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How Trailspace Members Rate Their Navigation Gear

A detailed topo map and compass have topped the 10 Essentials list for decades. But we wondered: What navigation gear is tops among our community members?

As part of our Year of Essential Outdoor Gear, we turned to Navigation (#1 on the 10 Essentials list) this month and dove into our gear database to see what reviewers think of their navigation tools.

Here's what we found, based on product ratings and reviews of Navigation Tools on Trailspace:

People like their compasses (a little) more than their GPS receivers.

  • Compasses overall receive a slightly higher average rating (3.6 stars) than GPS receivers (3.4 stars) in Trailspace reviews. 
  • Also, 36 percent of compass reviews were rated 5 stars, versus only 27 percent of GPS receivers.

Does that mean compasses outperform GPS receivers? Not exactly, just that reviewers rate them differently, perhaps due to different expectations. After all, a compass has one basic, but important, requirement—point north—while a GPS receiver promises far more features and options. 

Our take: The more complex the technology, the more opportunities there are to be disappointed. 

Most people do not love their altimeters.

  • Altimeters, most of which are multi-function watches with an altimeter function, get an average rating of just 2.9 stars.
  • Only 18 percent of those altimeter reviews have 5-star ratings.

Do people even use standalone altimeters anymore? Altimeters are most often found bundled into a watch, GPS receiver, or other gadget, making them more of a feature than a specific piece of gear.

Our take: It may be more accurate to say, most reviewers do not love their multi-function watches.

People are most satisfied with modestly priced or high-end compasses.

We wondered if product price had any correlation to gear satisfaction.

  • Reviewers reported the most satisfaction (4 stars) with compasses in the $15 to $30 price range. 
  • Compasses costing $60 and up had the second highest rating (3.83 stars).

Our take: A well-rated $15 to $30 compass may offer the most bang for the buck, while a high-end compass costing $60 or more will likely perform better than a mid-range ($30 to $60) counterpart.

People are most satisfied with mid-range GPS receivers.

For GPS receivers, things were far clearer on product satisfaction.

  • Reviewers are most satisfied (3.75 stars) with mid-range GPS receivers; $200 to $299 is the sweet spot.
  • The further you move away from this middle ground, in either direction, the lower ratings go: 3.26 stars for products costing $399 and up and 3.14 stars for products costing $130 or less.

Our take: People who pay the most for a GPS receiver likely have the highest expectations for all of its promised features and functions. On the other end, bargain hunters can find themselves frustrated by slow or faulty software or construction issues.


Ultimately, finding one's way is what matters when navigating in the backcountry, and the best navigation gear helps one do that safely and effectively without fuss or frustration. But, whether it's a map and compass or a GPS receiver, one more accessory is still required: a knowledgeable user.

Stay tuned, as we'll take a look at more of the 10 Essentials throughout 2016.


I don't use anything that uses batteries or electronic anything for navigation. I've seen them fail time and time again overseas. I like a high end compass such as the Francis Barker M73 and a good topo map. 

I carry both a GPS and compass and map.  I always default to the GPS.  It does have some disadvantages, most notably (for me) the small screen.  It's much easier to get the lay of the land with a map.  But I really like the ability to plug in a coordinate and have the GPS point me to it.  I like having a bread crumb of my hike that's easy to follow back to the car / trailhead (which I've used more than once).  And having a track log of your hike to check out when you get home is great.

And unlike tracker clayton, above, I've never had a GPS fail in the field - and I've been using one, now, since 2004.

I do always have a compass and map with me, just in case.

I guess my experience with GPS is not in the same conditions nor are they treated the same over there you break it you just go get a new one free here you got to go buy one. So my statement wasn't a fair and equal comparison. 

I have never used a electronic GPS. I have a Brunton compass I was given in 1968 for completing my Map and Compass Merit Badge. But I rarely use it. I usually use the sun as my bearing or stick shadows for east/west. But I am rarely "lost in the woods" so rarely need to know my directions.

My phone has a GPS on it but I have yet to use it outdoors away from civilization.

I use GPS on a regular basis for work, from recreational units to a $5000 subdecimeter unit. Don't know if it is because or despite this, that I prefer to carry just a map and compass on backpacking trips. Personally, it is another electronic device that separates me from nature and goes against the "getting back to basics" goal that I enjoy so much.

Mostly I resort to the basic map and compass.  I also carry a very light protractor/ruler which allows one person to acquire vectors with the compass while a second uses the protractor to translate heading into triangulations on the map.  I have applied the scales used on American maps onto the ruler to assist with ancillary navigation tasks. 

I will bring additional tools on snow trips: a  mechanical altimeter and a slide rule.  The altimeter is mostly used to monitor one's elevation, so a more efficient route can be established over terrain lacking trails as well as gage one's vertical progress.  Likewise the mechanical altimeter can assist evaluating the weather, as it functions off of barometric pressure.  Sometimes bad visibility impedes traditional triangulation techniques.  What to do if you can only obtain one vector but require a more precise determination of your location?  Well the altimeter will resolve your position along that vector on terrain with sufficient gradients.  Sometimes you can obtain a landmark, but lack additional landmarks due to visibility.  You need to confirm that landmark is not mistaken for another terrain feature.  The slide rule and protractor are used to cross-check single vector orienting with trigonometric functions, and will assist determining lake you are sighting off of is not mistaken for a different lake in a different location/elevation.

