There’s an on-going debate about mapping and navigation in the ‘outdoors’: specifically the use of digital technologies for mapping and navigation. GPS, digital mapping, digital/smartphone apps.

NB while this is almost certainly happening globally, I’m more familiar with the specific debate happening in Scotland and the UK. I think much of what I am about to write should be widely applicable. But the catch is that the limits of one’s experience means you don’t know what you don’t know. I am aware for example that often navigating in the UK (and many other European mountain areas) – with our above-the-tree-line mountain terrain, or often complete lack of trees <cough> – is considerably easier than navigating in dense forest. Or in featureless terrain such as desert, tundra or featureless snowy wilderness. It’s easy for UK outdoors people to forget how damned essential GPS spot-fixing can be.

I’m also going to focus on the debate more from an ‘outdoors’ or mountaineering perspective, although I am also somewhat familiar with the debate on the sailing front – true navigation in the original sense – and the use of GPS and digital mapping there. It – GPS and digital tools – has perhaps been more fully thought-through and accepted there. For a number of possible reasons. Partially I think because of just how incredibly advantageous GPS spot-fixing is to mariners (compared to the relative ease of spot-fixing on land)! Partially also because it’s easier to have a large digital screen on a boat where the size and weight is usually not an issue! Finally also I think because of a cross-over with professional mariners…? You should however see the issues caused by, for example, using radar with vessels on collision courses, and the potential for confusion between North-up, course-up and heads-up views!

(In fact I am strictly more formally qualified on the sailing side! Although I think I am more qualified by experience on the mountaineering front.)

A classic of the genre

This isn’t an easy debate. It’s a classic of the genre: the use and impact of new technology. The debate has all the expected (and tedious?!) aspects: the seductive advantages of the new technology, the proponents who (rightly) see those advantages, the downsides of technology (reliability, weather, power/batteries…), the elitism and ‘gatekeeping’ of the old traditional way, even snobbery about the ‘mere’ use of easy technology, and sometimes (although often missed or misunderstood) discussion about the way that the new technology actually changes the way we do things, as well as risks of de-skilling due to technological ease.

In this case note that this is about new technologies. Plural. And that point isn’t mere pedantry but is at the heart of a point I want to try and tease out.

Back to the debate

(Sadly the most current outdoors debate is about the removal of the legal right to wild camp on Dartmoor in England. Sigh.)

So, the debate has resurfaced given recent events – incidents involving Mountain Rescue teams – on a fell called Barf in the Lake District. There is a good article in The Great Outdoors mag about it ( and Alex Roddie (outdoor writer, editor, photographer and generally thoughtful chap) is quoted – as one of TGO’s go-to experts on GPS and digital tech.

Alex shared this article on Mastodon (the new Twitter where all the cool kids hang out – well they are there and I hang around them) and there is a ‘thread’ debating various aspects of the issues including contributions from Alex himself, the legend that is Chris Townsend, Lucy Wallace (experienced mountain leader and current Ramblers Scotland president!) as well as various experienced outdoors types. It’s a really good thread with lots of thoughtful good points. Worth reading.

The summary of the Barf issue is that OpenStreetMap (OSM) – an open source mapping project – has a route on Barf over Slape Crag. This is a non-trivial technical route over crags and with nasty loose scree. It is not a path! It is important to note that OSM has additional info which indicates the difficulty of the route (using a standard grading system: the SAC Mountain and Alpine Hiking Scale).

And yet many/most of the digital mapping/navigation apps that use the (free) OSM data BOTH show this route (unlike the trad OS mapping) AND fail to indicate that this is no mere path (there is a ‘route’ but a scrambling/mounteering one not a path!). So people get in to difficulty. And mountain rescue gets called out. Serious risks to inexperienced walkers.

The issue here seems straightforward to me: the issue is with the presentation of the route in digital mapping (given the OSM data did contain information that indicated difficulty). There are various possible solutions: the digital apps either need to just not show certain routes above a certain difficulty, or make this an active opt-in with warnings, and/or the apps need to improve their representation and marking of more difficult routes.

But the debate inevitably returns to the broader question of issues with digital mapping/navigation and the use of it vs trad paper mapping. And on that I think that there is an issue that is being missed.

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Before I discuss this issue I want to address the standard official line that a paper map and compass must be carried as a back-up to a digital mapping/navigation app or device. Here I agree with Alex who takes a rare pro-technology stance contrary to the official line: his approach is that you should have a back-up to your main device in case that fails (technology, battery etc), but that that back-up might be another digital app or device rather than a trad paper map and compass. That is possibly easily achieved in a group/party.

In fact, for reasons which I will attempt to outline, I think this is a better approach than attempting to revert to map and compass for many people.

