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Are Magnetic Compasses Obsolete for Hiking and Backpacking?

Are Magnetic Compasses Obsolete for Hiking and Backpacking?

I use a Suunto magnetic compass and Casio watch altimeter whenever I step off a trail to navigate and I carry them on every hike I take. But with the improvements in GPS Phone Apps, like Gaia GPS and ViewRanger, I have to wonder whether they’re obsolete in this day and age. Sure, you might need a compass if your phone or dedicated GPS unit runs out of power, but how likely is that when people carry USB spare battery packs to recharge all of their other devices, from rechargeable headlamps to satellite messengers?

I recently put this question to a few of my buddies who also teach map and compass navigation and they couldn’t come up with a convincing justification for why a compass is still a hiking and backpacking essential instead of a GPS Phone app or a dedicated GPS unit.

The main reason I still prefer using a compass instead of a phone app for navigation is speed when I’m hiking off-trail. I almost never use a compass or a GPS app when hiking on established trails because, duh, they’re blazed and/or easy to follow. But when I’m hiking off-trail, I set a bearing and can just glance at my compass to make sure I’m still headed in the right direction (as long as red is in the shed). I can’t do that very easily with a phone, because my screen saver obscures my GPS app and I have to take my distance glasses off to focus on whatever navigation app I’m using,

I also think using a compass forces me to pay more attention to my route, and in particular, to visualize the landforms  I need to look for and correlate with my map. I actually use a compass less than you might expect because I try to navigate by landforms, only using the compass when I want to check that I’m on the right course. For example, if I’m climbing a cone-shaped peak, I seldom need a compass to figure out which direction I need to head (up). The same holds when following a ridgeline, walking alongside a handrail like a river, or contouring around a hill. My compass becomes most useful when I can’t see distinct landforms, for example, if I’m hiking across a big flat area, I’m hiking through fog, or in a dense forest without any discernable landmarks that I can correlate with those on a map.

There’s also the issue of compass calibration in smartphones. Have you ever noticed that the directional indicator in your GPS app is pointed in a different direction from the one you’re hiking? It happens to me with alarming frequency, especially when I’m using Gaia GPS. I notice it because I’ve very map aware, but if you’re not you might want to carry a compass that uses the earth’s magnetic field to determine your direction if only to verify the calibration of your phone’s compass. (You can usually calibrate your phone’s compass by waving it in a figure-eight vertically or horizontally).

While I still carry a physical map on every hike I take, I usually take my compass bearing from a phone app and check my current position because it’s so convenient to do so. I’ll admit that GPS apps are great for figuring out where you are and quickly, but I’m still not sold on their directional convenience or reliability, especially for off-trail cross country travel.

How about you? What do you think?

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  1. Nice blog!! Inchworm’s tragedy makes your argument quite poignant!

  2. Early in my Army career I had to learn how to navigate using a map and compass. Essential and vital skill. Then came GPS (early 1990s). By the early 2000s map and compass skills were basically a lost art. Not an issue until something happened to the technology (batteries drained, GPS unit breaks, satellites hacked, lost equipment, etc). The mission does not have a pause button while the tech gets fixed/rebooted.

    That is my justification for for why a compass is still a hiking and backpacking essential instead of a GPS Phone app or a dedicated GPS unit.

    Of course there were plenty of soldiers who could not read a map or navigate, but that is another story.

    • Used my first compass as a Scout, got heavily into orienteering in college, was the “compass man” for every patrol in US Army Ranger School, and spent a career as an Infantry Officer very reliant on map and compass navigational skills. All that said, I don’t believe a paper map and compass are the primary navigation tools of a thoroughly competent hiker nor should they be (up to and including weekend backpackers). Yes I carry battery backup and my iPhone case is a battery backup as well. I use the iPhone with AllTrails for off trail navigation to complete the Catskills 3500, Georgia 4000, and the South Beyond 6000. I create my own maps using CalTopo, Gaia or AllTrails and upload them to AllTrails. When I leave the trail it’s on an invisible trail I’ve created myself and can verify both physically on the ground and digitally on AllTrails. What I’ve come to believe is that most people don’t even know how to use most of the features of the AllTrails app. With one tap on my screen I’ve oriented the digital map to my direction of travel while others are still unfolding their map. A couple weeks ago, within seconds after I summited Bit Cataloochee in the Smokies I got a congratulatory text from my wife (sitting at home, 80 miles south) who was using the AllTrails Lifeline I had sent her several hours earlier. I was in the deepest part of the park, more than a mile from the nearest trail, but it was like she made that peakbag with me. Yes, I will always carry a map and compass, but they’ve become my “breakout in case of emergency” tools.

