Map & compass beats a GPS device every time. Here’s why. 

Back in 2011, I was approached by Trail Magazine to assist them with an article on hill walking routes to get fit for Ben Nevis. In due course we were to meet up at a remote location in the Brecon Beacons where the plan, (my plan), was to head out on a longish hunt looking for historic aircraft wrecks.

In hindsight this was quite a brave call for me. In essence I had volunteered to take a journalist and a photographer from the country’s leading outdoor magazine to a part of the UK that I was thoroughly unfamiliar with to do a walk I’d never done before to find aircraft wrecks I wasn’t even sure existed!

Working with Trail Magazine April 2011

On paper the plan sounded like a good idea, but the reality soon crept up on me. For this day of all days, my navigation skills could not be allowed to fail me. Hence I decided to dig out the old GPS unit I had stashed in my desk drawer, gave it a fresh set of batteries and uploaded the GPX files to it for the day’s route.

The day arrived, armed with my GPS (discreetly hidden, like a dirty secret), we set off along the road for the first stile of the day that would lead us to a public footpath and through a field. It was April. It was lambing season. The field ahead was full of birthing sheep. On the stile was placed a polite sign asking if we could detour round the field using an alternative path.

Oh balls. My next way point (technical GPS term for check point) was in that field. The bloody GPS unit wouldn’t allow me to continue with the route until we had ticked off that waypoint. I couldn’t very well lead us through the field now, so there was only one thing for it. I switched off the GPS, stuffed it into my day sack and looked at my map. And, quite proudly, I didn’t cock up with my navigation all day!

Since then I have never used a GPS for my navigation, though there are times when this technology has its place … For example, I do have OS Locate, a free app, loaded to my phone which very quickly gives me my location as a six figure grid reference. I remember leading a team on a challenge walk, Marsden to Edale in February of 2017, and the conditions had been ‘epic’ since around 3pm. I’d been navigating in low and zero visibility for the past 8 hours and we’d just completed a crossing of Kinder Scout. With a snow blizzard now blowing into our faces it would have been churlish not to get my phone out for a quick location fix, and that’s what I did. But, overall I’m not a fan of using GPS technology to navigate with. Here’s why …

Night navigating my team up Kinder Scout on the Marsden to Edale walk in 2017. No GPS device here!

1. Map and compasses don’t run out of batteries

Using anything electrical means you need batteries. Cold weather especially can drain your device’s batteries, and so you are at the mercy of battery life. If you use your phone as your only GPS device then as well as draining your ability to navigate you will also be risking the workability of your phone – the one thing you will need in the event of an emergency. Maps and compasses work battery free! (Which is also very environmentally sound!)

2. They’re not cheap

A dedicated GPS unit (which won’t run out of power as quick as your phone will) doesn’t come cheap. You’d expect to pay anything from £250 up. If you have this sort of money to spare, why not spend it on getting the skills instead on a navigation skills course? GPS units will wear out and break, whereas once you learn how to read a map and how to use a compass, that’s you set up for life.

3. Use a GPS unit at your brain’s peril

It’s all very well saying that you carry a map and compass, but unless you use them on a regular basis you will forget how to. The less you read a map the less effective as a map-reader you will become. You will get skills fade. Research focusing on London cabbies has found that using satellite navigation systems leads to whole swathes of their brains shutting down. Leaders that use GPS as their main navigation strategy, I suspect, do so from a lack of confidence in their own skills. Ironically, in doing so, they are compounding the problem and doing nothing for their problem of self-confidence. The brain is like a muscle – it needs regular exercising! Use it or lose it.

4. The weather

Sat inside a nice waterproof case, my map will work in all weathers. It doesn’t need to be a dry surface, I don’t need to have heat in my fingers for the map case to work, and it will go on working all day long. I’ve been out in heavy rain and had screened instruments simply fail to work consistently well, as rain falls upon the screen.

5. It’s not cricket is it?

I get a certain degree of satisfaction from using a map and compass. It’s a real buzz when you navigate yourself off a hill in the pouring rain and maybe in the dark too. People with you, look at you like you have managed some sort of black magic trick. No one, on the other hand, is impressed with you for following an arrow on your screen.

6. They’re extra stuff

When I started out, (back in the day), I didn’t even have a mobile phone. I carry one of those now, and some people also carry a power pack, a solar panel and a tracker device/emergency beacon (plus their kitchen sink … just in case). A dedicated GPS device is simply more stuff. It’s extra stuff to carry, it’s extra weight. It’s something else not to drop, not to lose, not to break. Do you really need or want this?

7. And maybe, I’m just a Luddite at heart

I also accept that I have been using a maps and compasses since I was a kid (a LONG time ago). Why would I use technology? So begrudgingly I accept also that I am a tad biased … But only a bit! As mentioned above, I do appreciate that when conditions are particularly tough and time is tight I do at least have OS Locate loaded to my phone! But then, I see this as a companion to my map and compass – it’s not a GPS unit in its own right.

screen picture of OS Locate App a very basic form of GPS Device