Modern technology vs. traditional methods!

It's cold and dark!
You've got no phone signal!
You've got to get to safety!

You’ve probably guessed at this point I’m going to write about the on-going saga, GPS vs. map and compass?

You might even think I’m going to slate GPS?

Please don’t walk away, read on and hear me out, it might surprise you, but then again, it might not.

This is not a write-up with technical data, facts and figures, but one with simple to understand experiences and information. After all, life doesn't always conform to the facts and figures, it's far from black and white, there are so many shades of grey, so many deciding factors that mean those figures quoted can often be literally what the manufacturers say, guidelines only or "up to...."

I will say first and foremost, I am more than happy to embrace modern technology and I do embrace modern technology, but at the same time, I am holding on to traditional tried and trusted methods of navigation and certain other factors of hill walking.

I do have a GPS, in fact, I'm on my third GPS, moving with the times, as technology changes, so I update, when the time is right.

Not only do I have a GPS and a Smartphone, but I also have a mini weather station, in the form of the Kestrel 2000, which allows me to assess the current weather conditions, albeit crudely.

The Kestrel 2000; gives the temp, wind chill and wind speeds

I guess I could almost be accused of being a bit of an oldun, well, I did learn to use map and compass long before GPS swept us all off our feet.

Yes, technology has even swept me off my feet!

I do have a dedicated GPS unit, I do use computer mapping and I have played with the GPS on my mobile device, without any regret. In fact, with fascination!

Though I still prefer map and compass.

The trusty map and compass

Added to that, I like to use my own printed maps on waterproof paper, which are smaller and easier to handle, plus, the cover the area I'm interested in.

You can read about Toughprint Waterproof Paper from Memory map in a blog I wrote sometime ago, when I put the paper to the test. Yes, it did work.

Toughprint Waterproof Paper, it really does work

But I do have a full proper map covering the area I'm in plus, as a backup in my pack.

I’ve been on navigation and leader courses, though I will state here and now,
I have not attained any WGL or ML qualification.

All I am doing here is sharing some thoughts with you on how I view technology, today, and tomorrow.

So what I’m sharing with you is purely what I’ve learnt from these courses along with personal experiences.

I should also add, the experiences of other people too, that includes those with various leadership awards.

I personally would prefer to use map and compass, not just because it traditional, but it is and it doesn’t require a power source other than you, me, or the persons using it.

What I do find by using map and compass, it keeps me more in tune with my environment and by looking at the map regularly enough, I often see symbols denoting something that could be of interest. It’s like reading a guide book while walking, but better.

I’m not an advocate of guide books while walking, unless, you’ve a good quality map and compass with you. Yes a guide book is informative and the maps provided can give you an idea, but often, they’re not clear enough to really navigate your way around an area.

However, guide books are very good for giving you pre walk information and ideas and I certainly do feel that they are in their element in that respect.

Back to map and compass.

So, we’re using our map and compass, but conditions deteriorate!

It happens; I’ve been there as have many other people. Like many others, I’ve taken the time to learn how to use a map and compass in adverse conditions, so that I have a very good chance of getting back to safety.

However, if night falls, which it does and come the autumn in to winter, the sun set times start to get earlier and earlier, which means that the available usable daylight hours get shorter.

Learning to use map and compass

Conditions can and deteriorate on mountains, quickly!

But something happens, you end up navigating in poor light, visibility, fog (often called clag among those who frequent the mountains regularly) or heavy rainfall and even snow blizzards, you need some illumination.

This is where a decent head torch comes in to its own.

While night-time navigation is hard enough, navigating in fog or low cloud, and even heavy rain, is very difficult!

Fog and low cloud will often reduce the ability to hear, which may not seem much, but can be quite disorientating!

Now, here the contradictory fun starts, because at this stage, you are now reliant on a power source, just as GPS and other modern forms of technology require…

But I’ll cover briefly head torches towards the end.

Modern technology, in its many and varied forms, has moved a long way and is becoming a lot more reliable than it was say ten years ago, and it will progress a lot further in the years to come, I’m positive on that.

A standard beam for a headtorch

However, any powered device does have limitations, in that it requires a power source. Unfortunately, these power sources are not ever lasting and don’t always last as long as the quoted specifications will suggest.

Before I go any further, manufacturers often quote figures based on laboratory conditions, though they will include temperature variations. They also often state “will give up to….

These figures quoted are often based on running in the most economical setting possible and an optimum temperature and environment.

So when your device states it will operate for up to twelve hours, which is most likely the maximum endurance time at the optimum temperature.