  3. I was a ship navigator from 1976 to 1996. With the advent of GPS and its increasing accuracy, the navy has gotten away from relying on “old school” navigation. It is only recently that they started teaching it again at the Naval Academy. They finally realized that relying on electronic navigation without a compass and chart(map) backup is foolish. I always carry my Suunto compass and map because electronics can and will fail sometimes.

    • My phone failed just the other day…

    • If you want to find out if you’re on a converging course with another vessel, i.e. going to crash, there is nothing as good as a portable marine compass.

      Yes, AIS is brilliant, but in many parts of the world, even in Europe, a lot of boats don’t have it. And as you say, what if your electronics go down? I’ve been hit by lightning twice and lost all electronics, a compass and paper chart is great when you need it.

      Rather than asking if compasses are redundant, why not consider them just another tool in the navigator’s arsenal. With marine navigation, I was always taught to regard each tool as just another mechanism to get a good fix or direction.

      So a compass isn’t redundant, it’s just another great tool.

  4. For me, a map and compass has two appeals: cost and satisfaction of use. I find navigating off-trail with a map and compass more satisfying than with a GPS app, but that might just be me being an old fogey :)

    • My fogey is pretty old too!

    • What happens when your device breaks, gets dropped off a cliff, lost on the trail? Gps also eats my phone battery. I use a paper map and compass. I’ll occasionally check my gps on my phone. Prefer to not have much screen use in the wild. Also save my power for an emergency.

  5. This article covered it all IMHO. It’s all a matter of one’s experience, confidence and knowledge relative to the navigation method we use as long as we eventually get to our destination safely. Choose wisely my friend…..

  6. Lightweight and robust redundancy to ensure one’s safety? I’m all in for retaining analog backups!

  7. I only use a compass when I’m lost. If I was really lost, I think I would be depending on my phone for lots of things, and I would appreciate not having to use battery power for the compass.

  8. My Suunto weighs one ounce. It goes on every trip with me. But GPS is also a useful tool, but it’s not as easy to use, as your article notes. I have been thinking about adding an InReach device, given my age and health concerns. But it would never displace my compass.

    • I’d encourage you to get an InReach. At the time I bought one, it was the ONLY GPS device allowing TWO way communication (and perhaps is still, I don’t know). That feature convinced me to purchase it. I just turned 73, but safety is important at any age and an InReach could be VITAL to one’s survival.

      I also use AlpineQuest on my phone, and a magnetic compass is always in my day pack.

    • My compass is a bit heavier because it has a mirror. But the extra weight allows for triple-duty. The mirror could be used to signal in an emergency. More practically, I used when I fell to see and treat a cut on my forehead.

  9. I don’t see it as an either/or. Just different tools for different uses. Sometimes a power tool works better than a hand tool. Sometimes a hand tool is quicker and less cumbersome to use.

    And navigation is no different: Sometimes one tool is easier to use than another. If I want a quick direction check, I find the compass is easier than using a phone. Want a larger overview? Go to my print map. Need a quick map check, I’ll use the phone. Want to know my exact location? Go to the phone.

    And you can combine the old and new: On the GDT a couple of years back, the trail petered out in the blowdowns. I took a quick GPS check, then used my compass to get to the location of the very faint, but still easier, trail.

    A good tradesperson knows their tools and uses the appropriate tool for the job. In the outdoors “trade”, I’d argue knowing how to use a map (print AND electronic) compass, and a GPS enabled device is all part of being proficient and skilled at the job.

  10. I agree with what has been said about the importance of having a map and compass because they are so hard to break, but I think that they are at least as important because of what one learns while using them.

    I think that the lesson that I take from Inchworm’s experience is different from what some people take from it. Given what people have been able to figure out about what she did from her journal, I wonder whether she even knew whether she had gone into the woods on the east or west side of the trail. As Philip says, I rarely have either a map or compass out when walking a well marked trail, BUT if something doesn’t seem right I’ll get them out. I’m convinced that that sense of something feeling wrong comes from years of using map and compass on and off trail. By habit I will keep a rough map in my head and will keep an awareness of where the sun is. Being forced to think through my navigation has given me a sense of my surroundings that I don’t believe looking at an arrow on a screen would train me to have.

    • Trail awareness is an excellent point.

    • From my memory of reading the book “When you find my body…,” she knew she was somewhere North of the trail, but only had a toy compass. She had taken a 4-day course on hiking the AT, but the instructor taught slackpacking and didn’t cover any survival or navigation skills beyond following the white blazes.

      The book’s author interviewed about 20 thru hikers near Katahdin as they approached their finish. Three carried and knew how to use a compass. Another three or so had a compass, but weren’t entirely confident they could use it properly. The rest didn’t carry one.

  11. I also check my bearing frequently, and am surprised to hear how much someone would look at their phone for that.

    I have a reliable little compass clipped to my chest strap. Weighs almost nothing and easy enough to check, so I glance often. Why pull out a phone that could be miscalibrated?

    And reliability. Simplicity is king. Have I ever had phone-based navigation fail me? Not that I recall. But I’ll still never go for more than a day hike without a map and compass stashed.

    This is like the stories of people who leave anti-diarrheal behind. Doesn’t seem like much till you need it, and doesn’t take much to carry it!

  12. All of the above comments are very one sided. They’re from people who know how to use a map and compass. What about all the people who only use AllTrails or Guthook and nothing else. They’re actually the majority of hikers these days and they seem to get by just fine without a paper map or compass. At least most of them. Be nice if some of them left a comment too. Just saying.

    • Isn’t it reassuring everyone knows how to use them? XD

      I use CalTopo all the time too, but even then I find watching bearing by compass saves me precious battery.

      But sorry, I digress…

    • “All of the above comments are very one-sided. They’re from people who know how to use a map and compass. ”

      I think out West, (esp outside of national parks), you’ll find many people use larger-scale maps to navigate if not always compass. At least for initial planning. Thru-hiking is a small slice of a small outdoor pool. If you mention “Guthook” to the person who is the vast majority of people who do not thru-hike, they’ll be like “Whaaaa?”

      As for All-trails, again if you are into things other than well-defined trails (be it climbing, canyoneering, backcountry skiing, even some more technical off-roading), people still use the maps for trip planning and in-field navigation on a larger scale. And that’s a large base of the people out West.

      Saying someone’s biased because they know how to read a map…well, you may as well ask is a chef’s knife obsolete? Most people don’t cook and go get fast food or buy otherwise prepared food for home. If you cook you still use a larger knife of some sort.

      I guess you could say the people who don’t know how to use a tool are not biased by their experience? ;)

      • For example, I saw some people on horseback this weekend. Local rancher/hunter types and not “equestrians!”

        At the trailhead, they pulled out the same large scale map I used for planning. And then they looked at their phone to verify their waypoints. Old and new combined. Like many experienced people.

        • I’m in violent agreement. But can you *just* use a phone app or a GPS? That’s the question I’m asking. Those devices are a lot less fragile than they were 5 years ago….and people have them, whereas they don’t have compasses.

          I’m gratified to hear that people use compasses out west. It’s totally different on the well-established trail system we have in the Whites (NH), which is arguably one of the biggest hiking communities in the states. Very few people know how to use a compass or even carry one. I hiked here for years with just a map and never got lost.

      • One last comment…

        Again if you are not using defined trails ala the XYZ trails or National Parks or similarly defined areas, you still need to know how to read a map be it electronic OR print.

        Maps aren’t going away though they may change form. And you still need the skill to use them. If that wasn’t the case, Joan and I would not be the only people wandering the canyons around here that aren’t on GutTrailProject or similar.

      • “. But can you *just* use a phone app or a GPS?”

        For any in-depth trail planning or large scale view in the field? I think not.
        The screen size is just too small. Maybe in the future when we have holographically projected maps. I am not being facetious when I say that, either.

        Many experienced people have gone to carrying one large-scale map for the overall view but loading a crap ton-of layers on the phone. Myself included.

        I would not want to do any long trip (anything more than a well-defined trail-based day hike) without a larger overview but I’ve grown to like several different maps available, too. And the phone allows that.

      • (Sorry for all the comments; we are responding in real time apparentlg :) )

        “You mean Google doesn’t give turn by turn directions on BLM roads?”

        I think you meant that as a joke, but, alas, too many bad things have happened because Google does…kinda. :O

        Here’s one of the better (as in she didn’t die) examples.
        There are worse.

      • Can people use just a phone app or GPS? Absolutely. Especially in the Whites. I haven’t carried a compass or paper map there in probably 5 years and I do a fair amount of bushwhacking. Maps and compass aren’t invincible, either. They get wet, broken, or lost just as electronics can get wet, broken, or lost. You do what you can to prevent that stuff from happening but nothing is fool-proof. Pre-trip planning with extensive studying of maps before you get into the woods go a long way. If I were hiking in a place with few terrain features I would probably adjust my toolbox.

