Why Your Phone is More Useful Than a Map and Compass

Last week I came across an article from the Washington Post discussing the flaws of relying on the use of GPS to navigate and so proclaimed “lost art of map and compass skills”. While at first I found myself agreeing with the author, I quickly became lost by the argument that a GPS unit (or more likely, a smartphone GPS) isn’t as useful or powerful as a standard map and compass. While the main argument of the author was that more and more hikers are becoming lost due to failure to utilize the appropriate tools to navigate, I couldn’t help but returning to the argument of usefulness.

At one point the author quotes an expert who states “The GPS won’t tell you there is a mountain in the way or there is a huge river that won’t be safe to cross, but a map will…” Here is where the argument is lost. If you’re a modern GPS user, you know all well that not only will your GPS position you in space, but your GPS unit will often hold boundless additional information that most commercially purchased paper area maps never will. Perhaps the expert was referring to the original GPS units, that wouldn’t do much more than show a dot and some lines or waypoints on a blank screen. In truth, those days are long over, and the basis of the expert’s statement really isn’t factual at all.

Now let’s get one thing straight before we continue, I will at no point in this post argue that you should ditch your maps. If you’re unfamiliar with an area, it’s a pretty good idea to have some form of backup navigation if your GPS unit dies. While truthfully it is pretty easy to keep your phone charged with the use of portable power options, they don't have the same level of reliability as a paper map. 

OK so now back to my point, your handheld GPS, or your smartphone, is way more useful than your paper map.  That’s because, unlike this expert stated, your GPS is….. a map. Not only is it a map, but it is an interactive map, jam packed with features that allow you display the information you need and want in the way you need it.

Bearing in mind that operating a GPS requires a bit of learning, and often times some pre-planning before departing to the backcountry; your GPS is incredibly useful when it comes to navigating effectively and efficiently. Let’s start with just the map part. The biggest flaw with paper maps is just that, they are paper. If you want to cover a large area, you often need a series of maps.  However, the real advantage of GPS units, and even your smartphone, is in the ability to customize and change your background based on the information you need.

Screenshot from Gaia GPS mobile app

Screenshot from Gaia GPS mobile app

Here’s an example: Say you’re deep in the backcountry of Colorado and are attempting to climb a less popular 13eer, which didn’t have much information about it online. It starts to storm and you’re still well below the summit. You’ve got your USGS quad (which was drawn in 1970), and you notice two different potential decent routes into adjacent drainages that will take you below tree line and into safety. You can’t see the decent routes from where you are so you pull out your iPhone, open Gaia, and switch on your satellite background and discover that one option takes you across a massive talus field, while the other is a nice, open grassy slope.  You switch over to your USTopo layer (drawn in 2012) and discover that a new trail has been build since your USGS quad was drawn.  You chose the grassy slope, find the trail, and make it to cover before the storm starts.


Perhaps this example sounds a bit mundane, but the ability to select and chose what information I want to view, in this case a satellite image and modern map, has actually made a big impact on my backcountry decision making, often removing the uncertainty that exists in many maps. Unlike the quoted “expert” stated, you can actually make informed decisions about the terrain using your GPS.

But it doesn’t stop there. Thanks to awesome (and totally free) tools, today’s proactive users are able to design custom maps with features typically unavailable on traditional GPS units. Utilizing the web platform CalTopo and the smartphone app Avenza Maps, you can build a map that displays unique features like slope angle, or sun exposure. Even if you’re a self defined clumsy technology operator, countless tutorials exist that simply the process down to make it accessible to just about anyone. (Check some tutorials out here, here, and here

Thanks to improvements in geospatial technology and remote sensing modern “digital maps” or layers, are updated every year instead of every decade. If you’ve ever used a USGS Quad, you probably know just how frustrating using an outdated map can be. Without any doubt, your GPS offers numerous advantages over paper maps when it comes to simply viewing the terrain. However, it doesn’t stop there.

As I mentioned earlier, GPS units are packed with additional tools beyond just maps. Besides looking at terrain the way you want, GPS units allow you to plan your route, measure distances and elevation gain, as well as display information about how far, and how fast your traveling. These simple tools add, sometimes, critical certainty to your decision making process, and can make a big difference on your day to day backcountry experience. But these tools aren’t exactly anything new.

Did you that many modern GPS’s include real-time weather radar? What about map based crowd sourced data sharing for trail conditions, avalanche reports or animal activity? What about 3D terrain renders? Geo-located images? Technology is continuing to advance and there are numerous reasons to take advantage of it.

At the end of the day, your iPhone is an awesome backcountry tool. There’s endless information across the Internet talking about the numerous awesome tools you probably didn’t know existed. If you haven’t spent the time looking into it, you really should. Don’t ditch your paper maps, but do add GPS tools to your skillset. It will truly enhance your ability to navigate, increase your efficiency and certainty in the backcountry.