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On Going Mapless in a Digital World: Engagement, Simplicity, and the Art of Real-Time Navigation

My guess is that if you feel the need to add a GPS unit for "safety" or "efficiency", then you've got more serious gaps in your skill set that need to be addressed.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2005-10-19 03:00:00-06

On Going Mapless in a Digital World: Engagement, Simplicity, and the Art of Real-Time Navigation

I bet you are thinking that this is a pro-GPS commentary. Boy, are you going to be surprised.

A map and compass is not one of the ten essentials (See Note 1) for a backpacker.

And, God help us, neither is a GPS (Note 2).

But GPS spin doctors are pretty savvy at helping us backcountry fools justify our purchasing choices:

"Every activity is different and every adventure as unique as the adventurer but each has one thing in common: the goal to get there and back. Whatever your next outdoor adventure, a...GPS receiver is an invaluable navigational asset, allowing you to concentrate on the experience without the worry of finding your way...These activities are fun and exhilarating, and sometimes even dangerous, if you're not sure where you are or what to expect up ahead. Your...GPS receiver gives you confidence, and adds a new level of safety to your adventure, guiding your way while helping you avoid the hazards." (Note 3).

Myth: A GPS receiver is an invaluable navigational asset.

Fact: Navigation skill (including techniques for reading terrain and off-trail hiking/scrambling) in the absence of navigation devices (map, compass, altimeter, GPS) is an invaluable asset.

Myth: Worrying about finding your way prevents you from concentrating on your adventurous experience.

Fact: Finding your way using skills, not technology, increases your level of engagement (Note 4), and reward, in your adventurous experience.

Myth: A GPS increases your level of safety in dangerous activities by helping you avoid the hazards.

Fact: I'm still trying to figure this one out. But my guess is that if you feel the need to add a GPS unit for "safety" or even "efficiency", then you've got more serious gaps in your skill set that need to be addressed.

On one trip a few years ago, my hiking partner walked behind me with a GPS in hand. We were walking cross country towards a mountain cirque visible ahead in the subtle shadows of a decaying afternoon. I began to look at the terrain ahead and pick a route along the subtle edges of the topography - not a straight line. The route I was walking snaked along a contour line, walked along a tiny ridge only six feet tall, or skirted a vegetative edge for better footing here and there. My partner did not appreciate this, I'm left to assume, by his encouragement from behind me to right my keel when I got a few degrees off track (Note 5). While his intentions meant well, the navigation experience became spoiled (soiled?). Technology had slammed squarely into my desire to feel the terrain below my feet and bring some art back into the act of navigating.

Sometimes, walking is more pleasant when it's inspired by the microcosm of real-time information that is impossible to extract from the best available maps and technologies.

I began taking some trips sans GPS, map, compass, or altimeter a few years ago.

On one trek in Montana's Beartooth Range, I left the trailhead and just started walking. Sixty five miles, sixty lakes, and eight ridge crossings later, I stumbled across a highway and hitched a ride back to my car. Part of my route (which I recreated from trip notes) is shown in the accompanying figure as a two-day lollipop from one of my camps (Note 6).

The liberating thing about this trek was that I really didn't have an itinerary or agenda. I picked a peak and climbed it, not knowing what route I was going to take down the other side. From the summit, I spied a high pass three ridges away and plotted my route from there, then threaded through willow bottoms, talus fields, and wildflower gardens to reach it. In the winds of the gap, a mitten-shaped lake in a subalpine basin caught my attention and I camped on the shores of the thumb.

I camped where I felt like it, walked where I pleased, and enjoyed the beauty of navigating artfully, focusing on choosing a route based on efficient walking along ecological and geological edges: a treasure that could have never been granted to me by any navigation technology, trail network, or topo map.

In an age where navigation skill has been displaced by technology because "it makes life easier" on the trail (Note 7), the real sorrow comes from knowing that so many of you (Note 8) are missing out on real-time micro-navigation as an art to be appreciated.

There is something to be said about a route (especially a route you created in real time through artful navigation) that winds about here and there, rather than blindly connects the dots, that helps us discover a new level of engagement in our adventures. Knowing that your route was chosen to skirt an unmapped pond, or walk a uncontoured ridge only fifty feet long, or to avoid a field of two inch scree by walking on a tiny strip of twelve-inch talus offers a level of satisfaction unmatched by the ability to push a button and execute the play.

