The Gear You Need to Navigate in the Backcountry
How to build a system of equipment that will offer direction in wild landscapes
Using just a topographic map, I can competently navigate in areas like the High Sierra and Colorado Rockies, which generally have distinct landforms and open views. Even so, for added accuracy and unusual circumstances, I also carry a few additional tools, specifically a GPS watch, a magnetic compass, and a smartphone with a GPS app. In many situations, these instruments are optional, but in less favorable landscapes and conditions, like hiking cross-country on a rolling ridgeline during a whiteout, they become mandatory.
What navigational devices are available? What are their pros and cons? And what items do you need to create a system that’s appropriate for your trip, location, and skill set?
A System of Navigational Equipment
Over the past ten to fifteen years, backpacking has become increasingly high-tech. When I walked across North America in 2004 and 2005, my most notable gadget was my ABC watch (short for altitude, barometer, and compass). Nowadays I usually have three GPS-enabled devices with me—a smartphone, a watch, and a two-way messenger—that serve the ABC functions in addition to pinpointing my location, navigating to waypoints, and tracking my route, speed, distance, altitude, and vertical change.
Today the challenge is no longer getting this data but developing the lightest, least-expensive, and most electrically efficient navigation system that still quickly delivers the necessary information.
What Information Do You Need?
What do you need your system to tell you so you can make informed navigational decisions? I think the most basic system needs to tell me the time, find and transpose bearings (especially true north), pinpoint my precise location on a map, and provide a way for me to mark my locations, jot down route notes, and draw bearings. If I’ll be in a mountainous area, it also needs to display my altitude.
Additional GPS capabilities will enhance the value and functionality of a navigation system, but I don’t think they’re as important.
Ultimately, the process for assembling a navigational system entails three steps: pick a watch, buy a magnetic compass, and decide on your preferred GPS device. Now let’s discuss the options for providing all of this functionality.
When hiking on trail, dead reckoning is the single most useful navigational technique. Knowing the time is necessary for this method, but it’s also useful for planning midday breaks and camps and for communicating those plans with a group.
For these functions, a basic $15 watch will suffice. However, you may want to spend more for a comfortable band, big numbers, a more readable display, backlighting or glow-in-the-dark hands, or a scratch-resistant face. My everyday watch, the Bertucci A-2T ($130), is ideal and doesn’t look out of place when I’m off-trail.
Time can also be pulled from other devices, which I will discuss later in this piece, including an ABC watch, a GPS watch, a handheld GPS, a satellite messenger, and, of course, a smartphone. I strongly recommend some kind of watch for quick referencing. It’s less convenient to use a device that you carry in a pocket or attach to the outside of your pack.
On any trip, including easy on-trail itineraries, I want the ability to orient my map. If this is the extent of your needs, buy an inexpensive baseplate compass like the Brunton TruArc 3 ($16, 1.1 ounces). You could also use a key-chain compass, which will be less precise, or an ABC watch or a GPS watch, which have harder-to-use digital compasses.
On trips with more extensive map and compass use—particularly those that are off-trail, in dense forests, or through indistinct topography—I carry and recommend the Suunto M-3G Global Pro Compass ($80, 1.6 ounces). It’s a pricey product, but it will last for years and has the right feature set (adjustable declination and a fast global magnetic needle) without a heavy, bulky mirror. For my guiding program, I bought a fleet of these to loan out. Read my long-term review of the M-3G for more details.
The functions of a compass can be replicated by GPS devices, specifically a smartphone with a GPS app, a handheld GPS unit, or some satellite messengers. However, they are generally inferior. While they are excellent at finding a bearing on a map—they’re faster and more accurate than using a map and compass—they are more difficult to use for everything else (like finding a bearing in the field or transposing bearings in the field to a map) while also consuming electricity.
In a mountainous environment, elevation is a very useful data point. If you know your altititude, you can rule out false summits and passes, double-check uncertain landmarks like unmarked trail junctions, contour across a slope or around the head of a valley without losing or gaining elevation, and confirm location on a map by cross-referencing your current altitude with nearby topographic features, like a creek confluence.
Altitude is less useful in flat landscapes like Nebraska or southern Utah, because it does not help tremendously in narrowing down your location. For example, if your watch reads 3,100 feet, you could be anywhere within a 1.5-square-mile area on the Brigham Tea Bench above Utah’s Escalante.
When GPS technology was less ubiquitous, backpackers tracked their elevation with an ABC watch like the Suunto Core ($145, 2.2. ounces). Nowadays there are better options. My pick is a GPS watch like Suunto’s 9 Baro (from $599). In some circumstances, I will check my elevation regularly and, therefore, like with time, prefer to have it displayed on my wrist and not on a pocket device. Other options include a smartphone with a GPS app, like GaiaGPS ($40 annually); a handheld GPS, like the Garmin eTrex 20x ($200); or a satellite messenger, like Garmin’s inReach Explorer+, ($450), which I wrote up in a long-term review.
A writing instrument will not be given the same level of attention in this post as other navigation equipment, but that’s not to understate its importance. On my guided trips, it’s a required item.
Personally, I pack two pens (one as a backup). My favorite model is a retractable ballpoint I got for free at FirstBank. I’ve also tried nonretractable/capped pens and gel ink pens but find them less satisfactory.