As you may note I am not a fan of technology.  Batteries die at the least opportune moment, and GPS is less reliable when among close-in vertical terrain that blocks the line of sight to satellites required by this technology.  I am particularly not a fan of smart phone "GPS" apps.  Last summer I was on a trip where the trail was difficult to follow and we strayed.  The terrain was rugged, and we wanted to get back on trail to reduce our toil.  So I break out the ol' map and compass; meanwhile two companions whip out their smart phones, and point us off in a direction before I can complete my own orienting task.  The trail was not where they presumed, so we stop again, repeat the same process and again fail to obtain proper orientation.  We repeated this ritual several times, much to the total exasperation of me and another member of the group.  It became apparent our gadget wonks had invested themselves in their technology and were not ready to admit their app was not intended for backcountry navigation.  Thus their unwillingness to pause a few additional moments so I could perform my own bearings.  The time we spent wandering around in circles precluded us reaching our intended objective.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 


I use both. 

Hiking: A good map and compass, as well as putting the time in to do some research beforehand. I've taken many handmade maps to supplement the professional maps I carry on the trail. 

Hunting: GPS unit. Although I've learned to not rely on this entirely. Good research beforehand regarding the land features is still important. 

The differences stem from both the company I'm with and the places I go.

When hunting, there aren't trails and it's not uncommon to track an animal for a mile or more. Therefore, I find the GPS to serve me better. In most cases, I also have communication devices synced up with my hunting party. 

When hiking, I don't want those battery-powered tools to interrupt or distract me from my experience. My purpose is different when hiking as opposed to hunting, therefore my tools to meet that purpose differ. 

Depending on where I am and what I am doing, I use various combinations of map, compass, trail and street signs, and beta from locals. All of these can be extremely useful, and all of them fail from time to time (some locals don't know how to give concise accurate directions. Last weekend I was in Washington DC. Those who have been there (I have lived in the DC area several different times in my life) know that the street layout resembles a spiderweb. It had been over 30 years since the last time I was there, and the conference was in a part of town (and with new buildings) than I had been in before. 

I went out for a walk the first morning there (counteracting jet lag of 3 hours plus just wanting to get some exercise). I asked the doorman how to get to the Mall. He said to just go south. Easy enough, although the street in front of the hotel ran at a fair angle from south. But 2 blocks from the hotel, I encountered one of the "circles" that have a half-dozen or more streets entering and departing. So I noted the direction of the rising Sun plus pulled out my pocket compass, heading onto the street that was headed most southerly (so I thought). As I walked along the street, I noticed the compass needle was wandering all over the place - strange!! After a few blocks, I figured out why - one of the major metro lines was just under my feet. Every time one of the trains passed under me, the flow of electricity through the 3rd rail perturbed the local magnetic field so that the compass re-oriented itself.

Solution? - Just note where the sun was coming up (somewhat of a challenge with the tall buildings creating a canyon), and note the time of day (hence Sun position). Who says you need instruments? And yes, I did get to the Mall right at the Washington Monument.

Whomeworry....I know exactly what you mean by batteries dying at the worst times.  I've never been a fan of battery powered gear.

I use topo sheets and a compass.  Don't own a GPS and have no plans to buy one. 

I prefer and I teach my Boy Scouts many forms of navigation....

1.  Just a map, preferably topo.  Use terrain, sun, and/or stars to orient the map and find one's location.  This is how most of us navigate anyways (in cars, hiking, etc.)

2.  Map and pace beads.  Depending on the terrain, its often more useful to know how far you've traveled than which exact bearing you're on.  Counting ones' pace with Ranger Beads is a simple, proven technique that requires practice (to really understand the difference between flat vs. hilly, open vs. rough terrain.)  The boys learn to synch one's pace with distances on the map.

3. Map and compass.  Adding a compass later focuses the boy first on the map.  Using a compass adds detail and opens many more techniques (azimuths, triangulation, etc.)

4.  GPS with downloaded maps in apps that work without cellular service.  Its fast and efficient... but jumping to this right away hurts when one's phone dies on the second day out.

5.  Map and Lat/Long, Military Grid system, finding terrain slopes, ind square footage of landforms, drainage flows, human land use, visibility over distances, and such.  These are advanced map techniques that few ever learn, or need.