I suspect the revert-to-map-and-compass line is somewhat based in a resistance to, and even suspicion about, the new technology. Some of this is well-founded: reliability and battery issues. And the unexpected complexities and situations arising from the technology – exactly as demonstrated by the Barf/Slape Crag issue above.

But resisting new technology is pointless and probably counterproductive: it must be constructively engaged with. Otherwise it will be adopted anyway. And wiser, more experienced views will simply be lost or missed.

Here I think the sailing world – probably, as I said above, driven by the much greater obvious advantages of GPS spot-fixing as well as a broader professional angle – has more positively engaged with the new technology. And engaged with it in an official way through industry bodies. (To be fair there has almost certainly been official outdoor authorities looking at GPS etc but I don’t think at the level of the sailing and seafaring world…?)

So what is the issue I keep hinting at? What is the difference between the trad map-and-compass approach vs modern digital mapping/navigation?

Navigation not (merely) Mapping

Well first remember my point about this being about technologies plural? There are TWO new technologies at play here: GPS and digital mapping. The initial use of GPS often involved a GPS receiver (GPSr) being used for a spot-fix location alongside a trad map-and-compass. Because the technology (screen, battery, software) wasn’t there for digital mapping on a hand-held device.

Whereas now – especially with almost ubiquitous smartphones – most people already have a device capable of both in their pocket. And the two technologies are used together so seamlessly for navigation that is easy to forget that there ARE two separate things at work. Indeed this might seem almost so obvious as not to be worth mentioning.

But I think these technologies have combined in a way that has changed the way people navigate and has profound implications for learning navigation, navigation skills and the ability to even revert to the old approach.

Visualisation: the map-as-model

Let’s pretend GPS didn’t exist and we merely had digital mapping & devices as a new technology. I suggest that the technology would make little difference to our navigation approach. (Perhaps let’s envisage large scale flexible paper so we can ignore – for the moment – screen size limitations). We would largely use this digital map in the same way and we – without assistance of GPS – would have to self-locate our position. It is this self-location or spot-fixing that is the key to the way we use a traditional map. In the absence of GPS we need to understand the map-as-model and be able to visualise our position within that model.

This is the key to trad navigation: the map-as-model.

But this map-as-model is not natural. And just because paper maps are traditional and because we (the experienced) take them for granted doesn’t change that (although I think we sometimes think it to be the case!). As Chris and Lucy noted in the thread, based on huge experience:

“…having taught navigation using map and compass to hunners** of folk I’ve observed that most people struggle to visualise terrain from maps, even good ol’ OS maps. First day of any course involves deconstructing peoples assumptions and helping them to “see features and contours.”

Lucy Wallace, mountain leader/instructor & current Ramblers Scotland President

**[that’s Scots for ‘hundreds’ for those of you who aren’t as multilingual as the Scots 😉 ]

“I found the same with many people when I taught navigation on ski touring courses in Norway.”

Chris Townsend, outdoors and backpacking guru

And this echoes my experience as a Duke of Edinburgh leader and instructor teaching navigation to kids to prepare them for DofE expeditions: you do not just ‘naturally‘ read a map. It is a learned skill. A map is a clever 2D representation of a (at least on land) 3D environment! Contours have to be explained and models showing idealised examples have to be walked through. And experience has to be built up. You learn it by doing mostly.

A digital map does not however change that ‘reading’ – visualisation – of the map. (Again, ignoring for now issues of size of map due to eg. screen size limitations).

A note on nautical navigation (forgive me the arguable tautology!)

This map-as-model is perhaps more complicated in complex 3D mountain environments than it is for mariners: a nautical map is a largely 2D model (ignoring depth for a moment – a sometimes dangerous thing, it must be noted, to do in real-life sailing…): the sea is flat (you don’t believe the Earth is round do you?) and there are some coasts.

And, returning to depth, even that doesn’t really need to be visualised as a mental model; it cannot be seen in order to match with the map and all that is required is to spot stuff that is too shallow. And heights (eg heights of lights above sea level) are not represented in a way that facilitates a 3D mental visual model per se but introduced into nautical navigation via a calculation-based paradigm – rather than intuitively visualised – that allows distance to be calculated based on the curvature of the earth. It’s all clever stuff. Different but very clever.

So for the avoidance of doubt: I am NOT saying nautical navigation is easier; there are many other – different – tricky challenges. Travelling in a frame of reference which is itself moving (ie tide, current), vector navigation etc. It’s arguably harder, but the map-as-model aspect is not why. Or at least not a 3D model!

GPS – the difference

The difference is GPS. It changes everything. Why? The more you have actually had to actually teach traditional map-and-compass navigation – because many of us have forgotten what it was like to have to learn to map-read and navigate – the more obvious this becomes. The key to navigation (once basic map-reading is itself understood) is often taught as being about the 4Ds:

  • Direction – which way?
  • Distance – how far?
  • Description – what will (should!) I see on the way?
  • Duration – how long do I expect it to take?

