An umbrella group for Irish hillwalkers.
The benefits of Modern Navigation
I’m going to talk about the benefits of Modern Navigation, such as using GPS
and software like TrailMaster.
|Visualisation courtesy OSI Trailmaster.|
Before we get to the benefits, lets discuss what our agenda is. Let’s ask the
question when do you need navigational know-how?
Sometimes it’s in advance such as
- Planning a route
- Selecting an area
- Getting familiar with the area
Sometimes it’s when you are on the walk
- Leading a walk Solo, small group or largish group
- Participating in a walk Preventing yourself being misled
- Emergency situations Becoming lost, needing to cut a walk short
Sometimes it’s after the walk
- How far, how high, how fast did we go?
- What better route could we have taken?
- Where was that picture taken?
Taking these needs as our initial agenda, what can modern navigation methods
Well for planning a software tool can allow you to look at a 2d map. This can
help you plan by allowing you select and play with the route and judge the
distance etc. The sort of 2d tool I mean is something like Gartrip or GPSU (both
of which have free versions you can try out.). They can do routes, upload to GPS
and produce a detailed local map.
Better than 2d are 3d tools which generally allow you to all of what a 2d
tool does but also includes information about the height of places. So for
example they allow you to find out how much climbing a particular route entails.
The sort of tool I mean includes Google Earth and OSI Trailmaster and these can
do route cards and GPS routes which we will come to later. These tools also do
3d interactive views which can be extremely effective way of getting a
semi-instinctive picture of a place.
So before you even start you can consider choices, plan a route, prepare a
route card, produce a detailed map of your chosen area and get GPS information.
Unlike doing this with a map and compass this is fast, allows instinctive
understanding and is fun when you do it with friends.
A word about visualisation of places.
Evolution has provided us with mental tools for creating an internal map as
we encounter new places. If our ancestors couldn’t remember the way to water or
home was well they just didn’t reproduce. Visit a
house, pub, city, park, valley whatever a few times and you will start to
understand the locality. A great way of exploiting this inherent ability is to
move around a virtual landscape before you visit a place. Spend some time going
over routes, looking at the view you will see. Some of it sticks
surprisingly quickly and is much better than trying to visualise land from a
A word about where GPS is going. The chip for GPS now costs a device manufacturer less than $2. Phone
GPS already dwarfs all other channels for getting personal GPS. Within a couple
of years all middle value phones will have them just like they have cameras.
Cameras themselves will have them built in. Cars will have them etc. The prices
will come down, maps will become available. I predict that the compass will
become a secondary tool within a decade.
Newcomers often say "I keep the GPS in my rucksack and it’s great as a way of
finding where I am if I get lost." Well this is only half true, and a few
observations need to be made. If you haven’t turned the GPS on recently it will
take a long time to find where it is. Worse - when many GPS units lose power for
some time it may take 10-15 minutes to locate itself and then only if you use the
correct commands. GPS units with barometric sensors need time to self-calibrate
and just turning them on intermittently will give seriously wrong figures.
|GPS screens of Carrauntoohil|
What can a GPS do?
A properly used GPS can do much more. For example you can take
data from Trailmaster and it will help you follow a route. You
can use summit positions or the contour maps advertised by MountainViews and it
will help you deal with contingencies such as changing your route or recognizing
where you are.
GPS units can do various other things. Provided you have it set up correctly
and use it continuously. It can give you a pointer to a waypoint such as a summit. It can tell you your height generally to within 2 or 3 m
in open country. It can tell you the time. It can act as a compass. It can tell
you how far you have to go along a complicated route and even give you an Estimated Time of Arrival. Some of them can also tell you sunset/ sunrise and moonset/ moonrise.
And it will tell you where you have been. New developments are likely to include
weather reports and the positions of friends.
In use it will help you move more quickly because when following a route you
rarely have to stop. In contrast, if you have to seriously navigate on a route in mist using
map and compass you have to stop occasionally to let the compass stabilise and
to re-locate yourself against features. This takes time and disrupts your pace.
If you only took a minute to do this and did it 60 times on a route you would have spent an hour. You
probably also have to step count or at least keep accurate track of time. Tends
to distract you from other aspects of leadership and navigation.
With contour information on the GPS you can much more easily put in accurate
changed targets for navigation for example to help you find a ridge from above.
Some modern navigation bonuses.
You can record where you went with the "tracklog" to improve your route,
check how fast you were moving, how long each section took etc.
You can use it to identify where you took pictures.
Taking it all together.
You can research and compile a route quickly, storing versions of the data on
paper and in the GPS. You can do it in a way that is fun and maximise your
natural landform memory assets.
What could possibly go wrong?
I have seen situations where people have pre-programmed GPS routes and use
this more or less to the exclusion of changing conditions and alternative
methods. If your GPS only has a route in it or you think of it only as a "route machine", then this isn't great for ad-hoc navigation.
I have seen people head towards cliffs because they weren’t taking into
account that the route between waypoints had to bend.
I heard of a situation where someone decided to follow the tracklog they had
generated on their GPS backwards, not realising that the tracklog only had a few
hours worth of data and as they proceeded towards the early part of the tracklog
it was disappearing.
Loss of availability
I have seen numerous occasions when people, including myself, have run out of batteries. For an
ordinary day in the Irish hills you need to take 3, three, sets of batteries.
It's a pain but you need to take an interest in battery management. Batteries fail particularly in
I have seen a situation where someone lost a GPS. Note also that many of them
claim to be waterproof but newsgroups often include tales of failure after
This isn't to put down GPS specifically. All tools have weaknesses. I could give you a similar list of issues with compass work
I would suggest the following principles
Always mix non-tech and high-tech approaches while out navigating. Know,
roughly, where north, south, east, west and destination are. Check it against
where you think you are going. Always try to fit the land to the map whether the
map is in the GPS or on paper.
Always retain reasonable scepticism. Whether you are leading, sharing leading or being led
always try to fit what you see with what you think you know. Always ask yourself
questions like should the ground be this steep? Should we be going NE at this
point. Never be afraid to question the leader.
Know typical situations where navigation can go wrong. A great simple example of this is climbing a
mountain. For many summits all you need to do to reach the top is to keep find a
way to go up. You may not need a map, compass, GPS anything. A soothing easy
algorithm for the head. But you reach the top and suddenly finding the way to
the next top needs a totally different method. You need to know which direction and you need a different technique or tool to find it.
Use your instinctive place memory to have some good general ideas
about where you are going and what you will see. In Ireland in general the North
or North East of a mountain generally is the steepest part. But not always. So
explore the cliffs virtually before you start.
Always bring a weatherproofed paper map and compass and know how to use them.
Article Feb 2008
GPSU, 2D navigation tool. http://www.gpsu.co.uk/
Gartrip, 2D navigation tool. www.gartrip.de
OSI Trailmaster http://www.osi.ie/trailmaster/index.asp
Google Earth http://earth.google.com/
Microsoft Virtual Earth http://www.microsoft.com/virtualearth/
Nasa Worldwind http://worldwind.arc.nasa.gov/
MountainViews (summit positions, GPS maps) http://mountainviews.ie/
Virtual terrain theory for use with navigation.