When a device is running in a cold environment, often the power source is not as capable of delivering the required power, therefore the device will require more power to operate due to the colder environment, while the battery struggles to deliver the required power, because that too is cold!

This will result in premature battery failure!

Now we start getting to the nitty gritty, we’ve accepted that GPS is the choice of many, but then nitty gritty narrows down to a dedicated GPS or GPS as part of your mobile device?

I’ve played with both, and I’m now on my third mobile device with GPS capabilities.

My first GPS was a Garmin eTrex
no maps, just a good old basic GPS, which I still have and still works

No, I haven’t damaged or lost them, it’s just that mobile phones have developed and every couple of years its time to upgrade.

I still have my first mobile device with GPS capability, and it still functions as well as it did when I first had the mobile device, but it’s not quite as efficient as its replacement, nor is its replacement quite as efficient as my latest mobile device….

Likewise, I’m on my third dedicated GPS, for the very same reasons, technology has moved on, the new one is super-efficient compared to the very first GPS I bought….

My current GPS is the Garmin eTrex20

So I do embrace modern technology, I will not shun or ridicule it.

Modern technology does have a place in modern day walking. BUT!

Modern technology still has a long way to go before it is fully dependable.

Now, my first preference for navigating is map and compass, but my second is a dedicated GPS unit.

The reason why the dedicated GPS unit is my second, is the fact that it is designed for the outdoors, it is designed to cope with bad weather in that it is waterproof and to a large extent, shockproof!

Because it is a dedicated GPS unit, the batteries only have to undertake very few tasks at a time, to keep track of my position and let me know on the display. Because of that, the battery life will be considerably good.

But again, the quotes are “will give up to….

As a last resort and backup if all else fails, is my mobile device.

It is just as accurate in many instances as my dedicated GPS unit, but because the battery is often smaller, and the mobile device is performing more than just as a navigational device, the battery is used harder and therefore often does not last as long.

Yes, you get a nice large screen with a map on it and lots of detail (there are dedicated GPS units also with large and clear screens today), but the mobile device is still working as a phone in the background.

Mapping on a Smartphone

If you’re using social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest etc, then your mobile device is now a computer accessing the web as well as working as a GPS and phone.

Ah, you’ve got social media, then you’ll want to share photos with your friends and followers, so you take some pictures, then upload them.

Now your mobile device, which is a very clever, versatile and wonderful device, suddenly has another task, the camera!

So let’s recap, your wonderful, versatile and clever mobile device is now working as a mobile phone, GPS and navigation device, its taking photos, its giving you access to the world via internet, so you can connect with your friends and follower around the world via social media!

That poor mobile device’s battery is working extremely hard and its lifespan to deliver power before it needs recharging is being threatened!

Oh hang on, what about these updates the various social media sites and applications have, that improve the facility?

That requires more memory which in turn, uses a little more power to carry out the process of accessing and sharing that social media site to connect with you friends and followers.

One point that many people are not aware of. You're out in the wilds, you've no phone signal, or the signal is very weak, so you may feel that your phone is resting because its not got any work to do?


Your phone is searching for a decent signal to lock on to, so that it can carry out its sole purpose, to keep you connected to the mobile network so you can communicate as and when you want to, or even, folks can communicate with you, as and when they want to.

That means your phone is working, its using battery power, battery power that you may need to navigate with when things go wrong!

You WILL NOT get the same battery life from your mobile phone in remote areas that you would in an urban environment with decent mobile phone coverage.

So, what am I saying?

Does modern technology has its place in the hills?

Is it reliable?
I don’t think so quite just yet.

Will it ever become reliable?
Yes it will, but it’s still got a long way to go.

Just one more thing, most mobile devices are not waterproof, or shockproof. So when things go wrong, as the can and will do, your mobile device will almost certainly let you down.

You can get waterproof covers for virtually all mobile devices today, but you need to chose a proprietary one that is robust and waterproof, not showerproof or just water resistant.

A dedicated GPS unit is generally water and shockproof, so it will withstand inclement weather, so long as the batteries hold out.

GPS units are generally waterproof and shock resistant

Not to everyone's choice, but I like the compactness of the Garmin eTrex20
which is easy to operate even with winter gloves on.
So, my advice for now, learn how to use a map and compass, and make sure you have the appropriate maps with you. By competently using map and compass, you will monitor your route and plan ahead, so you're already less likely to be lost, than if you have to suddenly resort from using a dedicated GPS or mobile device when it fails.

Yes, take a GPS unit, but don’t rely on it totally, have the appropriate map and compass and know how to use them correctly.

Yes, take a mobile device, but don’t rely on it totally, have the appropriate map and compass and know how to use them correctly.

