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.
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.
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.
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?