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Compass, Maps and GPS Part 3

GPS and Phone Apps.

I should imagine there are lots of folks out there that believe a GPS is all you need to be safe navigating… My GPS is a Grass Pointing Stick, used for pointing to an exact location on a map as your finger is 300m across.

The early models gave just a grid reference for you to translate to a map. This works fine if you can plot it. Another issue with the earlier systems is that the US Government (Who developed and own the GPS Satellites) used to switch it off occasionally. This often happened when you needed it the most.

Now the satellite system is on all the time, things have developed, and accuracy has improved to half a metre or less. Accuracy is helped further by including mapping on a small screen, with your location on top. This does give an immediate visual on the location, but you do need to be able to read a map in the first place to understand it fully and know that the device isn’t guessing.

GPS are fabulous at backing up your navigational legs, confirming where you are on the map, especially if you are out on your own in poor conditions. They are also fantastic at recording your route. I used to use mine for a new Fell Run, recording the distance, ascent, average speed, and time moving… It can even tell you the maximum speed travelled, which sometimes came out at 40KMPH!! I think that was when I was leaping off boulders, certainly not running uphill…


The downside of GPS is that they need contact with several satellites to give you an accurate reading. When they don’t, they can start to guess putting you somewhere briefly that you are not. Another problem is that they can lead in a direct line to the next way point. Not a real issue on the open sea or in a desert, but this can lead to severe outcomes in a mountainous environment… Back in January 2018 there was a chap that went missing on Ben Nevis, having walked off into Gardyloo Gully. They found him 6 months later, and it is believed he was using a GPS to get him off the summit in foul conditions. The red line below indicates the poor guy’s likely line of travel.



Phone Apps.

Another useful back-up to map reading…Some of the apps are great, like the View Ranger, with OS mapping in the background. The biggest problem with using any phone App is the shortened battery life as it’s using it all up keeping tabs with you. Also, most phones are not designed to be used in poor weather, which is likely as you wouldn’t be using it, with iPhones having a particular issue with cold weather. When I am working in places like Ben Nevis, these particular phones seem to lose all battery life about half an hour from the summit and comes back to life when halfway down. There is also the problem that, if you get lost or have a general emergency, your only contact with the world is flat as a pancake…Surely the phone is better off being used for photos and ringing home to let the loved ones know you are still alive!


I think I have managed to get some good information over. This is just basic stuff, and not definitive.

The information I have given is gleaned from 15 years of teaching map and compass work, which I believe is still the most valid form of navigation around…It has worked for thousands of years, and will still be fundamental for the next few thousand years 😊…


Map and compass work alone in this environment is a great skill to have…Munro Bagging with Duncan, Kintail, April 2018


If you are unsure about your ability to navigate in the hills or mountains, then it is worth spending time going on a navigation course with an Instructor, which will breed confidence and competence.

Navigation is 50% ability and 50% confidence. Do you realise that the techniques you use away from the road is the same as what you do since you started walking to School on your own.

I have seen lots of people over the years that have come along because they got badly lost, and don’t want to do that again…

Navigation in winter is a whole different ballgame… The features are often covered up, leaving only contours to navigate by. You must be super-confident to nav on the inside of a ping pong ball!!!


Rich Pyne, Rich Mountain Experiences, Copyright 2019

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Rich Mountain Experiences

Kinlochleven Scotland

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