Now what? (Note 9) I encourage you to do take a trip without any navigation device whatsoever. Start in familiar terrain. Be prepared to get lost, or even spent an unplanned night or two out while you find your way back to civilization.

Navigation devices are not essentials.

The need to engage yourself in the wilderness is.

A Summer Overnight Kit for Ultralight Simplicity

If I'm seeking complete depth of engagement on a short trip in the mountains, my three most important considerations for choosing a kit are: minimizing weight, minimizing the number of items I carry (and have to keep track of), and keeping my brain constantly thinking about the right place to camp, drink water, and make a cookfire. Of those three considerations, minimizing the number of items I carry is generally more important than the other two, so I'm willing to sacrifice some weight gain for increased simplicity or dual-use functionality.

  1. Ultralight frameless backpack (4 oz)
  2. Lightweight down quilt (11 oz)
  3. Space blanket (2 oz)
  4. Closed cell foam sleeping pad (3 oz)
  5. Poncho-tarp, 3 stakes, and guylines (7 oz)
  6. Insulating jacket with hood and handwarmer pockets (12 oz)
  7. Firestarting kit (Esbit tablet pieces and waterproof matches) (2 oz)
  8. Cooking mug & utensil (3 oz)
  9. Notebook & Pen (2 oz)
  10. Food (24 oz/day - 6 oz breakfast cereal, 12 oz assorted gorp-type mix, 6 oz boil-in-a-bag dinner)

+ Clothing Worn: shoes (24 oz), socks (2 oz), pants (9 oz), shirt (6 oz), and hat (3 oz).

The real benefit of a kit like this is not in its "ultra light weight" or maximum "weight:functionality" metric. Certainly the weight of this kit could be reduced, and the function increased, by selecting different items than the ones shown here. However, after experimenting with this type of exploring for a few years now, I've found more solace in maximizing the simplicity of the kit than minimizing its number of ounces religiously. Don't be alarmed, however. Minimizing the weight of this kit further is always on my radar!

End Notes

  1. The "Ten Essentials" is a list of ten items no climber should be without, according to 1930s theology expounded by the Seattle Mountaineers. They include: map, compass, water, food, raingear, warm clothing, firestarting supplies, pocketknife, flashlight, and sunglasses. Through the years, the list has been adapted according to the whims of the particular author writing about them. One modern day example can be found in "Ten Essentials", By GORP Hiking Expert Karen Berger ( In reality, the author of this commentary (Ryan Jordan) believes that for an enjoyable and responsible overnight hike, a skilled adventurer (keyword: skilled) needs fewer true essentials: water, food, and warmth/shelter being the primary essentials required for survival. To that end water, food, shelter (instead of raingear), warm clothing, and firestarting supplies go much farther for survival and comfort than map, compass, pocketknife, flashlight, or sunglasses in most wilderness situations that the backpacker normally encounters in the spring, summer, and fall.
  2. For all the craze over GPS technology, the simple fact remains: the GPS did not really fill a market need among hikers. Some will happily argue that the GPS is really nothing more than a luxury toy: a gadget perceived by the masses to be an essential.
  4. Engagement is defined as the state of being committed, meshed, embedded in. Engagement is that state by which long distance hikers often realize after several weeks on the trail; that alpinists realize after passing the point of no retreat on a particular climb; and that soldiers realize once the first shot of a battle has been fired. Generally, wilderness engagement occurs as a state contrasting with one's normal urban affairs, and psychologically, is achieved in the greatest degree of depth when the awareness and perception of risk (not necessarily real risk) is heightened and barriers between the urban life and the wilderness life are maximized: elimination of technology and communications devices that connect the hiker to the world outside the wilderness break down these barriers and thus, must be assumed to inhibit wilderness engagement. Maximizing engagement increases adrenaline response and endorphin release, contributing to the natural high well-known by endurance athletes, adventure racers, long distance hikers, and mountaineers, and remains as one of the greatest rewards of the wilderness experience. The extent to which you choose to maximize the strength of the urban-wilderness barrier is inversely proportional to the length of time required for wilderness engagement. This is why it is often easier for someone on a two-week hike in remote wilderness to achieve a deeper psychological engagement with wilderness than a long distance hiker on a six-month journey who stops into towns every three to four days for resupply.
  5. Back seat driving, wilderness style.
  6. There is a serious element of risk in navigating this type of terrain with no navigation tools. It requires clear weather, acute awareness of visible landmarks, and an understanding of the calculation of direction and time using sun and stars, in some cases.
  7. In other words, they serve lazy consumers unwilling to take responsibiltiy for learning challenging wilderness skills.
  8. You know who you are. If you are taking offense to me addressing this editorial comment to "you", then please: listen. "You" are missing out on one of the grandest wilderness skills - and rewards - by walking straight lines between waypoints.
  9. If you think that I'm anti-GPS or am simply trying to contribute to the tired argument that "real men use map and compass" then you've missed the point. The GPS is a valuable tool, but not an invaluable tool. It replaces some navigation skills, but not all of them. GPS units are lightweight, but they still add weight to your pack. A GPS unit does lower the urban-wilderness barrier to an engagement reward. And it does have the potential to distract the navigator from the most rewarding aspect of navigation: the artistic development of a route in real-time, the ultimate expression of creativity between a hiker's points of entry to and exit from the wilderness. Of course, most folks aren't going to drop all their navigation supplies from their normal gear kits. And, hopefully, you don't interpret that proposal as your mode de normale. Rather, place your map, compass, and GPS in their proper context, and be honest with yourself about why you are taking them - and why you actually need them.


