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GPS no compass?
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Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
GPS no compass? on 11/26/2007 12:17:09 MST Print View


Over on another forum I posted my idea of hiking on a GPS (with map) and a 1:100k scale maps and leaving the compass and the detailed 1:50k map at home. Unfortunately people over there were shocked and said that I should not hike and concider the people who would have to risk there live saving me.

What's the opinion over here? If you plot your trek carefully at home with a detailed map, than upload the route to your GPS and take a large scale (1:100k) map as refference...... possible or not? Is there anyone whom has done so?


Christopher Plesko
(Pivvay) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
no compass on 11/26/2007 12:24:29 MST Print View

taboo or not, i've done it plenty of times.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: GPS no compass? on 11/26/2007 15:00:37 MST Print View

Hi Eins,

You'll never (as in ever, ever, ever) get a consensus opinion on this matter.

Certain absolutists opine that no piece of electronics can ever be trusted, so needs a backup. Of course a compass can be smashed or lost too, so one can find oneself without a compass even having left home with nary a battery in sight. The paranoid/careful hiker can take a very small backup in either case.

I prefer gps receivers without a magnetic compass (or barometric altimeter) so as to get the best battery life, and I alway carry a compass. It can be as simple as one that attaches to a watchband--there's no compelling reason to take a large, complex one.

With a mapping gps loaded with good quality base maps, 1:100k is probably an adequate scale for your paper map. Although if I were planning a crosscountry jaunt in complex terrain--especially an area new to me--I'd probably want at least a 15-minute map. Sometimes that gps screen is just too small for me to get the lay of the land.

I can think of many trips I've navigated by gps without ever touching my map, if that helps answer your last question.

Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Re: Re: GPS no compass? on 11/26/2007 15:15:47 MST Print View

My point is that every item you carry that sees (virtualy) no use is subject to be left at home the next time I go hiking (except my emergency kit). So for the last three years or so I have almost never used my compass. I can remember only using it once, actually. So than I started thinking, why not leave the compass at home? Last october I hiked a week through some pre-Alps along a waymarked trail. I carried a 50k map and used the excelent waymarks and no problem what-so-ever. Never needed the compass.

The way I see it you need two systems to help you navigating. This could be map and compass, but also map and trail waymarking or GPS and map. I see no point in taking a third system along.

If you look at it differently, common opinion is if you carry a GPS you should also carry a compass as back-up, but than if you take only a map and a compass, than you should also back up those, so why not take an additional compass? And there we go towards a monsterous backpack filled with a plethora of back-up items.


Edited by EinsteinX on 11/26/2007 15:16:53 MST.

Adam Kilpatrick
(oysters) - MLife

Locale: South Australia
No compass on 11/26/2007 16:41:57 MST Print View

Most of my walking is offtrack, usually with 50K maps.
I usually take a compass, unless I forget, in which case I dont care. I have only ever used a compass whilst bushwalking once. And even then I could have gotten away without it.

Rogaining I have used a compass twice in the last 7 years. Both times were at in dense flat pine forest, taking a bearing from the corner, the other was a 2.5km bearing to a subtle feature in dead flat farming land.

Normally it just isnt neccessary. I think anyone who needs to constantly use a compass to take bearings to navigate, when they have detailed maps (eg 1:50k) in anything but flat featureless country, is rather lacking in fundamental navigation skill. Just because you can perform a resection or take a bearing to a point, doesnt make you a good navigator. Having spatial awareness and being able to relate features to map and vice versa is much more important.

My main concern with GPS is the "electronics"...but in some areas the electronic maps available on GPS may be the only ones available anyway. Off track in remote areas that you dont have good knowledge of, I wouldnt reccomend it or try it myself (depends on circumstances though), but on trails where you know a few key features on the way and you have no chance of losing the trail, then I say "why the hell not".

If trail walking is your main forte then I say go for it mate

Richard Matthews
(food) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: GPS no compass? on 11/26/2007 18:16:10 MST Print View


You ARE going to die. But probably not while wandering lost in the woods.

It depends on where you are hiking. In Iowa an 1:100k map without the GPS is probably adequate.

The real issue is the convenience factor. I know that with a 1:24k map that I will always be able to determine my location. Sometimes I have to climb to a place where I can get an unobstructed view and triangulate. The GPS is more convenient.

However, you are missing the opportunity to practice your map reading skills.

