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GPS Is Overrated For Serious Hiking

Foolproof navigation, batteries not included (or required)

Photo by Andrew Skurka
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).

When you’re driving in an unfamiliar area, nothing beats a good GPS system. But in the backcountry, a map and compass combination offers the most reliable and functional navigation system—and at a fraction of the cost. I struggle to describe GPS units as anything more than “gadgets” that need batteries, are prone to malfunctions and have a screen that can break or freeze 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 by paying attention to pace and surrounding landmarks. Sure, a GPS can tell me within 3 meters, but when have you needed that much specificity?
  • Determine distance and direction to my next destination
  • Mark my route with pen on the map
  • Share my route virtually by redrawing it in TOPO! and/or Google Maps, or converting my TOPO! file to .kml file (for Google Maps) via GPSbabel freeware
  • Most importantly: Identify the path of least resistance to your next destination. While a GPS can tell you distance and direction, it may take you across a canyon or lake, into thick brush, or through a series of pointless ups-and-downs (PUDS).  

With a map and compass I can do even more, by identifyingthe path of least resistance to my next destination. Where a GPS might send me across a canyon or lake, into the thickest brush, and through a series of pointless ups-and-downs (PUDS), properly reading a map can help me avoid all that.

Admittedly, there are a few times when GPS seems better. Like when you hit a landscape with limited visibility (e.g. tree cover or fog). But when you come across this type of terrain, simply plan routes that follow a natural topographic feature, such as a river or ridgeline. If there are none to be found, take a compass bearing and stick to it. Then, follow your progress carefully, noting every feature you pass. It also helps to “dead reckon” by multiplying your assumed rate of travel in miles-per-hour by the time you’ve spent hiking.

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