Bushwalking Navigation | GPS vs Paper Map vs iPhone

Which is better for navigation, your GPS or a paper map? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Do you need to carry both? Are there any alternatives to a dedicated GPS and map?

In bushwalking circles there are always vigorous debates about which is best, a dedicated GPS or a topo map?  This is sometimes generational with older members preferring the map, with which they are familiar, and younger bushwalkers preferring the GPS. To some degree the dictum “each to their own” applies in bushwalking as a walker who doesn’t understand how their GPS works is a danger to themselves and others in their group and would be much safer navigating with a map .

Of course the argument is not that simple, as many modern GPSs now contains maps which can be viewed and overlain with waypoints and your current position. You can now take your digital maps with you when you walk. Fortunately the opposing viewpoints are not exclusive as it is possible and in my view essential to take both, especially when bushwalking in difficult terrain.

I love to walk “thumbing ” my laminated map which allows me to get the “big picture” around me, orientate myself using distant features and anticipate what’s around the next corner. I do however use my GPS to check my location at each stop or at critical “decision points” such as creek junctions, waterholes or ridge descents.

Paper maps have some disadvantages:

  • they get damaged easily, especially at the folds, and require laminating
  • they are cumbersome in a strong wind if you have to open them
  • multiple maps are often needed and changing from one to another in your map case is often difficult
  • they require special storage facilities at home
  • the printing is often too small to see without  reading glasses.

HINT: try laminating your maps in A4 sections, with maps both front and back, which will fit individually into your map case.

Paper maps do however still have many advantages:

  • they allow you to orientate yourself using distant features
  • they can’t go flat as they don’t rely upon batteries
  • they may be more waterproof than your GPS, especially if you are using a “smartphone”
  • they are cheaper in the short term 
  • they work even under a dense forest canopy trees or in narrow gorges.

A GPS has several advantages over paper maps:

  • it can compactly store large amounts of data, plotted on a large desktop computer screen, and then uploaded via a cable, infrared, bluetooth or wireless.
  • if the GPS has a large colour screen and sufficient memory then you can store a large number of maps, which can be scrolled and zoomed. You need never go off the map as they will be seamlessly “stitched together”.
  • it allows you to determine your location quickly with high accuracy and reliability, subject to several limitations: not under a dense forest canopy trees or in narrow gorges.
  • if you have a large touch screen (eg iPhone) then you will be able to effortlessly scroll and zoom, so that your reading glasses are never needed.

Of course there are many features they share, such as the ability to determine location. Experienced map users will be able to lay a compass on their map and do a resection using prominent features to find their current location. Even better they will have “thumbed” the marked route on their map from the beginning and never become lost!

Alternatives to a dedicated GPS

There are alternatives to a dedicated GPS such as a  smartphone, many of which have large colour touch screens and excellent built-in GPS’s. The iPhone is a good example of such a phone, and as most bushwalkers should be carrying a mobile phone with them anyway, this can serve as a good back up for those who prefer to use maps but don’t want the expense of purchasing a dedicated GPS. There are several excellent mapping apps (applications) which are very easy to use on the iPhone and while they don’t match a dedicated GPS for versatility, they only cost a few dollars.

The iPhone does however have two major limitations: battery life and lack of waterprooofness, but both of these can be overcome with solar panels and waterproof covers.

Read more about the uses of the iPhone for bushwalkers

Related Posts

Can my GPS replace My Map?
Why am I Lost When I Have a GPS?
How to Keep your iPhone Charged in the Outdoors 
Bushwalking Navigation

  Creative Commons License This article by Bush Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


2 thoughts on “Bushwalking Navigation | GPS vs Paper Map vs iPhone”

  1. I agree with \”each to their own\”, but think that if you are in a place where some kind of navigation is necessary (i.e. getting lost would become dangerous), a paper map MUST be carried. In addition to that you should probably also have a GPS and physical compass. [This should also apply to vehicle trips in such areas.]Even if a map is damaged, torn and wet, it's probably still functional (assuming it is a real map not printed on cheap paper), whereas if your GPS batteries go flat or the screen breaks, you are in trouble if that's all you have. Some people still own and carry GPSes without maps loaded, making them much less versatile on their own. I've never bothered with map cases — $10 for a new one every 5 years is fine to my mind.Of course one needs to know how to use a paper map, but in an emergency situation that's not so critical as long as you actually have the map.


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