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Why use compass/maps if I have a GPS track for off trail hiking on the SHR?


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Home Forums General Forums Philosophy & Technique Why use compass/maps if I have a GPS track for off trail hiking on the SHR?

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  • #3688656
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    I have started planning for SHR with couple of other folks from BPL. Instead of asking multiple folks the same question, I thought I will open it up to the experts here.

    It seems like with Skurka’s SHR topo maps (with his waypoints) and Caltopo, I can get a pretty good set of tracks. So, my question is why do I need a compass and map print outs?

    I read many reports where people report they got lost and they were using maps/compass etc and they had to resort to GPS to see where they were. I have also read that people rarely use their compass.

    With the track and GPS, it seems like I will know if I am right or left of the track. I may go way off track based on what I see out there, but still know where the track is. I will know that I am going in the right direction etc and get back on track or close to the track etc.

    Battery dying or GPS dying seems highly improbable….with some redundancy. I will have my GPS watch, phone with GPS and Inreach with GPS. I will also have couple of batteries etc. So, I do not worry about not having GPS on the trail. I suppose satellites can go down. But, that is highly improbable. I suppose it is possible (it did happen once on PCT Washington – many folks were complaining that guthook was not working for them – I think it was the satellites – I should have enabled Russian satellites). For that reason I will take some paper maps/compass as a backup.

    But, if we rule out satellites not working or batteries dying, why would I need compass/maps if I have done the work of creating a track using Caltopo or Gaia and Skurka’s maps? What am I missing?

    #3688660
    David Thomas
    BPL Member

    @davidinkenai

    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    Why always carry map & compass with you?  Because some people are old, or very old, and won’t ever change.  Somehow, those folks can crank up their hypocrisy enough to claim you ALWAYS need map and compass and yet they drive their car into the wilderness with *only* a computer-controlled fuel-injection system that is reliant on a processor chip and continued electrical power rather then the field-repairable, completely non-electrical carburetor they grew up with.  A single EMP pulse from a North Korean nuke could obviously leave them stranded by the roadside, and yet they take the massive risk <sarcasm> of relying on modern electronics.

    I’m only old, not very old, so I acknowledge that times have changed.  A modern GPS unit/app gives you vastly more functionality than a map & compass.  And back-ups (batteries, watch, phone, etc) are always an option.

    Could you have a failure?  Sure.  With any system.  On the PCT?  Jeez!, just ask the next person along “Where am I?”* and to call Uber for you and place your Walmart and pizza
    orders for you in town.

    * Or, instead, just keep walking north.

    Sarcasm aside, I’d suggest considering each morning, mid-day and evening, “If my GPS app quit, what does my next day’s travel look like?”  Understand your surroundings, the trail junctions ahead and the mileage in front of you.  That kind of active engagement with the route locks details into my head far better than an app telling me to turn left or right at each trail junction.

    #3688663
    Ryan Jordan
    Admin

    @ryan

    Locale: Central Rockies

    I’m not convinced you need a map and compass for the SHR.

    I did it in ‘89 and have done many sections since, every year or two.

    Now, much of the SHR is a “beaten path” from many hikers doing it – there’s full-on trails in most of it that doesn’t go through rock, and most of the rocky stuff is cairned.

    And the alpine nav is pretty easy, big obvious passes, etc. Not a lot of nuance on this route.

    I miss the old days of map and compass, they engage your brain more. And I still use them and ditch GPS on occasion because I like the nav challenge. But digital tools will vastly increase your efficiency and speed generally.

    #3688672
    James Marco
    BPL Member

    @jamesdmarco

    Locale: Finger Lakes

    You should always have both: GPS, Map & Compass. A GPS will locate you, but will not tell you your current heading, you need a compass for that (even if it is built in.) A Compass will give you your current heading, but not locate you. You need to keep a topo map with you to show the terrain and you need to keep a mental picture of it in your head.

    Generally, a map & compass are lighter. A single sheet of paper and a quarter ounce worth of compass will generally locate you IFF you know where you are, if you know the technique. Simple triangulation from two sightings will do that providing you are on the map. But, you have to be aware of this technique. You should study simple navigation. You replace the setup with knowledge. You must have some trigonometric training to use a compass fully. Magnetic north, it’s rate of change, it effect on your compass will all influence your calculations. That said, it is soo rare to ever use this, that a few practice sessions is all you need.

