[Cdt-l] The Compass versus GPS wars.

Andy James longhiker.pct at gmail.com
Fri Jan 24 11:11:34 CST 2014

We seem destined to have this discussion every year about this time.  It seems that the incoming bunch of hikers, who are just trying to plan intelligently, are doomed to endure endless proselytizing by those who have hiked before.   

I thought I was really good with compass and map until I got on the CDT.  I section hiked the trail over two summers from 2010 – 2011 and began in NM (Crazy Cook) with compass and a combination of BLM and Ley maps. I survived NM without a gps, but I did get lost several times and wasted considerable time wandering around, backtracking or bushwhacking ahead until I stumbled onto the trail again. It’s not like it is a continuous, marked route like the PCT or JMT.  There are sections with no trail marked by posts that are laying on the ground.  When you actually are on a trail there are literally hundreds  of unmarked and often unmapped intersections where choices must be made. Sometimes the right trail feels wrong.  Sometimes the wrong trail seems right.  You can call that a “lack of orienteering skill” if you want, but I definitely enjoy hiking more when I know where I am at.  I was skeptical of gps at the time I started but by time I reached Lordsburg I had already wandered off route several times.  My hike definitely got happier after I hooked up with a couple of hikers near Ghost Ranch who were equipped with gps, smart phones, solar charger, etc.  We hiked together as for a couple of weeks and thing I was most impressed by was the gps.           


When I returned to the trail in Colorado in mid 2011 I came equipped with a Garmin Colorado which I purchased used from a pawn shop here in Albuquerque.  Also carried Bearcreek maps for the first time along with Ley.  It was a bit of a learning curve, but the gps made a big difference in how fast I traveled and improved my enjoyment of the trail.  I stopped getting lost. (Well, almost - I definitely got through confusing spots faster and better.)  The Bearcreek waypoints are remarkable.  You arrive at an intersection, look at the gps, and immediately know which way to turn, or go straight, or whatever.          


So, IMO, as for using a gps, I say “try it, you’ll like it”.   You can always send it home if you think knowing where you are makes the trail too easy.  (bet you won’t)     


There have been lots of improvements in backpacking gear in general.  I recently purchased a Cuben Fiber backpack and tent, I have traded in my Garmont boots for lightweight trail runners. I like my carbon fiber poles.  I say “Embrace the Technology”  and quit listening to the Luddites.  It really is your hike, and you can do it any way you want.    




From: cdt-l-bounces at backcountry.net [mailto:cdt-l-bounces at backcountry.net] On Behalf Of Jonathan Ley
Sent: Thursday, January 23, 2014 11:30 PM
To: cdt-l at backcountry.net
Subject: Re: [Cdt-l] Use of compass star on Ley maps


Hi everyone… just a little more info on the Compass Rose. The web page link is here: 



You can download StarMan’s file, but on average, you’ll be using 2-3 of these maps a day… You’ll have hours and hours to enter a waypoint (the center of the compass rose) manually on your GPS if you really need to. Since the coordinates are printed right on the maps, you don’t really need them saved elsewhere. 


The accuracy of this method will be better the closer you are to the coordinate. But, in most cases along the CDT, you won’t need much accuracy to figure out where you are. 


As mentioned on the web page, while this method can help tell you “where  you are on the map”, it doesn’t tell you where to go next. To do that, you’ll need to use the map, maybe a compass, and most certainly your head :-) 


Also, regarding navigation more generally… as was mentioned in another post – people have managed to navigate the CDT without GPS for years. A GPS can be helpful, and even a bit fun, but it’s not a requirement. 


On many occasions, I’ve been a bit surprised at the lack of orienteering skills possessed by some of my fellow thru-hikers. I think that for long-distance hikers, orienteering ought to be as fundamental as reading for the general population: everyone ought to learn how to orient a map, use a compass (and I don’t mean just “the needle points north”, but have a thorough understanding of declination, and how to take/follow bearings, triangulate, etc), and really read a map (knowing what all the obscure markings mean…). There are lots of resources on the web, books, and local courses to help teach this stuff. That said, I know that this stuff doesn’t come easily to everyone… some people just have a really hard time with directional sense. 


Beyond that, a general skill “trail sniffing” is really valuable out there – being able to notice signs of worn roots, cut branches/logs, old blazes, and other subtle signals that tell you where to go. To me, all this stuff is part of the fun of a hike… it’s like a puzzle to figure out, and can give you a sense of pride & accomplishment when you get it right. Anyone can follow a line on an LCD screen.  





From: cdt-l-bounces at backcountry.net [mailto:cdt-l-bounces at backcountry.net] On Behalf Of Frank Gilliland
Sent: Thursday, January 23, 2014 6:56 PM
To: cdt-l at backcountry.net
Subject: [Cdt-l] Use of compass star on Ley maps


Love the Ley Maps!  (And I love the Bear Creek data)

I also loaded the Ley Compass Rose as waypoints in my "little co-pilot". 

I got in a habit of locating my position on my Ley map first. 

Old School!

Then I would fire up the unit and verify. 

New School!


My second favorite thing was to 

mark waypoints for interesting features like my camp sites. 

Google Earth later at home to see my evening camp spot!


If you choose to pack tech then I have the now dated Ley Rose points posted:


Just one personal note. "I" take several forms of tech with me when 
I hike. My passion is to walk, return home and then walk again!
So I take modern maps, a fancy compass, iPhone, GPS, nylon tent,
Super feet inserts, carbon fiber hiking poles and Snickers bars.
All products of modern living.  I do Love my Snickers.......
HYOH and CYOG (Carry Your Own Gear)




While the Ley maps don't have longitude/latitude lines, most of them have a compass star that you can use to orient yourself on the map. I frequently powered on my GPS for a "fugawi" check. Let's web site explains how to do this. This was very helpful. There's a waypoint GPX file available for downloading on the CDT forum over at white blaze I, too, wondered around near Lava Mtn, like IceAx. This was before the Bearcreek waypoints were available. I'm kind of glad I did as the clambering over the Lava gave me an adrenaline rush. After searching around for a long time to find a trail and enjoying the view north of the spectacular ridge beyond Brooks Lake, I finally punted, set a waypoint on the road leading to Togwotee Pass, and bushwhacked over to it on another of the Ley alternates. If, more and more I'm thinking when, I hike the CDT again, I'll carry both the Ley and Bear Creek maps. The notes on Ley's maps are very valuable and some of the alternates are really nice. Handlebar


Sent from my iPad

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.backcountry.net/pipermail/cdt-l/attachments/20140124/7288a315/attachment.html 

More information about the Cdt-l mailing list