Can GPS Make You Lazy?

Employing a GPS as your primary navigation tool is like using a calculator to do basic addition. Push a few buttons, tap, tap, tap on your smartphone and voilà!

Little in the way of grey matter required.

And therein lies the rub. Navigationally speaking, GPS can make you lazy as there is less need to pay attention to your surroundings as there is when using map and compass.


Sarek National Park, Lapland, Sweden, 2009 | Remote, largely trailless and one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas.

I imagine that some folks reading this will already be thinking, “you old curmudgeon. If a GPS does the job, why shouldn’t I use one? It’s good to turn the brain off on occasion.”

To some extent I agree with that sentiment; particularly the curmudgeon part. It is nice to let your mind drift every now and again. However, what happens if you’re out in the wilderness and a worst case scenario occurs?

Batteries can die, electronics can fail, coordinates may be off, signals don’t always come through. GPS have their limitations and if you haven’t being paying attention and/or have little in the way of navigation skills to call on as a backup, then you may well find yourself up poo creek, without a technological paddle.


Bushwhacking between Christmas Cove and Hartwell Cove | South West Tasmania Traverse, 2016 | Two to three miles in twelve hours was par for the course during this section. An exercise in patience, persistence and diligently following a compass bearing.

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) published an excellent article on this subject in June, 2016:

“People using GPS for navigation just aren’t building a mental map in the same way you do in traditional map and compass navigation, where you are constantly relating the map to the terrain around you.That means if the technology fails for whatever reason, you are going to be a lot more lost than you would have been if you were using a map.”

A Complement, Not a Substitute

GPS is not a navigational panacea and shouldn’t be thought of as an “easy” substitute to map and compass proficiency.

I like to think of GPS as a complement, rather than an outright replacement to map and compass. A directional “backup” of sorts, which in certain situations can be worth its weight in backcountry gold.

For example, in trailless, snow covered terrain, when visibility is limited and there is not much in the way of distinctive landmarks, a GPS can pinpoint your exact location. A handy bit of information to have when the weather turns nasty, daylight is fading fast and all you really want to do is bed down for the night.


Pacific Northwest “Trail” | Mount Baker Wilderness, WA | July, 2011.

The Benefits of Necessity

Map and compass proficiency is a bushcraft skill. It’s by no means rocket science, but to achieve a high level of expertise takes time and practice in different types of terrain and conditions. However, once you get the hang of it it can be both satisfying and fun in a way in which following an electronic GPS line or arrow never quite manages. A bit like finishing a crossword puzzle on your own without having to reach for the thesaurus.

Using a map and compass means that you have to up the attention ante at all times. Out of sheer necessity your senses become more attuned to your surroundings. This in turn can contribute to a heightened feeling of connection with the landscape through which you are hiking. And isn’t that one of the principal reasons that many of us head out into the wilderness in the first place?


Sunset over Mount Jefferson, OR, 2012 | Most of the second half of my early season hike of the Pacific Crest Trail was done in snowbound conditions.


Can GPS Make You Lazy? — 8 Comments

  1. All excellent points. Research studies have shown that reliance on GPS decreases our spacial awareness and ability to navigate without a GPS. Importantly, this involves actual physical changes in our brains.

    • Depends whether you are bush whacking or following established trails too. Agreed that the map should always be in the hip pocket.

  2. I think the answer is more about us and not the device. GPS doesn’t make you lazy just like smart phones don’t make us antisocial. How we choose to use these devices determines the outcome on our habits.

    • Hey Joe,

      I agree. But it seems like a lot of folks gravitate towards easier options whenever they are available. Seemingly without too much thought as to the repercussions if a worse-case scenario does happen to occur.

      For hikers that have been around for a while and already have solid navigation skills, it’s probably not such a big deal. They have already established the habit of keeping track of their location at all times, by regularly correlating what they see on their map with what they see around them. However, it’s the relative newbies that don’t have a similar experience base to call upon, that seem to be the ones that most regularly get into trouble when the poo hits the fan and their cell phones have died.



  3. I have just purchased a map app for my smartphone so that I will have GPS as a backup to my trusty map and compass navigational skills. It’s hard to beat the feeling of pride and satisfaction when succeeding in challenging route finding conditions. Obviously, with limited battery power, map and compass and careful observation of landmarks will still be the primary route finding tool. Correct Interpretation of the features on a map to pick the best route is something you cannot do with GPS, but a GPS will help keep you on the chosen route especially when visibility is limited.

  4. Not completely correct. Knowing how to use a compass and read maps is essential. However my GPS is a dedicated Garmin Oregon device and has an electronic compass and well as topo maps. One great use of a GPS is that you can record your track and view it on a map and/or Google Earth. Its essential for looking for historic sites and old mining infastructure and recording it

    In really thick vegetation or a white out, a GPS with WPs and a planned track can enable you to navigate better than just with a compass. Sure a GPS can make you lazy but a good walker can fully appreciate the terrain he is in with or without a GPS. Its just a device to plan, assist & record you journey. Yes batteries can die but I can carry 2-3 spare sets easily giving me 5-6 days capacity without recharging.

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