On a cloudy evening last September in the heavily-wooded mountains of western North Carolina, Eric Conklin was lost. He had gone off-trail to relieve himself behind some trees. By the time he started heading back, it was dark. 20 minutes of guesswork and backtracking went by before he started to get worried. He knew that his location was roughly northwest of the turnoff where his car was parked. Luckily, he had looked at a map before beginning his day hike. He took his small metal compass out of his pocket, found northwest, and started walking. About an hour later, he had made it safely back.
What began as a casual Sunday hike had become a stressful trek through the woods that was neither planned nor expected. It was Eric’s foresight to bring a compass that saved his night. Without it, he said, he would still be out there, wandering around in the woods.
Basic map and compass navigation skills are uncommon in these days of Google Maps and battery-powered GPS systems. In a 2013 article for Esquire, Michael Brick wrote that representatives in Missouri, Tennessee, Minnesota and Washington state reported a significant drop in demand for paper maps and large numbers of leftover maps since 2008.
Likewise, Michael Cabanatuan of the San Francisco Gate reported that the number of paper maps handed out in AAA offices in Northern California and Nevada had steadily declined from 8.4 million in 2004 to 7.8 million in 2006. “Similarly, the number of maps mailed out to members making online requests has dropped by about 5 percent over the same period,“ he said.
As these figures show, paper maps are on the decline. They’re pushed under car seats and into glove boxes, emerging only during the occasional car cleaning. Figuring out your current location is as simple as pushing a button on your smartphone or asking Siri, “Where am I?” It’s when the smartphone battery dies, the signal drops, or Google Maps gets it wrong that you may find yourself off-track, even stranded. Having basic map and compass knowledge could help you get out of a tricky situation and back to safety.
Whether we realize it or not, we use maps all the time. “If you use your vehicle or your cellphone navigation function, you’re using a map,” said Dan Howells, REI Map and Compass Navigation Course instructor who spent 40 years working for the Bureau of Land Management, much of it field work involving a map and compass. “It’s a tool that a lot of people use that they don’t know that they’re using in today’s age with their apps and functions in the cars.” Using electronic navigation has become second nature in today’s world, and we often find ourselves blindly following the turn-by-turn directions that we read on the screen. What we fail to remember is that the device that helps us navigate where we need to go is, at its core, a simple map.
While most people get by just fine using electronic maps, these devices are not always the most accurate. Even handheld, battery-powered GPS devices, which are popular with backcountry travelers, have their issues. Jim Meacham, Senior Research Associate and Executive Director of the InfoGraphics Lab at University of Oregon, said that although a GPS is very useful in determining a precise location when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, “the one thing that GPS doesn’t do is it doesn’t give you as much of a landscape context than a map does.” Meacham said that it helps you locate yourself on a map and is best used in coordination with a map and compass, “but if you were just using the GPS and directions to get to a certain point, and you’re not paying attention or can’t read the topographic maps to understand the lay of the land, I think you’re missing a big component of reading the landscape.”
So the next time you’re in a store that sells maps and compasses, grab one of each if you don’t already own them. Even if you don’t venture out into the wilderness on a regular basis, it’s always smart to be ready for any kind of navigational emergency. “What happens when the GPS runs out of charge or loses signal?” said Howells. “It’s all well and good to say that you’ll never need that kind of help, but you never know when you’re going to need it. So it’s better, of course, to be prepared just in case.”
And the most important thing to remember if you ever do get lost? Howells says it best: “Your brain is your most useful item. Stay calm.”
Learn how to use a map & compass here.