M Smartphone Navigation

by Ken Knight

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Article Summary:

Navigating is a vital skill when hiking in the backcountry. That seems like a cliché, but it is perhaps the most important skill a backcountry traveler can use when he or she is trying to get from place to place. As such, learning how to properly use a map and compass and how to read the local terrain are all incredibly useful and important skills, especially if your travels take you off the beaten trail-worn path.

For centuries the two most useful tools, beyond one's own good sense and careful thought, have been reliable maps and a compass. This is not likely to change. However, the means of determining where you are and then applying that knowledge to a detailed map has seen a remarkable change recently with the development of the GPS, and, more recently, with the ability to store maps of all sorts digitally. A mapping GPS cannot replace using a map effectively, but it can enhance the ability to use maps well.

It is now possible to accurately plot routes ahead of time on maps and later in the field, and then to compare the actual location with the route you wish to follow. In the past, in order to determine location with any hope of accuracy, you had to use highlighter to mark a map and pay careful attention to how fast you were traveling at all times. Even the use of a pace-counting method, perhaps with the aid of counting beads, can be tricky especially on varied terrain.

Things are changing with the advent of digital-based maps. While you still need to know how to read a map, to calculate distances between co-ordinates, and to use a compass to stay on course, the amount of information we have at our fingertips has increased enormously. The speed with which we can access that information has also increased, and more information easily available means that we can be more efficient in planning our hikes.

There are limitations. It might seem that a traveler could eschew knowledge of how to use a compass or understand how to use a topographic map. But what happens if the GPS device fails? This is the common lament raised against using GPS-based devices in the backcountry. GPS devices can certainly fail, but all tools have their strengths and weaknesses. If you understand them, then using modern navigation aids like the numerous mapping applications that are now available on millions of smartphones can provide valuable assistance in getting from point A to point B.

The single greatest advantage of mapping applications on smartphones (and to a lesser extent dedicated GPS devices) is their flexibility. While I am not aware of any application on the market today that has all the features of some of the more expensive dedicated GPS receivers, that does not mean such an application cannot be developed. More important, applications can be updated and improved far more easily than the tools available on a dedicated GPS receiver. So, if a feature is not present now in a smartphone-based application, it could become available in the future, merely requiring a download to get the update. Dedicated GPS devices get firmware updates, of course, but they happen less frequently, and installation of the update, though not difficult, is not as easy as updating a smartphone application.

The single most important limitation of these applications is that they run on smartphones with limited battery lives. A dedicated GPS receiver will easily last three (or more) times as long as a smartphone, and chances are the batteries are easier to replace. This points out how digital mapping applications on smartphones should not be used in the field as long distance tracking tools. One could also argue that a smartphone is more fragile than a dedicated GPS receiver and certainly more prone to breaking than a paper topographic map, but in most cases it is not that hard to protect your smartphone.

What needs to be understood about mapping applications is that they can do a great deal but are best suited to particular tasks and should be employed that way. In a nutshell, this class of applications is best used for short-time distance navigation and to help you quickly fix your location on a map. Recording a track only makes sense on day hikes or short intervals on multi-day hikes. On multi-day hikes, the phone should only be used to fix your location on the map and assisting with navigation at confusing junctions/locations. Nor are these apps ideal if you need a high degree of accuracy, for most often accuracy will likely be around 10 meters (compared to 3-5 meters for a dedicated consumer-grade GPS).

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