[pct-l] Navigation Skills?

David Money Harris David_Harris at hmc.edu
Mon Apr 11 12:30:54 CDT 2016

I’ve long pondered the advice of compass vs. GPS.  The “experts” say to always carry a compass but I’m not convinced that is the right advice anymore.

I grew up with map and compass and learned to use them pretty well.  I’ve done a bit of orienteering in my time.  I’ve also hiked through a densely forested portion of the Western sierra in deep spring snow in 1997, following an expert orienteer for half a day, who emerged precisely at the intended campsite at the intersection of two creeks, despite almost zero landmarks along the way.  So I know that a compass can be powerful.

However, a GPS is much better.  When I’m going someplace new, I love to preload the route in the GPS.  Halfmile’s track is on my Garmin 62 and is fantastic.  eTrails has the maps for California and Oregon overlaying high-quality USGS basemaps on the iPhone and is even better.  When I’m headed cross-country on a desert adventure, I like to download a track or trace it off my map and load it into my GPS or phone.  The situational awareness of having your position and desired track on a moving map is so much higher than having a compass alone.  Pilots have figured out the same thing; glass panels with moving maps are replacing the old steam gauges that give you a compass direction to a waypoint.

I’m a big believer in paper maps in unfamiliar areas.  I love the Halfmile paper maps and study them continuously on the trail.  By watching the terrain and looking at the map, I rarely have to consult anything else for navigation.  Once a week or so, I’m not entirely confident about a junction and double-check against the GPS.  I would never consider triangulating against landmarks with a compass anymore. If I had a really bad sense of situational awareness, this might not be enough, but people who don’t keep a mental map of their location are also unlikely to be skilled with a compass.

I’ve downsized my compass to the little toy one built into my whistle.  The only time I take a compass bearing anymore is when a guidebook description says “Pick out the gully on a 210 bearing 3 miles from the trailhead and hike to the base” and the GPS works great for that.  

Electronics can run out of charge, but I’m careful about that kind of thing and have never run out on the trail.  If I did, there’s no emergency — just stay on the trail and follow the map. If something doesn’t look right, backtrack to the last known good landmark. If I became seriously confused, the PCT is a hiker superhighway and sitting and waiting an hour will bring help.  If the weather is bad and it’s off season, I won’t go forth solo or carrying only ultralight gear.

For ultralight backpacking on the PCT these days, I’d be content with halfmile maps, a smartphone with the map on some app, a backup battery pack, and a toy compass on my whistle for emergencies. I’d love to hear from compass advocates if I’m overlooking something.


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