Smartphone Navigation: Why it’s not crazy!

If you follow us on facebook or twitter you know that last Saturday we taught a class on Smartphone Navigation at the Fort Collins Sierra Trading Post.

It was a risky move, we knew we’d encounter resistance.

A lot of outdoor purists scoff at the notion that a smartphone could even be remotely useful in the wilderness. The manager of the Fort Collins Sierra Trading Post confirmed that with us when he mentioned that his customers were skeptical about the class.

But here’s the deal.

Your smartphone is just another tool in your daypack. It’s nestled between other tools: a knife, a first-aid kit, a fire starting device, a water purifier, a map, a compass, a GPS and so on.

To rely solely upon any one of these tools without a backup or knowing how to properly use them isn’t such a good idea.

A smartphone is the same way.


Sure there are limitations, it relies on a battery after all and nothing zaps a battery like using the GPS on a mobile device. It’s fragile, it’s expensive, it can be hard to read a cell phone screen in sunlight, you’ll need an app (we recommend Avenza pdf maps) and apps can get buggy, it can be hard to get a GPS signal and so on.

But, smartphones also are lightweight and portable. They take up minimal room in a pack and you can pack a ton of information on your device. Chances are that you’re probably hiking with one anyway.

Maybe you won’t be in a area where your mobile phone can use its internal GPS to track your route but you can still download USGS maps onto your mobile phone using Avenza and then use them as a map.

If we can convince you of one thing it’s to download a map on your cell phone and tuck it away when you’re hiking just in case your paper map gets wet or blows away and the batteries on your GPS unit bite the dust.

And we’d love to show you how!

Join us this Saturday at noon at the Cheyenne Sierra Trading Post for a class on Smartphone Navigation. Bring your full charged mobile phone and be prepared to head outside.

We hope you can make it–even if you think we’re crazy for thinking that mobile phones are useful in the backcountry!


Don’t lose your Garmin Waypoints or Tracks with BaseCamp

What would you do if you accidentally deleted all the waypoints on your Garmin by tapping the wrong button? Or maybe you are starting to get confused by all the waypoints cluttering your GPS but you don’t want to delete some of those cool places. The same goes for your track files.

BaseCamp is a great solution for these problems. And because it’s free you can download it and play around with it with no commitment at all. You don’t even have to create another username and password for a myGarmin account, unless of course that’s what you want. BaseCamp can do a lot of really cool things but I want to cover some of the basics here to get you started.


Open this image in a new window so you can see it larger and refer to it through the rest of this post.

Back up waypoints from your GPS:

All you have to do is connect your Garmin to your computer with the USB cord. As soon as your computer recognizes the GPS it will show up in the top left corner of the window. Next go to the File drop down menu and select “create a new list.” Once you’ve done this its just a matter of selecting the waypoints and tracks on your GPS then dragging and dropping them into your new list just like you’d move a file from a thumb drive to your computer. This entire process works in reverse too, so when you want those waypoints back on your GPS just drag them from the list over to the Garmin and drop them.

Create and edit waypoints on your computer:

This may not seem like a cool feature, but stop and think for a second how much of a pain it is to type in coordinates on your GPS. It doesn’t matter if it’s lat/long, UTM, or MGRS it is a hassle. You can use BaseCamp to plug in those coordinate, name the point, fill out all the extra information you want, change the symbol, make some notes, whatever, then just drag it over to your GPS. To edit waypoints, just double click on one in the left hand menu and to create a new one use the flag symbol in the “creation tools” options at the top of the window.

Edit your track files:

This feature also may not seem all that necessary but what if you hiked half of a trail one day, and the other half another day but only wanted one track file to represent the entire trail. Or, what if you got yourself a little bit lost between point the car and the lake and while you want to keep the route you finally found, you also want to get rid of the part of the track where you were hopelessly off course. These are two excellent reasons why you may want to edit your tracks. You can double click on a track to edit all it’s details just like a waypoint. If you select two or more tracks and right click on them, you can also join them together.

Organize your files:

Once you start to get a lot of waypoints and tracks from a lot of different places you’ll want to organize them. With BaseCamp you can create lists and folders to your hearts content to help you organize all of your GPS data. As it stands right now I have 1,670 waypoints backed up on my computer along with 794 tracks and 1 route. Even with all that, I can very quickly find the what I’m looking for.

Again, BaseCamp can do a lot of other cool things, and maybe I’ll get to some of them another time, but for now, if you’re looking for a way to manage your GPS data and the price and complexity of other software has scared you off, give this one a try. I feel like I should add that I’m not on the Garmin payroll or anything. I’m sure there are other good options out there for all the major GPS brands, but I can only talk about what I know.

