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

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable On Going Mapless in a Digital World: Engagement, Simplicity, and the Art of Real-Time Navigation

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    Ryan Jordan


    Locale: Central Rockies
    Alex Orgren


    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.

    paul johnson


    Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest

    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.

    ok…read 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.

    jacob thompson


    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.

    BPL Member


    Locale: SoCal

    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    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
    BPL Member


    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


    Locale: Central Texas

    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


    Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest


    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).

    Richard Allen


    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    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).



    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


    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


    Locale: Central Texas

    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oklahoma

    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    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


    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


    Locale: United Kingdom

    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.

    Douglas Frick
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wyoming

    >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.

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