Navigating the Wilderness: Compass versus GPS

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We’re a compass company, so obviously our allegiance is with compass and map navigation, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t see the benefit in using a GPS or an app to help you navigate the wilderness.

So what are the benefits of each tool when you’re out there exploring? Here’s a breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages you might run into when using a compass or a GPS:

No Signal, No Problem

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Compasses don’t need a signal to function. Since they operate on the earth’s magnetism, you are able to use them anywhere. Lightweight, small, and hard to break, compasses can be the perfect tool for you to pack on any outdoor excursion. But there’s certainly a learning curve.

Using a compass for navigation also requires a map. When you simply have a compass the most you can deduct is the direction of north. But with a compass and a map you can figure out where you are and where you need to be if you know how to use the two together.

First, it’s important to calibrate for magnetic declination, this is the difference between magnetic north and true north, to ensure the compass is pointing in the right direction. Second, you need to understand how to use the compass with the map to figure out the direction you need to go. These things to practice and can easily be confusing.


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Little navigation knowledge is needed in order to use the GPS on your phone or a handheld device. Many GPS devices even allow you to store maps and can usually indicate almost exactly where you are located.

These programs are easy to use however, they require signal which limits the places a GPS will work. These devices can also run out of battery, so if you’re on a long hike or get lost, you could be in trouble if you’re depending on GPS.

The Verdict

There are advantages and disadvantages to using a compass or using GPS. Bottom line: any adventurer that gets out in the backcountry should know how to use a map and compass, and pack those two items on all of their expeditions. Often, your phone of GPS can get you there and back, but in the event of an emergency, GPS might fail you.

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