    GPS has come a long way from the older Garmins. But, it is still clunkey to use. And, it is fairly slow on the trail. You always worry about batteries/charge. Some are quite lite, and have a couple weeks of use, but the settings will influence this a LOT. Update every minute will drain your batteries quickly. Update every two hours will hold a charge for quite a while. (I believe a UK firm makes one about 3/4oz for a phone and 8 weeks of charge.)

    If you need a small cheap and reliable navigation aid, a Map & Compass is yours. If you don’t care about dollars, heading or other nuances, then go ahead and get a GPS. But, it will require some mental effort.

    Carrying both is easier due to the lightness of a cheap compass. Even though one is built in, it is harder to use than simply grabbing the lanyard and looking. But a map&compass will not track your movements without a lot of sightings. One is easier to use than the other, depending on what you want.

    #3688675
    Dan
    BPL Member

    @dan-s

    Locale: Colorado

    If you don’t mind having your wilderness experience ruled by technology, then go ahead and use the GPS. For me, it takes some of the pleasure out of it and feels like “cheating”. I tend to rely on map and compass, and engage GPS only if I have lost my way and/or to check in at the end of the day. It’s slower, but it’s more fun, and keeps my skills reasonably sharp.

    This will probably sound crazy, but on rare occasions, I like to leave my map in the pack and sketch a map as I explore off-trail areas. This is extremely slow, but it’s fun because it really feels like I am discovering the wilderness as I go. And it makes me pay more attention to the terrain. Also, I have a bit of a fascination with the idea that people explored these wilderness areas for millennia without USGS quads.  :-)

    I fully expect to see the day where people are hiking in the backcountry with virtual reality goggles completely covering their faces.

    #3688676
    Bob Kerner
    BPL Member

    @bob-kerner

    I’m moderately old! And the places I hike are so well marked for the most part that I rely on my phone. I bring a paper map to corroborate what I see on the phone, and a tiny key chain compass because I think it would be foolish to have one and not the other ( lingering dogma from scouting)  I haven’t used the compass in as long as I can remember. I like paper maps for terrain and water features, so I look at one almost every hike.

    IIRC, Skurka’s own writing on this subject asks, “Would you be able to find yourself” if your electronics died; for example, could you direct rescuers to your location without electronic coordinates?
    Like everything else in the mountains it requires an individual risk assessment.  Will I be able to recharge my batteries! If it’s cold will my battery bank die? Is the trail so beaten down/ well marked that I can just walk back to town? What about the others I’m traveling with? Do we even know how to use the map and compass?

    And finally there are the optics of backcountry travel, like smoke detectors in a house that burned down as reported on the news: “A NY man became lost in the woods over the weekend and died of exposure. He was not carrying a map and compass :( “

    #3688677
    matthew k
    Moderator

    @matthewkphx

    Hey Murali – I hiked the JMT in 2015 with an iPhone in a Lifeproof Case. On the third day, my phone decided that I needed to log into iCloud in order to keep using any apps and it wasn’t until 36 hours later that I was able to get a cell signal from the top of a pass and authorize the apps on my phone.

    Later in the trip I ran of of juice for a couple days (due to miscalculations about batteries/solar panels – my fault).

    I had a map and compass. I just reverted to those when I needed a reference and everything was fine. I was on the JMT, easy to follow. The SHR is not the JMT. You could definitely get lost and might be forced to make quick decisions with a storm coming in. I think it’s prudent to have a map and compass.

    It doesn’t take an EMP to disrupt GPS: https://backpackinglight.com/forums/topic/solar-storm-could-affect-gps-positions-and-satellite-communications/

    Also, InReach’s system went down last September(?) for a few days due to a ransomwear attack.

    Do what you want but I think a couple ounces of map and compass makes sense when not on an established trail or an area you are very familiar with.

    #3688678
    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member

    @balzaccom

    Locale: Wine Country

    i don’t own a GPS… so for me the question is moot.  But I have to admit I loved David Thomas’s answer–it made perfect sense.  And yes, I am old.