      • @Josh
        “Can people use just a phone app or GPS? Absolutely. Especially in the Whites”

        There you go. That last part you just stated. – One specific area that’s overall small.

        People who use JUST a GPS to get to the trailheads out here on some bumpy dirt road run into issues. Part of an outdoor skill set is navigating. And that includes getting to the places that are off-the-beaten-path not near pavement.

        Now, I am not some Western snob. I grew up in RI, spent my formative backpacking in the Whites and Berkshires, and planned to do a 500+ mile hike from the Canadian border to the Atlantic Ocean this fall in NH, Mass, and RI before COVID hit. I planned on using my phone, but since it is a hodge-podge route, I sure as heck planned to bring larger overview print maps in case (for example) the tote road on the map and the Google satellite view does not exist as well as I hoped. :)

        Also, to hammer a point again, whether electronic OR print, we still read maps (unless you are following someone else’s track off-trail.) Map reading is a skill that won’t go away though the forms of maps change. If I couldn’t read the map on the phone we’d not find many places out here obscured for archaeological reasons online.

        So yes, you can use “just” a phone in some areas. But as seen by the person who got stuck in the middle-of-nowwhere AZ, relying on just one tool in many areas is foolish at the *** current state of technology *** .

        I am not sure why there’s this dichotomy of that you are either JUST print map and compass or JUST electronic map and GPS.

        An experienced outdoor user makes the best use of the tools available and realized different areas require different tools, techniques, and skillsets. As I said before, one tool often times works better than another. And I’d never just rely on one tool.

        • Paul. I don’t understand how it can be ”ok” to use just a GPS in the ”Whites,” which extend from Hanover, NH to Western Maine and up to Canada but not everywhere. That really is a nonsensical comment.

          We have lots and lots of ”nowhere” in New England. I’m currently hiking the NH500 highest which has about 350 bushwhacks (statewide) and it would simply be impossible without GPS-enabled map app(s). There is no one “map” you can print out. You just keep ducking the original question. I know Josh and he gets after it too

          To elaborate, it’s not the directional capabilities that make a GPS app desirable, it’s the number of maps that it provides. The reality is the US maps really suck in terms of comprehensiveness and currency and you need to use a lot of them to piece together a route, even over short distances. I’m not talking about the topographical lines in a national forest or park, but all of the other stuff that gets left out including private property boundaries.

          Just reread some previous comments:

          “Many experienced people have gone to carrying one large-scale map for the overall view but loading a crap ton-of layers on the phone. Myself included.”

          I do this too. But honestly, that large scale map doesn’t get used much because it lacks so much real-world detail.

    • Philip…I responded yesterday on the 18th at 2:42pm with a pro GPS (AllTrails user) comment. Look for it. I use my iPhone exclusively for 1-3 day trips (I still carry paper maps and a compass for backup). I’ve gone through all the responses to your initial post and there are some very good ones but it’s hard to debate others when, with one possible exception (Brian Wright…a popular AllTrails user name), no one seems to have an AllTrails account OR if they do they’ve never used any of the features and more importantly the paid Pro features. I feel very confident if I had some one-on-one time with anyone who REALLY knows how to use a map and compass (depended on them for work like calling in artillery or mortars, leading day and night patrols etc..) I think the more you know about a map and compass the more impressed you’ll be with the full feature set of AllTrails Pro on the iPhone. Gaia is great too and the available maps are incredible but overall I think AllTrails is the better app. Also…I was the Ops Officer (S3) in the very first army infantry battalion to get GPS’s. We got them during our National Training Center Rotation. Before our rotation was over we had stopped using our compasses. We still used maps though since early GPS’s had no built in maps. Front line units are always the first to adapt the latest technology and depend on them. Most (not all) new technology brings efficiency and increased effectiveness. One more thing…I hiked with a guy once who had one of those little simple compasses pinned to his jacket (like a previous commenter). He could not figure out why our direction of travel didn’t jive with his little compass, until I showed him how the little magnet on his chest strap that secured his bite value was pulling his compass needle off line.

      • I don’t really know Alltrails and I just tolerate Gaia. I don’t particularly like the crowdsourced data layers that these apps rely on because they’re often inaccurate. But I will look further into Alltrails on your recommendation.

