Navigating the hills with a Smartphone

I’VE been rather bemused by an ongoing debate that suggests it is irresponsible to use smartphones for mountain navigation purposes.  

Oops – I’ve been navigating, almost solely, by downloaded maps on my iPhone for at least three years.

Having said that I also carry the appropriate paper Ordnance Survey amp and a compass as a back-up, but I honestly can’t remember when I last used a traditional map and compass to navigate. Maybe I’ve just been lucky with the weather.

I download maps from a developer called RoadTour and they interface with the GPS facility on my iPhone (currently using an iPhone5), so I can tell, at a glance, where I am at any given time. Now obviously this requires some map-reading skills to correlate where I am on the map with where I am in real time but with 35 plus years of hill navigation experience that’s not a problem.

There’s a tremendous peace of mind when you can look at a map on a smartphone and see exactly where you are.

One of the issues with using a smartphone is battery power and you have to be very careful the battery is topped up. This isn’t ideal if you are on a multi-day backpacking trip but I’ve never had my battery die on me yet on day walks. And using a solitary paper map is not without it’s hazards either. Over the years I’ve lost several maps when the wind has clutched them out my hands and blew them away.

RoadTour splits Scotland, England and Wales into 13 different regions and the Ordnance Survey map to each region costs just over £11. You can use the maps at either 1:50,000 or 1:25,000, and they are ideal for walkers or cyclists. 

Would I consider going on the hill armed only with a Smartphone? To be perfectly honest I have done it, frequently, but having the back-up of a traditional paper map and a compass makes common sense, provided you have the skills to use them.

And even with a Smartphone, an inbuilt GPS locator and the appropriate digital map you still need skills to use them. There’s no short-cut I’m afraid, and the best, most useful way to learn, is with traditional map and compass.

10 thoughts on “Navigating the hills with a Smartphone

  1. I much prefer the maps. I found using a phone, and the small area displayed, i just did not have the same picture in my mind of the area, and thus where i was at any one time. I know you can check your GPS but who wants to have their face stuck in a phone every 10 mins. Get enough of that during the week.

  2. I guess you HAVE to have the knowledge to use a map and compass but totally agree that Smartphones or GPS map units are a great help and have some benefits of their own that maps don’t have. But I guess like everything else that is new it takes time to find its ‘appropriate’ place in our backpacks and mind set. There are time when the Satmap is all I take and other times it is the lot!

  3. A map story……..When working at STV with Tom Weir we were on a recce in Aviemore while about to shoot a feature with Syd Scroggie. We decided to take a walk to look for locations for the shoot. As were were walking further in to the countryside I asked if there were any roads or a car park nearby where the film crew could set up. Tom looked at his map and said “no”. We tramped on and eventually I heard the sound of cars. I climbed a short rise to find a car park and road. “Didn’t you see this on your map Tom?” I asked. He looked again and replied “no”
    I looked his OS map…….from 1948 and a linen one! On return to Aviemore I bought him the complete set of new OS maps for Scotland!

    • Nice story…and I guess if I, and many other folk, check our map library there will be some are in need of updates (though linen maps are even too old for me!). But your story gave me a chuckle and a reminder of TW

  4. Two weeks ago I was with a group doing a round in the Grey Corries. Conditions on the ridge were ‘white out’. It was necessary to work on a compass bearing to get to a bealach and from there take another to get to the next summit. The options were .’pacing to the bealach with someone walking ahead on the bearing – which takes a lot of time’ or walking on the bearing until the guy with the GPS said we had reached it. Then we simply took another bearing to the summit. It was far, far quicker. The bottom line is that I love maps and a compass but would never deny that technology has its place on the hill and can be the simple or right thing to use at a particular time.

    • What would you do if GPS / phone broke / froze? if you can’t use yet use a map and a compass you should not be going anywhere near where there is a chance of a white out. I’m not saying you don’t but the bumming up of GPS encourages those that don’t have the proper experience to get themselves into a perilous situation in our very deceiving hills. Murphy’s law.

      • Disagree. Nowhere does it say in my reply (or Cameron’s excellent article) that we are bumming up a GPS. Many years ago the same argument raged about mobile phones on the hill. Technology just has it’s place
        I can see that the subject is still fertile ground for debate…
        Now if we started to talk about marker posts on top of the Ben……

  5. Paul, yet again you trot out the automatic response. What would you do if your map blew away? If you dropped your compass?
    The single most important benefit a GPS/smartphone mapping system gives over a traditional method is the ability to place your actual position on the map, whether its on the unit itself or a paper map.

  6. What you (Cameron) are doing is using an electronic aid to work alongside your skills in traditional navigation. I do this too (Viewranger as it happens). But I have behind me 30 years traditional nav in all weathers and conditions across five continents. The issue I have is that the majority of people using these apps are younger and don’t have that experience. They follow the device blindly and are stuffed if it fails, even if the have a paper map and compass with them.

    It’s like someone being put in charge of navigation on a super tanker when all the electronics fail. You have to show you could still cope with a sextant and chronometer to pass the exams first.

    We don’t ask that of hill walkers (I DO NOT want people to pass exams to go on the hills) but this does mean that lots of hill goers are now navigationally illiterate. As soon as the tech fails they are in big trouble.

    The hard thing to do is to get people to “learn traditional nav just in case”. If I was them I’d probably ask the same question. What we need to do is enthuse people about the joy of paper map use and the way you have to think, which can itself add to the enjoyment of the journey.

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