I've been looking into learning how to mountaineer and noticed that the local mountaineering society still requires a training in navigation as part of the prerequisites for most of their basic courses. As part of this training, people are supposed to learn how to use paper maps and a compass, only then moving on to using various electronic apps.

But as of 2019, what's the point of ever touching a paper map and a compass? Aren't there now amazingly reliable devices that have capabilities far exceeding anything you can do with a paper map? Given the low price and weight of electronics, you could even bring multiple backup devices on the hike if required. Are there some considerations that I'm not taking into account?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 20:42
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    what are those "capabilities far exceeding anything you can do with a paper map"?
    – njzk2
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 21:35

22 Answers 22


The Map is not the Terrain

Doubtless you've heard this aphorism, and perhaps it seems out of place for your question but I think it's actually the key point. The aim of the navigation course is to teach you to understand the terrain you are going to be walking over and begin to predict how you will experience the terrain based on the map you are viewing. Paper maps are unambiguously better for this, because you are asked to do more to understand them and place yourself.

One of the most basic skills needed to use a paper map is to be able to locate yourself on it. In order to do this you must translate what is on the map into what you are seeing and vice versa, which forces you to be to able to transition between map and terrain. A GPS on the other hand skips this step by doing it for you, and in doing so robs this simple step of all teaching and learning value.

I also agree with the other answers regarding the benefits of paper and compass over electronics but I think in terms of the teaching context that your question is directed at these answers are missing a key point.


The reason is that it is irrelevant if the map is on an electronic device or on paper - if you misinterpret the information, it won't help you in any way, you will only be lost/stuck more accurately. Similarly, in engineering you first learn technical drawing, even though everything on the job will be with 3D CAD - understanding the content is the goal, not the method to draw/display it. The apps I've seen so far had mostly the same or less information than the paper maps, so there was no advantage to use electronics besides having that dot with your position.

Also, in practice you will come into contact with paper maps anyway. Trail huts often have paper maps with markings - anything from water sources to blocked/alternate routes, daytrips or even active fires in that area. (Re-)Planning multi-day trips as a group is also massively easier with a big map than with a small screen.

And last but not least - the point is to create a baseline of preparedness. You will probably bring enough devices/powerbanks for an intended long trip, but if a short one goes unexpectedly wrong, chances are you didn't bring powerbanks and backup devices.

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    Agreed. Some trail or climbing maps are also only available on paper (or as a PDF).
    – Michael
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 10:28
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    Also no matter how reliable a device is, a paper map will never run out of battery... Even if I were hiking with a GPS device, I would always take a paper map as a backup. Preparing for the worst case scenarios is how you survive them.
    – Kialandei
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:20
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    Planning is easier with a paper map, even as an individual. No portable screen is large enough to be of any use for planning.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 13:36
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    @gerrit I would disagree that planning is easier on paper, provided you do your planning at home on a dual-screen PC. But yeah, planning in the field requires a paper map.
    – Gabriel
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 14:35
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica If all you are ever going to do is a hour's hike along a trail, then by all means, rely on digital only. After all, if it breaks, you're on a trail and can follow the trail to the end, or the beginning. If, however, you decide to go into less populous area of Montana or even areas in Washington and Oregon, having a real compass and paper map, and the knowledge of how to use them, can mean the difference between me hearing a news clip of a lost hiker and never hearing about you, because you walked out on your own.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 14:51

Maps and compasses are independent of any power source, so it is usually recommended to take them with you. GPS devices can fail, also because the GPS signal can be switched off or blocked. Alternatives like Galileo work similar to GPS and could face similar issues. So backup devices will not help much. And in an emergency situation, this could end your life. I am not talking against GPS devices in general: For safety, I would say it makes sense to have two totally independent ways of navigation. So carry both: Map/compass and GPS.

Apart from that, navigating by map and compass can be fun because it is a little more challenging than to follow an arrow on the GPS device. Being able to find the way is part of the experience. And going outdoors often is connected to reducing what you use.

Depending in the GPS device, maps/compasses are also more light-weight, especially if you have to carry one or more power banks on prolonged trips to keep your GPS working.

And maps are big, bigger than the screen of any mobile GPS device. You get a better impression of your surroundings at a glance. Often enough, you will spot interesting things this way you might have missed on your rather small GPS screen.

But if you are happy with what modern devices can do (as described in your comment) you can have it your way. And if that is without map and compass - you can decide for yourself. I am quite sure that you are far from being the only person thinking like that.

