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Digital vs. Paper Maps for Hiking and Backpacking

Aaron Zagrodnick



Ten years or so ago, questions about smartphones were just beginning to come up in backpacking circles. Questions like “Do you take your phone with you on the trail?” were typically asked. Some – including myself at times, saw little reason to take the extra weight and a potential distraction into the wilderness. Others simply packed theirs along so they didn’t have to leave it in their car at the trailhead where it could be stolen. However, these days you are more likely to hear questions pertaining to the best powerbank to bring to recharge your phone due to heavy usage on the trail, rather than questions related to bringing it at all.

Digital vs. Paper Maps for Backpacking and Hiking

But with such common smartphone usage on the trail and with a phone – along with associated mapping apps always at hand – smartphones are now relied upon for navigation over a paper map for many. And it’s easy to see why – with a smartphone you can instantly locate your exact position, or perhaps even download your planned route to the phone before your trip. Then, with GPS telling you exactly where you are, you can just follow the line. Navigation is expedited or even by many definitions, eliminated. You just hike. Well, just hike…and look at a screen.

But with this technique the prowess of one’s navigational abilities lessens over time. Not only is this a safety issue if your phone breaks or you run out of charge – and hopefully you brought a paper map as a backup – but for me it also lessens the experience. No longer are we exploring and leading our own way through the woods; we are now simply following. And I’ve found myself guilty of this as well despite my reservations with technology in the backcountry (although I always take a paper map). With the phone in your pocket you head out – and eventually come to a “why not check the GPS?” point. After turning the phone back on you decide to just keep it on in airplane mode – making more frequent checks convenient and easier. Eventually, you can find yourself staring at a screen at intervals instead of reading a map and the terrain – which is not what I headed out to do. Now, and while I still pack my phone, I’ve made it a point to use the paper map instead. Just like the old days, the paper map puts a little more pressure on your shoulders. But instead of looking at my location on a screen I’m looking at the land. Better yet, I have to locate myself – which is a skill that has to be learned and continually polished. The compass is actually used. There’s something satisfying about doing it this way.

Wilderness Navigation without a Smartphone

However, the smartphone still offers many benefits. The amount of high detail USGS topos that my phone can carry for no extra bulk and weight…with maps that are more detailed than a paper overview map – make it worth the while. But I try to keep it off during the day. I’ll look at those detailed USGS topos at night in the tent, and navigate with the paper map during the day. Or, although not as romantic as a paper map, using the phone to look at maps but using a mapping app that does not automatically locate you unless you choose, like CalTopo, can be a nice secondary option. After you’ve made your navigational decisions, you can always choose to pinpoint your location just to be sure. But only after you’ve looked at the map – seeing your location first unavoidably seems to cause the problem-solving, navigational wheels in your head to come to an immediate stop.

Navigating with a paper map takes practice. But you don’t have to be an orienteering expert to be efficient at backcountry navigation. While I’m versed in such techniques as triangulation – and it’s good knowledge to have without a doubt, it’s a bit like advanced math. Day to day, it’s not something I find useful, but is still something nice to have in your bag of tricks should the need arise. The first step to navigating with a paper map is to have it at hand. A cargo pants pocket that buttons or zips and is big enough to hold the map would be my first choice. The other thing I like to have on hand is a compass. In fact, I keep this very much at hand and on my wrist in the form of an ABC watch, that you should adjust for declination before each trip. Declination is the difference in degrees (which varies by location) between true north and magnetic north. Any paper map worth the paper it was printed on will have this listed. Adjust your digital or physical compass as needed. Although I've gotten away with a small zipper-pull compass in the past, these days I back the compass on my watch up with a physical Suunto compass for when I really want to get precise with navigation.

Thoughts on Hiking and Backpacking Navigation

The best way to stay found is to never get lost in the first place. As long as you know where the trailhead you started at is, you can stay found by watching the map, watching your compass, and constantly staying attuned to your relative location. But I am not sitting down and triangulating peaks while I’m out there. Mostly, I am using terrain association and directional compass guidance. Using handrails – which could be a stream, a trail itself, or even navigation by elevation, and backstops where you navigate to near can’t miss features like rivers or trails are all techniques that I use just about constantly. Of course, you don’t have to go all in on these techniques. Off trail in a deep forest with no view where you might just be following a compass bearing can be some of the toughest navigation out there. Making decisions about your current location first based upon the map and compass and the terrain in front of you, then coming up with a way to get from point A to point B using the map – but then double checking your location via GPS can sure save a lot of time if you did make a mistake. But, with this method you’re still refining those navigational skills either way.

Wilderness Navigation

With most of us guilty of looking at screens too much already, the last thing I want to do in the wilderness is be guilty of the same thing. There’s nothing like navigating with a paper map – it’s the same journey, just more rewarding. There’s no pre-loaded GPX track to follow. A paper map never runs out of battery – making a fully charged smartphone when leaving the car more than enough for multi-night trips. You can go wherever your eyes might drift to over the folds of the map, and get there by whichever route you choose. Rather than follow a narrow corridor, the entire wilderness is now seemingly open for exploration. And with a little technology as a backup – but not the other way around – you can have the best of both worlds.


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K. Urs Grutter


Would wholeheartedly second that. 

One little thing which I'd like to point out: in a chaotic, scenic environnment like the Sierras or the Alps, an altimeter is much more important and convenient than a compass. Compasses are for the wide open or rather non-structured forests, or the sea, whereas in the mountains, you'd rather use the altimeter.

Happy trails!

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