I make extensive notes on my printed detailed maps, usually for the purpose of including them in a future guidebook. Clients use them for drawing bearings on their maps and for tracking their progress with quick remarks like “lunch spot,” “scary ford,” and “avalanche debris.” They can quickly reference these notes to refind themselves on the map.
Even seven years ago, I was staunchly anti-GPS. But the technology has evolved, and so, too, has my thinking. GPS is now an essential part of my navigational system, and I think it should be an essential part of yours. Most critically, a GPS unit can store a library of backup maps and imagery and pinpoint my precise location on a map; although these devices have additional functionality, I consider these two to be the most crucial.
I can almost always orient myself by correctly using my map, watch, and compass. But sometimes I want extra validation, and occasionally I need to know immediately and can’t afford to fuss with old-school methods. In this sense, GPS is an ace up my sleeve.
Backpackers have four general options: a watch (as previously stated, this is my pick), a smartphone with a GPS app, a handheld unit, or a satellite messenger. Their pros, cons, and feature sets vary. A GPS watch is great for recording data (e.g., your distance, vertical change, and track), but it’s otherwise limited, with a small screen and no maps. A smartphone with a GPS app has full functionality, with an awesome screen and extensive map and imagery layers. Since you probably already carry your phone with you, this option has no additional weight penalty. Handheld units have full functionality, but the screens and buttons are inferior to smartphones. A satellite messenger will perform similarly to a handheld. The Earthmate app adds additional functionality, but it’s less robust than dedicated apps like Gaia.
A GPS watch will add a significant expense to your navigation system, so I think they’re only justifiable for endurance athletes who already own one or who would really benefit from one. In my case, I started using a GPS watch to better track my running, and realized later on that it was also a great backpacking watch.
The information displayed by a GPS watch can be viewed easily, and these devices excel at recording things, notably distance, vertical change, and your track. Battery life is excellent, and they can be recharged quickly in town or with a small battery pack.
All that said, the mapping functionality of these watches is otherwise limited—it’s GPS lite. They have small, low-resolution screens, low-quality maps (if any at all), and rudimentary buttons. These watches will display your latitude and longitude coordinates, but you basically need to play battleship with a paper map to determine where you are.
Most other Suunto models do not have adequate battery life or memory for multi-day backpacking trips, and none of the Garmin models do. The 9 Baro and Ambit3 Peak are head and shoulders better, with the latter lasting about 200 hours when set to 60-second GPS pings. At this setting, accuracy is usually acceptable, as discussed here.
Smartphone with a GPS App
A smartphone with a GPS app, like GaiaGPS, has the same recording capabilities as a watch and is better for the remaining functions, specifically pinpointing my location on a map and creating waypoints and navigating to them.
If you don’t want to buy a GPS watch, a smartphone can be your sole mapping device. If you do have a watch, the smartphone is best used as a supplement. Personally, I use the watch to record data (distance, vertical, track), but I use the smartphone for everything else.
GaiaGPS may be the most widely used app of this kind. There are others, like Avenza Maps, BackCountry Navigator Topo, CalTopo, and the hunting-specific OnX, but I’ve never felt compelled to experiment—Gaia checks my boxes for functionality and user-friendliness, and I appreciate that the founder gives my clients a free six-month subscription to teach GPS navigation on our trips. Gaia is free to download but costs $20 to $40 per year to unlock more functionality.
To maximize the battery life of a smartphone when using it as a GPS, switch it into airplane and battery-saving mode. On longer trips (five or more days) or any guided trip, I bring my Anker PowerCore II 10,000 ($36) to recharge my phone as well as my watch, satellite messenger, and now my Black Diamond Iota Headlamp ($40).
Handheld GPS Unit
If you own a smartphone, the case for a dedicated handheld unit, like the Garmin eTrex 20x, is lost on me. At best its operation is less compromised if the screen is wet.
Otherwise, a smartphone has many advantages over a conventional handheld unit. There’s no weight penalty, since I never leave my phone in my car at a trailhead; little additional expense, since I already own the phone and just need software; a bright, large, and high-resolution touchscreen; and access to topographic map and imagery layers that are far superior to the primitive proprietary layers found on handhelds.
To me, handheld units seem like technological dinosaurs. Am I missing something?
The final GPS option is a satellite messenger. Some devices, like the Garmin inReach Explorer+, have the same functionality of a handheld unit, in addition to their messaging capabilities. With less featured models, like the Garmin inReach Mini ($350), you must also use the Earthmate smartphone app.
Since many backpackers already carry an inReach and pay for a monthly or an annual subscription, using a satellite messenger does not add cost or weight, unlike a smartphone app or a handheld unit, respectively.
However, inReach devices share the same drawbacks as handheld units (small low-resolution screens, clunky buttons, and inferior proprietary maps), and the Earthmate app is not as smooth as dedicated GPS apps like Gaia.
Personally, I think inReach technology is wonderful but should be decoupled from GPS navigation. Hence, I strongly recommend the inReach Mini over the other inReach models.
This is part two of a four-part series about navigation. Part one is “A Backpacker’s Guide to Maps.” Part three is “How to Master Navigational Storytelling.” Part four is “Test Yourself: How Well Can You Navigate?”