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    @JonathanReez if you've got such a modern, expensive, device that's good. But to carry a backup like that would be expensive. Modern devices also tend to be rechargeable, with battery life affected by cold conditions, and a battery pack is bulky (but useful for other devices in some cases)
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 8:36
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    ... satellite navigation is also prone to glitches in some places, like at the base of cliffs, or even in heavy tree cover if it's wet.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 9:19
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica It's not just being switched off; there's many ways in which a navigation system can be blocked, and many of those affect all systems essentially equally. This used to be more common in the past, but GPS and co. still aren't perfectly reliable. And none of it helps you if your phone runs out of battery or gets drenched in water, or just starts doing silly things as smartphones are wont to do. Paper maps make for pretty good backups - they take very little space and weight, and are usually very easy to use. Some people like to be prepared.
    – Luaan
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 11:01
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica The chance of fault is low. It's just that if you're doing any serious mountaineering, what you're doing is dangerous. You want to have multiple alternate backups. Having the same device twice is less reliable than having two devices that work and fail under different conditions. You should adapt the equipment to what you're doing - in a highly populated area with pleasant weather you can afford fewer precautions than in remote locations with more extreme weather. Where I'm from, map reading was still a routine skill recently, so paper maps were easy to use alts.
    – Luaan
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:07
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica All three would typically be affected by the same jamming or interference source, so... not really. Do not underestimate the danger of modern-day reliance on PTN technology. Learn basic skills before you play with your fancy gadgets. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:37

A massive advantage of paper maps over electronic is the combination of area and resolution. You can take a bearing to a mast on top of a hill several km away, when zooming out that far on a GPS screen wouldn't even show the hill. If plans change and you have to reroute, rather than following a pre-planned route on a screen, this is really useful, even more so if navigating open country rather than following established paths. In hilly country the ability to tell at a glance whether a potential route involves significant climbing is very useful, otherwise you'd have to put a route then go into another screen to see the elevation (typically).

You should always be prepared to modify the route in case things go wrong. When rerouting in a group, planning a hike the night before, or even just discussing the view, a paper map is easier to gather round than a small screen; the zooming in-and-out needed to check the route ahead on a handheld device is even worse if someone else is doing it.

The map and compass also have infinite battery life, and don't break easily if dropped or soaked. So if you're stuck out overnight in horrible conditions, one thing you don't have to worry about is navigating in the morning; you can also split a big group if you've got multiple means of navigation.

Those are sufficient reasons to carry a map and compass, and to know how to use them. But an important further reason is that the wide area detailed coverage encourages awareness of the conditions - you can often get a good idea of what weather to expect from which upwind hills are hidden in cloud if you know their heights, and if exploring you can think "that valley looks nice, does it go the right way,... no but we can turn off here..., oh but there's a cliff" without endless scrolling and zooming, in fact at a glance if practiced.

Of course they have their own failure modes - maps can blow away, compasses can be lost, and if you're confused by anything from fog to hypothermia to putting your compass on something magnetic user error can be significant. I'm not denying GPS is useful. But while I plan GPS routes in advance, I've also just obtained the maps for my next walking and cycling trip.

From a training point of view, learning to read a map helps you learn to read terrain, and that's a useful skill whenever you're planning a route.

An example: I'm hoping to do some hiking as part of a bike tour. A selection of routes will be stored on both my phone (which is my bike computer) and my backup phone. If the weather is good enough for mountains, I'll buy the appropriate paper map when I get there. I'll already have a decent compass (needed to find the descent path if the weather closes in) and possibly a mini one as well. If I'm just doing valley walks where I know that heading east takes me to an appropriate road, I probably won't buy the map. (Later) In the end the weather was great but I forced myself to have a rest day and do a valley walk/swim, for which I barely needed the map on my phone. I could see the mountain path from my campsite and people were coming down hours after dark unnecessarily, using the light from their phones to see the path. Using a phone as (one of) your torch(es) is another large drain on the battery that could cause your mapping to fail - obviously they made multiple errors of preparation, but it could be sensible to consider that you'll be back before dark, so you'll only take a small headtorch, with the phone torch as backup

  • The best failure mode for a compass is holding it too close to some device or object that causes it to point the wrong way
    – Separatrix
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 8:48
  • @Separatrix true, and that's why I don't have one on my (steel) bike. I got caught out by magnetic rocks in summer, with my phone compass and map, but not in any way that mattered or I'd have been more careful to check
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 9:14
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    In open, hilly country with a good view, in practice, you rarely if ever actually need a compass. You need a compass in a flat foggy area, but even there locating a stream renders a compass unnecessary. I never go out without a paper map (unless I know the area very well), but I've also never used the compass I carry for emergencies.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 13:41
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    @gerrit: Similar for me, but I've used my compass a) in dense bushland where you could hardly see 10 m and b) in hill country (carst) with dolines/sinkholes on the way back/down from the mountain/hill: the hillside was "overlaid" with rather circular sinkholes (don't underestimate how much a valley opening in a known direction helps navigation. Even if you cannot see far, you can know whether you have to follow up/down along or sideways), and many of them. Hill top in clouds, very diffuse light overall. Sinkholes have distinct micro-climate, so vegetation rules don't work well, neither. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:26
  • @cbeleitessupportsMonica You're right. I happen to not have hiked much in such terrain, or only on well-defined trails.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:35

I'll answer both as a geomatician who makes maps (both paper and digital) and deals with GIS data for a living. I'm also a mountaineer, trail runner, backcountry skier, and outdoorsman with extensive experience both of GNSS receivers and paper maps.