"On Going Mapless in a Digital World: Engagement, Simplicity, and the Art of Real-Time Navigation," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-10-19 03:00:00-06.


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On Going Mapless in a Digital World: Engagement, Simplicity, and the Art of Real-Time Navigation
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
On Going Mapless in a Digital World: Engagement, Simplicity, and the Art of Real-Time Navigation on 10/18/2005 21:24:19 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

On Going Mapless in a Digital World: Engagement, Simplicity, and the Art of Real-Time Navigation

Alex Orgren
(big_load) - F
Going without navigation aids on 10/18/2005 23:43:23 MDT Print View

This is a fascinating topic. I have never used GPS for navigation on the trail. However, I have noticed that when using it to get around in strange cities, I observe and remember far less about my route than when I use a map or follow my nose.

I don't normally go mapless in real backcountry, but as on the road, I learn and remember far more knowing I'll have to rely on that memory to get back out.

Edited by big_load on 10/19/2005 12:48:52 MDT.

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
GPS in dense Northeast Forest on 10/19/2005 00:24:56 MDT Print View

haven't read the article yet; came across this Thread first. will read article shortly. therefore, the following comments should NOT be taken as a criticism of the article - which, again, i haven't read. i'm sure the wise D. J knows much more about this than i do. the following are just some comments based upon my experience in my neck of the woods.

GPS works at most 50% of the time (only on some higher, more open trails), generally far less than 50%; 25% would be a more accurate generally maximum estimation. far too much tree cover - even on trails - bad for both overhead & horizon. also, the hills all around; some low trails parallel the hill or run b/t hills - bad for horizon. so, often, neither horizon based or overhead based GPS is any benefit. on one trail, i've gone nearly two miles without being able to pick up a GPS signal (except at two very short open high, only ~550' ASL, rocky points where the signal will be reacquired - IF i stop for half-a-minute or so). sometimes, if i stop at a likely spot, like these, a signal will be re-acquired. most certainly, however, it would be lost again if i moved on a bit. most of the time it comes and goes - frequently (mostly "goes") and is of no value.

i guess GPS could be still be used like this in open/high spots: stop, re-acquire signal, get GPS coordinates, and accurately note locations on a map and get one's bearings, but to dispense with the map altogether under these conditions, i don't believe would work. forget about following any "bread crumb" track.

i recall laying down GPS bread crumbs on one high trail - somewhat open in parts. approx every 100' a new bread crumb was laid down. while tracking back in the dark, following the GPS direction indication: at one point, if i were to blindly follow the "arrow" and not pay attention to the terrain, i could have stepped off the rocky part of the trail (no slope down to the edge; bascially flat and then nothing but air) and experienced a 200' drop straight down. don't get me wrong, this was not something that almost happened, but it could possibly have. the trail made a small 'U' shaped deviation (about 20'-30' or so across) from a straight line due to the shape of the cliff. the "U" was between bread crumbs, hence the GPS telling me to go straight across the void. a GPS doesn't replace one's eyes, intuition, and common sense. the article. so...'bout the only pt on which my initial general comments (not specific to my "neck of the woods") differ appear to be the dispense with map & compass matter. do we always need a map & compass? no. are they good to have along when in unfamiliar territory. yes. i don't think that this is any diff. than what Dr. J was saying.