Did this help? Did it create more questions? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.

Finding maps, rulers, and good websites.

Where is the best place to get maps? How about map tools? What are some good websites for weather?


I downloaded this Map from the USGS site

  •  If you are only interested in topographic maps then you can’t beat the USGS Map Locator and Downloader. Through this website you can download a PDF version of any USGS map for free or you can order one (prices vary based on type) and have it shipped to you. This is my main source for maps, I’ve downloaded a ton, ordered several, its easy and they have great historical maps too.
  • Another fun website is the National Map Viewer. This site lets you play with different layers to get better information on things like streams or roads. You can download and order maps from this site too but it’s more complicated than using the USGS site and over half the time the website will time out without processing my request.
  • If you can’t wait to have a map shipped or you just want to hold it before you buy it, many outdoors and hunting stores will carry USGS topo maps. The USGS website has a page that will help you find a local map dealer.

Map Tools:

  • Lat Long Ruler in Action

    For all your map tool needs I recommend No matter what kind of protractor, square or ruler you are looking for, they will have it. They also have some great map reading and navigation tutorials.

Weather / Sun & Moon
  • Do you want a weather forecast for you camping spot, you know, the one that isn’t even close to the smallest of small towns? The National Weather Service has a site that will give you current weather and a forecast based on Latitude and Longitude Coordinates. You can enter them in the box that asks for the city, state or zip code.
  • Do you want to know when the sun will rise and how many hours of daylight you will have at your out of the way camp site? Check out the NOAA Solar Calendar. It’s handy google earth layout is easy to use or you can also type in your own coordinates.
  • Lets not forget that NOAA also has a declination calculator too.

These are some of my go to web sites for navigation related information. Where do you turn for this type of information?


How to Find Yourself

We’ve put together a video on how to use a map and compass to find yourself and as usual there is a text version below.

Understanding how to use a compass along with reading the terrain around you and comparing it to a topo map will provide all the information you need to confirm where you are or find where you are. The first step is to orient your compass, your map, and yourself to magnetic north so you and your tools have the same frame of reference.

Next, look around at the terrain for things that will give you a rough idea of where you are on the map. Let say you are at a road intersection. You can look for road intersections on the map as a place to start. But be careful when you do this. Roads move a lot more often than you think they do, even major highways. Check the data on the edges of your map for the date of the information and always take road information with a grain of salt.

Suppose you see a sign that says 707B. The sign here is a little sketchy and you should remain suspect but it makes for a decent place to start in pin pointing your location.

Then, describe the terrain around you. Notice that there are mountains to your west and they are running generally from north to south. Notice that to your east the ground is clear of trees and is sloping down away from you.

Next look at your map and see if what you just described matches where you think you are.

Since the terrain matches you should have more confidence that you are at the start of Forest Road 707B.

But we can be more confident of this if we use our compass. Pick at least two prominent terrain features that you can see from where you are standing and are also on your map. They should form as close to a 90° angle as possible. I’ll use Point Crawford and a rocky hilltop to the south.

The hilltop is at a direction of 166° from you. But you need the direction from the hilltop to you, so add 180 to 166 to get 346°.

Then orient the map to magnetic north. Rotate the center ring of the compass so that 346° lines up with the center line. Place the center line on the hilltop and rotate the compass until the north line aligns with the north needle. Make a point at the end of the center line and then draw a line from the hilltop through the point. You are somewhere along this line.

Do the same with the second land mark. Where these two lines intersect is near your location. There is likely to be some error in your calculation but this will give you a very close approximation to where you are.

How to Use a Compass

We’ve put together a video on basic compass skills. As usual, we’ve added a text version below.

Suppose you are located at the East Trailhead for Headquarters Trail. You want to go straight to Point Crawford. There are two ways you can determine the direction you have to walk.

The first is to measure the direction using a map square or protractor on the UTM grid and convert that to a magnetic direction. Make sure you have the UTM grid lines drawn on your map. Then draw a straight line from your location to your destination. Extend this line long enough to cross one of the UTM grid lines.

You want to find out the angle of this line you’ve drawn. Take a map square that has angular measurements around the edges and place it on the map with the center on your line. Then slide it to the nearest UTM grid line so you can make sure that north on the square lines up with north on the grid.

You can also do the same process with your map compass.

Then read the angular measurement. For us that is 202°. After we account for declination we know we need to hike at a bearing of 191°.