Reading skills

First off, reading maps is a skill that needs to be practiced and as for many other fields, like architecture and graphic design (both fields in which I studied in school), the basics are still learned manually, sketching on paper to remove the clutter of learning a UI at the same time as you learn theory.

It is difficult to read properly if you don't have a decent overview. Try reading the fine print on a contract, well if you want to read a large area on a digital handheld mapping device, you'll have a similar experience and I wouldn't trust the results unless you spent enough time to zoom in and out a few times. It's actually way faster with a paper map.

The data (quality over quantity)

As far as geomatics go, you quickly learn that you are limited to the quality of your data. Many digital products are not very good in that department, with several extremely dangerous situations that lead to deaths. The most recent being a Montreal man who died when his car GPS led him on a private unmaintained road instead of the main road. Don't assume it was entirely his fault. If the attributes in the data don't differentiate between road classes or incorporate recent changes to the physical reality, the fault is entirely on the data provider.

He got stuck on a broken bridge, walked 20km and died of exposure. People rely blindly on services like Google Maps, that have a massive database, but the scope of their data prevents them from addressing the details that can mean life or death. That's why a paper map crafted individually will always beat a global coverage digital product. The designer will know much more about the content of the map whereas if you ask Google to correct the data, as in the George He story, they simply don't even respond.

The scary thing is that a professional trucker ended up in the same situation only a week after George He, on the same road, but he was saved only because his employer was tracking his schedule.

Situational awareness

Another aspect that is often overlooked is that if you rely on an electronic device with GNSS positioning, you never really need to look up from the screen to know where you are. This leads to the dangerous idea that you can move inland without even looking at the terrain. One of the best ways not to get lost is to always take a look at the scenery behind you when on your ingress. Having snapshots of the scenery in your mind for your way back will help tremendously if you lose both your GNSS receiver and your map and compass.

This reflex is much more natural if you are forced to look around in the process of reading your map and placing yourself on it.

Situational awareness is probably the most important point I'm making here.

Discounting this only shows your ill-preparation for the backcountry and lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, without a good mountaineering course, this knowledge has to be learned the hard way, which is through your mistakes.

Some mistakes can be fatal and if the overwhelming majority of outdoors professionals tell you that you need to know how to read a map, there's a good reason for it.

When a GNSS receiver is logical

I do a lot of bushwhacking in dense boreal forest. Then, using map and compass is not very efficient. GNSS is the best way to reach specific spots. A good technique is to get a bearing with the device, set it on the compass, then plow through the forest, adjusting from time to time. Maps are not very useful when you don't have landmarks to identify and this is one of the only times where they fail compared to a GNSS receiver.


For the sake of completeness, I'll add other details that have already been mentioned in other answers:

  • Screen devices are too small to see the big picture.
  • Devices do break. You need a backup and you need to know how to use it. Then, why bring the device in the first place?
  • Energy is not unlimited because it weighs a lot. Instead of wasting that weight on batteries, you can bring other comfort items (nothing like a gin flask) if you don't rely on electronics.
  • Your paragraph about the paper map does, of course, suppose, that it is a quality paper map. With a bad paper map one can still get stuck where one should not be. With both paper maps and GNSS navigation, both by car and on foot, I've reached planned junctions and decided to change my plans based on the situation on the ground.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 16:01
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    While the Montreal man's story is very sad, these things happened a lot more often 20 years ago when people didn't have smartphones as getting lost was a lot easier. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 19:02
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    @GabrielC. And glaciers! The best scale (paper) maps of central Iceland are American military maps from the 1970s-1980s. But the glaciers shrunk considerably and in the kms nearest to Hofsjökull, there were streams, swamps, lakes, ridges, all essentially unmapped as the may had it as ice, which was no longer there. This autumn I hiked in the sub-Polar Ural on Soviet military maps which also mapped glaciers that no longer exist.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 20:20
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    @GabrielC., it's not hard numbers, but my impression from browsing the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit mission logs (they've got a near-complete set of logs dating back to 1976) is that people are getting lost at about the same rate they were 40 years ago. What's changed is that now the calls mostly come in from the subject around sunset, rather than from someone who realizes the subject is missing some time later.
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 22:17
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica "getting lost was a lot easier" I don't agree. 20 years ago, people used their street-smarts and general intuition to stay on the beaten path, and would not deviate lightly. Today, they go down a suicide road because their nav tells them to, and they trust the nav more than their own intuition. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 8:19

The default expedition map in the UK is Ordnance Survey. The apparent most popular GPS map app for walking in the mountains is the Ordnance Survey app*. That's all very well and plausible, but the app really just presents you with the OS map and a dot. You still have to learn to read the map.

