the entire US on one CD that came with the unit, and I can fit all the maps I need, even for a months-long trip, on one SD card.

  3. Jeff McWilliams on March 21, 2012 at 8:04 am


    I teach map & compass land nav classes for our local backpacking club, and I’m a regular attendee of local orienteering meets.

    I agree that GPS units are not a replacement for Map & Compass and the associated skills. However, people get lost. A 5oz GPS (Garmin eTrex 20, with batteries) is a pretty good backup for when things to unexpectedly wrong: you’re tired, you’re injured, you’re not thinking clearly.

    Delorme’s TOPO software offers unlimited 1:24K USGS image downloads to their software and transferrable to their Pn-40, PN-60 units for $30.00 a year. gpsfiledepot offers decent quality topos for Garmin units in Con us for FREE.

    Heck, even just the ability to give me my current UTM coords would allow me to plot them on my map if I have a plotter, and if my map is to proper scale and gridded. No expensive topo map software needed for that, and a cheaper/lighter GPS unit could be chosen.

    • Andrew Skurka on March 21, 2012 at 9:04 am

      Is the Delorme map package as powerful as TOPO? I can’t imagine that it is, in which case you still need to buy TOPO! in order to plan your route and print a custom mapset before you go.

      • Jeff McWilliams on March 22, 2012 at 7:48 pm

        I only have the “Weekend Explorer 3D: New York City Area” edition of TOPO! to compare. I was specifically looking at the Devil’s Path route through the Catskills on both. I have also been using Delorme for other areas because the coverage is essentially unlimited. I’m relatively new to both products, so I could be missing options in either, or both!

        Delorme has less detail out of the box. However, once it is configured with a valid Netlink account ($30.00 per year), both tools are based on 7.5 minute USGS Quad data.

        Topo! seems to have better labeling, but I noticed some interesting color discrepancies where maps have been stitched together.

        Both tools let me create routes, or import/export via .gpx files. Both tools let me look at elevation profiles for my route. Delorme also has a good elevation summary: total feet to climb, total feet to descend, max elev, min elev, and average grade. I can’t find these summary features in TOPO!

        When printing, the contour lines from Delorme look better at 1:24000. At 1:50000, TOPO! looks clearer. Delorme’s printed output at 1:50K almost blurs together all the original 1:24K contours in mountainous regions. I think TOPO! selectively removes some contours to make the map clearer. Neither printed map had an indication of the contour interval, but I may be missing it as a print option.

        Both products allow selecting UTM grids and selecting a datum. Both products print a scale and magnetic declination. Delorme did not include the UTM zone on the printed map, TOPO! did. Neither indicated the declination between grid north and true north.

        I should note that NEITHER product actually shows the full path of the Devil’s Path trail on their maps. It it weren’t for getting a .gpx file from trimbleoutdoors.com, I’d have to hand draw the route from other sources.

        Neither product shows the location of Lean-To’s or established camp sites for those that are interested. I noticed this when exploring routes in the ADK high peaks. I also noted that printed maps of the ADK high peaks from National Geo’s Trails Illustrated series, and the ADK Mountain Club may show blaze colors on each trail as well as trail numbering that matches the ADK guidebook’s trail descriptions. Neither of these bits of information seem to be available in the Delorme or TOPO! programs that I can see.

        So, neither Delorme or TOPO! is perfect, and I think each should be supplemented with other trail information (trail guide books and maps) when possible.

  4. Erin on March 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Out of my own thousands of miles of backcountry travel, I’ve used map and compass (usually map alone) for probably 95% of the navigation.

    But we do now carry a GPS as well. Primarily, this is not for navigation at all, but for location of photos and observations taken along the way for post-trip-publication.

    However, I must say it is easier for some kinds of navigation, particularly in complicated rolling terrain with thick brush, or paddling across bays in fog/snow. In summer 2010, we did a trip in this sort of thick and complicated terrain on western Cook Inlet and used the map GPS nearly all the time. Could we have managed without it? Of course. But it did save a lot of time in trying to keep compass bearings or in locating ourselves.

  5. Anton on March 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    I started to use GPS last year to record my trips and share them with my friends, whose map navigation skills are poor. Now they can hike using my data. Of course, they do know basic map navigation, but using GPS is much more easier and quicker for them.

