Navigation: Navigation Buying Guide

by Phil Romig Jr


The holiday season is a great time to make a list of gear you want for next year’s pack trips. In the process, it’s all too easy to forget about navigation. After all, you’ve been using the same compass and maps or following the same trails for years, so why would you need anything new or different?


Not long ago, I spent a couple of days carrying gear for a photographer. We stayed in a nearby campground so that he could shoot in the early morning and late evening light. As I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night (it’s an old man thing), it started to snow. By the time I was halfway back to my tent, I realized I was lost because I no longer could see the bathroom and the snow made everything look different. Fortunately, the GPS app on my cell phone had tracked my trip to the bathroom and, with its help, I was back in a warm sleeping bag a few minutes later. I might not be here to write this article if not for the technology that made that possible.


Stories such as this remind us that rapid weather changes in the mountains can create dangerous situations. In good weather on a familiar trail, you probably don’t need a map and compass, but in bad weather and/or after dark, your situation can go downhill in a hurry. New navigational technology can help you deal with the unexpected, give you confidence, encourage you to go new places and make your pack trips more enjoyable.


If you are ready to try something new, you probably are thinking: “Don’t bore me with the details; just tell me what to buy.” Unfortunately, needs and interests are different, and no single answer works for everyone. This article will highlight the types of tools that are available today and mention some key factors to consider.


Suggestions for your letter to Santa:
General Principles
Trip plans, paper maps and mechanical compasses are essential for survival. They always should be in your pack, and they should be the best quality you can afford. They should not require batteries or have electronic components that could burn out. Trail guides, pedometers, GPS receivers, satellite communicators, smart phones and instructional programs can make trips safer and more enjoyable, but all of your electronic devices should use standard batteries (AA or AAA) that can be replaced in the field.


Paper Maps
For decades, the gold standard was U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps; however, USGS has switched to online distribution. You can download and print them on waterproof paper, or a number of web-based companies will print and mail them to you. National Geographic is attempting to fill the gap with their Trails Illustrated series; their trails are more up-to-date, but their contours have less detail. Some local companies print trail maps optimized for their region. Check with an outdoor store in your area to find out what is available.


Your primary compass should be a good quality mechanical compass with a sighting aid, baseplate and damped needle. Electronic compasses are convenient and easy to use, and they often are included in other tools such as GPS or smart phones, but they don’t work if their battery dies or a component burns out.


Trail Guides
With the increased availability of material on the web, trail guides are becoming more popular. A web search for guides in a particular area often produces half a dozen or more options. However, they often are written by individuals and there may not be much quality control. A good guide is up to date, does not rely on features that can change (e.g. “a large tree”), and includes a detailed topo map of the area around each trail.


In my testing to date, electronic pedometers are much more accurate than mechanical ones. True, they require batteries, but most have batteries that last a week or more, and you always can revert to counting paces if the battery goes dead. On a limited budget, they would be the first “new” tool I would buy. Try to get one with a replaceable battery rather than a sealed, rechargeable battery.


GPS Receivers
For about a year, I have been comparing a dedicated GPS receiver to GPS apps on smart phones, and I still will carry a dedicated GPS receiver in the backcountry. Most dedicated receivers are more rugged and reliable, work better in poor conditions and have longer battery life. You can buy one for as little as $70 if you just want to know your location. If you want it to show your position on a topographic map and satellite photo, guide you along a route, take photos, find geocaches, play games and more, the cost can go up to $600. It is worth some research to ensure that you get the receiver that best fits your needs.


Satellite Communicators
Think of a GPS receiver that can transmit a signal to a satellite to be relayed to other locations on earth. It can be used to send text messages and your location to designated recipients. Its main purpose is to request help when needed or to notify first responders (911) in an emergency. It cannot be used for navigation and is not intended for two-way conversations or chats. Its advantage is high reliability and low battery use (two or three weeks of continuous use on one set of lithium batteries).


cost about $100-$200 and require an additional $150/year service charge. I carry both a GPS receiver and a satellite communicator; if you only can afford one, the choice depends on which is most important to you: navigation or emergency response.


Smart Phones
GPS apps for smart phones currently are about as accurate as dedicated receivers. A smart phone has a shorter battery life and is less rugged. On the other hand, it has a bigger, higher-resolution screen, the apps are much cheaper than a dedicated GPS, it can be programmed to do more things, and it is easier to use and more intuitive. If you are new to GPS, I recommend that you start with a smart phone app and use it to learn how to use GPS. Then switch to a dedicated receiver when you are knowledgeable about and comfortable with using GPS technology.


Instructional Programs
Navigation tools, whether maps or GPS, are of value only if you know how to use them effectively. There are many instructional resources, from instrument manuals to books and videos to community college and online courses. Consider joining organizations such the Colorado Mountain Club, local orienteering clubs and geocaching clubs. Before you buy anything, ask yourself whether you are willing and able to invest the time to learn how to use it. If the answer is “yes,” then go for it.