Will the GPS replace the compass?

Guest post by Andrew of Outdoor Look.

compass and gps on a mapFor hundreds, if not thousands of years man has explored his surroundings with a compass and maps. Now we see GPS units and apps for smart phones available a plenty, so has the humble compass had its day? Both have their fans with some seeing the GPS as just the latest ‘boys toy’ with lots of buttons and flashing lights and those who see it as a valuable aid to navigating your route that anyone who is serious about walking and hiking must have with them at all times. I lean towards the compass and map, simply because that is how I was taught, but I can see how technology changes and obviously a GPS unit doesn’t take up as much space, but is one better than the other? Let’s see.

The compass is lightweight, fits in a pocket and is ideal if you need to travel light. It is relatively inexpensive and needs no additional purchases to make it work, you simply take it out of its packaging and away you go. If pushed the compass is so simple that you could construct one from items in your home.

However, you do need to acquire a few skills in order to read a compass properly. Without an accompanying map a compass can only really tell you where North is, although with a basic knowledge of the compass points you can travel in another direction.

But what about the GPS unit? It does allow you to carry a plethora of maps in the palm of your hand and is easier to use when you are on the move. It will also provide additional information such as distance covered, and what is still to be covered before the end of the day (although this might not be such a good thing in certain circumstances).

On the down side, it does run on batteries, and if you are carrying spares in case it runs out then you are adding additional weight to your pack. With it being an electronic device it is more prone to damage from dropping it and you will have to keep it dry. The cost of a GPS unit can go into the hundreds of pounds so is on the expensive side, although the new generation of smartphones are seeing some very clever apps being released which can reduce this. A unit can require a strong signal to work accurately, and can be affected by weather conditions, whether you are under a heavy forest canopy or are inside buildings. Although as technology improves over time these should be overcome.

So a GPS unit gives you far more detailed information and is easier and faster to use than a compass and map. It will be able to tell you where you have been, where you are, and where you are going, but using a compass and map will give you a broader geographical context, which helps you to remember the route. The GPS is great but power issues especially mean that it should always be backed up by a map and compass. So personally I see that the GPS would certainly be useful as well, but I would still prefer to have a map and compass safely packed with my outdoor gear. What do you think?

This is a guest post by Andrew, a keen walker and outdoor enthusiast who writes for Outdoor Look, a UK based retailer of outdoor gear, clothing and footwear.

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8 Responses

  1. John Dennington

    For me a GPS unit is an additional tool rather than a replacement for the map and compass. I find it useful for finding out how far I have travelled, for how long and to see how high I am. It’s also good to get exact co-ordinates to cross reference on the map, although the OS Locate app does a very good job of this. I do wonder how much life is left in a seperate GPS device as has already been mentioned, smartphone devices now have very capable apps that can do this job

  2. Tim Cooper

    For me, it’s the other way round. I’ve been using Viewranger as my primary navigation for at least 7 years, over several devices and literally 1000’s of miles. It’s yet to let me down or fail. I’ve not lost, broken or drowned any device. Or found myself in the middle of a walk with a flat battery.

    I do carry a paper map when navigating new locations (in fact i just picked up OL4 from Go-Outdoors as i’m doing the 10 in 10 in a few weeks) and compass, but they are my backup and i have yet to “break glass in case of emergency”! In truth, on longer walks, such as my 12 miler round Stanage Edge a week ago, the paper map was a backup to a backup. I had my Note 3 with Viewranger as the primary, my Nexus 7 (which is about the same size and weight as a folded paper map) , also with Viewranger, in my pack and a paper map.

    HOWEVER, I have taken the time to learn how to use my navigation tools and treat them like all the other essential equipment i would carry. Many people don’t, which is in part (I think) why there are so often news stories about people using smartphones to get successfully lost. It’s equally possible to do that with a map and compass if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    I don’t think GPS will replace the compass, anymore than digital maps will completely replace paper ones. But I do think that more technological solutions to paper and compass will continue to evolve.

  3. Martyn Walker

    Maps and compasses don’t work well in heavy wind and rain, if at all, and they’re not good in the dark or fog too. A modern gps will remain on and faithful for 6 days before batteries need changing. In the UK at least, any power issues are limited to remembering when the next change is due.

    gps vs compass is a perennial argument but neither are required (or indeed offer) safe navigation. I believe anyone truly interested in outdoor walking will enjoy natural navigation as an entertaining and educational alternative.

    Plan a route, print a map and leave home with your gps and/or compass buried deep in your rucksack for emergency use only. Direction and position exists everywhere in nature, not just, wind, sun and stars but every inch you tread offers clues from the colour of the dirt to the direction grass or a leaf leans which are more reliable than any compass or gps in the dark, fog, wind, rain, hail, or snow.

    It’s quite exciting to determine direction and time from a quick glance at a meadow on a dull and overcast day.

  4. After 50 years walking, fell running and climbing with no GPS and managing just fine with a humble (and cheap ) map and compass I wonder why the need to “know exactly where I am” has replaced common sense , perhaps controversal but if you dont have the confidence to handle bad weather etc on the hill relying on your own knowledge and skill perhaps you should not be there. wwwLakelandhuntingmemories.com

  5. Steve Law

    At some stage the GPS will run out of battery possibly at the most critical time
    We have to rely on the Americans for the accuracy of their satellites
    I can’t think why a compass can’t be used in wind, rain, cloud and dark. That’s when I use it most
    Don’t put you compass and mobile phone in the same pocket.
    A compass is your best mate – it won’t let you down unless you’re on the Black Cuillins.

    1. Thanks for the comment Steve – and I liked your tips on mobile phones and compasses and on the Black Cullins. I’ve changed the description on Explorer map 411 to warn about the effects of the rocks on compasses.

  6. John Richards

    I have been hill walking for more years than I like to think about (about 45!), and am used to using the traditional map and compass, which have never let me down. But in the last half-dozen years or so, since having a smartphone, I have been making more use of gps and getamap, and am beginning to get the hang of it.

    Both have their place, and I would never feel adequately equipped without a paper map and compass, but there is much to be said for the convenience of having the whole country mapped and in your pocket. Using a smartphone (iPhone) and downloaded maps from getamap is easy, and a boon in high winds when handling a paper map is a bit of a pain.

    Against that, they sometimes take a little while to load, and the area you are viewing is quite small, so that the wider context of your position, say, for instance, the bearing of a peak 4 or 5 miles away, is less apparent. Also, you need to do quite a bit of preparatory work before the walk to ensure that you have coverage of the correct area immediately to hand.

  7. David Brodie

    I have been walking for many years, mostly in Scotland. My thoughts on the big question, map & compass (M&C) versus GPS . I like to use both.

    However my preference is M&C, I really enjoy utilising the skills required to macro & micro nav around the mountains, pace counting on a bearing in bad viz to a ring contour or re-entry, arriving at the feature within 5 paces of your calculation is extremely satisfying.

    You can also use the GPS to practice & hone your navigation skills by placing virtual waypoints onto your GPS, i.e features that don’t exist on open moorland. I use: http://walkhighlands.co.uk/ this web site gives you free access to the whole of the UK 1:25 000 OS maps, routes & way points can be set with the mouse, and saved on your GPS. I then mark the waypoints on my map & try to nav to these virtual waypoints at night or in poor viz, when you arrive at your position, out comes the GPS to X ref your position(which is already saved in the GPS) After a few practices runs – it is amazing how accurate you can be with a M&C, even in a white out!

    Good M&C skills empower all people in the mountains, by using GPS alone means walkers would loose these essential skills, which we can all share with less experienced walkers.

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