I carry a variety of navigation tools and devices on my hikes and backpacking trips because I’ve never found once that’s perfectly reliable or easy to use in all situations. Every navigation tool and device has different strengths and weakness, as I describe below.
- Maps, often more than one
- Compass, declination adjustable Suunto M-3
- Watch, Casio Pathfinder
- Whistle, Fox 40 Classic
- Altimeter, Casio Pathfinder built into my watch
- iPhone, running the Gaia Navigation Smartphone App
- Garmin eTrex 30x GPS with Free GPSDepot Maps
- Pencil and Paper
Map quality varies widely, which is why I usually carry two or three maps when I go hiking and backpacking. For example, many hiking-specific maps only show hiking trails even though they intersect ski trails, snowmobile trails, rural roads, fire lanes, or old logging skid ways. That can get real confusing if you happen across them and they’re not on your hiking trail map. Hiking trails may be also be closed or rerouted, bridges washed by spring floods, or new trails created that aren’t reflected on published maps. I often find that carrying multiple paper maps from different sources gives me more useful information than one alone.
While I’m a compass expert, I use it a lot less than you might expect, mainly when I can’t see where I’m going off-trail in dense forest or fog. The rest of the time, I follow landforms or handrails depicted on my map, like ridges that head in the direction I want to go.
One reason I use a compass instead of a GPS or smartphone app for following bearings, is that it’s faster and simpler to quickly glance at, without having to fumble around with buttons or a touch screen. And the lack of batteries means that it will work all the time. A compass alone can’t tell you where you are or where you’ve been however, which is the biggest benefit of using a GPS-enabled device.
I carry a Suunto M3 compass on my hikes. It has a declination adjustment, so I can navigate using map north, instead of magnetic north. This means that I never have to add or subtract degrees to bearings when translating between the map and a bearing that I want to follow on my compass or from the field to the map. Adding and subtracting declination adjustments is a huge source of confusion and errors, for beginners and experts alike, that goes away with a declination adjustable compass.
With a declination adjusted compass, the needle of your compass still points to magnetic north, but the bearing on your compass bezel is offset using the declination marked on your map, so that the number of degrees that you read off the bezel factors the declination in, without you having to add or subtract degrees in your head.
I wear a solar-powered watch when I hike, a Casio Pathfinder. A watch is great for estimating the distance you’ve traveled when hiking along a trail. I typically hike at 2 miles per hour, including breaks. Knowing this lets me estimate my position on a map with as long as I remember when I’ve started. It’s surprisingly accurate. A watch also lets me keep track of how long it is to sunset, so I know when I should start looking for a campsite.
I always bring a Fox 40 classic whistle on my hikes. Why is a whistle a navigational instrument? It’s a lot louder than the human voice and you won’t get as exhausted blowing on it as you will shouting. But how do you navigate with it? Easy, when I hike with other people, it’s easy to lose track of them in dense forest or fog. Blowing my whistle helps me signal them, so we can regroup. A whistle can also be used to signal directions to a partner; for example, 1 blast – move right, or 2 blasts – move left, when we’re using a navigation technique called leapfrogging.
What’s leapfrogging? When hiking off-trail in a forest, you find a tree on your bearing and hike toward it, so you don’t have to keep looking at your compass all the time. Do this over an over, and you’ll keep hiking in the direction you want to go. You use a similar technique when there are no trees, but you send a partner out ahead of you on the bearing to be a virtual tree (a fixed point you can sight on), and hike to them before repeating the process. This is very useful in fog when you can’t see anything except your partner’s silhouette in the distance. Using a whistle to get them aligned on the bearing, using the 1 blast, 2 blast technique described above, is useful when you can’t hear your voices above the wind.
I have a barometric altimeter built into my watch which measures my elevation. I actually use it a lot more than my compass because it lets me pinpoint my elevation on a topographic map. For example, if I’ve been hiking up a mountain on a trail, I can look at my altimeter, read my elevation, and pinpoint my location using the contour lines on a map. My altimeter is accurate to within 20′, so I can get an excellent position fix.
Barometric altimeters measure air pressure and are prone to fluctuation when weather fronts pass through, so you need to check and recalibrate them during the day. Whenever you pass a landmark with a known elevation marked on your maps such as a mountain summit or viewpoint, usually every 3-4 hours, it’s good to check that your altimeter matches the elevation marked on the map. If not, you adjust it so that they match, and continue on your way.
Gaia Navigation App (iPhone or Android)
Gaia is a very easy to use and comprehensive navigation app available on iPhone or Android phones for about $20. It includes all of the maps (including 24ks) you’ll ever need for free, unlike Garmin devices where they cost extra. You can download maps for offline use, create waypoints and routes, track yourself and find your current location. It’s also highly interoperable with your other smartphone apps, making it easy to transfer data between your phone and computer. I use it on most of my hikes, if only to track myself so I can publish tracks of my hikes.
Of course, the beauty of carrying a smartphone navigation app is that it weighs nothing, since you’re probably carrying a phone anyway. I can get a full day out of battery life on my iPhone when running Gaia, simply by turning off app notifications, running it in airplane mode, and low battery mode.
Garmin eTrex 30x GPS Receiver
While I own a Garmin eTrex 30x GPS receiver, I mainly use it in winter because it’s easier to use than a smartphone while wearing bulky gloves. It’s also more waterproof and shock resistant, which can be an important consideration if wetness or durability are a key concern.
I have an eTrex 30x because it’s far less expensive than a high-end unit and still does everything I need it to do. I rarely create routes with it however, and just use it like a digital map. Instead of paying $99 extra for Garmin’s 24k maps, I’ve uploaded free GPS maps from GPSFileDepot which has very high quality maps that include information, such as logging roads, not included in the Garmin data set. Sometimes the only way to get a map is in digital form formatted for a GPS receiver, so don’t limit yourself to paper-based maps if you don’t need to.
Pencil and Paper
I always bring a pencil and some paper on trips because I like to plan my hike at night for the next day, including the trails I’ll be hiking, distances, elevations, and key landmarks. A pencil and paper are good for recording bearing changes, times, and observations, leaving notes for other hikers, creating shopping lists and so on. While you can record a lot of this information on a smartphone, that uses battery power. You also can’t hand someone a note written on a smartphone, unless you both have network access. Paper notes written with a pencil are more portable.
While all of these navigation resources, tools, and devices are useful in different ways, the best way to use them is to frequently check your position and validate it on your map, so you always know where you are. This process, called “staying found” is the essence of good navigation.
When navigating, it’s best to use several different data points to confirm your location. For example, you can use an altimeter elevation, a bearing for the trail you’re hiking, and a visible landform or two on separate compass bearings to determine where you are on the trail and that you’re headed in the right direction. GPS devices and smartphone apps, for all their strengths, can generate incorrect results, especially if they’re configured incorrectly, so it’s always best to confirm your location with as many devices and sources of information as possible to stay found. If they’re all in agreement, you’re probably where you think you are.
Written 2017. Updated 2018.