If you don't learn the basics of map reading then what you're presented with is a complicated set of weird dots and lines with a dot in the middle that shows where you are. Once you can read the map that's all you need.

So while in the field you might never touch a paper map or a magnetic compass, as a training aid it's invaluable to help you understand what the app is telling you.

Paper maps are also better for route planning (if you're not just following a major trail) due to the larger overview without losing resolution to a small screen.

*Source: me asking people what apps they're using while walking in the mountains.

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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica, yes, but remember the more complex the app the more power it uses so the more power you have to carry. You're looking at packing considerably more weight than a map and compass.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:10
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    @gerrit 3D as in a 3D rendering (viewable from various angles), not as in 3D goggles Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 14:54
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    @gerrit Try going to Google Maps, and push the 3D button. It's not super useful, but it does exist. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 14:57
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    @gerrit Well yes, the screen is still 2D. But it's simulating a 3D view. I believe that's what OP is talking about. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:05
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    Now of course the only real 3D maps are raised-relief maps, which can be very beautiful, totally impossible on a smartphone, and terribly impractical in the field :)
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:07

The most important reasons have already been given in other highly upvoted answers. Planning, coverage, resolution, etc. I want to address the cost aspect.

Given the low price and weight of electronics

The Garmin GPSmap costs €400. There are cheaper models, such as the eTrex which starts at €200. The Garmin Swiss topo maps cost €359. US Garmin 24k topo maps around €120 per region. Great Britain is €450. I don't consider that cheap. Sure, you'll pay more if you buy the entire territory covered on paper, but you don't need the entire territory. You could get Openstreetmap for free, but it's not a replacement for a topographic map, nor is Opentopomap. Not only is it incomplete, but you also never know who added a trail or through what terrain it is going (I've seen trails crossing glaciers or going up 4000+ metre mountains in Switzerand). It's useful as a complementary to a topo map (in particular in areas where topographic maps are poor or old) but does not replace it. And forget about Google Maps, this is even less suitable than Openstreetmap/Opentopomap for hiking.

Some people use smartphones with apps, but smartphones are not designed for outdoor use. They will aggressively try to minimise battery life at expense of all else (so no track to backtrack where you've come from if you're lost), they have limited shock-proofness and water-proofness, they almost universally use touchscreens that are hard to operate when there is weather, their screens are hard to read in bright sunshine (unless made very bright, eating into battery life), their batteries are usually not replaceable, and worst of all, their batteries run out within days if heavily used, so they are really only an option for day hikes on well established trails where you might as well just follow trails, hiking signs, and crowds. I never use a smartphone for anything important when in the wilderness, I need stuff I can trust.

And although paper maps get out of date, at least you can be sure a 20 year old paper map can still be used, and for most of the world this is entirely fine (and in most of the world, it is questionable whether newer digital information is even available; Openstreetmap is very incomplete). Your digital map bought 10 years ago might not even work on todays devices.

  • 400 euros doesn't sound a lot to me for something that could save your life. It probably won't be too expensive for a group of mountaineers to each have a Garmin plus a waterproof smartphone. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 18:41
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    We were comparing electronic with paper maps. To save your life a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) would be a much better idea, and on longer backcountry trips I always carry either a PLB or a satellite phone.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 20:29
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica - You are not really talking about 400 for something that could save your life, not when you don't even look at the costs of the alternative - paper maps and learning how to use them. Then it is more like 400 you spend for the luxury of not-learning, and not-learning so often becomes a very expensive luxury. Certainly GPS's are useful, and I don't discount the good they can do. If someone can afford a GPS, or a backup device, so much the better (and safer, as all backups are), but they are not and should not be the end of one's ability to navigate, or hike
    – Megha
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 1:19
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica Also, I'm not arguing against bringing a GPS receiver as a backup; it can be a life-saver when lost, and there are other advantages. I'm arguing against bringing exclusively a GPS receiver and no paper map.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 8:42

There have already been quite some answers but I have the feeling that these answers are a bit one-sided towards paper maps and definitely do not reflect the reality outdoors.

First, navigation on paper gives you the basic skills. Basic skills start with reading land formation from contour lines, taking a bearing with a compass and using cross bearings to determine your own position. Summarized, this is more of a theoretical aspect.

Second, paper is independent of any technology. As long as you can see something, a paper map can be useful, it will never run out of battery. It will not have a screen freezing in -20 °C or short-cicuit because your device was not as water-restistant as advertised. You won't have the problem that your device needs internet connection to function properly. A good hiking map is also not printed on paper but on some kind of plastic to avoid issues with wetness.

Third, maps are often easy to get locally. In touristic areas you should not have any issues to find a shop that has a high-quality hiking map. For smartphone apps this can be a bit more tricky.

