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Why You Need A GPS AND A Compass

By Jonathan (JJ) Smith

It is a popular misconception that the handheld GPS (and other location aware devices like the iPhone) completely replace a map and compass for land navigation. In some cases, like an afternoon hike on a well-traveled hiking trail going sans map and compass is probably fine, but for serious outdoor adventures, a compass (and a map) is an essential companion to your handheld GPS. Here’s why.

Determining Directions with GPS Only Works while Moving

If you are standing on top of a mountain trying to figure out which direction you are facing, you can forget getting an accurate direction from a GPS unit. The navigation arrow will bounce all over the place.

Higher-end GPS units and newer iPhone models include built-in electronic compasses that detect the Earth’s magnetic field rather than relying on satellite communications. These will produce roughly the same 2 to 5 degrees of accuracy you get with a regular compass, and can be a good substitute, but consider some of the other reasons you will want your compass and map.

GPS Display a Limited Amount of Fine-Scale Information Unless You Zoom Out

The small screens on GPS units and phones limit the amount of fine scale data you can see at any given time. The overview you get from studying a map is more likely to stick in your mind when the going gets tough. Furthermore, plotting courses on a paper map works without satellites, and it allows you to view topography information over a broad area. No zooming required. Unfortunately, it’s hard to plot courses with a phone or GPS unit.

Analog Has Staying Power, Not Battery Power

The possibility of a handheld compass breaking or malfunctioning is smaller than with a GPS or other mobile device. Some GPS units are very rugged, but there are still more things that could go wrong (like forgetting the spare batteries). The best strategy is to refer to your map and compass frequently, checking your battery-hungry GPS as a backup and to store waypoints.

Curious to learn more about why you need both a compass and GPS? Stop by to learn all you need to know about this and all kinds of other compass topics. You’ll see compass recommendations and reviews, and resources for learning how to use a compass.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Smith, Jonathan (. "Why You Need A GPS AND A Compass." Why You Need A GPS AND A Compass. 26 Jun. 2010. 4 Sep 2014 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Smith, J (2010, June 26). Why You Need A GPS AND A Compass. Retrieved September 4, 2014, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Smith, Jonathan (. "Why You Need A GPS AND A Compass"

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