Many years ago when the first handheld GPS units appeared I was called a Luddite, old fashioned and out of touch by those keen to boost this new technology because I said that they didn’t replace map and compass. Much more recently I’ve been criticised for promoting smartphones for navigation and for not saying that they weren’t any use and that map and compass was all that was needed. Yet over this time my views haven’t changed much, just adapted to new technology, and I’ve never been as anti or pro any method of navigation as some people thought. Here, in the hope of making it clear, are my views on navigational tools.
Firstly, and most importantly, is that word ‘tools’ for that is all that maps, compasses, GPS units, smartphones and tablets are, tools that can be used for navigation. None of them hold any magic qualities that will navigate for you. If you know how to use them they can all be useful, if you don’t they are all useless. Just carrying a compass or a smartphone won’t help you navigate if you don’t know how to use it. As with any tool you need to know what it can and can’t do.
The basic tool is a map of course. A map with contours and other symbols that, when you can read them, show what the terrain is like. I love maps. I can spend hours poring over them, studying landscapes and planning routes. I do nearly all my navigation with a map. As long as visibility is good I can quickly locate my rough position on the map and identify surrounding features even if I haven’t been paying much attention for my whereabouts for a while.
I always carry a compass though it may not be used most days. When visibility is poor it comes into its own, either just giving me a rough direction or the more precise one of a map bearing. In white-outs high in the mountains and in forests where no features are visible I’ve walked for hours with the compass in my hand. I do check the local geology though. Long before GPS came along I was taught that compasses are infallible. Then I walked off the wrong side of Ben More on the island of Mull, following a compass bearing, and discovered that if there are magnetic rocks around compasses can be 180º out. Oops!
When GPS arrived I could immediately see the usefulness of a device that gave you a grid reference you could plot on a map to see where you were, which was much quicker and easier than the various compass techniques (angle of slope, triangulation and more). You needed to understand grid references of course and not muddle up eastings and northings. And you needed a compass with a roamer scale (or a separate protractor) to plot the grid reference on your map. You could also input a series of waypoints into those early GPS units and then follow this route. I once, as an exercise (not an intentional one – I forgot the map), recorded my route up a hill with the GPS and then used the GPS to retrace it. Doing this I realised an advantage of a GPS over a compass. If you move off the line of a compass bearing due to some obstacle or other you have to take a new bearing as the original one will now be inaccurate. A GPS will point towards the next waypoint from wherever you are.
GPS took a big leap forward when maps could be downloaded onto a unit. Now instead of a grid reference there was your position on the map. Wonderful! In mist and the dark this made navigation much easier. Now if I’m unsure of my whereabouts my first action is to check the GPS map.
Smartphones and Tablets
The latest controversy surrounds the use of smartphones for navigation (and will probably soon include tablets). When small mobile phones first appeared they were criticised because a very few people used them to call for help instead of learning how to navigate. However it soon became apparent that they could be a great boon in calling for rescue when it was genuinely needed and in helping rescue teams locate someone quickly. The controversy died down. Then smartphones arrived. Phones with mapping and GPS receivers. Back came the controversy because again a few people are misusing them and think that they can navigate in the hills with the basic maps provided. You can’t. Or at least no more than you can with a road atlas. But it’s not the device at fault. It’s the operator.
Unfortunately some people are criticising smartphones and giving out myths about them. It was in trying to clear these up that I gave the impression to some people that I was championing phones over map and compass.
One rescue team member was quoted as saying that smartphones were only suitable for urban walking because in the hills they ‘invariably’ fail due to lack of reception and poor battery life. Now the first isn’t true and the second shouldn’t be. Any smartphone with a GPS receiver has as good or better reception than any standalone GPS unit (and the latest models of both are far better than GPS units of just a few years ago). I can’t remember when I last couldn’t get reception, which isn’t surprising as I can get it inside buildings and vehicles, unlike with early GPS units.
As for batteries the answer is simple: carry spares, just as you would for a headlamp or torch (I presume no-one is advising against one of these because of poor battery life). If you have a phone with a non-replaceable battery (a stupid design) then there are various devices that will recharge it. Also, turn off functions you don’t need (I put my smartphone or tablet into airplane mode) and switch off the smartphone when you’re not navigating with it. My current smartphone lasts 6-7 hours like this, which gives several days of use if I don’t keep it switched on. My tablet lasts three times as long and I often leave it switched on to record my route (which has the advantage that if absolutely necessary I could use the tablet to retrace it, though I’ve never done this).
Of course you need to have proper maps on a smartphone for it to be useful for navigation. This isn’t a problem as OS maps are available, visually exactly the same as the paper maps.
The problem is that anyone who thinks that a smartphone with road maps is adequate for navigation won’t have any navigational skills. Educating people that they need these skills is important. Telling them that smartphones are useless in the hills is unhelpful though and could have a negative effect if accompanied by misinformation. If someone knows they can get a signal but a so-called expert tells them they can’t why they should believe anything else that person tells them?
To conclude: good navigational skills are of course essential in the hills and wild places. And the key one of these is being able to read a map, whether it’s on paper or on a screen. The latest tablets and smartphones are efficient GPS units and with good maps can be used for navigation. Indeed, being able to pinpoint your position on a map on the screen should make it harder to get lost. That said, carrying a paper map and a compass as well as a GPS is wise. Apart from anything else if one fails (and I’ve seen maps shredded by the wind, blown away and dissolved by rain) you still have the other.