The issue of GPS reliability has already been raised. However, in my experience you almost always get a GPS signal that is sufficiently good to localize yourself on the map within 20m. Moreover, as said in the comment to another answer, smartphones do not only support GPS but also other systems, creating a redundancy that is definitely good enough. When talking about reliability of the GPS we should also not forget that navigation without electronic devices is prone to fail in bad visibility. It is impossible to take cross bearing if you do not see any landmarks. Even if you happen to be at a known position, it is extremely difficult to follow a compass bearing if the terrain is not suited for it. If you have ever tried to nagivate through a crevasse zone in a snow storm, you will know what I mean. Relying on paper "because it can never fail" will put you in a dangerous position.

Another issue with paper maps is actuality. Check you map for its actuality and you may well find out that it is based on 10 year old data. Upgrades to a paper map require you to buy a completely new map. As each map may only cover a small area you end up spending a lot of money for updates. In contrast, a subscription for mapping may be quite cheap (for example, I frequently use the white risk app that contains the official swiss maps for 29 CHF per year, including offline maps).

For the often mentioned planning aspect...This should happen before the tour not during it. There are good maps available for use on a computer that allow planning on a big screen with various useful overlays such as ski routes, steepness, hiking trails, wildlife protection areas, etc (e.g. swiss topo)

All in all, I personally do not use paper maps at all. I try to make sure I have a basic sense of orientation before starting a tour. My girlfriend is still a bit old-fashioned and carries around a paper map, therefore we complement each other quite well ;)

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    +1 For Actuality. Many digital maps do not provide this info (the Swiss and Austrian official maps are great about this, Google not so much). The understanding that your map may be out of date - and the skill of instinctively relating features on the map to features around you - is crucial. A good way of learning this is comparing two editions of the same paper map, and comparing a paper map with your surroundings. That skill is harder to develop with a digital map (insufficient constants between screens, OSes, zoom and rotation settings), but digital can aid a greater degree of mastery.
    – MvZ
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:52
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    +1 for the risks of both methods, but I disagree with your comment on planning. Besides the myriad possible causes for being slower/faster than anticipated, planning on a big screen with all the bells and whistles doesn't help when a part of your intended trail is on fire when you get there. Even if everything goes according to plan, exchanging trail information with other hikers is common, and easier to do with maps.
    – Dynat
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 13:07
  • Paper maps and weather — that's what map cases are for. And in most of the world, no topographic maps are regularly updated, so digital or paper makes no difference. Switzerland is one of the few countries where it is.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 13:44
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    @Dynat This might be due to the type of activity. Here in the alps, the norm is to do like extended daytours from hut to hut so there is not so much to replan during the trip. And sufficiet reserve time to reach your destination is a must for serious planning
    – Manziel
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 14:27
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    Re actuality: in Germany, I often prefer to use paper maps from the 80s rather than current ones as the old ones (at least the few that I compared) often include a lot more topographic detail (my guess is that the digital models are not yet as detailed as the old maps were wrt. things like ditches, small local quarries etc.). The fact that towns have grown meanwhile or new roads/highways have appeared is more easy for me to correct - though finding one's blocked by a new highway is not nice(TM). Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 14:57

Aren't there now amazingly reliable devices that have capabilities far exceeding anything you can do with a paper map?

Nope. Amazing, yes. Reliable - well, that depends on batteries and impact protection. And when you mention the "low weight" of electronics, try comparing that to the weight of a paper map.

As for capabilities, I would challenge anyone to show me a portable electronic device with a 30" screen. Even the best desktop PC monitor is worse than a paper map for route planning.


Jonathan. I think the other answers miss the fundamental point. The GPS course just tells about GPS devices and how to use them, plus an hour outdoors. It doesn't go in depth on what all those icons mean.

What are all those squiggly lines? I suppose they could tell you in the GPS course by making it longer, or you could take the prerequisite course, just above, called, "Introduction to Map and Compass," the description of which says, "reading of topographic maps," which already tells you what those squiggly lines are and how to read them.

How about the other course, further above? Basic (Wilderness) Navigation? Well, looking at the picture of the GPS for the GPS course, I notice some terrain features. How do you interpret that? In the Basic Wilderness Navigation description, it says, "learn to relate features on a topographic map to your surroundings." Hey, that sounds like just the thing!

Sure, they could make the GPS class really long to include those topics. The drawback is that they would then have to cover those topics in multiple classes, GPS and physical map, which requires extra work maintaining a larger corpus of class materials. In fact, they'd then have to have two GPS classes, one to cover the prerequisites and GPS and one to cover just GPS for people who already know how to read a map.

To sum up, the prerequisite system has been in use for quite a long time in the colleges and universities.


Digital content is no substitute for skill

Here. Describe to me how to fly the go-around on a Runway 13L approach to Midway. Here's the approach plate. Before you object, remember. You are looking at this on a digital device.

"But but but" -- yeah. Exactly. Having the data in digital form does not educate you in the use of this data! You still need to know how to fly or mountaineer. You are either disregarding the value of these skills, or being presumptive about skills you do already have.

The skills are about being able to look at a map and the terrain you are seeing with your eye, and figuring out where you are on the map from the terrian. About being able to look at a map and see which routes are navigable, so you don't plot a route over a cliff or across a river you can't ford.

