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.