Wait for me, I'm using GPS

April 2008

Researchers have found that walkers using only a GPS (Global Positioning System) to walk with were actually slower, walked further and stopped more often than people using a traditional map and compass. What is more, this work suggests that wholesale reliance on a GPS is actually detrimental to someone's navigation skills.

Toru Ishikawa*, a researcher at the University of Tokyo, has compared groups of people with and without GPS who were asked to find their way around an urban environment. Although the routes were short (between 157 and 325 yards), they did involve a number of turns. Participants in the study were divided up into three groups - one group used GPS to find their way around the route, another group used an A4 sized map and the third group was taken around the route by a 'guide' before having to find their own way.

The group who were shown the route by a 'guide' was the quickest at getting around. The group using GPS was slowest, made most stops and walked furthest. Moreover, this group was also least able to sketch the route afterwards.

The researchers have suggested a number of possible reasons for their observations - the users' unfamiliarity with the technology, the small size of the screen that prevented users seeing their current location and the target at the same time, and the temptation to look at the GPS screen rather than the actual surroundings.

This third factor is interesting because it suggests that over reliance on a GPS makes it hard to build up a mental model of your surroundings - where you are and how you got there. The obvious consequence is that should your batteries fail or your GPS 'lose' its satellite fix for some reason - you would become instantly lost with no idea how to get back safely.

So use a GPS device by all means but always take a proper route description and a map & compass to navigate with. If you do not know how to use a map and compass - learn.

NB. Where GPS data is provided for go4awalk.com routes they consist only of GPS Waypoints for the major decision points along a route rather than a continuous track. In this way you can get the benefits of the technology (for confirming your current position*) but by not having to concentrate on the GPS screen all the time and following a map and/ route guide you reduce the risk of degrading your memory of the route as a whole.

Oh and yes - there's more time to take in the views and the countryside as well!

For more information see Toru Ishikawa's study: ISHIKAWA, T. (2008). Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(1), 74-82 or here

For more information about GPS see GPS The Myths and Truths Parts 1 and 2

For walking routes with downloadable/uploadable GPS Waypoints see GPS Waypoints

For more information about navigating with map and compass see Hill Skills > Navigation Skills for Walkers and Hikers

*Being able to establish your current position is probably the most important navigation skill of all. If you get this wrong - every other decision you make will probably be wrong as well.


“Having spent 15 years in the army, 10 with the Royal Artillery and 5 with the Army Air Corps and then spent the best part of 25 years driving truck around the UK and Europe I'm never without a map and compass (compass not needed in the truck) and I don't think I've ever seen a GPS let alone used one but as we always used to say in the army 'I'm never lost!!!! Just temporarily uncertain of my position'.”

Rob Howden, Leicester.


“I am not in the least surprised by these findings. I have always suspected a GPS was not the ideal way to navigate. I was up Kinder Scout last week, on the edge, near the Downfall, when I saw a chap coming towards me, his head buried in his GPS. He came closer and closer, until he only raised his head just in time to avoid bumping into me. He _might_ not have been like that all day, but I do wonder how much of the scenery he saw on that walk!”

Peter Royle, Uckfield


“The article makes sense for lots of reasons. I find reliance on a GPS makes you lazy, and loses entirely the wider awareness of where you are, and an understanding of the landscape and its historical development that you get from a good map. That said, on the penulitmate stage of the Pennine Way we coundn't make sense of a forested location on the map at all, and would probably still be wandering around Kielder Forest a week later without the GPS. We also walked off our map, and relied on the GPS entirely for the last couple of miles. You can either conclude that downloading the waypoints from go4awalk was invaluable (which it was), or wonder how we got so far north from Derbyshire without getting hopelessly enmired in a bog somewhere and perishing along with our little Etrex. Surprisingly for me, we've found the GPS most useful for navigating small distances around villages, where it is very easy to lose a half hour or so on local roads and paths, if you go wrong. The highlands largely take care of themselves until the mist comes down.”

Neil Fillingham, High Wycombe


“I love this article. Although I use (and enjoy) my GPS, I always have map and compass as well. Can't tell you how many times I've encountered lost hikers with GPS, no compass and inadequate maps.”

Steve Brick, Madison, Wi Usa


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