i think the danger here is one similar to a recent post of mine on another topic - which there, i could have been a bit clearer, perhaps. even though mentioning training, skill, and practice. based upon the replies, perhaps it was not stressed enough there. i think others were thinking that i was advocating that everyone could and should do this.

these same points might be applicable here.

in various areas each person's skill level is different. sometimes when writing, one conveys the idea that anyone can do the exact same thing under the exact same conditions. start small. work up to larger adventures. things which one person is capable of attempting should not be attempted by lesser trained, experienced individuals.

one should be aware of their limitations. the danger comes from not recognizing this and crossing too far over the line. a step over - yes. often, it's good to push oneself. However, to blindly race too far over the line too soon, invites disaster.

should everyone run out blindly and try their hand at this? don't think so. i'm guessing Dr. J wasn't advocating such either. need to "balance" two statements Dr. J made in his article, viz.

"I encourage you to do take a trip without any navigation device whatsoever. Start in familiar terrain. Be prepared to get lost, or even spent an unplanned night or two out while you find your way back to civilization." [emphasis mine]

AND [note 6 in the article]

"There is a serious element of risk in navigating this type of terrain with no navigation tools. It requires clear weather, acute awareness of visible landmarks, and an understanding of the calculation of direction and time using sun and stars, in some cases."

well. those are my thoughts.

liked the editorial very much; also the gear list. comments were very thought provoking. the entire article is definitely worth a re-read once or twice more after posting this.

Edited by pj on 10/19/2005 03:41:36 MDT.

jacob thompson
(nihilist37) - F
Excellent topic on 10/19/2005 00:28:18 MDT Print View

This is a really good topic. I don't own a GPS and dont intend to until we thru-hike in '07. I see people using these things all the time when they are hiking and I often think to myself "what would happen to you if you didn't have that?".

There are some places where I hike here so often that I no longer take a map because I know the territory well enough to not worry about it. However it does get a bit repetitive taking the same routes through very small parks quite often. This summer I have planned to look at a map and study it for a little while and then head out for a week or so of just rambling about in a huge national park as you have shown in your review. I've always been credited for my excellent sence of direction. Whether driving in the city or wandering around in the bush I always seem to have some clue as to where I am and where things are around me.

I think most people (I would like to say men but I don't want to be sexist) have this sense of direction but aren't really in touch with it. Natural selection has obviously opted for individuals that show a better fitness in regards to path finding.

Good job in bringing this to light. I really hope more people do this since with even the smallest ammount of precautions and planning can make this kind of "let's go and get lost and see if we can find our way home" hiking just as safe as having your head in a map and constantly looking at your GPS. If nothing else it will bring you closer to the wilderness since you have nothing but your clothes and sleeping gear to get you through.

Mark Larson
(mlarson) - MLife

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: Going without navigation aids on 10/19/2005 00:29:52 MDT Print View

Excellent write-up, Ryan. [Note 1] Your comments on the idea of "engagement" and "real-time information" are right-on. It reminds me a bit of some thoughts on recreation by Ayn Rand. She mentions the idea of a "demanding pleasure," a kind of recreation that needs attention and critical input, not just a passive, mindless, connect-the-dots sort of activity. I don't have the text with me, but I remember demanding pleasure being "not about problem solving, but about exercising discrimination, judgment, awareness." [Note 2] Sensitive route-finding fits right in this category.

There's also the element of being "in tune" with the area. I think mapless hiking would free you up to think more about macro-level navigation. Instead of point-to-point, you start to consider broad, general trends in terrain and ecology and use your knowledge to predict the specific type of terrain you will encounter ahead of time. Seems like higher-order, integrated thinking, which will be much more rewarding.

Alex, I have to agree with your comments on city navigation. I definitely 'know' a new area better when I keep my nose out of the map and try to think about general cardinal orientation, highway trends, neighborhoods, street numbers, zoning, etc.

There were also some excellent related comments on the Backpackinglight YahooGroup a couple months back about "elegance" in backcountry route-finding. I'll have to look those up again.

