Why You Should Carry a Compass and Map as Well as a GPS

At a time when GPS technology is so accessible, do you still need to use a map and compass? Ask any avid outdoorsman, hunter, or survivalist and the answer is a resounding yes. 

Chances are you have GPS technology in your pocket, or even your hand right now, but GPS started as military technology. Developed during the cold war, and fully operational in the ‘90s, the Global Positioning System today is operated by the US Air Force and available to use by all free of charge. 

This network of satellites communicates with your GPS device to pinpoint your location. At least four satellites are visible at any time anywhere on the planet. You can use your GPS device to find any point as long as four satellites are being tracked by your device. 

So with such sophisticated tech available in the palm of your hand, why should you bother with the seemingly archaic map and compass? Here’s why. 

Battery Life and Tech Reliability 

Hiking down snowy mountain
Image by Ales Krivec from Unsplash

The need for electric power limits your GPS. You’re dependent on battery life. There are different battery options to suit different needs, but nonetheless, batteries run out of power and wear down. A compass and a map never run out of juice.

If you happen to be in cold weather, you might find that your GPS or other electronic devices don’t work properly. While being careful of where you store them can help, it’s still a limitation maps and compasses just don’t have. 

Tech gear also inevitably has reliability issues. We’ve all experienced a piece of tech freezing up or refusing to connect at the most inconvenient moments. Even when tech is working smoothly, durability comes into play. You can drop your compass and waterproof map on a rocky surface or in water and they’ll be fine, not so much with a GPS unit. 

GPS is an amazing technology and an excellent tool, but you should not rely on it alone. When you’re off the grid or in the great outdoors, you need to be sure the tools you’re using to keep track of your location and navigate are 100 percent reliable. The redundancy you create with an always-reliable compass and map can keep you safe. 

Geographic & Atmospheric Limitations

Antelope Canyon
Image by Daniel Seßler from Unsplash

Your GPS unit functions with a line of sight to satellites which can be blocked. While technology keeps improving, certain places you may go may be less than ideal for GPS signal. Slot canyons are one example. Areas with dense tree cover are another. Even mountains and ridges can block a GPS signal. 

Along with a blocked signal, decreased accuracy in an issue you could experience. If you look at the gps.gov website, “atmospheric conditions” is listed as a factor that can affect GPS accuracy. Some GPS devices make use of GPS augmentation systems which can improve accuracy. 

Again GPS is a great tool but there are definitely areas and certain conditions in which it may not work properly. Because a map and compass don’t have these same limitations they are a great way to add redundancy.

If the GPS signal is blocked, you can rely on your map and compass. Knowing that even when the signal isn’t blocked, GPS accuracy can still degrade a bit, it’s a good idea to have a map and compass to double-check what GPS is telling you. 

Knowing How To Use Your GPS


Garmin GPS
Image by Garmin

Do you know what a waypoint is? Would you be able to reprogram your GPS to find your way back to camp or to a new destination?

Believe it or not, some people go out with their GPS units before knowing how to actually use it. Of course, this tends to happen in the excitement of using a new piece of gear. While you should use new pieces of gear at home and in familiar places first, a map and compass is a great backup when you’re first getting used to operating your GPS. 

A GPS device is a great tool in the hands of a skilled hunter, hiker, or outdoor enthusiast. However, it’s not going to make up for any deficiencies in wilderness basics. Properly loading maps and understanding other functions depends on knowing how to read maps as well as solid navigation skills. Proficient navigation and orienteering skills will make your GPS a more powerful tool in your hand. 

Your Map and Compass

Using a map and compass to navigate outdoors
Image by Daniil Silantev from Unsplash

This all brings us to your map and compass. These two basic tools make a great backup to your GPS. But remember, it’s not good enough just to pack them, you need to practice how to use them and understand the basics. 

Your first step is to learn to use a compass. There are different types of compasses, but you’ll probably want to start with a base plate compass. Be sure you learn the difference between magnetic north and true north. Learn about declination and how to use your compass to adjust for it. You may even want to take a class. 

Your second step is to get a map. You’ll want a topo map. A good free source for maps is the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) website. If you want waterproof maps with more details, you can find those for sale from private companies. 

On your map, you’ll want to learn how to use your map scale, find the angle of declination, read the contour lines, and find the contour interval. Be sure you know how to find the datum used to create your map and how to be sure your GPS device is setup to the matching datum. These are some of the things you want to learn and continually practice in order to improve your navigation skills. 

A compass and map remain the most reliable way to navigate when out in the wilderness. These are essentials that create life-saving redundancy when paired with your GPS. 

How often do you practice your navigation skills? Leave a comment below!

Why you should carry a compass and map as well as a GPS


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