    #3688679
    Bonzo
    BPL Member

    @bon-zo

    Locale: Virgo Supercluster

    I have two relatively good GPS apps on my phone, but they’ve both failed a few times when either the app or my phone decided to have a tantrum about something or other.  I’ve also done the run-out-of-battery thing, even when I had a nice battery bank with me…but these are exceptions to the rule: most of the time, they work just fine and I don’t find myself any worse for wear for having relied on them.  That said, I think a map and compass are very valuable for the weight, so I don’t mind carrying them when I start going further out than dayhikes carry me.  I also prefer looking at a map in the evenings, and taking my time to peruse the route; that’s just more restful and informative to me than scrolling and zooming on a screen…but again, that’s just personal preference.  I think it’s a question that is more about what the individual and the situation consider necessary, and not about blanket rules: if it’ll help you sleep better to either carry them or not, then go with whatever works.  I sleep better when I have them, and I love my sleep, so the map and compass usually go with me.

    #3688683
    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member

    @retiredjerry

    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    I’m pretty old.  I read somewhere that people, no matter how old they are, don’t consider themselves old.  “Old people” are people older than themselves.

    I usually take paper map.  For one thing it has mileages written on it so I’ll sometimes look at it in the evening for planning.  I have a zipper pull compass.

    My GPS failed once.  It was at the trailhead.  I had to download software when I got home.  Standalone GPS.  I just continued on trip without GPS, no problem.  I’ve used phone a couple years without failure.

    “Sarcasm aside, I’d suggest considering each morning, mid-day and evening, “If my GPS app quit, what does my next day’s travel look like?”  Understand your surroundings, the trail junctions ahead and the mileage in front of you.  That kind of active engagement with the route locks details into my head far better than an app telling me to turn left or right at each trail junction.”

    I think that’s the survival tactic to be used.

    Have in mind milestones like peaks, valleys, trail junctions,… for your trip and especially to get back to your car.  As you’re hiking along, keep track of where you are and where you’re going.  Independent of GPS or paper map.  Have a “map” in your head.

    I take a track of every trip and frequently look at my phone.  Just a geeky thing.  It’s sort of like playing a computer game, going through some maze or whatever.  I frequently do the same route again so it’s helpful to have a stored track to compare to.

     

    #3688684
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    Thanks for all the responses including the funny ones.

    It seems the people who get lost and are never heard from did not carry an Inreach. To me, hiking without Inreach is asking for trouble, especially off trail:-) I usually always have it on me in my pockets – not my backpack. I turn it ON to send a preset message in the morning, afternoon and night to tell my family I am doing good. The battery on this thing is ridiculous. It will last weeks with my usage scenario.

    I will carry the paper maps/compass etc – but will rely on technology. My Pixel 2 which I have used on JMT, PCT-Washington, CT has never died on me. It can last 3 days with GPS on, cell radio off, taking 50 or pictures and many short videos daily (30 seconds to 1.5 minute videos). My battery bank which I have used again for many of the hikes has never died on me. Doesn’t mean there is not a first time. But, I think with some redundancy, I will be good.

    I was just reading some reports of people getting lost on the SHR and then finally used the GPS to figure out where they are and I was like – why not just use the damn GPS?:-)

    Skurka’s 11 x 17 maps: For the first 60 miles or so,  you will need to carry 10 of those at which point we will resupply.

    I think Roper says in his book to topple/crash them if you see a cairn:-) and leave the ones that are absolutely necessary:-)

    James: GPS can definitely tell you where you are headed if you have the route set up.

    Matthew: My experience with technology has been very good – no failures like you describe except for a brief one on PCT. But, yes, will carry maps/compass for that remote possibility.

    #3688689
    Bonzo
    BPL Member

    @bon-zo

    Locale: Virgo Supercluster

    I will carry the paper maps/compass etc – but will rely on technology. My Pixel 2 which I have used on JMT, PCT-Washington, CT has never died on me. It can last 3 days with GPS on, cell radio off, taking 50 or pictures and many short videos daily (30 seconds to 1.5 minute videos). My battery bank which I have used again for many of the hikes has never died on me. Doesn’t mean there is not a first time. But, I think with some redundancy, I will be good.

    Same phone that I have.  It’s been good in many ways, but the battery has never been that great.  My wife has one as well that’s about a year older than mine; it’s been flawless and the battery lasts a long time.  I would get about five hours of usage at the rate you describe; less, in some cases.

    #3688690
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    Even at home, I charge my phone every 2 or 3 days….so, the battery has been awesome. Pixel 2 takes such awesome pictures. I feel it can take better pictures than my RX100 which I used to carry before.

