We live in a society obsessed with hacks. Especially with the faster pace of life nowadays, we're always looking for ways to optimize, streamline, shortcut, and "hack" everything we do, whether it's our work habits, our health, or even our relationships. There’s a prevailing belief that there’s an inside track to everything , and that the commonly accepted way of doing a given task is hopelessly uncool, and you’re a backward rube for still sticking with it. And the outdoor community is no different. Those who are new to the woods and believe that wilderness skills can be hacked like everything else are especially susceptible to this fallacy. But some things can't be shortcut. Some things, the old-fashioned, difficult, inefficient and time-consuming way is still the way to do it. Land nav is one of those things.
Uninitiated members of the outdoor community scoff at those of us who still use antiquated maps and compasses... "GPS is so much easier. You just put in your coordinates and follow the arrow." "I just use my phone to tell me where I am. I don’t need to learn how to use a compass." “I guess a compass is useful, if you’re only planning on going north. Now, if they sold one that pointed me to the nearest craft brewery…” And so on and so on. Until their batteries die, and we get called to go haul their asses out of the woods, using map & compass to guide us.
We will be the first to say that GPS technology is all well and good. It’s super useful for day-to-day navigation on the roads, and it’s a great backup tool in the woods. In search & rescue, we’re issued top-shelf GPS units that cost almost $1,000 taxpayer dollars each. We use them primarily to run track logs so that search planners can have an accurate record of what areas we’ve covered. We use them to send and receive coordinates, check our headings, keep tabs on fellow team members, and calculate distances. We also use them as backup radios, as ours are FRS/GMRS capable. Don’t get me wrong, they’re handy. But there’s not a single member of our team, or any other SAR team, that would trust their lives to one. Because unlike the average civilian, we spend enough time in the field with these things to watch them fail. And fail they do.
That’s what this Pro Tip is about, and why it’s a little longer than most: Because it’s the top reasons GPS units fail, and why you shouldn’t ultimately trust one. So, here we go – the top 6 reasons why these electronic devices go haywire.
- Tree cover. Yes, you read that right. Heavy greenery in the summertime will severely block satellite signals. Even if there’s a small break in the canopy, it may not be enough. More than once, I’ve walked nearly a kilometer in the woods before finding enough open sky for signal.
- Terrain. High, steep hollows like we have a lot of in North Georgia are notorious for blocking satellite signal. Narrow canyons out West can and will do the same thing.
- Solar activity. If there’s a solar storm happening, you can pretty well forget about GPS. There was one time my unit showed me as 1.2 kilometers away from my actual location. It bothered me for quite some time until I looked up the solar flare history, and learned that there was a major coronal ejection that day that disrupted almost all of the satellites in this planet’s orbit.
- Weather. Extremely heavy rain or snow, especially if there’s lightning, can interfere with your signal. Enough rain over enough time can also cause even the most ruggedized units to shut down.
- Batteries. An old woodsman’s adage has always been: “Never trust your life to anything that involves batteries,” and that couldn’t be more true. Batteries die. Batteries explode, albeit rarely. Batteries won’t work in some extreme temperatures. Phone batteries also seem to die at the most inopportune times… we’ve gone out and searched for several subjects who had used their phone to navigate with, gotten lost, run the battery down, panicked, and had the phone die right as they were calling 911. Don’t be that guy.
- Software glitches. I’ve seen our top-notch GPS units glitch out for no apparent reason at all. They work fine most of the time, and are great, reliable tools to get the job done. But that’s most of the time, and “most” isn’t good enough. If the situation is serious, you don’t want your main nav tool giving you incorrect information.
And there’s still more. Again, while GPS is a useful tool in your toolbox, it shouldn’t be the only one. There is a far more reliable, tried and true method of navigation in the wilds. Enter the compass.
While it takes considerably more time to learn how to use it well, a good compass is something you can feel confident staking your life on. There are very few things that can cause a compass to mislead you – if you’re near either of the poles (which, let’s face it, probably isn’t very often for most of us), or if you’re in an area with a lot of magnetic interference (the rocks have a high iron content), that can certainly throw your needle. Also, if you’ve got something metallic close to the compass when you’re shooting a bearing, that will mess you up as well.
But beyond that, a good compass is as reliable as it gets. The earth’s magnetic field is a constant, and although the poles are currently creeping around a bit and making declination a pain, they’re not suddenly going to disappear. A compass will never lose signal, the batteries will never die, it’s not impacted by weather, terrain, or tree cover, and you never have to worry about whether or not you have the latest software update. And although a paper topographical map isn’t as convenient as pulling out your GPS, it’ll never steer you wrong.
So go ahead and carry your GPS, sure. But don’t let it be your main tool. Get you a quality compass (Suunto, Cammenga, Brunton, or Silva… I carry a Suunto MC2 Pro, and Jonathan is partial to the Cammenga), and learn how to use it. It takes practice, and it takes time. It’s inconvenient, inefficient, and highly frustrating when you’re first starting out. There are no hacks, only time in the field.
Now, if you’re looking for a quality introduction to the essentials of land nav, we highly recommend our Land Navigation Essentials course coming up on Saturday, March 30th from 9am-7pm. While this course won’t make you an overnight expert, it will set you off on the correct course to build your skill set the right way. So come, take the course, learn how to use a map & compass, and build your skill set from there. This course is coming up fast, so register now at https://www.sarcraft.com/land-navigation-essentials!
Can you think of any more reasons not to trust a GPS? Have any horror stories of these devices gone awry? Tell us in the comments!