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Modern Navigation Essentials

What you need to know about charting your course with digital tools | by Steve McClure

by Steve McClure

Gone are the days when we showed up at the trailhead, map and compass in pocket, and believed we were at the cutting edge of wilderness navigation. The modern backcountry navigator now relies on five tools to travel and return home safely:








cell phone GPS


personal locator beacon (PLB)

Technology can allow more confidence and safety in our backcountry wanderings—but it is different from using analog tools. For one, digital gear requires a bit more prep work at home.

Trip Preparation

In addition to researching on, downloading beta to the WTA Trailblazer app and reading our favorite guidebooks from Mountaineers Books, we have homework. We need to download the right digital maps, critical waypoints and perhaps a few tracks to our cell phone app, make sure our cell phone is fully charged (an extra battery pack is a great idea) and, as always, have a good topographic map of the area we’re visiting.

Green Trails Map


We now have two kinds of maps: physical and digital. Physical maps still synthesize vast amounts of data about a region in a format that is convenient for planning and navigation. Physical maps need no batteries and aren’t easily broken. But physical maps printed at home are often not waterproof, and all physical maps have one overwhelming problem—they lack a “you are here” marker. Digital maps can be downloaded from the internet (often for free) to cell phone or tablet GPS apps or (for those that like a challenge) to dedicated GPS units. When a physical map is not available, a digital map can be used—carefully—as the primary map.

Photo by John Porter.jpg
Photo by John Porter.

Free online resources allow for the creation, download and printing of custom detailed topographic maps and satellite images. For the United States, maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey are still the gold standard for topography and are all freely available online. While they can be downloaded, laboriously, one by one at, it is far easier to use seamless, zoomable, customizable and shadeable versions from free online services, including, or

In addition, there is a quiet mapping revolution happening: GPS nerds are mapping the entire world on (OSM), a collaborative project inspired by Wikipedia. From the side streets of India to the back alleys of Marrakesh to trails in the Cascades, OSM often has the most up-to-date information on trails and roads worldwide. It is freely available through many map apps and services.

The advantages of digital maps, in addition to the overwhelming benefit of noting your precise location, include the ability to zoom, quickly determine the coordinates of map features and easily use a variety of map types such as USGS, U.S. Forest Service, OSM, Natural Resources Canada topographical maps and satellite imagery.

The disadvantages include small screens and the potential for fragile battery-driven electronics to leave the party in a difficult situation. The use of protective cases, chargers, additional batteries and (especially) redundant devices can help mitigate these disadvantages. Simply printing and protecting a hard copy is great insurance against electronic failure.


  • Altimeter

Hikers have long understood the importance of altimeters for navigation in the mountains. With a topographic map, simply knowing the elevation solves half the navigation puzzle. It will intersect with a second scrap of data, such as the trail traveled or an identifiable ridge or stream, making it easier for hikers to pinpoint where they are.

The analog altimeters of old, with their Swiss-jeweled movements, were price prohibitive. Today’s altimeter is a sliver of silicon, typically in a watch, but also available in a dedicated GPS device or cell phone app. Accurate altimeter watches are available for under $40, and cell phone apps are available for free.

Photo by Erik Haugen-Goodman.

  • Cell phone GPS

Equipped with a good cell phone app (we like Gaia GPS for both Android and iOS) and downloaded maps, cell phones are now the gold standard in backcountry GPS navigation, overshadowing dedicated GPS (Garmintype) devices. Cell phone towers are only needed for making calls and downloading data—but not for navigation! Far from cell towers or signals, the GPS chip at the heart of the modern cell phone continues to operate, showing hikers precisely where they are on downloaded maps. Though the ruggedness of dedicated GPS devices might be more appropriate in harsh conditions, they are expensive, with additionally pricey maps, and cumbersome to use.

But cell phones are fragile, battery-driven devices—hikers must take care to use a protective case, carry a backup power source and, ideally, have redundant devices within the party.

A variety of techniques can be used to minimize the power drain on a cell phone’s battery. First, put the cell phone into airplane mode. Then, dim the screen, shut off background apps and leave the phone off except while actively navigating.

  • Personal locator beacons (PLBs)

Historically, backcountry travelers have needed to be completely self-reliant. That ethic should dominate the thinking of those entering the wilderness. But when, despite good tools, preparation and training, life becomes threatened, most would welcome help from emergency responders.

An outgrowth of the international satellite-based search-and-rescue system for aviation and maritime uses, PLBs were introduced in 2003 for those away from normal emergency services on land. These systems determine your coordinates using GPS and transmit them through international government satellites to the appropriate emergency responders. There is no subscription fee for these units but their use is limited to emergencies.

Since 2008, there have been several commercial PLBs on the market. These devices also determine your position using GPS and then send a message out using commercial satellite networks. Some units allow for short, preset nonemergency text messages to be sent (for example, “Camping here tonight”), and some allow free-form text messages to be sent. Some units allow for two-way texting, and some, such as the DeLorme inReach Explorer, are also full GPS navigation devices. These more functional units require subscription fees for services.

PLBs have saved many lives and should be strongly considered by all backcountry travelers.

Room for All

Equipping ourselves with, and knowing how to use, these five navigational tools—a good map, altimeter, cell phone GPS app, PLB and a trusty old compass—can safely get us into, and back from, the wild backcountry places of Washington that we cherish. They help give us confidence and security to explore. And with such newfound confidence to engage in the ultimate scavenger hunt for primitive beauty and solitude, we can spread and dilute the impact of our passing. We just may find there is room for us all!  

Steve McClure is active with The Mountaineers as a member of the board, co-chair of the Intense Basic Climbing course and instructor for scrambling and navigation. Steve just finished rewriting the camping, clothing and gear sections of upcoming ninth edition of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills. This includes a facelift of the beloved Ten Essentials.

This article originally appeared in the Sep+Oct 2016 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.