  6. terry tiedeman on March 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Hi, I would like it if you posted a piece on how you deal with ticks. Since you seem to hike solo most of the time and can’t rely on having a fellow hiker check you for ticks I am guessing you may have some techniques for prevention. Thanks.

  7. Konstantin on March 28, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Hi, I’m using gps, but not in a way that you described. Usually I have no detailed topo maps for the area I’m going to (and it is not possible to buy it). So I forced to download satelite images from google maps and related services. It is easy to connect these photos to geo coordinates. Then I can use it with the desktop software to enter key points of my route to my GPS (it is old and doesn’t support maping – only points). And finaly – I print out the downloaded images with the key points on it. So when I fail to locate my location by using satelite images I can look on GPS and find nearest to me key point. This approach requires a lot of preparaton, but it works good.
    Another way I’m using gps is to analyze my track after the trip. This helps me to understand my average speed on various landscapes and various conditions, etc. This helps me to prepare my trip plan for the next times.

  8. weekendwoodsman on March 29, 2012 at 4:12 am

    My sentiments exactly, Andrew. I wrote something very similar in a recent blog post here: http://weekendwoodsman.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/simplify-simplify-simplify/

    I’d be interested to hear what you think about this post in general, seeing as how we both have such similar feelings about map and compass versus GPS.

    I’ll be hiking in the extreme northern part of Lapland again this coming summer and will navigate with map and compass as usual.


  9. Chris Zeller on April 6, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    I agree with your premise, GPS is by no means required but it does make navigating easier in conjunction with a paper map.

    In Colorado where I hike a paper map even without a compass is all that I really ever use since its easy to see/recognize landmarks above treeline. However in dense forests and in emergencies GPS can give you a quick lat/long that you can then use to locate yourself on the map and restart your map/compass navigation. These simple basic GPS units (like the Garmin Gecko I use) are very light and use little power for a quick location fix. Indeed GPS are being integrated into most cellphones these days. With a simple interface and free Google maps software + free interface software like Trackmaker http://www.gpstm.com/ you can plan your route in advance and follow it, or improvise with your paper map as you wish.

    I’ve taken to using iTopomaps on my iphone recently which lets me download free USGS topos to my iphone before the trip and use GPS for a quick location fix and then its back to the paper map for general navigation. Battery power on the iphone with GPS is too limited for constant use.

  10. Roger-André Amundsen on April 13, 2012 at 4:10 am

    Another point would be that in inexperienced hands, a GPS can easily lead people astray (hint to manufacturers: replace the arrow with heading numbers only).

    Overheard cell phone conversation between two airline pilots lost while hunting in Swedish woodlands and “base camp”:

    BC: “Did you cross that river going out?”
    AP: “No.”
    BC: “Then why do you think it is a good idea to cross it now?”
    AP: “The GPS says so.”

    While I like the GPS for its accuracy, the only times it has paid for itself to me has been in:
    – thick fog – my brain insists that the compass is drunk. Instead of camping or walking in circles I could get a fix and an extra crutch for the confused brain.
    – keeping a straight line for 15 km in complicated terrain for a survey. PUDS galore.

    If you already know compass and map, then a GPS can be a nice, but not necessary, luxury accessory.
    I’d much rather have a solar-charged, “map-e-book” with a GPS function.

  11. zapper on April 25, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Like all arguments, if you have a certain opinion, you will sway the argument in favour of your opinion.

    >>”Pinpoint my location” …only possible if you can see the “surrounding landmarks” and know for sure which is what. Impossible in a white-out.

    >>”Share my route virtually, by **re-drawing it in TOPO!** ” …slow and unnecessary – my GPS has already done if for me.

    >>”Identify the path of least resistance to my next destination, unlike a GPS” ….I suggest you buy a new GPS. Mine will show me alternate paths, gradients and 3D maps.

    >>”GPS might send me across a canyon or lake, into the thickest brush, and through a series of pointless ups-and-downs (PUDS), by reading the map I can avoid all of that.” …you don’t seem to understand that the topographical map is ON the GPS and the active track is ON the topographical map. I know exactly where I am on the topographical map and I make the decisions. The GPS does not. Unlike a unit in a car, my field GPS is not instructing me to turn right or turn left or walk X metres. It is simply showing me my location on a detailed topographical map. AND it shows my exact location relative to my pre-planned route. AND I can look ahead down the route, walk away from my planned route if the terrain dictates, and return easily to my route at my choosing.

