Why Maps and Compasses Still Matter

As they continues to grow in popularity and shrink in cost, it seems that more people are overlooking the limitations of consumer-grade GPS devices while traveling in the backcountry. While these devices should definitely be a part of the orienteer’s lineup, consider the GPS an essential part of a larger set: map, compass, and GPS. Here are some reasons to brush up on basic navigation skills.

Benefits of a GPS
A GPS is an easy option for navigation: in addition to stand-alone GPS units, these applications are now commonplace in phones and cars, which means that people are becoming increasingly familiar with them. On the other hand, using a compass can be complicated and competence requires practice. There’s a lot of room for error with a compass. For example, if you make a mistake aligning your map and compass, like failing to adjust for declination, your bearing could be disastrously inaccurate.

Know the Limitations of Your Equipment
Although they are easy to use, there are some definite limitations to solely relying on a GPS device for navigation. One common problem in the East is trying to get a signal in a densely-wooded area. Some units can’t connect to satellites when the tree cover is too dense, effectively rendering the unit useless. The other obvious weakness of GPS units is their batteries. Without batteries, your GPS is no better than a chunk of plastic. While a traditional compass will never run out of power, they can be lost or crushed in the backcountry. 

Know Where You Are
I was once traveling with a group on unmarked cattle trails. While we weren’t truly lost because we knew exactly where we were from the features of the land, the trail was nowhere to be found. One member of our group panicked and demanded that we use the GPS to find out our location. All the GPS did was verify what we already knew—our exact latitude and longitude. This didn’t make it any easier to find the trail because it wasn’t recognized by the GPS.

My friend’s reliance on the GPS points to the common misconception: that a GPS supplants basic navigation skills. Determining your location by reading the terrain is a skill you should develop without the crutch of a signal and software dependent device. In clear conditions, learn to translate features of the land, like distinctive mountain ridges or drainages or bodies of water, onto your map. This is a reliable and quick way to keep track of your location without a GPS. Pull out your GPS if you’re in low-visibility conditions, like a blizzard or at night, when recognizable features are impossible to distinguish.

If your map and compass skills aren’t up to par, consider taking a short navigation course, or check out one of the many books on the subject. And next time you pack your GPS, make sure you grab the map and compass, too.