The other way to determine your direction of travel is use a map compass with the map oriented to magnetic north. First orient the north line on the compass with the center line on the compass base plate. Next, place the compass on the map with the center line on the base plate aligned with north south edge of the map. Then rotate the map (and compass with it) until the north seeking needle lines up with the north line (and the center line, and the grid line). Now the map is oriented toward magnetic north.

Next place the compass on your current location with the center line pointed toward Point Crawford. Then rotate just the ring on the compass to align the north line with the north seeking needle. Read the degree measurement at the center line to get 198°. No conversion is necessary because the map has been oriented towards magnetic north.

Notice that these two different techniques gave us two different numbers. Its important to understand that your map tools only have a certain precision and making these measurements by hand is going to create some errors.

It is important to be as careful as you can but also use your understanding of the terrain to help complete the navigational picture. How precise you are largely depends on what you are looking for. Is it one single tree where you stashed your buried treasure or a prominent hill top with great scenery?

Either way once you have your direction figured out, align that direction with the aiming lines on your compass. Then choose physical object between your compass and your destination and walk toward it.

Find more from our Navigation Skills series here.

The Compass and Declination

There are many different types of compasses and I’m not going to pretend to show you all of them. My goal is to show you the basic compass types and how to best use them.

Lensatic Compass

The two most common types are the lensatic compass and the map compass. The lensatic compass will usually open and close and is designed with aiming lines and mirrors or magnifying lenses so you can get a very accurate direction measurement, even over long distances.

Map Compass

The Map compass is usually mounted on a protractor so it has a clear bottom. It also has directional lines and measuring tools around the edges. These make it deal for use along with a map.

There are also small compasses and electronic compasses such as those in a GPS unit or a smartphone. These I recommend only for quick reference and not for serious navigation. It’s not that they aren’t accurate (although some need regular calibration) it’s just that they aren’t designed for serious navigation tasks.

GPS and iPhone Compass

Small Reference Compass

I’m going to assume you know that all compasses point north. Or to be more accurate, they point to the magnetic north pole which is different from the physical north pole.

Understanding how this difference works is important before you can safely use a compass to navigate.

The difference in angle between the physical north pole and the magnetic north pole is called declination. Declination is different for every location on earth and it changes over time because the earths magnetic field is not fixed.

You can find the declination for anywhere on earth from NOAA at the website and it will be listed on the bottom of your USGS 1/24,000 topo map.

Declination Key

For this map, the line with the star at the end represents physical north, sometimes called true north. The line with GN at the end represents grid north, this is the orientation for the UTM grid on the map sheet. And the line with MN at the end represents magnetic north.

The declination listed here as 11°E. This means that if you wanted to walk towards true north and simply followed your compass you would actually be walking 11° to the east of where you wanted to go. This would get you very confused if not lost.

To correct for this adjust your compass 11° west by subtract 11° from your direction, which is 0° to get 349°. So to walk towards true north you would have to point your compass at the angle 349° instead of 0°.

Also notice that the difference between magnetic north and grid north is 11°17′. So to go from north on the UTM grid to North on your compass you would have to subtract 11°17′. Most compasses aren’t designed to measure anything below degrees so it’s best to just round it off. Since there are 60 minutes in one degree this measurement rounds down and for this map sheet we’ll leave it at 11°.

Find more in our Navigation Skills series here.

How to Fold a Map

It’s an dilemma as old as maps themselves. You need the information on a map but they are a pain to store and carry around. Our video shows the best way to fold the map for carrying and storage:

As usual if you aren’t a fan of the moving pictures there is a text version below.

We really like the 1/24,000 scale USGS maps but carrying it as a sheet is pretty awkward and will guarantee a short lifespan for the map. Carrying it rolled up protects the map better but is still hassle to carry.

Some people like to cut their maps down to get rid of things they don’t need like the white space around the edges and anything outside of where they are going. This is a bad idea. The information around the edges is very important to have even when you aren’t lost and even terrain far away from where you are hiking can still provide important landmarks for navigation.

The best option is to fold the map. Or I should say, the best option is to fold the map the right way.

Lay your map face up on a table. Note where the map name is located in the top left and bottom left corners.

Fold the map in half bringing the edge with the names over to the edge without the names.

Then fold this same edge half way back and do the same with the other edge so the map is now folded into long quarters.

Then find the map names again. Fold the top name down so it touches the bottom name.

Then fold it halfway back and do the same for the other side. Now you have a neatly folded map with the map name conveniently faced up no matter how you set it down.