Michael Davis
(mad777) - F

Locale: South Florida
Re: Re: GPS no compass? on 11/26/2007 19:30:35 MST Print View

I admit it! I carry a GPS and I don't care what it weighs! (blasphemy)!

I guess it's the geek in me but I enjoy the pre-exploration of my hikes on the computer and uploading my intended waypoints and then downloading my tracks into my topo software as well as into Google Earth!

Now that being said, I also carry a compass and map. I don't trust anything with a battery and the compass & map don't weigh much.

Besides, that little GPS feature that tells you how long and how far to the next waypoint comes in really handy when the wife asks, "Are we there yet?"

Brett .
(Brett1234) - F

Locale: CA
GPS no compass?- Not for me. on 11/26/2007 19:34:30 MST Print View

Certainly there is no right or wrong answer here, but I can not imagine going into the backcountry without a compass and map.
I carry a Brunton 9020G baseplate, a Garmin 301, and a Casio altimeter watch. The latter two have electronic compasses. The weight of all three is 177grams.

Most common use of a compass for me is with the Casio, deciding which fork of the trail to take when under the canopy. Frequently maps here are way out of date.. do I take the fork to the NW or the one to the NNW? Also, in heavily forested areas or in a sawanobori canyon, a GPS and terrain association sometimes do not work.

"..if you carry a GPS you should also carry a compass as back-up, but than if you take only a map and a compass, than you should also back up those, so why not take an additional compass?"
A GPS, compass, and electronic compass use different principles of operation. So in my opinion they are complementary, not redundant. But then I am 'light', not SUL. And I err on the side of caution since I hike with novices for whom I am responsible. I can teach the use of all three different devices, time permitting.

Mike Barney
(eaglemb) - F

Locale: AZ, the Great Southwest!
Remember: Pencil&Paper, Sliderule or Calculator: Corollary to Compas vs. GPS on 11/26/2007 20:25:15 MST Print View

Anyone here old enough to remember when their calculator had both a "0" and "-0" answer, or a 3 hour battery lifetime? How about a sliderule?

There is a revolution that is occuring in navigation that transcends evolutionary steps. In 20 years, compasses will be more difficult to find, just like sliderules are now. That doesn't mean you can't, it just means it's a watershed change.

Outdoor navigation skill such as dead reconing and orienteering are becoming lost arts. As an example, what percentage of the population under 30 can find the square or cube root of a number without a calculator today? 30 years ago, I would submit most could (or were at least taught how to).

I expect the same will happen with compasses and GPS's: In the next 5 - 10 years, a revolution in technology will transcend current GPS capabilities, and will make us wonder how we ever went anywhere with a simple compass, much less the current crop of GPS.

The navigation purist of today will go the same way of those who said you don't have to recharge a pencil in the face of calculators...

(And there was, after all, a period of time where navigation was successful before the compass)

Just a perspective.

(who has and can us a compass, but prefer a heavy Garmin GPS 70CSX)

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Remember: Pencil&Paper, Sliderule or Calculator: Corollary to Compas vs. GPS on 11/26/2007 21:16:03 MST Print View

> Anyone here old enough to remember when their calculator had both a "0" and "-0" answer, or a 3 hour battery lifetime? How about a sliderule?
Yep. I still have 2 sliderules.

> In 20 years, compasses will be more difficult to find, just like sliderules are now.
Nope. You can buy a compass for a few dollars.

The idea of trying to navigate through some of our Blue Mountains using the microscopic map you get on a GPS - I have to laugh.
Sure, on the well-marked European trails you don't need anything more than a tourist map from the last town. Sure, on well-marked trails in America you may not need a compass, and certainly don't need a GPS. But in other places, where the terrain is complex, you do actually need a map and to be able to orient it.

Some asked how often anyone has taken a bearing with a compass. Well, very seldom in fact. I use the map instead. But I never even try to use a map without orienting it off the compass first. Too many 'opportunities' for ... problems.

But, your choice.

Adam Kilpatrick
(oysters) - MLife

Locale: South Australia
Orienting the map without compass on 11/27/2007 00:26:25 MST Print View

actually, I never orient the map with a compass, and never have any difficulties either.

I guess I just have an inherent knowledge of where North is. Being on a planet with the sun on the horizon helps.