Thanks for a good article.[Note 3]


1. As usual.
2. I can't recall which essay, but I think I quoted it accurately. I can look it up if anyone likes.
3. All notes written in a friendly satirical spirit. Cheers.-ML

Jim Sweeney
(swimjay) - MLife

Locale: Northern California
GPS-lessness on 10/19/2005 00:50:00 MDT Print View

All of my most rewarding trips have involved being "lost" for a while. The only time I'd like to have a GPS--and perhaps a very light, special purpose unit would best serve for this--is to figure out where I've been, not where I'm going. Then, after a trip, using a program like TOPO 4.0, with its 3D flyover ability, one could re-live ones old adventures when life's intrusions made difficult the having of new ones.

Tim Cheek
(hikerfan4sure) - MLife
never lost but been bewildered on 10/19/2005 08:27:25 MDT Print View

When I had a heavy pack I never wanted to lose altitude unnecessarily, so map and compass, taking the right fork in the trail, etc. was critical to my enjoyment. With a lighter pack, I can go the "wrong" direction, intentionally or negligently, and not suffer because of it. Off trail hiking is now an option. So far, I've never been lost, but I'll admit to being a bit bewildered for a time.

I passed a guy leading a large group in an electrical storm above treeline trying to get a reading on his GPS this Summer. Gave him quick directions to where he wanted to go, and recommended we all get off of there! He looked like a lightning rod standing there.

If I was at sea, in a thick forest, or in a total whiteout and had to move, I could see the utility.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: never lost but been bewildered on 10/19/2005 08:41:44 MDT Print View

It's gratifying to see so many folks who understand what happens in your head when you leave the security blanket at home and start paying attention.

You may be interested to read a feature that appeared in the Life section of the Austin American Statesman on Monday, Oct. 17. [] or just Google on the paper's name and go to archives, last 7 days "getting there is half the fun."

The piece is about orienteering, and features one participant who uses a compass and another who just pays attention to the terraine. No GPS wimp, him.

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Re: never lost but been bewildered on 10/19/2005 09:10:00 MDT Print View


good article. thanks for the URL to it.

orienteering - it's more fun at night.

however, i'm still a map and compass wimp - for my limited purposes in dense forest, forget the GPS.

just gave my GPS to a new, young guy here at work to try out. a real outdoorsman - loves the "Presidentials" (we talk; he's thinking of converting to UL gear/techniques.). hoping he'll like it and want to buy it from me (a Garmin For-eTrex).

Edited by pj on 10/19/2005 09:47:31 MDT.

Richard Allen
(r_allen) - F
Re: On Going Mapless in a Digital World on 10/19/2005 09:42:36 MDT Print View

I am not a fan of GPS though I can see its utility in real desert travel (camels or 4X4 so not really applicable to UL). Navigation is about reading terrain as well as the map not marching a on a bearing or to a 'waypoint'. The mapless wandering idea is great fun but I think a map and compass would be useful stashed at the bottom of the sack in the event of injury and the need to find a fast/efficient route out. Trying to triangulate or fix your position after a day of wandering sans map could prove challenging especially in poor weather ;-)

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: On Going Mapless in a Digital World: Engagement, Simplicity, and the Art of Real-Time Navigation on 10/19/2005 10:46:59 MDT Print View

I mostly don't use my GPS for navigation. When I bring it, I am typically using it to record exact locations of sites or for geocaching. But there are times when I have used my GPS for navigation: when visual cues are gone. Desert travel when the landscape is shifting (not the south west were the are landmarks which are clearly visible), snow storm / white out when the situation suggests pushing ahead rather than hunkering down is the right course of action, night time. In all these case good craft and a compass can cover you. That's what I did for 40+ years. But the GPS (when it is working) can really speed up the process when you are denied visual cues).


GPS Commentary on 10/19/2005 11:38:37 MDT Print View

I feel a little different about this topic than what RJ has written. For me, a GPS offers two things.

First, it buys me time. Like a lot of people on here, I work in an office most of the time with limited vacation. I also have a variety of interests for vacations, with hiking and camping accounting for only one of those. When I do a camping trip, it's usually for four days or less. With a GPS, I feel that I can attack a strange trail in an unfamiliar setting and feel confident that I will make it to where my vehicle is (or appropriate trail end point) by a certain time, which is very important to me.

