Using A Compass Vs A GPS For Hiking

compass vs gps pros and cons

One of the items that has been essential for hiking is the compass. It has been vital for successfully navigating from one point to the next, along with a map of course. It is a tried and trusted method for achieving this.

Now, the GPS for hiking has arrived providing a new high tech way to achieve this.  But, is it as good as the old fashioned way of using a compass.

Compass For Hiking

A compass works along with a topographical map to help you plot and navigate your way. For an in depth description of how to read a compass you can see it here.  The magnetized needle always points to magnetic north.

You need to use a map, usually topographical map to use a compass effectively. A map will show you the way to go and the compass will give you the direction. First you need to determine where you are n the map. Then you align the map and compass together so they are both pointing north. Next draw an actual or imaginary line from where you are to where you want to go. The compass face is divided up in to degrees which indicate directions with the major ones being called North, East, West and South. The line will match up to a point on your compass and that will be your bearing or direction to follow to get to your destination.

GPS For Hiking

Using satellite technology it helps you plot where you are and where you want to go. You need to program your GPS unit to help you track your progress, your directions, distance and workout your route. You need to set your waypoints along your route using a topographical map.  Your first waypoint is your start location and your final waypoint is finishing location and you put these in first. You then set various waypoints along the way to help to keep you on track. The instruction manual that comes with the unit will show you how to do this, or you can probably find a video online to demonstrate it.

Here is where get the lowdown on the GPS vs compass for hiking and how they match up.


With a GPS unit you can carry a number of different maps inside it, so you can always call one up to help you in any situation.

A compass can only work with a map you bring along with you. Without a map it is probably next to useless.

Ease Of Use

A GPS unit can take a bit of getting used to learn how to program it and what buttons to push and read the display. Although, it does take a bit of time to get used to it most people can learn how to use them, especially as people get some practice using one in a car, however, this is not as involved as using one for hiking. When you are on the move it is easy to see where you are and what direction you need to traveling in.

To use a compass you need to be able to read a map and understand the points of a compass which can take a bit of time and practice, but it is something that most people can learn. When you are on the move you need to stop and check on the map with the compass to ensure you are traveling in the right direction which can take a bit of time to check.


A GPS unit is not totally accurate but it adjusts itself as you go along as it gets updates on your position from the satellites. It will probably be up to 30 – 40 feet out.
A compass is fairly accurate over short distances but over long distances and the closer to pole it become more inaccurate due to declination – the difference between true north and magnetic north and you will need to make adjustments to keep on track over long distances.


A GPs unit is an electronic device and can break if you drop it. The batteries can run down or there may be a weak signal. These things all result in it not being able to be used. However, providing you have not experienced any of these things it is possible to know your location without being able to see any landmarks because of the satellites.

It is a whole lot harder to break a compass because it is a lot simpler device and it doesn’t need batteries. If you are lost and can’t see any landmarks to help you find where you are on a map it won’t help you at all.


A GPS unit can cost up to $350 or more along with apps and updates. There is also the cost of back up batteries or replacement ones. The cost of keeping it charged etc.

A good compass costs about $10 plus the cost of topographical map and that is the total cost.


A GPS unit is a very useful and convenient way to find your way when hiking once you have learnt how to use it and it does have a number of benefits especially when you are on the move. However, because of the low cost of a compass and it being lightweight it makes a great backup to a GPS for hiking. If your GPS breaks or loses power you can switch over to using a compass.

4 Responses to “Using A Compass Vs A GPS For Hiking”

  • Mary Jane on May 31, 2013

    Very good article! It seems in today’s electronic age, we perhaps are a bit too dependent on GPSs etc? While they certainly have their place, map reading is a survival skill that should not be neglected. Hey, you have to learn how to use the fancy GPS, why not also learn how to use a map and compass?

    • Paul on June 16, 2013

      I agree Mary Jane. Learning to read a map and compass is fun too.

  • David on June 12, 2013

    A good acccurate compass is a little more than $10. The cost of all the topos a GPS can store compared to buying paper copies of all the areas you would ever need is equivalent. You can still lose a compass….Just to be fair.

    • Paul on June 16, 2013

      Good point. Thanks for stopping by.

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