      • The more I experiment with CalTopo at home, the more impressed I am. Generating and printing custom maps is going to be a regular part of my future hiking routine. I don’t have a paid subscription yet, but may get one at some point.

        I can’t imagine going on a hike without a compass even though 99% of the time I don’t need or use it. My most common compass usage is to take bearings on distant peaks from a viewpoint at a known location, not to navigate, but to figure out which peaks I am looking at.

        Having lived in both East and West and hiked extensively in both, I would say that map and compass are more helpful in the West, where you are much more likely to have open views of distant objects that can be used for bearings, and trails are likely to be less well marked. In the East, the “green tunnel” effect makes GPS extremely helpful. Without it, even with compass and map, you may know you’re on the trail but have only dead reckoning to tell you how far you’ve come.

        Sure, use GPS phone apps, but never depend solely on them.

        And if you hike with a regular partner, don’t depend on him for all your navigation. Practice doing it on your own.

    • Never too late to improve your land-nav abilities and learn a new-old skill

  13. Unless you’re doing serious backcountry treks, or geocaching, or similar, you only need a simple compass. I recommend the lightest weight declination compass you can find. Currently, I think that’s the Suunto A-10, at 1.1 oz, $21 at REI. And I recommend a close-in and larger scale map.

    I’ve had this discussion with a lot of thru hikers, and I’ve convinced at least some of them.

  14. I remember hitting the Neversink in the Cats with my wife a few years back. We hit six peaks that long day without any electronic equipment. I took bearings for each peak and was spot on for each and every one of them.
    I’ve had friends use their electronics only to experience immediate failure when they froze up. Many of the same friends had backup compasses because they understood the value of them.
    Anyone who solely trusts their electronics is asking for trouble.

  15. I’ve been using map and compass since highschool. I’m 55 now. In the army we used map and compass. I’ll always use map and compass. I’ve taught all 4 of my kids to use map and compass

  16. Last year on the PCT I started with printed maps as well as the Guthook app on my phone. After a month I stopped carrying maps. I did have a cheap compass that I kept and never used. This year I got Gaia and I can’t believe how much I like it. Everyone worried about batteries falling, keep in mind you can lose, damage a paper map and a compass too. You are really choosing what redundancy you want.

  17. I have lost the services of two phones on two separate long distance hikes (~ 600 m). Neither one was on one of the cadillace trails with a blaze on every second tree. Had I not had my printed maps and my compass I’d have been in deep doodoo.

    Moreover, the days and weeks I spend over preparing my maps affords me a level of familiarity with the terrain and potential challenges of the route that I would not get if I were someone else’s route downloaded to my phone.

    I also have a hard time placing myself in the large scale landscape when looking at the small screen of the phone. Much easier on a printed map.

    This is not to say that the phone GPS does not come in handy when deep in canyons, for instance.

    Or: what PMags said

    Yours in fogyism

  18. I think it’s astounding that anybody would suggest it’s not important to know at least the basics of map and compass use. I can see where a casual hiker on well worn and established trails wouldn’t need a map and compass. But on a trip of any length or distance that takes one far enough away from help should absolutely have and know how to use a map and compass. And in wilderness travel I would consider it an essential skill. Electronics are great for convenience and fantastic for upfront use. Total reliance on them is foolhardy. And saying a compass and map are obsolete is akin to saying ppl shouldn’t learn basic arithmetic, or how to spell properly, because calculators and autocorrect are ubiquitous. Phooey. Astounding. *facepalm*

  19. I thru-hiked the AT and the PCT without a map or compass. I had guthook but mostly i just followed the blazes or the groove in the dirt.

    • Ditto on that. No one carries a compass or maps on the AT except newbies. I mainly just use Guthook and the AT Guide to look up town services.

  20. Given we teach students some rudiments of hiking, we face the question what should we teach? We decided to stick with the phone, as students already have that, and the biggest issue is: where am I? All these people who use maps + compass know where they are on the map. That’s a skill that can be learnt, but not very useful anymore.

    I exclusively use the phone, especially for off-trail hiking. I can make on the spot decisions on what route to take, or what a better route would be by simply looking at the topo50 map I have on my phone. Compass lets me take a direction, but the particular direction could not be very straight-forward. Knowing exactly where you are on the map allows easy navigation around obstacles.

    If your phone isn’t waterproof, buy a better one, really that’s not an issue these days.

    The second thing I carry is a tablet (only 400g), for work-related reasons, so I have a backup.

