What’s the best way for walkers to navigate – map and compass or GPS?

Both have their place – and each has advantages and disadvantages.

Many years ago I got my hands on an early GPS unit, before smart phones. It was a complicated device and not user-friendly. So, after a few experimental excursions it disappeared into a drawer not to see the light of day for years.

Modern units are a very different experience, and the great OS apps on smart phones, a revelation.

I invested a lot of time over the years, learning and honing my navigation skills and it would have been very easy to take a curmudgeonly, luddite view. “No substitute for a map and compass.” And, up to a point that’s right, but for sheer handiness and facility, GPS is an amazing tool.

Lets compare paper map and compass with smartphone GPS

Map and compass


  • Always works – no batteries to fail
  • Great for planning routes – see the big picture


  • Can be a pain in foul-weather and high winds
  • Walks always seem to span two or more sheets
  • Torches required in low light
  • Depends upon your skill to pinpoint exactly where you are – particularly when landmarks are obscured in mist or rain

Smartphone GPS


  • Great for pinpointing or confirming your location
  • Record your walk
  • Good in low light or even semi darkness


  • Small screen limits big picture view
  • Batteries can fail
  • Easy to lose or drop
  • In trackless moors or bogs, no substitute for compass bearings. Difficult to ‘sight’

So, what’s the conclusion?

No apologies for hedging my bets – the ideal solution is ‘both’!  Map and compass provide the groundwork, great for planning, and stick them in your rucksack and you’ll be prepared for almost any eventuality. But when you’re out walking, the sheer convenience of the phone or GPS in your pocket is hard to beat.

However, the basic skills of map-reading apply to all navigation. Make sure you can read contour lines, estimate distances, and tell the difference between a footpath and a parish boundary – on a phone or a map!