Second, I don't have any formal navigational training and I do occassionaly take a wrong turn. With a GPS, I can quickly figure out where I should be heading, and use established trails to make the correction. A lot of the places I hike are in moderate traffic areas, where staying on the trail is important to the goals of the park and rangers. Without navigational aids, I feel that I could do a reasonably ok job of correcting course using general landmarks, but I'd probably want to go off trail.

That all said, I find that more and more I do hike with the GPS off and just use it to look up fun stats on how far I've gone and what speed I've been walking etc.

That all said, I do agree that it would make me feel closer to nature to hike without navigational aids and to go in whatever direction suits me using visual cues to pick a route. It's a worthy goal, but not sure that my schedules or hiking trips will offer me that luxury now or in the near future.

Thanks for the article, as all information is welcome and insights from established field experts like yourself are not often available.


Neil Bender
(nebender) - F
GPS Utility on 10/19/2005 11:41:38 MDT Print View

Ryan's comments regarding route finding skills are pretty much spot on. GPS and even topo maps don't have the resolution to solve most navigational problems of the moment in all sorts of interesting terrain. Really handy for offshore boating though.

I like to use mine as a trip recorder, and leave it in the pack's top pocket so I'm not even tempted to be distracted by it. Then I download my trip data to Topo so I have a nice map to add to my trip notes. I seldom find a need to mark a waypoint, though I usually tag the trailhead just to make sure the thing is working. In 10 years have never needed it to get oriented. In truth, I've only needed to use a compass once or twice. But being a map freak, I love to consult maps while walking more or less just to exercise the ability to visualize from 2D to 3D.

I know some adventure racers use GPS in training to gauge speed over ground versus effort so they have some way of measuring the progressivity and intensity of their training without repeating the same old training routes. Not everyone gets out there for the same reasons.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: GPS Utility on 10/19/2005 13:27:28 MDT Print View

I find you are right about the utility of GPS in boating - and not just offshore. I rarely use even a compass when off trail, but, oddly, I get lost on rivers - not lake systems - rivers. Don't know why. Should have learned by now.

Phil Barton
(flyfast) - MLife

Locale: Oklahoma
Re: On Going Mapless in a Digital World on 10/19/2005 13:33:28 MDT Print View

Interesting discussion. Since resuming backpacking 5 yrs ago, I've used a compass twice that I can remember. First time was just because I thought I needed to. My buddy chided me for missing the BIG landmarks in the Grand Canyon. Ever since, I've been able to follow trails and terrain 99.99% of the time with only occasional map use.

I've had a Garmin Geko 301 since last Christmas and used it pretty much to capture waypoints for campsites and landmarks. It never enters my thought to try and navigate with it. I have found the precision of map created waypoints, via Topo!, to be no more useful than just following trail and terrain.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Mapped on 10/19/2005 19:22:24 MDT Print View

I agree with Ryan's comments in part. A GPS is an unnecessary luxury for an experienced traveler just about anywhere. If you can't figure out where you are on a map from where you know you've been (you have been keeping track, right?) and the topography you've got problems a GPS will only partially solve. Reliance on technology distances us from the experience of wilderness. We should be adapting our skills to the wilderness not trying to tame it.

Traveling without a map or compass (or specific route) is very liberating. It allows a better appreciation of the terrain and its elements. HOWEVER, as Ryan found out, you often end up somewhere other than you intended. For most of us, it is difficult to plan a trip where you might have to hitch-hike or be out 2 or 3 extra days. I wouldn't hike without a map under most circumstances.

When I followed Steve Roper's Sierra High Route this summer (200 miles/ 8 days--50% cross country), I took maps and knew the general route but did not pay attention to the "beta" found in Steve's book on this trail. I clearly wanted to find my own route through the cross country portions of the trip and found this made the trip more enjoyable. A GPS was unnecessary. Without maps I would most likely have ascended impassable passes and had to backtrack. I doubt I would have gotten through.

If I wanted to go exploring and didn't have time constraints, going mapless would be an option that would make me more in tune with the wilderness experience. I could also choose to take no food or sleeping bag and force myself to forage for pine nuts, fish, and berries and sleep on dry grass/pine needles under an overhanging rock. Both would add risk, make the experience more "real" and limit my ability to cover terrain. It is an experience I have chosen, but it is different from the experience I typically choose.