    There are obviously corner cases where not having a paper backup would be foolish. I.e. if it gets truly remote.

  21. In a club of 200, four of us instruct M&C for two dozen participants in a couple of clinics every year for eight years running. About one out of eight go on to advanced training and become leaders of our off-trail outings late fall through early spring, which constitute about 20% of our annual events.

    GPS never comes up; it’s incredible how many everyday hikers are still intrigued by traditional nav methods.

    Me – I only hike to navigate, an incredibly fulfilling hobby. Never have used GPS. For my purposes can’t see the point.

    • I’ll give you an actual use case. If you hike in the UK, the paper maps are published by the OS (ordnance Survey) and they are huge and heavy. If you have a long route, like coast to coast (200 miles), it’s a real pain in the ass to buy and carry all the maps. I’ve done it. I don’t anymore. I have the maps, but in the OS App and in the ViewRanger App on my phone. I plan my entire route, largely off-trail, in advance, and can follow it from my phone. I still use a compass for following bearings, but my phone spares me the hassle of carrying the maps.

      Here’s another use case.
      When I’m in the US/NH, I like to use a variety of maps and map layers to plan my trips because they’re largely off-trail and I like to leverage snowmobile trails, XC trails, old no longer maintained trails etc, when bushwhacking cross country to save energy. None of my maps have all of this information but all of these maps are available digitally and are geocoded, including historic USGS maps from the mid-1800’s. In addition to planning with them, I can carry them in the field, which is remarkably helpful, especially when we’re doing archeological preservation of artifacts and need to locate old settlements.

  22. I developed my navigation skills through Scouting and the Military. My personal choice is to use a map as my primary means of navigation and a phone as a secondary means of navigation.

    Both methods have their merits. But I believe the art of map reading is more than knowing where you think you are located. Map reading develops critical thinking skills and confidence. I believe this is lost with the cell phone as a means to navigate. I think the art of planning your own trip using a map is lost by most. I feel that way by what I see posted on FB groups and when people stop me on the trail to ask me where they are at and I have to show them on the map.

  23. Much of the talk here is about wayfinding. I have a few rambling thoughts. I hike and ski the backcountry north of Vancouver, Canada. There are some great trails, but many of our adventures are off piste — beyond the end of the trail, or where there is no trail. I’ve been using GPS since the early aughts. And I’ve always carried a compass. They are different tools.

    For wayfinding in an unfamiliar area, on occasion, I’ve marked my planned route with waypoints on my GPS, and that has been very useful. But I’ve never been out there wandering around not knowing where I am.

    Frankly the most useful aid to wayfinding is neither the compass nor the GPS. In the steep country, it is the altimeter on my wrist. I’ve had the same Casio since the 90s (Casio still have an ugly watch with an altimeter for < $150 Steep hills have lots of creeks. I always know which of two creeks I am between, and I am probably climbing on the ridge in between, so the altimeter will put me on one of the contour lines on my map. The aspect of the hill takes care of directions… so I'm not using the compass or the GPS.

    Part of the fun of going is planning. So, I've researched the expected weather, the avalanche conditions, as well as all of the possible routes and potential problems. And read the guidebooks. If we need to cross a glacier in the winter during a whiteout the compass is the easiest and fastest tool. If we have to hit a mark on the other side, then the GPS is better. (But why am I blundering around on a glacier in a whiteout?)

    I guess what I'm saying is the most important wayfinding tool is my head, and the preplanning. What I've enjoyed most about using GPS is, after an adventure reconnoitering a new area, I can review exactly what happened when I post the GPX or KML file on Google Earth. But that's not wayfinding that's part of debriefing.

    A bit more about GPS. When the unit is on, it is eating batteries. So, I turn it on only when I want to check, or run a tracklog. The unit takes time for it to find its birds. I carry it on my shoulder strap, so to use it I need to take it off and fiddle. This takes time. I'd love a heads-up display. Somehow, that simple magnetic compass is always on, and fast to read. Real GPS uses only satellites, and it is limited by the canopy (especially wet trees) and rock faces. Cell phones work better if they have access to cell towers, and in our backcountry I am usually out of range.

  24. When it’s mid winter stormy weather, I don’t want to stopping taking the big glove off and try to open my phone. So though I use view ranger in fairly good weather I prefer map and compass in winter. Less faff for me. Studying map before you head out is key. Know what to expect.

  25. Generally have a map and compass in backpack but very rarely use it, when I do its usually just to have a look at surroundings rather than navigate. Could I do without them, absolutely.