    #3688694
    Dan
    BPL Member

    @dan-s

    Locale: Colorado

    It seems the people who get lost and are never heard from did not carry an Inreach.

    If you have to use an Inreach to send an SOS signal simply because you got lost, that would be a unforgivable failure IMO. Extreme measures like that should be necessary only for catastrophic injuries or other unforeseeable scenarios. It’s not something to rely on as a backup plan for navigation errors.

    #3688695
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    Of course – I am going to be using it only if I am incapacitated and cannot move and am in grave danger.

    I am just talking about that person – the professor – who got lost in Washington on Mt Rainier – I wonder if he was carrying an Inreach? Or that PCT hiker who got lost 3 or 4 years back and presumed dead. I wonder if was carrying one. Would people like that get lost and perish if they had been carrying an Inreach?

    #3688696
    Greg Mihalik
    BPL Member

    @greg23

    Locale: Colorado

    Does your technology (and/or maps) cover enough country  to get you to the nearest trailhead in case you have to bail?

    A “strip-chart” of the route will be of no use in an emergency unless it shows the trails to the right and left leading all the way out.

     

    #3688697
    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member

    @retiredjerry

    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    Yeah, I’ve started taking an inreach

    Mostly for daily message to wife so we don’t worry about each other

    Even with a non emergency, you can press the SOS button, then communicate by text the nature of your problem so they don’t send out full scale SAR mission

    Emergency beacons without texting capability should be used more carefully

    #3688698
    Greg Mihalik
    BPL Member

    @greg23

    Locale: Colorado

    I recently had a roadside emergency where there was no cell coverage.  Pulled out the inReach to send a SOS. It failed to connect. Don’t know why. (Synced later at home and then everything worked.)

    Test before you go.

     

    Edit to add – failed to connect to GPS, Iridium, and Earthmate on my phone.

    #3688712
    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member

    @retiredjerry

    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    Sometimes my inreach will get coverage and GPS location and send message in 5 or 10 minutes, sometimes it takes an hour or more

    First, “check mail” and wait for it it to succeed

    Second, “location – wait for GPS”  This often takes a long time, even an hour.  I don’t know why the inreach takes so long to acquire satellites.

    Third, send your message and wait for it to complete – the arrow symbol is replaced by the circle symbol.  This often takes a long time too.

    I’ve never pushed the SOS button, but I assume it takes the same amount of time

    #3688716
    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member

    @retiredjerry

    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    what I hate is sometimes I’ll forget about it, waiting to acquire satellite or to send message

    in the middle of the night or next morning I’ll remember it and go oh ssss…

    The battery is good for a couple such screw-ups and leaving on all night.  I have a USB power bank so I could recharge it.

    #3688749
    PaulW
    BPL Member

    @peweg8

    Locale: Western Colorado

    Like Ryan, I enjoy the nav challenge, but the main reason I carry a map, especially on longer trips, or in new areas, is that I love seeing an overview of the larger landscape which is something I can’t get on the small screen of my gps. I love using gps, but if I were forced to choose between gps and hardcopy maps, I would choose maps, and compass.

    #3688781
    Vance P
    BPL Member

    @vance

    I like maps (and guidebooks as appropriate), but have experimented with electronics for years on the trail and prefer them on my non-scouting outings. [For scouts, they need to learn the fundamentals of navigation and >WHY< one does certain things, and map and compass is the best way to inculcate & exercise this knowledge. In our troop, I allow scouts with the Orienteering Merit Badge to also carry electronic GPS’ing gadgets – preferably their phones so they can also take photos!]

    FWIW, YMMV – My rig for off-trail in the Sierras, including SHR (thru or stage):
    ▪  AlpineQuest app – The best. 0g. British developer; excellent base maps. Excellent layering, compass integration, etc. Just swing for the pro edition apk download upgrade!! – 100% worth the $€¥£₣$: https://www.alpinequest.net/

    ▪  Cheap, used excellent-battery-life semi-older smartphone (instead of dedicated, unitasker GPS): Oneplus 3T (my choice, running without Android GooglePlaySvcs for less battery usage, 3.5-to-4 star camera, 160g; buy only from https://swappa.com/, you’ll never regret the experience).

