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.