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Maps--or GPS. Or...
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Paul Wagner
(balzaccom) - F

Locale: Wine Country
Maps--or GPS. Or... on 09/25/2011 19:02:53 MDT Print View

These days, just about every backpacking discussion group includes people warning about the dangers of relying exclusively on GPS units for navigation. We know, because we’re often the ones who are issuing the warnings. We’re big believers in knowing where you are, and how to get where you are going without depending exclusively on any battery powered device. And a GPS unit won’t always show you the terrain you might need to cross. Coming down the face of El Capitan to get to Yosemite Valley isn’t an option for most people…even though a GPS unit shows you that it’s only a about 1/4 mile.

And it seems that every few weeks we read a news story about someone who follows their GPS blindly into increasingly primitive roads and conditions…and has to be rescued. So don’t put all your faith in your GPS.

But a couple of recent experiences have us taking a bit of the same approach to the old school standby of printed maps and compass. Because it turns out they can lead you astray as well...

We’ve noted some problems with some of the National Geographic maps. Red Can Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness is called Red Canyon Lake on their map. And another section of trail in Yosemite that was marked at 6 tenths of a mile turned out to be less than 150 yards. So maps are fallible.

How fallible?

Driving back from our trip to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, we were stuck in a massive traffic jam on Labor Day Monday on highway 41 in the town of coarsegold. No worries, because we quickly pulled out two different printed maps (AAA and DeLorme) and found a series of side roads that would circumvent the problem. And we love exploring like this.

So we quickly turned off towards the town of Raymond, and followed the maps through town and towards LeGrand. The roads were nicely paved, empty, and we felt pretty darn clever about the whole thing.

Until we got to the junction that led north to Mariposa. We didn’t turn right, because that would take us miles out of our way. But the only other option was straight ahead: a primitive dirt road heading off into the wilderness. Both of our maps showed it as paved. Maybe the dirt part was only a mile or two.


For the next twelve miles or so we drove on one of the most isolated roads we have ever seen in California—miles and miles of unfenced, untouched grassland. An ocean of foothills, and not another vehicle in sight. Although we did find a sign for some property for sale…

In the end, we finally came out the other side, covered in dust, and continued on our way into LeGrand and beyond. Yeah, we were delayed by the slow going on the dirt road, but not much more than if we had stayed in the traffic jam.

When we got home, we checked Google maps, which shows the route as a very primitive dirt road. So at least their maps are more accurate than the other two.

And we’re just grateful that we didn’t have to hike out of there somehow because our car broke down.

You would have heard about it on the news, of course.

Edited by balzaccom on 09/26/2011 20:47:26 MDT.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Maps and compass and GPS on 09/26/2011 08:04:01 MDT Print View

All are great tools, and I've had them all fail, including a compass pointing south.

Paul Wagner
(balzaccom) - F

Locale: Wine Country
compass... on 09/26/2011 09:31:42 MDT Print View


Is that a chunk of iron in your pocket?

a b
Cranky Old Map and Compass guy. on 09/26/2011 09:58:14 MDT Print View

I had a GPS loaded will all the maps and waypoints for the CDT in addition to a complete set of paper maps (300 8 1/2 X 11 pages worth!) plus Delorme atlas maps for an overview.
Three days before i set off on the CDT I put the GPS away in a drawer and never regretted that descision.
My compass never steered me wrong. Even in the places like the Anaconda Pintler wilderness, where locals swore it would "spin", my Suunto M2 stayed true.
Sure i got lost.
It always happened when my attention drifted off.
The beauty of it was the adventure i had re-finding the trail.
The confidence I gained allowed me to take off trail routes several times, one that was completely off the edge of my detail maps.
I am not anti-GPS. There were times when i would sure as heck have turned it on, like Sheridan Pass, and saved myself a huge hassle.
But after having done a long hike this way, using only map, compass, and wits, and not having an "easy button", I would totally do it again.
Self navigation via map and compass added something to my hike.. aside from the several pounds of maps at each resupply.
An observation: Of the other hikers i met, the ones that used GPS as their primary means of navigation all had problems at some point. Either the batteries died, the electronics glitched, the signal was lost.
In other words, they had to resort to paper maps anyways.
This is definitely in the realm of "Hike your own hike".
Maybe those GPS hikers are seeing more on their hikes because they aren't having to spend as much time fooling with maps.
For me it was, is, and always shall be a map and compass.
Not because i am afraid of the technology, but because I enjoy the additional challenge of self contained navigation.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Maps--or GPS. Or... on 09/26/2011 10:09:29 MDT Print View

Yep. Looking at a map or GPS only when you are lost is not the way to go. Unless you are familiar with the trail, you should check your position as you go so you don't end up lost! Marine charts are notorious for errors due to changing bottom and shorelines.

I've run into so many people who couldn't read maps when they had them. I was on a trail that is a closed road and met a couple who were lost. They had crossed a large river, making a very deliberate 90 degree turn from the trail they wanted to make that crossing. They had maps, and evidently everything else, with huge external frame packs and extension bars, loaded to the hilt, but couldn't match the map with features like a river. I got them oriented and headed toward a campground on the road/trail that couldn't be missed.

My last day hike, I was on a river trail and met a couple who weren't completely lost, but had no idea where the trail went and wanted to loop back to their vehicle. They had no idea of the distances involved, etc. Both looked to be well equipped, sans navigation gear. At least they looked good ;) I showed them my map and they elected to turn around and head back to their car.

And then there are the clueless legions of day hikers with nothing but cotton sweats, flip flops and a prayer, having nothing on the essentials list--- not even a water bottle, let alone a map or compass.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
dies on 09/26/2011 10:42:07 MDT Print View

a waterproof map never dies ... not should a compass unless yr playing with magnets

a gps can die or its bats can

nothing wrong with both ... but if relying solely in the GPS without a map in yr pocket ... you better pray it never goes kaput ...

and then there are those cell phone gps users ...

anything can have errors ... map or gps maps

Edited by bearbreeder on 09/26/2011 10:42:40 MDT.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: Maps--or GPS. Or... on 09/26/2011 11:30:30 MDT Print View

Fun story. Yes, shortcuts that aren't, pavement that was never there, bridges that vanished many winters ago--the dependability of maps is certainly suspect out in the boondocks.

As to which of the big three navigation aids to depend on, I've had each leg of the tripod fail. I sent a GPS down a mountainside tethered to my hurtling backpack and it was bashed senseless. I've lost maps, the most dramatic time having it ripped from my hands in gale-force winds. I've lost and broken compasses, and have even had them form such a big bubble at altitude they couldn't rotate freely.

With two of the three legs intact, I can still get where I need to go. With one, it depends. With none, well, I still have my wits (hah!).



John Donewar
(Newton) - MLife

Locale: Southeastern Louisiana
Re: Maps and compass and GPS on 09/26/2011 11:37:42 MDT Print View

In Bruces area there is roughly about 27° east magnetic declination, significant enough to cause a navigation error. It is my understanding that the closer one gets to the poles the more useless a compass becomes.

I use maps, trail guides and a compass. I try to limit my dependence on batteries to my cell phone, LED flash lights and camera.

Unless you are on a well known and traveled trail, dead or weak batteries in a GPS on a cloudy, overcast or rainy day with no sun equals disorientation a.k.a. lost.

Party On,


Erik Basil

Locale: Atzlan
Go ultralight on 09/28/2011 07:09:49 MDT Print View

I use an ultralight sighting compass (Silva Ranger 27) and a map, but I have developed an ultralight method for GPS use. I don't have one, but I ask people I meet on trail to tell me where the hell I am. Weighs NOTHING! Ho ho!