Maps Rule GPS Sucks

Emily Woodhouse Comment and Opinion

It is not a secret that I love paper maps. One of the highlights of my time at university was owning 200 Litres of them for the Hillwalking Society. It’s also no secret that I have a distinct suspicion of GPS units.

Alex Roddie of The Great Outdoors Magazine interviewed me about my stance on the maps vs GPS debate for navigation. His final article makes an interesting and balanced read – with insight into some big brands’ plans for the future. Here are my answers:

1. How do you use map, compass, smartphone or GPS handset on the hill? Do you think each tool has its own niche?

I have never used a smart phone on the hill ever. Believe it or not, I’m in my 20s and don’t actually own one. Smart phones are not designed with use in mountain environments in mind, so I wouldn’t use one even if I had one.

I have only ever tried to use a GPS once: on the Weardale Way. We were trying to walk home and had accidentally forgotten a map sheet. Either the GPS and I had a misunderstanding, or it was completely useless for locating us. (Note: it was quite an old GPS that had to be carried for emergencies and all it seemed to do was give a lat and long…)

Otherwise, I carry a map and compass every time I go into the hills and mountains. Most importantly, I know how to use them and take them out of my bag long before I am in desperate need of them!

2. Why do you prefer using map and compass? Do you think there are clear safety reasons for choosing traditional methods today, or is it more down to personal preference?

I don’t remember learning to navigate. In that respect, I guess, I am very lucky. The original teaching of map symbols, grid references and bearings must have happened when I was very young. But I’ve got to the level I’m at today through DofE, Ten Tors, the Mountain Leader award and many days (and nights) out practising. I can honestly say that I don’t know how to use a GPS.

I could probably work it out, but I’ve never needed to. In terms of safety, I think the biggest issue is the fallacy that “because a computer said it, it must be right”. It’s hard to go wrong with a map and compass if you know how to use them. They don’t run out of battery and if they put me in the wrong place, the fault is mine entirely. If you break them, it’s pretty obvious when you have. Plus, because I’m navigating, I’m more aware of my surroundings and more questioning of where I’m going – instead of blithely following.

A GPS will perform the same way whether it’s giving you the right or wrong answer. I’ve been on enough call outs to never trust a GPS location as certain, particularly if it’s on a smart phone. These devices can guess at your location based on phone signal and won’t tell you when it’s guessing. Signals from satellites can be blocked by mountains or bounce off them, putting you in the wrong place. Some people have been absolutely certain that they are 2km away from their current location and please – never follow an iPhone compass anywhere!

3. How do you see technology evolving in future years – do you think we’ll get to the point where digital solutions are clearly better for most people most of the time, or do you think there will always be circumstances where traditional map and compass is better?

Personally, I think that’s like asking if computers will ever replace the human brain. Digital solutions are really just a tool performing algorithms. Humans have the ability to think outside this computational box and are self aware enough to realise when something might not be right. Perhaps if GPS and smartphone units gave a margin of error, then they’d be more useful to people – something like a percentage certainty. But when people can be taught to navigate to within 25m (1mm on most people’s walking maps) you wonder if time and money would be better spent learning a life-long skill than purchasing a product that will eventually go out of date.


Although I mention some Mountain Rescue work, the views are of course mine and not of any team/organisation. I am one of very few members in my team that doesn’t own some sort of GPS device.