Digital devices have a big scope problem

You can't see the big picture and the detail at the same time. That's a big problem. Here, try to plot a route from Pittsburgh to Baltimore on this map.

enter image description here

You can't. There's not enough detail there. And if you zoom in to get the detail, then you lose the big picture. And so you have to blind guess: Is the due east one the one to follow? The one at 3:30? The one at 4:00? Should you be dropping down to pick up 68? Then you have to keep scrubbing east and west to see how the roads relate.

Whereas any competent paper map of Pennsylvania will have have at least 12" of paper on that segment, with 600 dpi resolution, so a 7200 pixel detail map of the area, all at your direct gaze and fingertips. Like this, but all the way across...

enter image description here

But you'll retort "But this is silly, any nav app will give an optimized route for me!" True, I'm using a bad example, merely to ease illustration. Let's see your nav-app plot you a route from 45°09'19"N 70°18'36"W back to the trailhead!

This is especially important when orienteering, when you need to be able to see both the near landmarks and the far ones at the same time.

Mind you, they're teaching these things, so placing you on a platform that is incapable of doing this would defeat the purpose. And speaking of that, what about when 8 students have 5 different platforms all working differently and showing different things, while 3 students have none at all?


The smart device is vulnerable to being fallen on, being dropped and smashed, being dropped in water, simply running out of battery, or losing signal because of terrain or because cell phone companies don't bother covering wilderness. The governments who run GPS, GLONASS and Galileo all feel the same about things like terror. If actionable intelligence says they can save lives by turning them off, they're gone. The governments have already had this conversation. All your braggadocio about how digital devices have gotten better, does nothing to fix any of this.

Further, smart devices make you overtrust them. A person geared up with cell phones, tablets and navs thinks "Oh! I don't need a 406 MHz ELT!" yeah, you still do. They also disconnect you from the physical world: How many people do you know who have no earthly idea where they are, but simply follow the voice prompts of their nav app? Is Mountain View south of San Jose? They don't know, don't care, and don't need to know (by their reckoning, or to be more precise, complete lack of reckoning).

I can't emphasize that point enough. Before digital assistants, people relied on their intuition, experience, skill and street smarts. Now, people absolutely choose suicide routes because their digital device tells them to, and fail to cultivate their own skills.

Map+compass works in dire straits

Smart devices are all fun and games until you're in a real survival crisis. Now, the above attrition factors have taken out your tech. You thought you were over-teched, so you don't own a 406 ELT, so no popping it and waiting for the sound of rotor blades. You're done at that point. You can blunder around hopelessly and risk further injury, but realistically it boils down to doing your best to draw attention while waiting for the elements to perish you.

But as long as you have your wits, skills, maps and a compass, you have the right stuff for self-rescue. You can keep working the problem. That gives you self-determination and avoids victimhood. And that's what living is all about.

A perishable skill

In the sense that you can't pull this skill out of thin air the day you need it. You can't sit there in the rain and cold trying to remember what you learned in map-and-compass class 7 years ago.

the brains of London taxi drivers, whose licensing requires that they demonstrate recall of 25,000 city streets, contain more grey matter in the region of the hippocampus than the brains of London bus drivers.

You need to flex the skill if you want it to work for you. You need to know how to turn the information on the map into locating where you are and navigating successfully from A to B, without pathing up (or down) cliffs, routing across rivers you can't cross, etc. You get that knowledge by doing it. Often enough for the skills to stick. Which means you need to put away the nav and find the skill of orienteering, and ideally, find the love of it.

  • I never said anything regarding not having a radio in my post. Of course you need a satellite phone or a radio communicator, there's no reception in the mountains. So this part reads like a rant. Likewise talking about London cabbies isn't too relevant as online maps work nearly perfectly in a city like London. The rest of the answer is good. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 13:13
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    And if I'm reading this correctly, the problem is that digital devices are still not capable of plotting routes in the terrain? So until that technology is available, we still need to read a map. That makes perfect sense. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 13:14
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    @JonathanReez I didn't say anything about radios, except I mentioned a 406 MHz ELT, which is a thing the battery doesn't run down on. The cabbie thing is clearer if you read the linked article. For digital devices to be able to plot routes over paths which are not human-engineered, would require a quantum leap in a variety of technologies, and very little revenue on the far side of that engineering task. I see no way mapping apps could keep up with natural terrain changes, like erosion, landslides, changes in oxbow rivers, etc. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 20:24
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    TLDR on the cabbie thing is London cabbies are required to know the roads, not rely on nav apps, and the presence of this rather large block of knowledge physically changes their brains. In other words the literally grew the skills, you can't expect to enlarge your hippocampus while shivering on a hillside. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 20:31
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica Yes, the paper map can see erosion, landslides etc. because it gets to use your eyes. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 20:41

Have you ever heard of the Uyuni salt flat? 10,000 km2 of almost perfectly flat surface, 3 km above sea level. 0 GPS signal. (Some of the time)

This is because of the South Atlantic Anomaly, which creates high levels of radiation for satellites in the area - the Hubble Space Telescope does not take observations in this area, the International Space Station has extra shielding specifically for this portion of its orbit, the first-gen Globalstar satellites failed because of it, the Japanese Hitomi satellite tore itself after passing through it, and the PAMELA detector detected high levels of antiprotons in the area.

