Most adventurers are still very confused about the use of GPS versus maps and compass or both together. In this very short article, I am going to explain, when to choose which and why. It is very easy and understandable and the decision will be yours !
A GPS is actually not a GPS. The device itself should be more likely called a personal navigation device or something else. GPS is Global Positioning System, what is basically the name of the US’s pinpointing satellites. It covers around 24of them, plus and minus 5, depending how many are in working order. There are the Russian Glonass, the European Galileo, the Japanese Landscape satellites and the WAAS (US) / EGNOS (EU) what are just aiding satellites. All of these are found in GPS devices, depending on where they are coming from. Only the Casio is capable of capturing the Japanese signals and low end devices are not able to use Glonass signals for instance. The new Garmin ForeTrex 601 is now totally equipped with the antennas/chipset for capturing signals from GPS, Glonass and Galieleo !
After this small explanation we are here to discuss, why would you go with a GPS or GPS only navigation profile ! There two answers to this. First is speed, second is emergency !
You want to hike through unknown terrain the fastest possible ? You want to break a trail record like the rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon ? You have only 5days to complete the GR 20 ? There is no time to to open a big map and self-orient with a compass ! It takes just too long !
If I had to jump into a 1 week or even 1 month adventure, in case of trip planning, I need no more than 2hours ! I plan out my route on Basecamp / Google Earth or what ever internet site I use. I send the created GPX file, on to my watch, phone and hand held device ! I double check that it is all functional and off I go ! Easy no ? 2 hours for a 1month trip. Emergency exits, possible water points, dangerous stream crossings are all marked ! Distance and elevation gain are all precisely known !
There are things to learn in advance to be able to operate a complete system like this. Also to know how to use a back up device ! Back up device ? Yes ! If you relied on 100% GPS navigation, you should have at least one, if not two back up devices ! They are light, no issues with that and most back up devices are also fully functional.
A possible combination is Garmin Fenix 5, a GPSMAP 64 and your phone.
People don’t know much about phones. It is a powerful navigation device. Even a samsung Galaxy S7/S8/S9 with it’s limited battery can hold up to 3 to 6days of navigation. There are a couple of things to do, like dimming the screen, getting into air^plane mode, lowering screen resolution and cut all back-operations, but it takes less than a minute ! I through hiked the GR20 with the Galaxy Note 2, not charging it once during the whole trip ! These samsung devices have very low emission, hold up to the weather and by adding a robust shell, they become a very tough phone. New chinese brands like Dogee / Blackview / AMG are also an option. They cost nothing, can have up to 11000mAh battery and they are very powerful and robust. CAT and Sonim phones are also great, however they cost a fortune !
You need a software, what can download maps and handle GPX files. Viewranger, openstreetmap, basecamp, openrunner, tracedetrail, iphigenie and so many others! You select the needed region, you download the map, you add your created GPX file and here you go ! Easy !
For the utra-endurance crowd a wrist worn device is the best choice. We need to keep an eye on junctions and turns to stay on track. There are tons of options out there. Suunto ambit and spartan. Garmin Fenix and Foretrex. There are possible modifications for the ultralight bike computers to be worn on the wrist.
As GPS device goes, I prefer having no base map. I need a black and white screen and the created track with my position on the screen. That is it. The only thing I have to do is follow the track and stay on it. It is not even navigation.
I like to go through on Google earth on my track before I engage, to see what sort of spots I will meet. For possible camp grounds and so. I can even check photos of people already passed there.
Also as general direction of a through hike goes, a small compass can be to your great help. You can install it on your watches strap or keep it in your pocket. This will ensure that you are really going South East or what ever your bearing is.
A handheld GPS is also a great companion. You can often install maps of a certain area and navigate without a preplanned track.
Battery life and toughness
A wrist device and your phone are mostly usb rechargeable, so if you had a 500gram powerbank, you can get out around 2 weeks of smart use. Most handheld GPS like garmin are aaa or aa battery powered so buying rechargeable or lithium ion batteries will be your best bet. The benefit is that in any country in the world you can buy these standard size batteries. For recharging however, you must have a usb port: pc, laptop battery-bank, solar panel…
As an example, the second time I went for the GR20, I used an old Garmin F3 in 10sec recording rate so the battery lasted longer. I did recharge it every night. A 2200 mah super little and light external charger was largely enough.
The thing is that now everything is rechargeable, including your headlamp , your phone, your radio. There are heat-generators installed on stoves, tough solar panels, portable hydro-electric plants, portable wind generators and much more.
Understanding possibilities and reliance
Experience, map reading knowledge, flexibility, memory, self sufficiency, control and many more personal factors needed to be in pace before you engaged in an all GPS guided adventure. Especially off trail.
While with a fast speed you are planning a route in Garmin Basecamp and google earth, there should be some memorising going in, about points of interest, terrain, difficulties, emergency exits, closest roads. Also should be checking phone coverage in the area.