I am glad that your Boy Scouts are willing to learn these skills.  Ours depend upon the adults/parents to show the way which is mostly on well-traveled trails. I use the GPS to disclose the 'you are here' point on a map. I, also, watch the sun and its pathway.  Urban Scouts are hard to reach, very often.  I do not see people in my Troops who use GPS units; a few adults do...mostly Engineers who like gadgets. I do loan out a GPS unit...a Magellan Explorist with downloaded TOPO! the Senior Patrol Leader and I show him how to use it, first.  The Military Grid system is really useless except for military maps and layouts. Backpacker Magazine was trying to promote this a few years ago...I don't know why.  My friends in Latin America ask me where I live and I use Lat/Long and they find me very quickly.  Latin American countries have many very nice Scouting programs....go look!

IMO, better to keep the tools simple and inexpensive and invest time in learning and practicing navigation wherever you may go.  I carry (and know how to use) a Suunto/Silva baseplate protractor-type compass and USGS paper topo map, as well as a small/light, simple, no-frills $ GPS (no e-maps).  I, too, have had the GPS batteries fail when I would've most benefited from the GPS, i.e. navigating to waypoints I'd uploaded into it before the trip, but when it does work properly, it can save A LOT of hiking and am-I-where-I-think-I-am worry, and I really enjoy confirming, plotting and measuring my track on the computer e-topo map when I get back home.   Map and compass have never failed me and are very lightweight, inexpensive, and low maintenance.  And I just love pouring over and making notes on a larger paper map.  But it shocks me how many people I've encountered on a trail who have $$$ GPS with color e-maps, or $$$ heavy surveying/transit compass and laminated maps, but do not know how to use them!  GPS, map, or compass aren't any help unless you know how to USE them!  Kind of like matches aren't much help if you do not know how to lay/build a fire...So, to you scout leaders, keep up the good teaching work.  I mostly taught myself from books and learned a lot participating in local orienteering meets.

I use a topo map and compass and common sense.  I've never been lost but once and in the words of grandma Gatewood "not lost just missed place."  Ha ha... Or in the words of  Daniel Boone " I've never been lost. But once I wasn't real sure where I was for a day or two."  Maybe I can save up and BUY ONE AND  learn how to use GPS....

Thanks for all of the comments. I'm enjoying hearing from our members directly concerning how they think about and how they use their different navigation tools.

@Kevin, thanks for sharing your progression of instruction you use with your Scouts too.

I ment to post yesterday that it's nice to see others involved in Boy Scouts.  Living in Asheville nc. Our troop is blessed with so many places close by. I maybe new to trail space but think this is by far the coolest web site I have found.

Map and compass. A GPS can be very handy under some circumstances, but I never rely on it.

Depends on what i doing and where I am going...

I do take map and compass to 95% of the places I need one..I also am working on a Master Naturalist program so I have to use GPS to get into locations along with looking at a map to get an idea..Mapping invasive species when I see them for the forestry department..I also use Gutthook apps from my phone on long trails..Prime example is their AT app that is accurate and updated each year.It aligns with the GPS in your phone..They also have others for other trails Long trail, PCT, CDT..But even Gutthook says maps are to be utilized....

Topo Map & Good Compass . Also an Altimeter (Sunnto Observer) that has been calibrated at the trail head. Really works well when you are below the tree line. In figuring out where you are on the trail. Also helps triangulate blind turns if you know what mountains you are looking at .

Paul Lapierre said: Altimeter (Sunnto Observer) that has been calibrated at the trail head...

 I like to check calibration at every benchmark along my route - lakes, stream crossings, etc.  I'll log the deviation between bench mark and gage elevations, then recalibrate.  When I get to camp I log the gage reading, and recalibrate if at a benchmark.  The next morning I refer to the gage's current value, comparing it with log entries of the prior day.  These slips from calibration are not the mechanism, it is usually barometric pressure fluctuations.  In other words your altimeter doubles for a barometer.  It won't warn you of local squalls, but it will make apparent when a more substantial system is blowing in.


It is rare that I am ever more than a 1-2 days walk from where I know people to I am usually happy just knowing I am between two known points. For me navigation amounts to a brief mental note of where I am (or think I am) and speculating about when I expect to arrive at the next known point. I do...for the sake of convenience bring some navigation gear...but only because they can help turn a 1-2 day ordeal into a few hours of inconvenience.

If I am familiar with the trail or area I just bring my phone with pre-loaded maps and a GPS app. I almost never use it (usually just for convenience or reassurance)...but it is there if I need it. In addition to the phone I carry a tiny bubble compass in my emergency kit (I replace it about every year and have never used one). I wouldn't even bother with a compass if it weren't for the tree-cover of the areas I visit (spotty knowledge of the sun or north star can make navigation tricky).

If I am less familiar with the place I usually bring a map and/or guide. I could easily get by without them...but you can check them as much as you want and not worry about batteries...and if you make special trail-size copies of just the pages you need with a scanner/printer you can usually store them in a front pocket for super convenience (I like to bring a pen to jot down cool-stuff on the map or guide if I think I might return).

I have never been to a place that was weeks away from known people (by foot anyways)...but if I did I would probably bring a small satellite device that allowed me to send short messages and a more robust emergency kit so that I could employ a "sit-tight" strategy instead of my usual "walk-out" strategy.

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