More importantly for this question, it also frequently creates pockets of ionised atmosphere, which jam the electromagnetic signals from orbiting satellites - such as GPS. Fortunately, these usually last for minutes, rather than hours. But, depending on when it happens, you could still get very lost. And, this impacts almost the whole of South America, not just Bolivia. See also this answer on Worldbuilding

On a less localised example, you also get similar disruption caused by Ionospheric thunderstorms

  • That is very interesting, however the course I'm talking about is located in Washington/North America, thousands of kilometers away from that anomaly. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 10:54
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    One could suggest that in 10,000km2 of perfectly flat surface, paper maps aren't much use either!
    – Separatrix
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 11:10
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica Most of the relevant research is in Spanish or Portuguese (for example, by INPE), so won't show up in English search results. Being that it only impacts South America, the US agencies aren't particularly interested in researching it... I have added links and commentary on a related phenomenon that occurs globally - including as far north as Canada - where the ionised atmospheric pockets are caused by thunderstorms instead. Which you probably get in Washington. Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 11:13
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica: Your instructor is teaching you "Mountaineering", not "Mountaineering a safe one hour drive from Starbuck's headquarters". Anyway you've been offered very many reasons why satellite navigation is unreliable no matter how many phones you carry and how many sat. system it supports. Paper's risks are orthogonal, therefore give you a real safety margin.
    – user19093
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 14:29
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    @user1512321: I can recommend Sächsische Schweiz (e.g. opentopomap.org/#map=14/50.90157/14.27519; or probably any canyon country) for finding out the limits of GPS navigation: a recorded track there may be jumping from one side of the valley to the other, and ± 100 m of elevation (which translates to not knowing whether you are at the bottom of the valley, on top of th ridge or at the path somewhere in the middle). Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 15:06

I can't believe the convoluted answers. The answer is simple.

A Map and compass WILL always work. The electronic device will NOT always work.

Good luck finding your way without basic map reading skills when you have sat on your I-phone screen or run out of battery.

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    A map and compass will not always work. Especially when used improperly. Bad visibility conditions, unexpected weather, even things like magnetic anomalies and changing landscapes, damage to the compass/map, losing the things... Unlikely? Sure, but so is GPS not working if you have at least some backup. Mind, I'd still argue for bringing a map and compass along if you can and have the skill to use them, but flat out "map and compass will always work" is simply untrue.
    – Luaan
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:12
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica A group with two waterproof phones and two power banks is no use whatever, when the group is at the bottom of the 500ft slope they just fell down and you are all alone at the top.
    – alephzero
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:23
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    Why bother learning to write by hand? or use a manual transmission, or use a non-electric toothbrush... Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:42
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    Amen! Suggested edit: If you are needing a map, chances are good that you can't or shouldn't rely on battery power for any function that can be done reasonably through another inexpensive means, without draining energy reserves that might prove difficult to replenish.
    – pygosceles
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 20:52
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    About ten years ago I was hiking along a river valley when I realized I didn't know where I was -- the trail crossed a stream, and the stream was flowing the wrong way (left to right, when it should have been flowing right to left). I got out my map, compared it to the terrain around me, and determined that I was either five or nine miles upstream from the trailhead: the valley had two virtually-identical branches four miles apart. A GPS would have had no trouble distinguishing the two.
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 22:48

Ultimately a map is a map is a map. Regardless of the media it's presented on, whether that be digital or paper. You still need to be able to orient yourself on it, understand the symbology, and interpret what all that means to you and what you're trying to do.

GPS signals can stop, be deliberately degraded (selective availability), or be affected by the environment. Even if it's just printing out the area I'm interested in and sticking that in a big ziplock bag, for reasons all already mentioned it's handy to have.

If nothing else because I can easily see a letter size area without having to carry a display that big. Perspective can be very useful.

And you should always be trying to match what you see around you if possible with what's on the map rather than blindly following a bearing presented to you.


Probably the simplest answer to my mind is that if you're going to have redundant methods for just about anything, they should be as resistant to single points of failure as possible. It's a good general principle, and it certainly applies in this specific case.

Two electronic devices will provide redundancy in case of loss of battery life, but not in case of interference. An electronic device and a paper map are different enough in characteristics that they provide a broader base of redundancy.

Given the potential consequences of failure, I think it would be wise to have the relevant knowledge of, and make a habit of carrying, both tools rather than two copies of one.