    Normally plan a GPS route and upload to garmin watch so have turn by turn directions. It and viewranger for the most part.

    Given the unpredictable weather and spending a lot of time with next to no visibility find watch and phone provide safer option as can identify instantly where I am when I have no landmarks to go by. If haven’t planned a route on watch can always hit trackback and retrace my steps therefore minimising risk.

  26. I use GaiaGPS as my primary navigation tool. I also bring paper maps, almost always printed out from Gaia or CalTopo. I bring the paper map (1) as back up, (2) to give a bigger overview than a screen does when I’m prepping for the next day at camp, and (3) just to escape from the screen, which is part of the reason I’m out there in the first place. To second Josh above: these maps can fail too because of the flimsiness of the paper and running ink; the ziploc bags maps and smart phone are in can too. Even when keeping to trails, I think the navigational redundancy of app and map is worth it.

  27. One of the reasons I use a magnetic compass is the purist aspect. It is like using an over & under shotgun vs a semi-automatic to shoot clays.

  28. Great article Phillip! Ill give you a little different aspect from what’s been posted so far. I live and hunt in the east. I fight wildfires out west in summer and for much shorter periods in spring and fall in the east. In the East I typically run OnX maps app on my iPhone. I can save maps for offline use to reserve battery power. Ill typically get a lat/ long from fire boss and off my crew and I go. Easy to pull up lat and longs as needed for calling in helicopters or planes for bucket/ retardant drops, phone map shows up well in the dark with out needing a headlight to read a map ( we do more firefighting in. the woods at night in the east) Compass stays in my pocket till I need the mirror to signal the ship in for exact drop location during daylight. Oregon 700 fired up and idling on my hip if needed as backup…….
    Out west its a bit different animal. We use township range section on maps and break those cubes down even smaller as needed like a religion. Same deals above for the mirror for working with aircraft ;tho the newest led strobes are quickly replacing mirrors. 90% of our navigation is map and compass mainly because you dont want to waste phone battery life since there are no guarantees if you will be able to charge that night or not for another 2 weeks (literally and x2 if we are in Alaska). Regular handheld Oregon 700 gps is always on my hip tho since it runs on 2 AA batts and we carry a pile of AA batteries on every trip. GPS Lat longs tho are way easier to dial in with a GPS vs map when reporting drop points, spot fires, items of interest, or the dreaded medical emergency location.
    So I think the answer to your question is you can do it without map and compass as long as the battery is charged, the phone has some kind of response to local 911 towers, and it doesn’t get lost or broken, or too cold/hot. Your observation about well defined and marked hiking trails in the East has some merit until I remember the story from a few years back about a woman up your way who starved to death within a short distance from the AT. She left on a solo hike with just her phone. She had no service where she was . Somehow got off the established trail and got lost so she did what everyone is told to do and stayed put dont wander around. Someone found her body in her tent several months later with a short diary she wrote of her experience. Based on that alone IMO if you can’t use a map and compass your best off staying at home until you can. Relying solely on technology in the wilderness can have deadly outcomes

  29. The compass has been around for 1000 years. GPS has been available for 40 years. Is the compass obsolete, no. But it only works for those who know how to use it.

  30. i just can’t go backpacking without a map and compass backup. Belt & suspenders ya know…

    • I don’t use suspenders, but belt, map and compass are always part of my kit. I just feel better with that reassurance. My father taught me to use map and compass by the time I was eight. To me, being able to fix my position by getting intersecting bearings from prominent landmarks is part of the fun of hiking in the outdoors.

  31. Joseph Buettner aka Nitrojoe

    I have read all of the above and no one has mentioned FATMAP app. I use it in planning my hikes. It gives one a 3D and 2D image of your planned hike. I download my planned route to a GPX file and send it to my SUUNTO watch. I lead hikes in the Sierra foothills and high passes along the HWY 80 corridor. Before going on the hikes i send my hikers the FATMAP and they can get a aerial view 3D+2D of the planned route on their home computers or phones. Its really cool to send a e-mail to your friends and family members of your hike and they really are impressed. FATMAP is based out of England and is rather new on the map app scene and tends to be a competitor with GAIA. When actually in the field i turn on my SUUNTO watch which has my route downloaded on to it. Just look at your watch and leave your phone off in your pack.
    Map and compass is always there when needed. I use older dated USGS maps. The most recent dated ones lack trail information. Andrew Skurka has a great blog on how to use a compass and its fundamentals, but you must take those skills out in the field with a topographic map large enough to do encompass geographic areas for sitting.