    ▪  For SHR, download Andrew’s .tpo and convert to .gpx with GPSBabel (https://www.gpsbabel.org/) – THEN:
    – Save the gpx onto the phone for use as a layer in AlpineQuest;
    – Use Topo! or CalTopo to create printable version of a topo map with Skurka’s .gpx overlaid and add any annotations (such as passes not on the map, e.g., Shout of Relief Pass, etc.) directly on printable image of map – Then print the map as a pdf.
    – Download good, superlightweight pdf reader (not resource-hog from Adobe) such as MuPDF viewer (on F-Droid and GPlay) – load the pdf’s for easy viewing.
    ▪  Battery power bank – On my last research journey in this area, I found that RAVPower charging bricks give the maximum mAh/oz: https://www.ravpower.com/collections/power-bank – mine is 10000 mAh at 192g. You will want 1-2 short (>6″) connector cables with the appropriate USB ends. You may want to include a USB “wall” charger for zero days at places like VVR, etc. to extend your power for fewer pack grams.
    ▪  (Paper Maps or Not), carry some kind of compass. I prefer one that can get an accurate bearing, i.e., lensatic-, mirror- or optical-based. I have a Silva Expedition 54 (baseplate plus prismatic, 39g, out of prod), but the comparable German-made K&R Alpin PRO (works similarly, 54g, https://www.thecompassstore.com/alpinpro.html) is great; also the handy K&R Dakar (baseplate with lensatic sight, 52g, https://www.thecompassstore.com/dakar.html). These all double as standard baseplate compasses for direct map usage. [For you that will settle for a minimal “button” compass, see if you can get the K&R Universe G 44-S (fluid capsule w/jeweled bearing, 15g, https://www.kasper-richter.de/en/products/outdoor/other-compasses/artikel/universe-g-44-s/%5D

    As always – HYOH, but also KYG !!

    Vance

    #3688795
    David Gardner
    BPL Member

    @gearmaker

    Locale: Northern California

    Great post Vance! Just ordered a Dakar.

    My dad always said (and now me too) that middle-age was 10 years older than however old you happen to be. By that definition, at 64, I am not “old.”

    But I’m pretty “old school” with most things tech, anything beyond a PC and moderate smartphone knowledge. I know the GPS gives you more functionality, but I’ve never felt I needed more than map & compass. Light, no issues with batteries or equipment failure. And I’d rather spend whatever time is required to learn the tech on something else. I do rent PLB’s now on trips into wilderness and alpine situations just in case, but all I need to do is push one button.

    But I’m open minded. I’m looking forward to going on a trek with others who are using the tech and see if it seems like something worth adding to my skills and equipment.

    #3688818
    Cameron M
    BPL Member

    @cameronm-aka-backstroke

    Locale: Los Angeles

    I enjoy using the GPS on the iPhone because it is compact, easy and fast, and because I got my Boy Scout Merit Badge and passed my Sierra Club “O” level navigation a long time ago, so I don’t need to prove myself. But I do always carry the 11×17 double-sided maps as well, and sometimes a larger Harrison map, because like others have mentioned it is nice to have a larger context, and because electronics do fail. Maps certainly make collaborative discussions easier. I have a button compass but really I never use it; the topography in the Sierra is so distinct so all I need to do is read the maps. Particularly when alone I do enjoy using GPS with several tracks loaded, because they vary and I enjoy understanding the choices others have made. The usual variance is between those who choose the straight shortest path over those who try to follow the terrain. With the former you can “cliff-out” or work harder than needed, with the latter it is sometimes more work to drop down and work around. I would encourage you to keep some intellectual distance from the tracks because they may not be optimal. Follow one of my tracks and you may be in for a world of pain if the track was recorded walking over snowpack. I think it would be a pity if you followed a track too closely as you might lose a wonderful opportunity to learn how to read the landscape.

    #3688828
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    Thanks Vance/Cameron and others for the helpful advice.

    I am creating my own tracks (based on contours/satellite maps etc) based on Skurka’s waypoints. And looking forward to see how it goes. I will carry the 11×17 as well with a compass.

    David Gardner who replied is one of the other two who is interested in doing the SHR next year. We are trying to co-ordinate as we speak.

    David is old school. I am new school. Chris – other person is middle school – a mix of both:-) I am sure we will all learn from each other. Of course the mountains will teach us more in spite of all the preparations!

     

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