The navigation system, a key piece to the hiker’s “Ten Essentials” kit, usually means a map and compass. Some hikers swear by their GPS but nevertheless, a good ol’ map doesn’t have batteries to drain, a screen to crack or buttons to break. Does that mean we should be leaving our GPS at home?

However, maps are far from perfect. There are many instances when the labeling might be misleading and new, unfrequented or unmaintained trails may be omitted. In the case that maps fail to provide sufficient information for your adventure, what is the alternative? For me, it has been my iPhone.

During a trekking trip in the French Alps, I found myself standing on a mountain col completely disoriented. Yes, I knew which ways were North and South, but according to my map and based on trail signs, where I was standing was not the location that I should have been and the trail that I had meant to take did not exist.

Col des Frettes, France (Ari Schneider)
Col des Frettes, France (Ari Schneider)

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my iPhone, opened up Google Maps and there it was- the little blue dot that somehow dialed in my location even with my phone turned on to airplane mode. Because I had saved the map of the area in the Google Maps app before leaving for my trip, the map showed me every nearby trail, even the little herd-paths  that wandered across the alpine pastures. Reoriented and now able to find the path I was looking for, my trip continued undisturbed.

Important to note: This strategy only works for me with the Google Maps app. The pre-installed Apple Maps app does not load my location while on airplane mode. Most importantly, always bring a map and compass and have a trip plan before you head out. This navigation method works really well as a backup but should only be used as a backup. However, if you’re really lost, and you’re already carrying your iPhone, it can be a really convenient tool that might mean the difference between an unplanned night in the wilderness and a safe hike out before sunset.

Profile photo of Ari Schneider

Written by Ari Schneider

Outdoorsman, Journalist, Type 2 fun expert.

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