Navigation seems to be ripe for discussion at the moment, are the tables finally turning? Will GPS replace the traditional map and compass? I’ve recently read two interesting blogs on the subject, one from Outdoors Father, Navigation in the 21st century Part 1 – are you up to date? and Alex Roddie’s Going paperless in the hills – how feasible is it?
I started hillwalking in 2008 and the Smartphone as we know it now, hadn’t quite taken off. I owned a Nokia N95 Black. It had GPS, but the sensor was hopeless in that the phone lost signal even if I put it away in my pocket. However I purchased a Garmin Etrex H and uploaded gpx routes to follow. I’m comfortable to admit now that I was lazy back then, I didn’t bother carrying a map or a compass and followed a line on the screen on my Etrex H. This worked fine, until one day a friend and I got disoriented coming off the summit of Beinn Dothaidh near Bridge of Orchy. With only a handful of Munros between us, we were still largely inexperienced, we got a fright! It was one thing having a line to follow, but having no real understanding of the terrain, we were almost walking blind as the visibility was poor. The clouds momentarily parted, like someone upstairs answered our prayers. We saw the bealach and realised where we were. But we had no idea if we were about to walk over crags or could have ended up completely lost in Coire Daingean.
After our minor scare I bought a second hand copy of Mountaincraft and Leadership, by Eric Langmuir. Reading this book, I began to get a better understanding of maps, I learned what a grid reference was and how to take a compass bearing. I would then practise when out in good or bad weather.
Fast forward nearly 8 years and I have come a long way since getting lost on Beinn Dothaidh. I still upload GPX routes to my GPS, either downloaded from a walking website or custom made on my Quo digital mapping software. What I found though, sometimes you would become a slave to the line on the screen, even in good weather you were reluctant to deviate off track. Now I prefer to only use preloaded tracks if I know the weather is going to be poor.
Now, best of both worlds. I carry a paper map in a Ortlieb map case, a compass, a Garmin Etrex 10 and a Samsung Galaxy S5 with the Viewranger app and applicable tiles for my walk. In hindsight, I could probably do away with the Etrex 10. But I find it useful for altitude and on the spot grid references. I prefer not to use the phone other than for photos. It’s nice to have a phone free day. I find that combining a basic entry level GPS un such as the Etrex 10 with a map means you get the best of both worlds. Ortlieb map cases are flexible but tough and most likely the best map cases on the market for protecting your map. I attach the compass and map case lanyard to my rucksack to minimise the risk of my map blowing away or losing the compass.
The problem I find with using gadgets with built in mapping, is the screen is too small. I like to see the bigger picture and the only way to do that is by carrying a paper map.
The one thing that does bother me are traditionalists that like to tell us on social media that you cannot navigate with a Smartphone. They back up their claims by posting links to articles of times when Mountain Rescue have come to the aid of walkers lost with only a smartphone for navigation. As Alex Roddie touched on, you cannot navigate with a stock smartphone straight off the shelf, but install a mapping app like Viewranger and your phone becomes an excellent navigational tool.
The problem occurs when walkers rely solely on their mobile phone for navigation, or even worse, use Google maps! If something happens like their phone battery dying, they have no back up plan.
If you’re just starting out, don’t be lured into lazy navigation like I did in the beginning. The temptation is even higher as technology has moved on since I started walking. Learn how to read a map and to use a compass. It’s a highly satisfying feeling when you successfully navigate off a mountain in poor weather using the traditional methods.
Once you become competent using a map and compass, you then have the option of using GPS as your primary navigation tool, so in the event your electronic device stop working, you can switch back safely to map and compass. If you do use your phone, remember to switch off mobile data to save battery, better still using flight mode only will save your battery even more.
Are the tables turning, will we ever ditch the paper map? Paper map sales may be slowing down, but that’s probably because more of us are printing maps at home. I have gone without a map on occasion but I felt apprehensive about it. I know some do on a regular basis, but I cant see it catching anytime soon.
Either way, get out and enjoy the outdoors using whatever navigation your comfortable with. But don’t berate those who choose GPS devices as their primary navigation and equally don’t label walkers as ‘dinosaurs’ if they prefer map and compass only.