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Sometimes Old Is Better

Map and Compass rather than Phone App GPS . . .

“Where the fuck am I?”

When I used to say this back in the old days I’d look around for natural features or buildings and street names, and then drag out a map, maybe a compass, and figure out where I was. Then I’d walk or drive the way I thought was correct.

Today instead of a map and compass I can simply pull out my smart phone, open one of the map apps that use GPS, and have a woman’s voice, with an Aussie accent and filled with confidence, give me directions.

Now I have a fondness for old things. I carry a pocket watch that was given to my grandfather in 1915 and passed down to me. My daily driver is a 1966 FJ 45 Toyota Land Cruiser Pickup. It isn’t that I think these things are better—not in the least. I just prefer using them. This may seem idiosynchratic, but from what I understand in some ways it makes sense to rely on a map and compass rather than the phone app.

It seems so easy to grab your phone and rely on a map app to find your destination and the best route to it. But I wonder . . . there’s a part of me that is uncomfortable with giving up my own responsibility for finding my way around. I have a feeling that it’s a bad idea, and there’s evidence to support my feelings of unease.

The thing is, if you orient yourself and use a map and compass, chances are you have a pretty good idea of your route and a sense of where you’ve been. If you rely on your phone’s map app, then you certainly can find the way, but blindly following the directions to get to your destination leaves you without much of a clue as to how you made it. There are also issues with using map apps like when (notice I said ‘when’ not ‘if’) the voice on the map app happens to send you in the wrong direction? That has happened to me—I’ll bet it’s happened to you as well. Several weeks ago my wife, Paula, and I had to go to the Social Security office in Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. When we were almost to our destination the map app on my wife’s phone told us we were there, but “there” was an empty lot. So upset and confused we wandered around looking for the office for fifteen minutes until we found a policeman who knew where the office was. We got there, no thanks to the map app, but lucky for us we’d given ourselves some extra time to get to there.

Asking directions from someone other than the voice on your phone app actually works too. In 1978 a friend and I drove a VW bus from Kathmandu to Amsterdam with only a paper road map to help us out. And yes, we did ask a lot of people for directions in various cities and countries when we were confused or couldn’t read the road signs because they were in Hindi or Persian, or some other script.

I have also found that, not only pointing you in the wrong direction, in some situations the map app may take you in a much longer, more circuitous route. I’ll add to the story above when Paula and I were in Denver. When we finished up at the Social Security Office in Lakewood we wanted to go through Denver and north to Greeley, fifty-five or sixty miles away. I had a pretty good idea which way to go, but when Paula checked her phone the map app told us to go miles out of our way. The map app would have taken us far to the east and then northeast and then back west to get to Greeley. Paula put the phone away and we drove the more direct way I knew. If I hadn’t known the better way we would probably still be driving. Sure, the person on the street might give you erroneous directions but . . .

When I go out hiking in the mountains I always carry a compass that I can use to get my bearings. Yes, a compass is complicated as there are things to consider such as the angle of declination (true north vs magnetic north) that changes in terms of where you are on the globe. But, generally, if you have a decent map, use a compass to orient the map, and use terrain features to determine where you are on the map you find your way.

Also, using a map and compass to find your way gives you a better idea of where you are and where you’re going than depending on the map app in your phone. I’ve even read that people who rely on the apps in their phones are less likely to have a good sense of direction. In other words, relying on map apps may actually harm your sense of direction.

Studies have been done and scientists believe that relying on GPS actually hurts our sense of direction and ability to navigate. I list some websites below that give information to support that idea if you care to read more.

Now I don’t suggest not using your map app. I have a suggestion that may help you use the app but also give you a clear sense of where you are and where you’re going. In the same way that you should have a paper map when on a trail, you should always have a map in your vehicle. Investigate your destination and proposed route before you leave, especially if you’re unfamiliar with where you’ll be driving.

When driving to an unfamiliar location I always use Google Earth to check out the roads and directions I’ll be taking. Then I put the destination into my phone and check the map route that it shows me. Next I ask, “does it make sense?” I’ve also used Google Earth street views to “go” to street level and view the route to my destination before I even left the house. I do this particularly when I am going to ride my motorcycle and didn’t want to have to hold my phone or keep checking the map app.

It’s great because I have a much better idea where I am going and what my destination looks like before I actually do the ride. Of course one can’t use Google Earth street view on a mountain trail and that’s why I always carry a topo map when in the mountains, especially when in unfamiliar country.

So, I’m not against using modern technology, but I suggest we use it in ways that help us orient ourselves and keep our sense of direction. Then we’ll have a better idea of where we’re going and what we’ll see along the way.

If you wish to investigate further please check out these sites (this is only a small sampling):

An excellent and helpful piece that compares compass and GPS:

The following sites explain the problem with using GPS:

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