    I can flick over to a 3D topo map and see the elevation of the route ahead. I can plan an alternate route and I can test the elevation of that route. I have choices. The same choice as the man with the map and compass.

    I still walk with a compass and a map in my pocket, but more and more that is where they remain for the whole trip, in my pocket.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 25, 2012 at 10:38 am

      You make some valid points, but I still don’t think they are strong enough to justify a GPS. Some counterpoints:

      > In a whiteout it is entirely possible to navigate via map and compass by following landmarks (e.g. rivers, ridgelines, lakeshores) or by following a compass bearing. Moreover, most backpackers rarely, if ever, find themselves (a) traveling off-trail and (b) in whiteout conditions, so this strikes me as an unlikely “just in case” justification for a GPS.

      > Advanced GPS units may have a map display, but its “viewing window” (i.e. screen size versus paper size) is a small fraction of a paper map. Zooming and scrolling on a screen is inferior compared to the information being right there for me. The GPS maps are also usually not as good, compared to the USGS quads. And these high-end units are expensive, starting at $200 and topping out around $600.

      I’m also confused why you still carry a map and compass. Is this as a backup? Seems like it’d be preferable to just have one reliable navigation system.

      • Marcel on September 27, 2012 at 2:52 pm


        >> I’m also confused why you still carry a map and compass. Is this as a backup?

        We are at the core of the question!

        Why would you like to hear that no one would thrust the GPS 100%?
        Why do you oppose GPS to map and compass ?

        Don’t you see that GPS, map, compass, altimeter … are just complimentary tools?

        Each tool being very good at solving some part of the navigation problem : determining and following the most convenient path to go from A to B.

        The map provides a picture of the landscape and allows for some planning.
        The compass is usefull at following directions.
        The altimeter shows altitude, and altitude can be a “line of position”.

        When you consider the GPS, forget about the “G”, forget about the “S” and remember only the “P”, for position.

        The GPS solve the “position” part of the navigation problem. It is better at that than anything else. It give the absolute position, or the relative position (distance and bearing to or from a landmark).

        Knowing your position with accuracy and with confidence is a big plus.
        You can check your progress, make corrections, plan for alternate routing.

        Of course, it is possible to know the position without GPS.
        With less accuracy however, and with very litlle confidence when you need it most : bad weather, night, unfamiliar and/or tricky terrain.

        Same, it is possible to make it to destination without map … Maps are recent tools.

        Same, it is possible to follow directions without a compass … using the sun or the stars. But a compass is more convenient.

        So …

        >> Seems like it’d be preferable to just have one reliable navigation system.

        In my opinion – and experience – a map is not that reliable … even in “advanced” countries.

        And a map + a compass is barely a “system”.
        Sure not an effective sytem.
        Old navigators added a sextant, and where happy to get the help of beacons.

        The GPS is the modern version of the sextant.

        In opposition to common opinion, the GPS – as well as his grandfather the sextant – is an instrument that is not easy to master.

        It is too easy to laugh at people who use it the wrong way, who become confused by the poor interface, or by the marketing hipes.

        I can teach the basics of map, compass and altimeter to kids.
        And they will quikly become proficient.

        I cannot teach sextant to kids. Nor GPS …

        By the way, I prefer teaching kids the basic of navigation without map an compass …

        That is another “system” – much more interesting, much more valuable, much more rewarding imho than using instruments (and I consider the map as an instrument).

        I think that this is THE basic skill …

        Much more to say … but not easy for me.
        English is not my primary language, sure you guessed …

  12. Forrest McCarthy on July 23, 2012 at 8:53 am

    On many trips all I carry is a map. In my backyard – The Rocky Mountains – matching landscapes to a topographic map is easy and a compass or GPS is often unnecessary.

    I do like a compass when traveling on the Colorado Plateau. When on the flat sagebrush steppe following a compass bearing is often the most efficient means of locating a specific entrance to a canyon.