And all of that relies on first knowing where you are NOW.

But GPS – via its ability to spot-fix a location – your current location or the target location – makes this relatively easy. And if you know where you are now and it can tell you – based on identifying where you want to go – a direction to go in, why do you need to ‘read’ the map? You don’t. (Subject to some serious caveats which I am sure all experienced navigators are instantly thinking of!)

And if you feed in a route, this is doubly the case. You merely follow the tool. Digital navigation is mostly very very different. People aren’t ‘navigating’; they are merely following a route.

Linear (route) mapping: road atlas ‘strip maps’

This reminds me, to make an analogy, that even in the history of analogue mapping and navigation (or perhaps rather, travel) the current contour map and map-as-(3D-)model is relatively complex invention we take for granted.

Many old travellers ‘maps’ were merely linear routes called ‘strip maps’. These ‘strip maps’ were pioneered in Britain by John Ogilby, “Scottish translator, impresario and cartographer. Best known for publishing the first British road atlas,…”.

John Ogilby ‘strip map’ from Britannia Atlas showing Newmarket to Wells and Bury Edmunds

(John Ogilby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

These strip maps are the old analogue equivalent of the routes that many digital navigation users follow. Or vice versa: modern digital routes – guided by GPS (which, again, makes it easy to know where you are on your route) – are merely an advanced form of these simple old linear ‘strip map’ routes!

(There are some wonderful books on maps and navigation that cover this evolution of mapping including ‘On The Map‘ by Simon Garfield and ‘Map Of A Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey‘ by Rachel Hewitt.)

And now we have the central point: because one is merely following a guided route you don’t need to learn to visualise the map. You don’t learn map-as-model. And this is exacerbated by the limitations of screen size. Why would you bother when the tech makes it all so easy?! Of course, you should be thinking about fall-back options and what happens if the tech fails, but, well, people often don’t. And that’s the issue. So simply thinking that people should – and can – revert to the traditional map-and-compass approach seems – to be blunt – to be naive. They often cannot.

This change in our skills and capability due to technology and automation is not new. Tim Harford – famous for among other things the wonderful book ‘The Undercover Economist’ – wrote an excellent article on technology, automation and the diminishing of skills due it: “Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster“.

Experts are not very good at understanding non-experts… squared

A further confounding issue in the whole debate is that many of us older experienced navigators have, unless you teach navigation, not only forgotten what it was like to learn map-reading and navigation, but also probably unconsciously use digital navigation tools still using the map-as-model visualisation we learned using paper maps and before GPS (or at least when GPS was a stand-alone location spot-fix tool, independent of advanced digital mapping and routing). 

We don’t – due to our perspective, expertise and history – even realise that this is not how newer users of digital navigation tech are (I strongly suspect) using the technology!

Tech changes the way we do things

The key flaw in much of the debate – that I think underpins much of the expert view – is an unstated and probably unconscious (which is why it is unstated!) belief that people are still navigating in fundamentally the same way with the new technology. Or should be.

My suggestion is that they are not. And that that is unrealistic (even if it was desirable).

There is much to celebrate in this: navigation IS a hard barrier to accessing the outdoors. Or WAS. But modern technology can overcome this and get more people in to and enjoying exercise, fresh air and freedom in the outdoors. This should be a good thing.

What we need to do is debate how we make sure they do it safely and understand the limitations of the technology and their own skills. And that should be done by constructively engaging with new technology without elitism and with realism.

It may however be reasonable to say – for example – that, for keener and committed outdoors people, the only way you will ever gain good full navigation competency – based on map-as-model capability (whether that map is trad analogue paper or digital!) – is to learn and practice using a traditional map-and-compass without the crutch of GPS.

But if that is not for you, then digital tools can be used successfully. But you must understand their limitations (have backup tool(s)…) and the navigation capability limitations they (probably) cause in you. (Is there however a reluctance to say this? Or is it just that the issue as I have outlined is not understood?)

There is however no putting the (digital) genie back in the bottle.


Social media can be good and after posting this on Mastodon (like Twitter but not owned by a narcissistic oligarch) there was some good debate and feedback. Including a post from Dr. Urska Demsar, Associate Professor in GIScience at the University of St. Andrews, noting in support of my point that there is a “lot of research in GIScience community on how navigation with GPS affects navigation ability. Basically, very badly, people lose spatial memory, spatial learning skills, etc.“.

Dr. Demsar provided a couple of (open access) research papers: “GPS use negatively affects environmental learning through spatial transformation abilities” and “Habitual use of GPS negatively impacts spatial memory during self-guided navigation“.

This quote from the second paper almost exactly matches my key points:

“When we navigate in a new environment, we are required to pay attention to our surroundings and to update our position using our own internal navigation system in order to reach our destination. Using GPS removes these requirements and renders navigation less cognitively demanding.”