Monday, December 5, 2022

DEC Recreation Highlight: Ditch the App, Bring a Map

Winter hiking

Knowing the fundamentals of how to read a map and use a compass should be at the core of your outdoor skills. GPS tools or apps are great to have, but they aren’t a replacement for a paper map and compass and the ability to use them. Even if you have top of the line technology for wayfinding, a map and compass should still always be among the essentials in your pack.

Phone apps are great for finding inspiration on where to hike, but they shouldn’t be your only resource. Trail apps are often user-generated, meaning their information can be inaccurate and unverified. A user might accidentally omit intersections or major obstacles, miscalculate distance or elevation, or downplay the difficulty of a trail based on their own ability. This can lead to followers becoming lost or finding themselves in situations they aren’t equipped to handle – especially in the winter.

Technology can also be unreliable in the backcountry. Popular phone apps can crash, lose service, or drain your phone battery, leaving you without a way to call for help. Even the batteries on a GPS can die. Paper maps and compasses, by comparison, don’t require batteries, cell signal, or anything more than the ability to use them.

Not confident in your map reading ability? Hike with a companion who is or consider finding a local guide. To improve your own skills, look for a map and compass course near you. For more information on winter hiking safety, visit the DEC webpage.

Photo at top: DEC photo.

Related Stories


Information attributed to NYSDEC is taken from press releases and news announcements from New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation.




10 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Great advice!

    I wish kids today were more interested in Scouting and less in sports and social media. In fact, I remember learning the basics of how to read a map and use a compass in grade school! I learned and gained field experience in Boy Scouts, along with a wealth of other information that served me well the rest of my life. I guess this stuff is just not important any more. Us pampered Boomers arguably dropped the ball on instilling these skills and virtues in our kids.

  2. Todd Eastman says:

    … and stop calling for rescues if you can drag yourself out of the woods under your own steam! 😎

  3. JohnL says:

    I have done all my hiking in the Adirondacks, including my adventures in quest of becoming a 46’er, using only the ‘Guide to Adirondack Trails’ and included maps put out by the Adirondack Mountain Club. These guides are awesome and should be in everyones pack when they head into the woods. Their battery won’t run out, you won’t lose ‘signal’, and if you drop it in the water, you just shake it off and continue on. Take a phone if you like, but don’t DEPEND on it.

    • Boreas says:

      Agree. To me, a phone is just a compact camera. Anything else it can provide is not really part of woodcraft – which is more dependable.

      • Paul says:

        I don’t know. I love printed maps and I use them all the time. But a GPS has them beat when it comes to being off the trail. Sure, you can’t fully depend on them and need a map and a compass if they fail, but most of these comments here are the typical “back in my day” kind of stuff. Everything evolves over time – they will keep getting better. Just look at how far they have come in 20 years. Plus some of the things apps can do, peak finders, star charts, I think they are amazing and greatly enhance what kids can learn when they are outside. So I will differ on this back to the “good old days” stuff. Everything in moderation….

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “GPS tools or apps are great to have, but they aren’t a replacement for a paper map and compass and the ability to use them.”

    What if the power fails? Or a satellite gets zapped out? Truly I believe that they’re setting us up, knowingly or not yet knowingly, for the day they have total control! What do I mean by ‘not yet knowingly?’ That’s me giving them, or they (whomever it so be when the time arrives) the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it is all innocent, new innovations to exploit, or to capitalize on, with good intent as the aim. Let’s say it is all innocent right now, which, by way of skeptical communications from others coming within earshot, many of us seem to opt on the “things as suspicious” side of this coin! What if it is innocent though? How long can that last? Knowing human nature it’s only a matter of time when ‘abuse’ steps up to the plate, especially considering, as history continues to reveal, how ego in the wrong head seeks to monopolize. What if it is the other…the seeds of a scheme to control the masses. It’s not really far-fetched when you think about it! Especially when considering the insatiable appetite men have in them for power, which has been an item innate in the human psyche long before Donald Trump.

    I recall the days when a land line, a telephone attached vertically to a wall, or sat horizontally on a table, was the only way to communicate with the world outside of a house, a telephone in a booth was another. If there was a storm, which there often were, and the electric was cut off, even for a few days, that land line would work while the rest of the house was in the dark. Cellphones do not even come close to that advantage as everyone of us very well knows, no matter if you have a cheap $70. AT&T flip, or a $2000. ‘Smart’ phone. They’re not all that smart I’m here to say!
    They’re only as smart as the dysfunctional technology allows them to be, which isn’t always, and is often not. Their smartness is reliant only on the technology which feeds them and is never fail-safe; and if a satellite decides to go blink for however long due to common cause or sabotage by whomever…..we’re lost, we wouldn’t know what to do! This has been proven over and again.