Woubeir (from Europe)
(Woubeir) - F - MLife
Re: Orienting the map without compass on 11/27/2007 03:20:39 MST Print View

Like Roger said,
some trails allow to walk without detailed maps or compass while for other walks you need the details of a 1:50k map or even a 1:25k map. It all depends on which route you want to make. Another aspect which hasn't been mentioned: I just like reading maps and trying to identify specific points in my surroundings. Using a map and observing what's around me is just fun. No way a GPS with a little screen alows me to do that.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: Orienting the map without compass on 11/27/2007 11:11:40 MST Print View

It may be worth noting that orienteers (the ones I've seen) navigate with map in hand and a simple wrist compass. They know, in real time, where they are and where they're headed. It's quite impressive, and shows me the weakness of my typical habit of pulling out the map only occasionally.

My experiences as a young'n hiking in the Pacific Northwest demonstrated (repeatedly) how easy it is to become disoriented (there's that word again), especially off trail. Heavy forest and underbrush, persistent cloud cover and complex terrain with lots of unmapped streams make it very easy to get completely turned around. The snowpack often lingers through summer, making trails difficult to follow. I'd venture double and triple canopy rain forest are even tougher.

Luckily GPS sensitivity is getting much better under heavy forest. Still, I still have occasion to need to pair up the gps with a compass, especially traveling after dark.

I keep a whistle, compass, button cell light, knife and lighter on a mini-biner that clips to whatever pack I'm carrying or my belt loop--day hike or overnight. Just standard kit.

Edited by halfturbo on 11/27/2007 11:16:48 MST.

Richard Matthews
(food) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Orienteering & GPS on 11/27/2007 13:12:15 MST Print View

Elite orienteers seldom travel on a compass bearing. They mostly use a compass when crossing linear features to confirm which linear feature they are crossing. Their primary navigation is map reading.

More than a decade ago the United States Orienteering Federation considered developing a set of rules to prevent competitors using GPS's. The proposal was shelved until the time when the Competition Committee thought the first, second, third finish order at an A meet had been altered by GPS use. That time has not yet arrived. It was only recently that a computer could compete with a chess master.

On six mile advanced course I would expect 12 controls, limited opportunities for on trail travel, 1,000+ ft climb, AND a finish time on less than an hour. If you "stay in touch" with your map you can navigate faster map reading.

I use a GPS when I do not want to focus on navigation.

Maybe a slide rule is a renewable energy powered calculator.

If you are safe and LNT I do not care how you have fun.

Richard Matthews
(food) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
GPS? Why? on 11/27/2007 13:31:19 MST Print View

A GPS rather than a PLB might allow you to avoid a SAR incident. If you know the correct distance to a road, water, etc. then you might self-rescue.

A GPS can replace the interpretive signs that point to landmarks and give the distance. I hear the Grand Canyon rents GPS to help you navigate to overlooks and also points our landmarks.

A GPS can make the navigation to remote trail heads much easier.

A GPS is good for macro- navigation, but for micro- navigation you still need to read the terrain and follow the game trails.

You must know how to use a topographic map to utilize the full power of a GPS.

Batteries fail. You must have a redundant navigation system.

My observations from using a GPS on a hike over the summer: I wanted to bushwhack from a trail up to a ridge. Topographic map reading skills are needed to determine which spur is most likely to “go” with the least effort. I set a numeric way point where the selected spur intersected the trail. The manual technique is to “keep in touch with the map”. The spur was the third major spur after Black Canyon. Normally I would have verified my location on the second spur by compass bearing. Linear features like streams and ridges seldom have the same orientation. I would again have verified my position at the stream between the second and third spur. On the selected spur I would have also triangulated off a known landmark. The GPS saved a lot of time. Since I had the program open I set six more way points along my selected route. The first 3 way points were good, but a straight line between way points 3 to 6 would have been through very dense and muddy willow thickets. But what made the GPS worthwhile is the 14'er alpha way point file that was also downloaded. Upon reaching my high point I oriented by verifying the location and distance to several 14'ers. There was a group packing up to leave when I dropped to my campsite in a saddle. They said they had identified several 14'er but could not find one that they planned to climb this summer. I pointed to it and told them it was about XX miles away. If they measure the map at home they will be surprised that I was within a mile of the correct distance.

The picture of the Essence pack on the Six Moon Designs site was taken looking down at my campsite.

(cuzzettj) - MLife

Locale: NorCal - South Bay
GPS no compass? Not when breaking trail! on 11/27/2007 14:20:37 MST Print View

"I carry a Brunton 9020G baseplate, a Garmin 301, and a Casio altimeter watch. The latter two have electronic compasses. The weight of all three is 177grams." Good man!

I have a similar set up and wouldn't go without it when leaving the trail. I believe it is a good idea to have the back ups. I have had failures of all of the above items at some point. From batteries, cracked watch faces, smashed compasses, to water logging from humidity (not rain) on bullet proof/water proof gear.

I find it doesn't hurt to have at least one back up. Too many times in Scouting, the Army Infantry, and going solo I ran into issues with one of these.

But where is the adventure in not trying it your way. Have fun!!! Some of my best memories happened when I perceived everything as FUBAR. And then sucked it up and tried to remember which side of the tree the moss grows.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Orienting the map without compass on 11/27/2007 14:23:52 MST Print View

> It may be worth noting that orienteers (the ones I've seen) navigate with map in hand and a simple wrist compass. They know, in real time, where they are and where they're headed.

Doesn't everyone do that?
Well, seriously, in my home terrain that is utterly essential. Once you have lost your position it can be very very hard ...

In response to another comment - yes, I know where North is most of the time, by sun and terrain. But (as Rick said) in heavy forest under a cloudy sky, or in thick fog on rolling snow fields ... Chuckle!


Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Navigation CYA on 11/28/2007 07:41:27 MST Print View

One of my struggles with UL is redundancy and essential gear-- survival gear, if you will. I carry a compass and a small backup, like one in the end of a Siva match case or a Silva Companion keychain model.

I like the process of wayfinding, using compass and map accurately. It's a nice mental exercise and builds skills that may save your bacon someday. GPS's are fun and very useful tools and a great way to verify your compass skills. BUT, if you drop it, soak it, the batteries quit, or it just goes haywire, an ounce devoted to a backup compass is easy CYA.

Whether using compass or GPS, the point is to verify your position as you go, rather than getting them out when you think you are lost-- don't get lost in the first place!

Sab .
(sabme) - F - M

Locale: SW UK
2 gram compass on 11/28/2007 09:27:29 MST Print View

I have a compass that isn't much bigger than a large Asparin and only weighs 2 grams that I use quite often. It's literally nothing to leave in my waterproof jacket pocket all the time.

I have a Garmin Foretrax too but only switch it to mark way-points (and occasionally navigate back to them) to save the battery. I actually miss having a digital compass built in.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: GPS no compass? on 11/28/2007 10:26:17 MST Print View

There are many ways to safely and appropriately travel in the backcountry. In areas with well marked trails, a clear destination it MAY be safe to go without even map and compass. However even in these areas there are uncertainties "things can happen" that can get you lost. Perhaps you wander to another lake to fish, perhaps you see a peak you want to climb, perhaps there is a use trail heading in a similar direction to the "real trail". Any of these can get you lost even though you're theoretically on trail. A map and compass and/or GPS can help get you found.

Even in easy navigation situations knowing where you are on a map is the best way to stay found. I agree that a compass or GPS is rarely needed.

If you travel cross country, on any longer trips, or through complex terrain a more detailed map is needed. I've traveled cross country with low resolution maps both after establishing and marking a route that "should go" and by just using what I could see from the field. The latter technique introduces more uncertainty and can result in delays and traveling over more complex/difficult terrain than you intended. In all of these situations a compass and/or GPS can be essential to "stay found" and plan routes.

Another reason to have more detailed maps is being able to adjust your route on the fly. I've had group members become sick and had to get them out over cross country routes I hadn't planned on taking before I left. In these cases detailed maps and bombproof navigation is critical.

In comparing the compass with the GPS both have advantages and disadvantages. A compass works in heavy trees (at least for establishing a bearing of travel) where a GPS won't. A compass doesn't depend on batteries. It is probably less likely to become non-functional in the field. A GPS will tell you where you are without triangulation and in poor visability.

It's important, like with all our gear, to consider the conditions you're likely to encounter, build in a safety margin, and take the gear you're likely to need. On a well marked trail, a map may be enough. On cross country routes especially in winter (trails burried, potential for dense fog/snow) maps, compass, and a GPS may be needed.

I'm not so sure that we'll ever look back and laugh that we ever used compasses. The tendency of our society has been toward increasing specialization and fewer individual skills. I'm not sure this is a good trend. Backcountry travel for me is a way to regain complete responsibility for my life. Certainly GPSs can make travel easy like cars make travel easier. However I fight against relying too completely on both. I don't want to lose my ability to walk as society develops more ways to transport me. I'd also hate to lose my ability to dead reakon or navigate by compass. In fact I'm hoping to move the opposite direction and navigate with lower resolution maps and be more in tune with the conditions in the field.