    In large flat landscapes that lack topography like Antarctica, or much of Wyoming’s Red Desert, you can’t beet a GPS with preprogrammed waypoints. Knowing a location in relation to these waypoints makes navigating far more efficient and accurate than anything that can be done with a compass. In Antarctic, before hand held GPS, we often used a sexton to navigate. A compass was all but useless.

    The other reason I regularly choose to use a GPS is efficiency. I have a wrist strap for my Garmin Foretrex and I can check my location and distance without stopping or missing a step. Try that with a map and compass.

  13. Steve Thorpe on January 3, 2013 at 11:02 am

    In addition to backpacking, I’ve been a pilot and sailor for more than 35 years. So I bridge the gap between the ‘all map’ and ‘mostly GPS’ worlds. Your points are well taken and I still ALWAYS carry a map and compass and stay current on my location on the map. Having said that, thank god for GPS. The ability to know your location to within a few feet and the most sensible path to safety (your GPS doesn’t include topo?) can be a lifesaver. Literally. The GPS I use is the same one used by search and rescue folks, who know that a wrong turn or a delay can cost lives. They also carry maps, but the rescuers I know use GPS as their primary. An additional note: Here in Michigan, where I hike, hunt, sail and fly, visibility is often extremely limited, either by weather conditions or all those pesky pine trees. So taking fixes off distant landmarks is almost never an option.

    • JourneyAbout on February 19, 2013 at 8:47 pm

      I totally agree. We all don’t have the luxury of hiking in the mountains. I live in central Indiana. Trails here are much like a hedge maze. You look around and see flat dense woods everywhere. There is little to no elevation change, no rivers, and their might be a lake or pond but you won’t see it unless you are 50 ft from the woods edge. Trails are easy to lose and are not well mapped so it’s nice to have GPS for positioning and logging. This allows me to enjoy the actual hike.

  14. Chris on July 29, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Now that the TOPO! software is no longer available, and my version from the 90’s can no longer be used (incompatible with Windows 7), what would you suggest.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 29, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      The hope is that AllTrails.com will become a full replacement for TOPO! desktop software — and then some. But it’s not there yet. In the meantime, you may also want to check out http://www.caltopo.com.

  15. DaveKoz on August 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

    With the map and compass you are guessing, as opposed to knowing.
    Use of map and compass requires visibly to see landmarks. If there is no topography, accurate orienteering becomes almost impossible.
    Besides darkness / low clouds limiting your effectiveness, sometimes there are things called trees around us.
    They don’t teach magic in orienteering classes.

    Use the GPS. Bring a map and compass, for the day it someday dies.

    Also, learn to use a GPS, they do way more than point you in a direction and tell you how far away it is.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 9, 2013 at 10:13 am

      Boy, I must be an extremely good guesser given that I have hiked thousands of miles off-trail with nothing but map and compass, through a full range of terrain and visibility. Ditto for all of those who explored unknown lands — and made it back safely — before anyone ever owned a GPS. Or, maybe we do actually know where we are and where we’re going.

  16. Gary Lawton on October 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    I appreciate this article, as I am planning on a CDT hike in 2014. My research indicates a lot of CDT hiker carry GPS and recommend one. I have relied on map and compass for years of travel in the backcountry, both backpacking and mountaineering. Your article will inspire me to believe in my own abilities and maybe practice my map and compass skills even more as I prepare for next year’s journey. Thanks Andrew.

  17. Ig Saturation on December 23, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    A compass & map force a user to be aware of their surroundings and have situation awareness. A GPS can be problematic if a user blindly follows it and ignore visual navigation entirely; the small screen is another issue. But you can also use GPS more effectively, by using it like a map and compass in addition to tracking, so compass skills are working simultaneously.

    I use a simple map less GPS, leave it on auto track mode, forget it, and trek using compass and map. Should I have problems getting a bearing, compass breaks, etc., I can refer to it, follow the track home or use its location to plot a new route home.

  18. Jim Milstein on February 21, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    While I sympathize with Andrew’s position, having used maps and compasses for many years, adding altimeters twenty-five years ago, GPS technology is a moving target. It’s way better now than it was just a couple of years ago. This post discounting GPS is a bit dated and is getting more dated as time goes on.