    The only good thing which would come out of that failed technology is people would start looking up (versus down) again, especially when they’re walking, and you can bet that fatalities from car accidents would see a decrease in number; and just maybe we’d see children at bus stops socializing in huddled groups like it used to be versus the way it is now where they social distance, all of them apart from the other looking down into a device glued to their hands!

  5. Michael F. Heberger says:

    There is no printed material that conveys more information than a good map. My daughters at 5 and 10 years old, could spot everywhere we had been by canoe, on Cranberry Lake, looking at a Topo from Bear Mountain.

  6. Steve B. says:

    I love printed maps. I was examining my county bike map from the 1980’s last night. I do find it interesting though that of all the You Tube channels for 4WD Overlanding, pretty much every one of these modern day explorers are using electronic systems for navigation. Typically an iPad on the dash, powered up off the vehicle power or off a lithium cell power unit as needed. They get GPS either from the device, or tethered to a phone with GPS. They download in advance the maps onto the device, so no cell service required. The map data often has better information then any paper maps, especially as you can layer data to display, such as private lands, camping info., etc…. One app – GAIA GPS can do routing, so you can determine how far to a location, really critical info when considering fuel capacity. Obviously these users are aware of the limitations, I believe everybody carries paper versions, that they pretty much never need to look at. These limitations can develop and have the users found work-arounds that are reliable and functional, which is a scenario a lot of newbie hikers in the HPW do not do when they rely on their smartphone and Google maps while somewhere with no cell service. But the learning experience is, electronic mapping can work and sometimes is better than paper, just think about the scenarios where it won’t work and have an alternative.

  7. Charlie Stehlin says:

    JohnL says: “‘Guide to Adirondack Trails’ and included maps…These guides are awesome and should be in everyone’s pack when they head into the woods.”

    Paul says: “I love printed maps and I use them all the time. But a GPS has them beat when it comes to being off the trail.”

    > There are benefits to both no doubt but i’m old school meself, I’ll take a map any day of the week as the means to navigate me. They’re just so much more fun and the sense of adventure which comes from utilizing them cannot be beat! Maps have been around for a very long time and they have worked! We don’t need a GPS to find our way around contrary to what some will say.

    I will cite one example of the benefit of a GPS. I read a story some years back in reference to the double volume “Notes Collected in the Adirondacks” by Arpad Geyza Gerster, these notes dating back to the 1890s. I forget where I read this but I remember the story. There was camp-house, or hut, or cabin, way back in the woods somewhere in the Raquette region which Gerster had mentioned in his notes. He even gave coordinates of said camp which turned out to be precise, or damn near. Some curious folk (again, I forget where I read this and who these curious folk were) decided they wanted to go into those woods and find this old camp which was set on a pond I believe.

    They hired Ernie LaPrairie as the guide to lead them through the woods to find this camp, which was some trail-less miles in. They hired Ernie because they wanted someone who knew them woods and who could pull this off. (Truly I believe that if anybody was lost miles deep into the Adirondack woods and they had no compass, if Ernie was with them they would find their way out!) They used a GPS to guide them to where this 100-plus year-old camp was supposed to be according to the coordinates noted by Gerster. They went into the woods at 3 in the morning in pitch black with headlamps and their GPS set on those Gerster coordinates. They went in at that dreadful hour so as to allow them enough time to get back out near the end of the day while there was still daylight left (I believe.)

    They failed in their attempt to find that old camp which Gerster wrote about in his notes. So they set out again a year later and tried again, set their coordinates on their GPS, and went into them Adirondack woods at an ungodly hour. This time they found that camp where sat that house, or hut, or cabin. They missed it the year before by only feet if memory serves me correct. Surely those woods weren’t as thin as they were a hundred years earlier, and to even pull this off was just a fascinating thing to me when reading this story. Were it not for a GPS it may not have ever happened, not in one day anyway.

  8. Joe Hansen says:

    I am no spring chicken and have done bushwhacks back when maps and compass were the only assistance one had. That said I am not a curmudgeon either. Unfurl that map in a 40 mph gale during a white out to get your bearings.You will wish you had your phone and a downloaded map.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *