Navigation is a very personal thing, each person has their own tools and methods, different approaches and ways to implement finding their way around the outdoors. There are a few things pretty much all of us can agree on: have a physical map and know how to use it, have a compass and know how to use it, don’t rely on technology too much. Beyond that is where the conversation begins: yes or no to GPS? what map scale should you be using? what kind of compass? is your smartphone a real tool? etc.
For most of my life, I have relied on a map and a compass. I have never owned a dedicated GPS device, though I have had more than a few chances to use them outdoors. I did try to use my various smartphones over the years as a navigation tool, only to be constantly disappointed – I never really managed to get them to work the way they should have. I’m a big fan of my existing system and by now I have a growing collection of Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps in the house as this is my preferred map scale.
But lately things have been changing: I have adopted four new tools to make my navigation outdoors easier, more precise and lighter. Parts of my new system are inspired by Andrew Skurka’s series on navigation and my need to use the new tools now offered in the UK. Those tools are:
- GPS enabled watch, in my case a Garmin Fenix 2
- 4G Smartphone set to operate on “Aeroplane Mode”, I use a Samsung Galaxy S4
- Viewranger app and site with specific Ordnance Survey downloaded maps
- The new OS Maps online site with home printed Ordnance Survey sections
Those 4 new tools are added to my standard compass (Silva Explorer) to allow for a complete, bespoke and light navigation system. I will be explaining each of these tools in a few posts that build on the Map Reading series and the navigation with or without a compass posts I have done.
Why change from the trusted old map and compass?
I’ll start by saying that I’m not actually moving away from a map and compass, as they remain the heart of my navigation system; I’m just moving to bespoke, self printed maps from the store bought OS Maps. I still believe that when outdoors you MUST have a map of a decent scale (less than 1:100,000) and a compass. And the skills to use them, of course.
What I am doing, which is taking my navigation further, is embracing the presence of a high end smartphone and the tools it offers along with an advanced GPS enabled watch. Despite being “tech” on the trail, they can be extremely useful to ensure accurate, fast and responsive navigation. These also will be part of my second go on the Cape Wrath Trail as I’m attempting to make it in 8 days (compared to 11 last time), so light, simple and efficient is a necessity.
A bit about each tool
GPS enabled watch
This is a very new addition for me that I purchased after finally justifying it with enough regular running. I’m using the Garmin Fenix 2 (with the HRM when I’m running) and it has been very useful. I’ve used it on a couple of trips and it has proved to be very valuable for tracking progress, keeping an eye on pace and other extra and much needed information, such as:
- Sunrise and sunset times
- Moonrise and moonset
- Marking waypoints for future analysis
- A precise and convenient compass
When I’m outdoors I always have a watch with me – it is useful for navigation, giving time references when moving fast and just to know how much more light time you have. Adding the new features like the altimeter, GPS, tracking and pre-progammed way points are just an added bonus.
The main feature I’ve been using is to track my pace, as I’m putting more and more efort into fast hiking. Keeping a consistant pace helps in training the body to move more naturally and has helped me to keep a good pace even when I’m tired or if the weather turned.
A GPS watch is also very useful for reviewing your trip later on – checking the route, your performance or just for your records. Another huge benefit is that you actually have bragging rights (if you earned them).
Smartphone on aeroplane mode
There is so much controversy about using smartphones outdoors; I was always hoping to use mine as a tool, but always failed. I won’t go into the whole conversation about cellphones outdoors but will just send you to read Chris Townsend’s excellent article about them, you can make your mind up after that.
As for the aeroplane mode, I picked this one from a fellow British long distance hiker Alex Roddie. The idea about aeroplane mode is that it disables everything with regards to the phone’s signal communication but FM waves and GPS (some phones do disable GPS too, so check first!), allowing the phone to be a dedicated GPS device with some extra features.
Another big benefit of aeroplane mode is that it really helps in conserving battery on the phone. Phones waste the most energy on sending signals and retrieving information (and playing lots of games…) and every app on your phone constantly sends and receives signals to stay up to date and accept information. By enabling aeroplane mode we are stopping all those energy-expensive apps that use all the battery, letting our phone work for much longer.
The phone itself is only half the tool as you will need a dedicated mapping app, one that can also work, operate and display while being offline (we are using aeroplane mode, after all). Each country has their own good app that offers off-line mapping on your smart phone but I’ll mention the two I have used:
- US Topo Maps – a one-off payment app that allows you to download any USA topo map in most resolutions. This is a great and comfortable app that I hope to be using more in the future when I live in the USA.
- Viewranger – Considered the best online/offline tool for electronics in the UK. The app is free and so is having an account, but you need to buy the rights for topographic maps (OS Maps). This is what I use the most today, and that leads to the next tool:
Viewranger with downloaded OS maps
Viewranger is a whole system of tools that includes a web app for plotting routes and checking trails, a community where you can share your trips, a phone app that allows using maps offline and a dedicated system to dowload OS map tiles.
I will be writing more in depth about Viewranger later on, but I’d like to explain how this system works now:
- Go to the site and and create an account
- Download the app and login to your account
- Buy maps according to your needs
- Download the maps to your phone
That is as simple as it gets.
Viewranger offers a variety of maps, but for the British outdoors enthusiast, Ordance Survey maps are the focus. You can buy them at 1:25000 or 1:50000, and you can buy whole sets, sections, specific OS map equivalents to a store bought map or create your own (my personal favourite). The idea is that you can see the map you have downloaded on your phone’s screen, and if the GPS is enabled, see your progress (and much more!) on the map.
Viewranger is a truly amazing tool that I keep on learning more and more about. They offer a very good (and very long!) manual online if you want to learn more. I’m still making my way through it trying to learn all that is possible.
Ordnance Survey Maps Online
This tool is the least known, least used and the most surprising of all my new navigation tools. OS Maps is replacing a previous service by Ordnance Survey called OS getamap. This new online platform is very much still in development and it offers some limited topographical maps with a free registration or the ability to add the OS Explorer (1:25k) and Landranger (1:50k) maps with a paid subscription.
The main feature for OS Maps at the moment (as I see it) is that it offers the ability to print sections of maps for free once you have subscribed. That means that you no longer need to buy 3 maps to cover a trail; you can print and process maps on your computer to use on the trail. I have found this tool amazingly useful and have been poring over it for all my latest and coming trips: the Pennine Way and the Cape Wrath Trail.
I’m planning to spend much more time with this tool and write more about my experience as I learn more. At the moment the tools are limited but there is also no useful help or guide to support the tool either.
How to use this navigation system
I’m not sure I can tell you how you should use it, but I can tell you how I use it:
- Before every trail I do as much research as I have the energy and patience for using OS Maps. Once I find my route, I print all the pages I need for the sections I’m planning on walking. If the trail is clear I print 1:50k maps, if it is less clear I print 1:25k.
- I download the relevant sections of OS maps from Viewranger to store on my phone.
- I upload some main way points to my watch (start/end, potential night stops) just as a reference in case I need some help.
- I make sure all the electronics are fully charged and take a spare battery.
When on the trail:
- The phone is on aeroplane mode and tracking is off in Viewranger. I make sure the app is open on the right map, usually at 1:25k.
- My printed maps are in my front pack in a ziplock.
- Compass is in my pocket ready to be used.
- Watch is on and tracking the movement.
That is it – using the tools right is mainly about using them before going outdoors. Being familiar with your upcoming trip means you need to deal less with navigation when outdoors and more with being out, looking around and absorbing it all.
By the way, do you use OS Maps regularly? The new online tool? Leave me a note if you do and how you are using it, I’m interested to know.