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.
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