Map, compass...and hand grenade

For what it's worth, this is my latest contribution to ongoing the "Map & Compass vs Smartphone / GPS" debate. The highly experienced Alex Roddie (whose excellent blog I recommend) recently published a short article entitled "The Truth About Smartphone Mountain Navigation". Read it for yourself, but here's the crunch quote:

"In some circles it’s heresy to admit this, but here we go: I almost never use paper map and compass. The last time I used a paper map as my primary nav tool was 2015. Since then, paper map and compass have served as vestigial backups, carried in the event of tech failure but never used in anger.

The fact is that GPS/smartphone tech has reached the point where it can safely be your primary navigation system, if used with experience and knowledge. This is not my opinion; it’s a fact. (And you need experience and knowledge to use map and compass too.)"

I don't want to say that Alex is flat-out wrong , but there are 3 important points which I think have to be made in response. I'll be interested to see what you think - please leave me a comment.

1.) It is rarely helpful to present subjective opinion as fact. This whole issue remains a finely balanced discussion with well-evidenced pros and cons on either side. As Alex himself writes, when "opinions become galvanised into dogmatic viewpoints, we've got a problem". My view is that smartphone GPS tech is awesome, but not quite there yet. I see it all the time on the hill- stuff still goes wrong with smartphones, especially in winter conditions. To support this opinion, I'd refer you to Crispin Cooper's detailed UKC article "Smartphones & Hills - Common Issues, and How to Fix Them"

Reasonably disgusting winter conditions

2.) Smartphone screen size remains the major limiting factor. A smartphone GPS is fantastic at showing you where you are, but pinpointing current position is only one part of navigation. We all need a decent size of map to help us plan ahead, refer back, and understand the wider environment. On a day with average visibility you might look across the valley to neighbouring hills many kilometres away, and those features give useful context. A standard phone screen gives you only 3km by 5km when displaying OS 1:50,000 to scale. If you pinch in to zoom out you're going to lose all the rich detail, and if you have to swipe to move the map then you can't see the crucial angles between features. Compare this to a sheet of A4 which gives 10km by 15km, or indeed a standard 1:50,000 folded map which gives you 40km by 40km That's a really worthwhile backup to have in your bag - enough wider context to help you plan an escape route if your day really doesn't go to plan (though of course you can only see a fraction of that when it's folded in a waterproof case).

3.) Traditional map & compass navigation isn't elitist - it's just a specific skillset which takes a bit of time and effort to gain. Alex says:

"I feel that a minority of outdoor enthusiasts have put traditional navigation skills on such a pedestal that no alternative will ever be able to compete – far beyond the facts of the comparison. This will only make the barrier to entry all the higher for newcomers to hillwalking and mountaineering. Worse, the more bullish voices often have little experience of the tech they are denouncing.

If you prefer to navigate by map and compass and dislike using a smartphone in the mountains, that’s absolutely fine. But let’s not cloud mountain safety advice with outdated elitism. We should be encouraging newcomers and helping them to develop the necessary skills in a way that suits them, not smugly telling them they’re doing it wrong."

I do recognise some of the attitudes which Alex describes, but there is another side to the story. Around a quarter of the clients on my navigation courses don't own a mobile phone capable of running the most popular GPS apps. And no, there isn't an obvious correlation with age or the kind of traditional outlook Alex dislikes.

Finally, consider cost. Most of us have now come to accept as normal a monthly mobile phone bill of between £10 - £50, most commonly over a 2 year contract to spread the high cost of the handset. My recommended map, compass and mapcase setup (see my previous post here) will cost you under £40, and last for years if not decades. I accept that this isn't a totally straight comparison as your phone obviously does a lot more than just the GPS, but you get my point. If we start pushing smartphones as the primary tool, that will exclude a whole bunch of potential newcomers as well.

So there we have it - no resolution, few facts, just another opinion. My message is this - your smartphone and your traditional nav tools belong firmly alongside each other. Which one is primary? Neither - it's your hard-won mountain judgement and common sense which belong on top.