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.
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?