Navigation and the best of both worlds?

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.

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The best of both worlds set up.


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.

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Viewranger on Android


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.


5 thoughts on “Navigation and the best of both worlds?

  1. I’m going to be sticking to map and compass for good for two reasons really… I just can’t be bothered to keep up with the constantly updating methodology of technology nowadays – if you find out how something works, you’ll soon be having to learn a new way for it to work – on average in less than a year. My old brain won’t cope with that kind of abuse any more. The other is that I more or less refuse to use batteries with anything if I can help it as I don’t like their pollution and the fact that they fail when you’re least expecting it, especially in the cold in the hills.

    The only time any of my compasses failed was when the needle jumped off my old one. It provides some entertainment during quiet moments jumping it back on though! 😉

    I’m not sure whether I’m a dinosaur but I’m certainly a luddite 😉

  2. The Etrex 10 I use is basic and certainly not cutting edge and I won’t replace it until stops working. I know what you mean about batteries, I’d never put them in landfill. Always recycle them.

  3. I always have my 1:25000 paper map of the area (and my compass) around my route…copied from my mapping or elsewhere (cough) using my snipping tool. This way I can blow it up if I need to. Sometimes I carry 2 copies – one in plastic and 1 crumpled in my pocket.I have been known to get J to laminate them before I go out. 🙂 I do have a one up from basic gps but I only used it once out of curiosity. I rarely need to refer to my map but that is more to do with the fact that I am very careful about my weather/visibility choices.

  4. I’m in the both worlds camp too. I now have a Garmin GPS with full OS mapping at 1:50000 which I bought after the E-trex started playing up. But always take a map and compass as well. Must admit I wear my map case round my neck and put the GPS in it so I can look at either without too much faff.

    I’ve been trying to make myself only use the GPS to check position as I’ve been a bit over reliant on it before.

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