    One drawback of using GPS not mentioned yet is that it is contingent on the constellations of GPS satellites and their infrastructure. Their availability can be withdrawn at any time. Best to have a Plan B. Always best to have a Plan B or to be able to generate one.

  19. Joe Hartoebben on August 16, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    I believe there is a place for both. For myself I have used a compass more than a gps. I am not going to argue the additional weight factors of etc. or knowing were you are with a compass. I use a compass to keep my survival skill set at a certain level. Yes I own an electronic gps (a budget gps). The general rule is the deeper one travels into the backcountry anything can happen. I believe the use of either should be based on the trip time. My favorite is 8 hours up stream by canoe, and another 4 hours to a projected base camp on the first day. On the second day scouting mountain goats/sheep another 8 to 12 plus miles in mountain terrain. There are no trails. Or being a mountain shelve in Wyoming and seeing absolutely nothing and knowing the nearest town as a crow fly’s is 23 miles from your position.

  20. Julliana on December 8, 2014 at 2:40 am

    Hi everyone! I suggest to try this free software program http://gpx2kml.com/ to convert gpx files to kml format or the other way around, when needed. It comes with a simple interface, installation isn’t required and it delivers good results.

  21. Matthew N Lettington on November 4, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    GPS skills are important; but , they don’t replace the need for map and compass skills. I mostly navigate by GPS because I’m 90% weekend warrior and weight on a dayhike are not compromising factors, and I don’t have to have a quiver of maps that are bound to get soaked in the wet climate in which we hike. I’ll note that we rarely ever let the forecast prevent us from hiking. A fact that sometimes finds us hiking on days with 100mm of rain.

    So other than the convenience of a GPS, I carry one because I want to geotag my photographs in the quickest way possible. This is a completely selfish practice–I know right! However, I like to publish my routes on my blog and we treck in places that are seldom visited. For example, many of the places we hike receive 2 groups in 5 years. The data I collect becomes useful (of course it could be done with paper and pencil) and is easy to share through methods that require little effort to manage.

  22. Gerrit Holl on August 31, 2017 at 11:32 am

    As others have said, a GPS is not a replacement for map and compass; it is complementary. One feature that can be very useful when lost in fog or forest or dark, is the feature that it leaves a virtual trace. When I get lost in featureless terrain, I can return to where I’ve been. With map and compass only, I might not. Once I walked up a mountain where there was only one place to get safely on and off, and the top was a plateau. When I was at my farthest point, weather became bad and visibility dropped to near-zero. I was very happy I had the GPS to make sure I returned to the right spot to get off the mountain, and I don’t know how long it would have taken me without!

  23. Kevin Lockett on February 19, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    GPS is bad, unnatural, cheating. I look at GPS as “too good”, and not fair chase. Which surprisingly is a different take on it than most, for some reason. I think you should earn your knowledge, and not be able to use a gadget to repeat hikes, and find favorite areas, etc. Natural. I rarely use my compass, because the brain is number one. And the sun is number two. The answers are usually right there in my brain, and that’s the way I like it and the way that I feel is right. I rarely need a magnetic north seeking device, and I never carry a map when I’m in my familiar mountains.

    Before you think if you could, think if you should.

    I would prefer the hiker take a step back. Hike without GPS. Think about hikes more. Be cautious in jumping ahead of the learning curve. Not use GPS as a crutch. If its going to possibly be bad weather, don’t go into a place without being able to follow your tracks out, basically respect the whole situation and mountain in general. This is the opposite of thinking there is any overrating of a GPS’s abilities. Its a philosophy.

    It is better to not have the special satellite powers than to have special satellite powers. I use General Poise and Strength. And it feels good.

  24. Jim M on October 10, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    I have used both GPS and map & Compass for quite some time. Even taught some mountaineering nav. classes. I happen to take a great deal of pleasure in using map & compass and I have found students enjoy the skills required for using a compass and take pride in knowing how to read and use topo maps. I have found the times that GPS has been indispensable was when we managed to get hopelessly lost off-trail in the forest with no distinguishing landmarks visible. Of course, had we been paying to our progress, direction, and altitude as we should have, we would not have been lost. For me less electronics = more adventure, but I am old-fashion.

Leave a Comment