Off-Road Navigation – An Ancient Art?

Updated: Jul 13


A High Trail Expedition navigates across a high desert

In today’s world, old fashion off-road navigation is not only an ancient art, but it is also becoming a lost art. With the advent of GPS, route finding is little more than entering a destination and pressing “enter.” GPS is certainly a valuable tool, and it has become an integral part of our daily lives. For off-road travel it should certainly be part of one’s kit, but should it be your primary navigation device?

GPS Technology is great but...

As we all know from experience, one’s plan (especially off-road) does not always go as intended. Having spare parts and contingency plans should always be part of any outing and this includes navigation tools. Since GPS units have arrived in the field, I have seen these units left behind on the trail, driven over, dropped in muddy water and turned into useless devices for lack of batteries or charging cords (in addition to most owners’ limited ability to operate the unit effectively).

Simple is dependable

So, what should be your primary navigation device? I respectfully suggest the “ancient and old fashioned” map and compass. To be more specific, a baseplate compass with adjustable declination and a topographical map such as the USGS Topo Maps or the National Geographic Trail Map series. Learning to effectively use and integrate these basic navigation tools not only

Topo Map and Baseplate Compass - simple and reliable navigation

provides navigation information and direction (like your GPS), but it helps us to visualize and orientate ourselves in the real world which the handheld GPS unit cannot do. For your writer, it is very satisfying to be able to look at the actual terrain and then be able to confirm my position by reading the topo map. This skill adds an important level of confidence to your navigation ability. Being able to “read” information from the topo map and “translate” this information into the real world provides a greater in-depth and a more practical understanding of where you are which the typical handheld GPS unit is unable create. Working with a quality topo map, route finding in the field is more effective as the user has the ability to “see” a larger portion of the earth which aides in planning routes and most importantly, alternate routes as conditions will change in the field such a weather, trails which become impassable... or fast changing fire conditions, which the

writer was once faced with.

Both have their place

Once the basics of map and compass are mastered, your comfort and confidence to plan and explore in the backcountry will be greatly enhanced and having your GPS unit as a backup to confirm a latitude and longitude or UTM coordinate will be a “nice to have” luxury.


Don’t forget the extra batteries – and travel safe!


RJ Stapell

High Trail Expeditions' Head Leadership Coach and Guide


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