Mobile phones are not generally waterproof, or shock resistant!
But they do have good clear displays!
Now, head torches?

They’re ideal for map and compass reading in poor light or at night. They too require a power source, so one option is to carry spare batteries.

However, have you ever tried changing batteries in the pitch black?

It’s not easy, so perhaps a spare torch or head torch would be a wise idea!

The Alpkit Gamma, a nice budget head torch and one I use a backup

It almost seems like the fun is taken out of a relaxing walk. But no, that’s not the case. It’s all about safety and understanding the basics of the equipment you’re using.

The beam from the Alpkit Gamma,
which is a nice little head torch for map reading
and suitable for basic night time navigation
Technology has its place, it can be fun and yes, I do use modern technology, comfortably and happily.

I share photos on Twitter when I’m out walking, I share comments while out walking, but I have map and compass at all times, not just as backup, it’s my main source of navigation.

I do use a GPS unit, to download the track and view my route on the computer.

The Petzl MYO RXP, a good primary head torch

Normal beam from the Petzl MYO RXP

Main beam from the Petzl MYO RXP
Would I use the GPS unit in an emergency?

Yes. It would give me an accurate grid reference, but I wouldn’t rely on it solely, because it requires a power source, even though I do, carry spare batteries for it.

But I’ve always got my map and compass, and, I always carry a spare map and compass should anything happen to them while I’m out and about.

By using my map and compass, I'm always thinking and keeping track on where I am, plus, it enables me to see what's around the corner.

If you would like to see some of the items that I carry while out walking, have a look at my blog: “What's in my pack?”, where I list many of the items I carry and why.

I also use waterproof paper where I print my own maps, but I always keep a full map with me at all times. You can read about my experiences with waterproof paper in Toughprint Waterproof Paper from Memory map.

I am also a fan of laminated maps and discovered Tuff Maps, which are laminated OS maps with a detachable cover, making them easier to fold and use. You can read about these in Tuff Maps, laminated Ordnance Survey maps with a detached cover

Finally, happy rambling and thank you for reading,

Peak Rambler 

Twitter             @PeakRambler
YouTube         Peak Rambler on YouTube
Links to some of the items I’ve mentioned and written about here:
Toughprint Waterproof Paper from Memory map
Tuff Maps, laminated Ordnance Survey maps with a detached cover


  1. I also use an Etrex20 which I use in preference to a SatMap 10. Although the SatMap has OS 1:25K mapping installed I much prefer the Etrex, even though it only has OS 1:50K- I'm not sure if the Etrex20 can handle 1:25K. The Etrex battery life is significantly better than the SatMap, it's pretty weatherproof and is a lot more robust.

    I agree with all your comments. I love real maps, I can spend hours just studying them!

    1. Thank you John for taking the time to read and comment.

      Please feel free to share3 this with others, who may not understand some of the perils that can come with current technology.


  2. Recently I asked for comments on this very subject I've used map and compass for over 50 years and went on a refresher course ( equivalent to Silver ML ) but with no actual qualification . I like to embrace modern technology and had been interested to see others using various devices. I want to enhance the experience ...not to rely solely on GPS. Like you I adore maps and read them avidly..instead of books ! Thank you for the information PS I have a hand held wind up torch always in my pack . Must admit I time walks to return well before loss of daylight...maybe two items to ask Santa to bring this year !

    1. Lady Curt, thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

      There are GPS navigation courses available, try a search using something like GPS Navigation Courses, or perhaps put Mountain GPS Navigation Courses. I found a few just by the first search title.

      For a decent budget headtorch, Alpkit have a good range of headtorches today at very reasonable prices. They only deal mail order direct to the customer, not via Amazon or any other outlet.

      However, if you are able to spend a little more for a more powerful headtorch, then there are other brands, which you can view at many good outdoor retailers.

      ATB PR

    2. Thank you for getting back to me re. GPS systems..I think a course would be beneficial technology moves on. I apologise for the delay in replying but I've had a chest infection..probably got a chill after 4 strenuous days in the Lake District !

    3. You're very welcome, hopefully you had an enjoyable, even if stressful, four days in The Lakes, and I hope the chest infection has disappeared.

      I wish you well and hope you manage to find a suitable course.

      ATB PR

  3. A great article. One tip for using your mobile as GPS. Turn on Airplane Mode. This turns off all the items not needed and extends battery life.
    Of course this does not prevent the cold sapping the energy.

    1. Thank you Alex for taking the time to read and leave a comment.

      Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with your mention of using AIRPLANE or FLIGHT MODE to conserve battery power, something I do a lot when I'm out, especially as many places I walk in have very poor, or more often than not, no signal.