Paper map screens are more flexible and they handle drops better. A paper map keeps power for longer, stays on for longer when you are walking, is cheap, is easier to draw a path on, easier to annotate, faster to switch on and access. The usb port of the paper map doesnt go rusty if you walk with it raining, and you don't pull a paper map out of your pocket and think "dam I left the paper switched on" and paper has a safe storage time of about 150 years while you are out and about. Phones are very cool but paper maps still have some value. Paper also has good reception.


I have a very practical example of the value of paper maps: I found a waterproof, tear resistant map of my usual mountain hiking grounds that lives in my pack. When I put it there I figured it would probably never come out.

Yet the very first day it did--I met up with some people on the trail that didn't know much about the terrain. While I have a more detailed topo of the area in my phone's memory you can't see very much at once--it's very useful for figuring out where the trail is but useless for seeing the lay of the land. The paper map let me show them where the trail went. (For what they had in mind it was actually safe enough to be out there with no map--it was a canyon, no novice would be able to get out of it other than at the ends.)


First of all, there are a couple of things maps do really well:

  • They are big, so you can see the whole picture clearly
  • But you can also fold them to see exactly what you need
  • They can show you, with a high level of precision, multiple places at once

Those are very important feature, for me. Much more than showing you that "you are here", or that you should "take the next left".

Then, there are things that can happen during a hike:

  • A hike can last for several days or more (!)
  • Cold weather
  • Heavy rain and river crossing
  • Sharp and slippery rocks

In those situations, an electronic device instantly becomes an awkward brick, while a (waterproof, reasonably tear-resistant) map remains a map.

In further details:

  • Long hikes Any electronic device uses battery, which requires backup. Even with backup, depending on the use and the efficiency of the device, charging or changing batteries is required after a while. On long hike it can add up. The probability of the device simply failing for unknown reasons also increases as a simple function of time.
  • Cold weather Manipulating an electronic device, especially if you go for one with a touch screen, is cumbersome in cold weather. In the cold taking your hands out of your gloves for any period of time can be uncomfortable. Battery also drain much faster, meaning you keep that device in an inside pocket, having to open your jacket to pull it out, loosing trapped heat in the process.
  • Water Presumably any reasonable dedicated device is waterproof. (But most phone aren't) It remains a risk that water will eventually infiltrate the device, especially as it ages.
  • Rocks are hard Devices may be made resistant and all, but there can always be that pointy rock that the screens falls right on.
  • "everyone in the group" makes it sound like a lot of people. How big is that group usually? (just curious, that's not really relevant for the purpose of this question)
    – njzk2
    Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 18:51
  • 4 to 6 people is my usual hiking/camping arrangement. Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 19:05

Paper maps do not run out of power. In an emergency situation you may only have that as an option

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    Hi Rhodie, welcome to Outdoors SE. This point was already made in several other answers, so it does not add anything that wasn't already stated.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 8:43
  • Thanks. Didn't know.
    – Rhodie
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 11:44

Among the great answers above, some touched on the price of electronic maps and their inadequacy for hiking (e.g. lack of topographical data). To this point, I'd like to highlight the Mapy.cz project (mobile app at https://en.mapy.cz/zakladni?mobilepromo=1 link) which may have started as a regional Czech app, but now covers most of the world with freely downloadable maps.

While it lacks somewhat in features like car navigation, it is indispensible for walks and hikes, knowing the majority of official trails and many smaller forest roads, as well as heights, so you can for example profile the planned route in terms of ups and downs you are going to take. From version to version it is less reliant on the internet availability to find things and plan the routes, though I don't think it is fully autonomous yet.

All that said, I wouldn't trust my phones of the past decade to navigate me for more than a daytime's walk: their batteries only last as you commute from home to work or back; much less so in cold weather (like under +15 deg C, 100% to 0% in 40 minutes if the phone is not touching my stomach) or in hot summers (+35 degC outside, under sunlight, it wants to shut everything off because the CPU is at 50 degC).

So you still need to take a look at the map (digital or not) before the trip and expect that this memory of your main route, and nearby alternatives, and notable points to orienteer by (mountains, valleys, towers, bridges, etc.) would save your hide if you don't take a paper map (or lose it, or it is too dark/rainy/... to read it when you need it). You don't have to be in the mountains or wild outback to get lost, can do so in a city too ;p Do assume the worst, to be ready for it. And hope it does not happen too often :)


Many excellent answers have detailed how you need to learn reading paper maps for various practical reasons involving your safety.

I'd like to add that you want to be able to read paper maps for two additional reasons involving your pursuit of happiness:

  • finding the unexpected,
  • daydreaming.

A GPS can tell you with reasonable precision where you are. So far as I am aware, they don't tell you if you are about to walk off a cliff. The normal tourist path on Ben Nevis goes close enough to a very steep gully that you need to count paces and use a compass if walking down in whiteout conditions.

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    Well, I'm sure GPS applications do exist that show you a topo map with contours.
    – user2169
    Commented Jul 24, 2021 at 20:27

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