Navigation exclusively with a GPS is 100% possible and I have been doing it for a long time. This doesn’t mean that if anything goes wrong, I cannot fall back on to pure knowledge and memories or to compass and map. It depends on how large the area I cover, on foot or bike, I might have some printed areas or 1 or 2 maps. I may carry a real compass paired up with a solar charged watch, having electric compass and altimeter like a Casio Protrek or a Tissot.
Each situation demands a different preparation. When hiking through known terrain but using un-charted tracks and routes, I have only 1 GPS or only phone, as anytime I can do a detour to take an already practiced route.
When crossing the totally unknown, but civilisation is not far and water is not scarce, I would go with a GPS watch and Phone and still no map. I nearly always have a compass, with me anyways.
If I did an Alaskan, Icelandic or Scandinavian traverse, the whole trip would need a lot of learning and preparation. Maps are great to study, but as long expeditions like this have to go fast, one giant map and a compass would be sufficient and I would have 3 GPS enabled device with me. Watch / Handheld / Phone. I would rely on the watch as a main GPS, but in case anything goes wrong I can come back to the other two. It is also on my wrist, maybe the phone is in my pocket in airplane mode to take photos and the handheld GPS is inside my backpack. 3 different compartments for 3 different devices.
For the sake of precision, speed and time, we can entirely put ourself into the hand of a GPS device, but we must know what to do if it breaks. They are superbly reliable and superior to MAP/Compass. It doesn’t replace them, it will never will, this is not the point of this brainstorming.
I am just trying to explain why people should use a GPS device: To plan faster, see more and enjoy hiking more. Instead of watching minutes at a time your map and calibrating azimuts and magnetic declination, you can just have a quick glance at your GPS for a fraction of a second and can keep enjoying the offerings of the nature.
Until -30°C GPS, Altimeters and Compass can be used, if kept close to the skin all the time, but we cannot check them every 3 minutes. You must use your senses and focus on your bearing and goals.
Electric devices, regardless how tough they are, after a while, can really be damaged by humidity, water, mud and salt. I sent many of them on guaranty return after not even one year of use. Skiing, sea swimming, pool swimming, vibration while cycling, rock climbing. When exposed to elements basically 24/7 for months on end, they should be really tough.
As expeditions go, I am not yet a high end traveller. My roughest and toughest outings were a couple of days in -15°C degrees, wading through hip deep snow through days on end. Doing not more than 60km in a week, while trying to advance forward 15 to 18hours a day. You can imagine the agony coming from the contrast of somebody who is doing 100mi races in 24h.
My experience is coming more likely from physical personnel challenges. I like to be moving and moving fast. I like enjoying myself and not suffering. I like to be doing long days and weeks, back to back, day after day. I am not preparing for a trek for 3months at home, go for 3 weeks of travelling and then back home doing nothing.
I run and weight lift every single day, I often go out hiking for 15 to 18hours, doing the same on the bike, I do week long fast packing adventures, I engage in scrambling and rock climbing, mountain biking, swimming, adventure racing. When you put a watch or a GPS or anything on me, basically in a month, you’ll have well over 100hours of testing.
Recently I had a rugged smartphone from Chinese company to test out. It got killed after 2 weeks, while my own Samsung S7 is holding up just fine for over 15months of abuse. I fixed it on my bike stem for navigation. Yes I am doing 7hours of bike messenger work daily. I also went to trail run with it about 15 times and did some mountain biking too. The phone did not have any physical impact, but due the 30 to 50 daily phone calls, the use of multiple GPS and power applications in the mean time, about 50hours of cycling and 20hours of running, mostly in rain and snow with tons of vibration, while being constantly exposed to cold and sunshine too, it died on me.
What I just try to say here, is that while I am not shooting at polar bears on the arctic circle, I am outdoors around 30hours a week and when I have a device to be tested, it gets really hammered ! I did not succeed to be failing any high end navigation, communication or time piece while being on an adventure ! No well chosen navigational device or phone died on me ever ! I have tested all the GPSMAP devices from the model 60 up to the 64. Etrex / ETREX Vista / EDGE 800 / EDGE 1030 / Fenix 3 / 5, Suunto AMBIT 2 /3 , Suunto Spartan Ultra, Sport, Baro, Casio MudMan, RangeMan, Citizen Promaster, Tissot T-Touch, Casio Protrek, Timex Expedition, Polar V800 / M430, ForeTrex 401 / 601. My 11 year old Sonim XP1 JCB edition tough phone is still having 8days of battery life and my ma is using it.
While I handled many devices on guarantee return, I can state that it is 99% of all time the fault of the customer ! Factory defects are existing, but rare and not effecting one or two watches but entire series ! Like exploding Galaxy Notes, pixel damaged S9s and crashing Teslas.
These outdoor devices are tested and tested and tested by professionals and updates are sent to them, so satellite connection and general software use is on the top of the line. Once they are known how to be used, they can speed up navigation, make hiking more enjoyable and can provide safety in case of certain emergency situations.
When 100km/h wind is blowing icicles into your face in a whiteout, you’ll never open up your map and try to find your way out. You look at your GPS and get the hell out of there.