  32. Good article, and always interesting seeing your evolving relationship with GPS. I always carry a compass, both for outdoor work and for non-work hiking, but rarely end up using the compass on recreational bushwhacks. I do make high use of a quadrant compass (not the same as a typical hiker’s compass) for work to follow surveyed bearings (but that’s not something people tend to do for fun on their day off). I also make high use of GPS for work. Both are important tools in my toolkit. Using both a compass and a GPS unit for outdoor work over many years now (frequently in very remote places) has given me some perspective on the limitations of both. I can say definitively that I move A LOT faster with a GPS than I do with a compass unless I am trying for a high degree of precision in following a bearing–which is almost never the case on a for-fun hike. I also find that the utility of a GPS unit (and also a compass) are greatly enhanced by how well I familiarize myself with maps (and aerial imagery–both NIR and leaf-off RGB are particularly helpful for bushwhacking in the Whites) before I set out. Sometimes I will even prepare a prospective track route using Caltopo and download it into my GPS or even print it out on aerial NIR or RGB, whichever is easier to read. The fact that the north arrow in the GPS occasionally fails isn’t such a big deal when you have the ability to track and have an underlying base map under the location pointer with which to reference your location and progress, but it takes getting used to. If you have set your GPS to rotate your orientation based on your direction, it can become disorienting–so I always lock my GPS orientation to north. The greatest utility of the GPS, in my experience, is not having to be a slave to bearings to get from point A to point B. It’s a lot easier to navigate around obstacles and find unique features, especially if used with good aerial imagery and other topo basemaps. Can’t tell you how many bushwhack trips I organized where we capitalized on hidden overlooks that others would have missed or would have had a devil of a time finding with just a map and compass. All of that said, your points on the utility of a compass in a white-out, or in the case of GPS failure, are good ones and I agree that the compass is in no diminished as an essential item.

    • I was just thinking about one of your points on a recent bushwhack…how important real-time judgments are as the landscape unfolds in front of you. I almost never walk in a straight line off-trail and it’s fairly comical to look at my tracks when I bother recording them because they look like I was drunk!

  33. Maybe this was already mentioned above, but I didn’t see it:
    In the early days of civilian GPS units, the Department of Defense insured that there would be a random error in the location given by civilian units. I don’t recall how much of an error this was. Maybe up to 100 feet or 100 meters? Anyway, that’s been gone since 2000.
    But it could come back without warning, possibly for an extended period, and possibly with a greater range of error than before. If our intelligence agencies get wind of a terrorist plan to deliver bombs (or anthrax, sarin, etc) via gps guided drones, they could have GPS satellite signals scrambled. It could be for one city, or for the whole country. Who knows?
    For this and other reasons cited above [mostly for the reasons cited above ] I believe in carrying map and compass and knowing how to use them. The best way to be sure of knowing how to use them is to…use them…regularly.

  34. Joseph Buettner aka Nitrojoe

    Our government has just ended friendly fly overs with the Russians but not the spy GPS satellites.

  35. I wish I lived (and therefore could hike) in places where humanity is only a few k’s away.
    I wish I could carry a compass or GPS.
    Carrying a GPS or a compass just gives me weird looks from people I encounter.

  36. I have first hand experience here. I dropped my phone on a solo bushwhack in the woods! The paper map and compass came in handy that time. Definitely, absolutely needed as a backup. I saw a news article about a mother and daughter who got lost near Tamworth probably a week or two ago and all they had was the GPS app. NH Fish & Game issued a warning not to rely on it. I use Gaia the same way you do. I find a point on the scanned topo layer map I want to navigate to from my current location. I can find the distance and bearing and dial it into my compass bezel to dead-reckon and maybe aim-off the point. I find it much easier and faster to reference a compass hanging from your neck rather than a phone in your pocket. This is true especially during the winter when you might have trouble operating your phone with gloves on (I was constantly taking one glove off and putting it back on). In regard to water-resistance and reducing the likelihood you can find it if you drop it, I bought a waterproof plastic sleeve for it that is bright orange. There is a window so you can operate the screen and the camera without taking it out. (

  37. How about just being plain old self reliant? Trusting your skills and abilities, not an electronic device that can easily fail. Using tools that have been reliable for a long time.

    • In all fairness, compasses can fail too. But I prefer using one so 1) I don’t fall on my face when walking with a phone out in front of me, 2) I like the mental exercise 3) I see more and appreciate the landscape more if I have to think about its topography.

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