John Chan
GPS utility on 10/23/2005 07:33:13 MDT Print View

I've found GPS to be a worthy addition to my gear list for several reasons:

1. I often hike alone and in class 4 terrain. I like the idea of having a GPS unit to tell me where I am (within 10 m) so in the event that I twist an ankle I can radio it into the nearest repeater instead of waiting 3-4 days for a rescue.

2. I like to keep a real-time record of my exploits as a "performance log" to help me determine what areas I have to work on.

3. My GPS (Garmin 60 C) doesn't weigh that much with 1 set of Li-ion batteries. It will go 45 hours on a set which is more than enough for 1 long weekend.

4. I've never recalled tracks to follow "bread crumbs" but I can see the utility of having the tracks to refer to when trying to figure out really cryptic sections of trail. For instance, last Sunday I found myself @ 3:30 am, on the descent of the North Ridge of Killarney Provincial Park and the trail markers and Cairn placements were getting confusing. It took me 45 minutes (sitting down) to figure it out but had I seen the track on GPS I would've breezed through.

I don't rely on GPS for safety. Most of my treks have been on marked trails in Provincial parks that require you to register an itinerary. I just find it a great way to document a trip and (if you have the tracks) share information about what to watch out for with would-be hikers who plan on doing the same trail. It might "lessen" the adventure for others but that's for them to decide.

Its always nice to have a choice.

Scott Ashdown
(waterloggedwellies) - F

Locale: United Kingdom
Re: GPS utility on 04/13/2006 14:04:23 MDT Print View

Hmmm, GPS.

What can I say. I have one and it always goes in my kit bag. However, having been brought up long before GPS was available, I always use my ,map and compass to navigate, it somehow just feels better and also keeps my attention up to the landscape as opposed to just looking at the GPS and taking its readings for granted. Depending on the model you have, if you have lost the sat signal, the co-ordinates on the display could have been from a longway back on the trail.
I mainly use the GPS to record my tracks if I go off trail, its easier to load the trail into my pc at home rather than having to work it all out after the event. The time, alarm, pressure readings are quite nice. I've also just loaded a basemap into it for the first time and it gives me road directions to reach the trail head when driving which is pretty cool. Navigating is one thing but getting to the trail head in a car is something else. I use the GPS for geocaching as well.

It's interesting that some people mention that the GPS gives them confidence to get off the trail and out into the wilderness a bit more. Thats great for them but I actually find that even if I have my GPS unit with me, its having my compass and knowledge to use it that gives me more confidence.

Maybe i'm getting old.

Edited by waterloggedwellies on 04/13/2006 14:05:56 MDT.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Re: GPS utility on 04/14/2006 10:33:55 MDT Print View

>What can I say. I have one and it always goes in my kit bag.

I always bring a map and compass even on marked trails, but I also carry a GPS on many hikes for trail mapping or for going cross-country. Last month I was ski-packing in the backcountry in a blizzard, off-trail, solo. I had mostly been using my paper maps to navigate, since I wanted higher resolution than the topo in the GPS, but going up a pass in a white-out I found that my map case had blown out of my belt. The GPS proved invaluable from that point on as I was able to find the pass (I couldn't see past the tips of my skis) and descend the broad contours along the other side while avoiding dead-ends and chutes (visibility at that point was still only 50 ft). Without the GPS I still could have used the compass to 'bounce' off the cliffs on the way up and through (and I knew that if I kept going southeast from the pass I would eventually hit a road), but this was avalanche country with fresh deposition and wind loading, and knew I didn't want to be anywhere near the faces below those peaks.

In less critical conditions, I used the GPS on my last three winter outings to navigate cross-country through heavy timber, where if I had to rely on a quad, a compass and a good altimeter I would have had to spend a total of an hour or two each day carefully tracking my position. Instead I was able to poke the route into the GPS and stay roughly on course while going around clusters of trees, avoiding steep faces, etc., and I wasted no time on navigation.

In summary, I have found the GPS to be somewhere between useful and critical, and it makes travel a bit easier when the going isn't. But where I can use a map (or don't even need that to know where I am), the GPS is just wasted weight. I can live with that.

Edited by Otter on 04/14/2006 10:41:00 MDT.