The Case for Traditional Navigation

I’ve spent a lot of time banging the drum about the necessity and superiority of traditional navigation skills (map and compass). This is increasingly a lost art with the proliferation of convenient apps and devices, and even though a lot of hikers state a desire to learn how to use traditional means, the convenience of using a phone is difficult to overcome.

In addition to the convenience, the increasing reliance on applications has made traditional means of navigation more and more mysterious over time to the point where it appears that some hikers might not be able to tell you which direction is north if you took their phone away. I’ve said a thousand times that, if your phone fails, you are screwed. But I think there’s another way to look at the importance of traditional navigation that doesn’t require badgering people about their dangerous reliance on fallible technology.

Rather than focus on what people lose from not knowing how to use a map and a compass, I’m going to use this space to focus on what people gain by using a map and a compass. In order to put up with the inconvenience of a map, and in order to put aside the phone, there has to be some assurance that this will make your hiking life better. And here is that assurance: traditional navigation creates a relationship with the environment and a sense of self-reliance that you cannot achieve with an app.

Screen Time

The average American spends 3 hours and 35 minutes using their phone. That’s just less than a quarter of your waking hours, and that figure does not account for time spent in front of televisions or in front of computer monitors at work. And given the increasing popularity of notions such as “technology diets,” there’s awareness stirring among the phone-using public that maybe there should be some limits placed on screen usage.

Nature is the perfect anecdote to screen usage, as it produces numerous beneficial physiological and psychological impacts that can reduce our overall stress levels – something which screens cannot do. It’s a sound strategy to balance out the unavoidable digital stimulation with green time, but what happens when you’re constantly referring back to your phone to make sure that you’re not lost? You undermine nature’s ability to provide the antidotal benefits to screen time, and you find yourself gazing back into yet another screen over and over again during your attempt to get away from it all.

When you put the phone down and pick up a paper map, you give yourself a much-needed respite from overwhelming digital stimulation. It allows our cortexes to readjust to the natural environment without continued digital interruptions, and it enables the beneficial physiological and psychological impacts of nature to work uninterrupted.

Inattentional Blindness

As you follow the breadcrumbs on your phone app, your attention is drawn back to the screen time and again to ensure that you stick to the trail. Attention is a finite capacity in humans, meaning we only have so much of it to give. When we divide it on a stimulus that has a compulsive quality we struggle to ignore, such as a smart phone, we have much less attention to spend on our surroundings. Additionally, GPS apps feed us information about where we need to turn, which removes a critical component of traditional navigation: paying attention to your surroundings.

These tendencies can contribute to a phenomenon called inattentional blindness, which basically means that things you don’t pay attention to our invisible to you. Sure, you may notice certain aspects of the landscape as you navigate with your phone, but you are not engaging with them actively as you would in traditional navigation. This leaves you with a lack of awareness of qualities in the landscape, which basically means that you see and experience a lot less because your attention is split with your phone AND because you haven’t trained yourself to notice those things.

When you navigate with a map and compass, you constantly use physical landmarks as reference points, which creates a much more active engagement with the surrounding environment. You notice far more features and become more intimately aware of the geography, landscape, and physical attributes of the place you are traveling through.

The Atrophy of Navigation Skills

Centuries before the Spanish arrived in Southern California, the Cahuilla people created a vast network of trails navigating what is today some of the most remote and inhospitable landscapes in the region. The Cahuilla thrived because of their mastery of navigation, which enabled them to establish trade routes, routes between seasonal villages, and locations for reliable food and game sources.

Contrast that with the man who drives 225 miles past his intended destination because he was following a GPS app that provided faulty information on the road network. The human race has moved from a people who could determine their location by recognition and sun position to a people who end up in the wrong place because the spoon fed location turned out wrong.

Navigational skills are a muscle, and if you don’t use them, you lose them. Many adults who once knew how to read maps have forgotten how to due to the convenience of smartphones. Other people never even learn how to read a map because there appears to be no reason to. This leaves you tethered to your phone for survival, which given the stories of tech failure, could cause a significant crisis, leaving us lost on a trail with no means of help. Gaining self-reliance through the development of a skill is not only a perfect anecdote to this alarming trend, but it’s far more assuring to know that you aren’t betting your life on a flawed system.

You’re Never Really Lost

Fun fact: I have only been lost on a trail once. That accounts for more than 1,000 hikes and nearly 8,000 miles on trail. The one time I got lost was because I relied on a phone that stopped working. Since then, I’ve relied on written trail descriptions, which provide important context and clues for navigation. I’ve relied on maps and compass. Because I don’t experience inattentional blindness, I know local landscapes like I know the back of my hand, and thanks to that, I am never truly lost. I may go the wrong way from time to time, but the map and my navigational skills always help me recover.

This isn’t a brag. Yes, I’m a little proud of this, but the real importance here is that I can literally go anywhere and, provided I go prepared and bring the resources I need, I will not get lost. I’ve gone to some of the remote places in Southern California, and I have never felt concerned that I would get lost. Contrast that against the limitations that arise when you can’t find the GPS track you want on AllTrails. If you cannot navigate, you are limited by crowd-sourced resources that are often inaccurate can provide.

Imagine for a moment the freedom of knowing that between you and your map, you can go anywhere without the fear or the anxiety of getting lost. That’s what you stand to gain by mastering traditional navigation. You lose your sense of inattentional blindness. You spend less time on your screen. You maintain a skill that represents one of the greater human capacities – Magellan made it around the world without Gaia, after all. And more than anything, you enjoy the sense of self-reliance that cannot be attained through the use of a phone.

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