Gps and Paper Maps

January 6, 2022

Not a competition!

Each of the 500 walks on this website has a link to a GPX file. Personally I do not use a prescribed route but plan any walk from the paper version. The paper maps allow me to gain a feel of the land you are about to walk in and I love spreading one out on the walk to reference the land around. However I also use the O/S mapping app on my phone to pinpoint my exact position.

There is some misunderstanding about how GPS and paper can be used and when they are best used. Hopefully the following will help explain.

How a GPS works

A Navigation Aid!
A Navigation Aid!

GPS (Global Positioning System) works by finding your exact location via the use of a series of satellites drawn from the American military satellite system. Your device (weather handheld or an app on your smartphone) pull these together to work out your location. At a basic level this can simply provide a 6 or 8 figure grid reference (I use Grid Reference FreeOS app) and then convert this location on to a paper map). Easy and useful.

At a second level the location from the satellites can be used to pin point a position on an O/S map (1.25 or 1.50k). Like a satnav in a car it positions you on a map, in this case an online map. There are a number of devices and apps available for this but I prefer the O/S mapping app which I use on my smartphone. For roughly £25 a year you can (nearly) always use the 1.25,000 online map provided to show your position. I find this useful if I am unsure exactly where I am (which of course as a Mountain Leader never happens!!).

Downloaded Routes

On a third level you can pre plan your route (either by yourself on your laptop or downloaded from websites such as this). Then the route is simply added it to either the on line map or used as a series of coordinates. Therefore your route is clearly outlined on the GPS device/phone (and not in your head or drawn on a paper map) . Personally I do not like to use an exactly prescribed route anyway and prefer the flexibility of making my choices whilst out and about.

On Line Route Up Ingleborough
On Line Route Up Ingleborough

There is no need to have a phone signal to read a GPS. However some of the older mapping tools only load (or load very slowly) without an internet signal. The location my be there but not the map!

When does a GPS not work?

From a practical point of view failing to get a ‘fix’ only happens when batteries run down on the device (usually the smartphone). Alternatively the device may get wet and does not work, the tracking on the device is not switched on or if the American military decide to turn their signals off! This happens rarely. One word of warning however. If you have on line maps open on your phone for an extended period they will run your battery down quickly.

Using Paper Maps (and Compass)

Enjoying the views on Dove Crag
Enjoying the views on Dove Crag

The Mountain Rescue teams and 95% of any outdoor walking companies will strongly recommend the use of a paper map on any walk and the ability to use it. I certainly do.

The main reason is that using a GPS makes map readers lazy. In essence the GPS device/phone gives you your location at any point in time which is great. What it does not do is help you interprate the land by understanding how a map works. You cannot learn how to navigate without learning on a large scale map. There are numerous examples of things that can go wrong which entail moving off a prescribed route of having to look at a larger map which cannot be seen on a small screen. ie: it tells you what the problem is but not how to sort it out.

There may be an accident, members of a party may struggle, a river on route may be impassable after rain or you simply fancy shortening or changing the route. Any change of route requires the individual to interpret the map, look at the contours, the boundaries, paths and navigate successfully. This is much more straightforward by using a paper map (as long as you understand how it works).

Another practical reason for not being wedded only to a GPS’s is that anyone heading for the higher hills may need to use a compass. On line compasses are hopeless.

How I use a Paper Map

Sussing out an alternative route
Sussing out an alternative route

The previous sections describe the more practical aspects of using a GPS or/and a paper map. The following reasons are why I will continue using paper maps and recommend everyone to, at least learn the mechanics of navigation, on them.

  • To Plan a Walk. There is nothing better than laying out a paper map in the warmth of your home and ‘looking for walks’. Discover the best options by using the features on the map to picture the day, look for alternatives and work out some rough timings.
  • Route Alternatives. Once on the walk you can have some alternatives depending on the terrain you are on and how you and the party feel. Spread the map out and look.
  • Compass Bearings. It is much easier to take bearings on an ‘orientated’ map when you are in cloud or low visibility. I enjoy using compasses; following a bearing in such conditions is very satisfactory.
  • Looking at what’s around. The size and detail of a paper map enables you to stop, look around and work out what is where eg: which mountains, villages etc: A great excuse for a rest but make sure the map is orientated correctly.

Difficulties of a Paper Map

An easily folded map
An easily folded map

The O/S paper maps can be difficult to manage in bad weather, it can be easier to pull out your phone. I do not like the laminated O/S map versions (they are too large and the features fainter. Therefore I usually pre fold the normal non laminated maps to the appropriate walking area (take the cover off if necessary) and have a handy sandwich bag if it rains. The maps therefore fit neatly in to my jacket map pocket.

The O/S maps do contain a lot of detail. Some of it is difficult to read particularly if the light is not good. However if you are really struggling have a look at Harvey Maps. They are very good and clearer. Much of the clutter has been removed (such as parish and council boundaries) yet the principles are the same as O/S maps. Once you can read an O/S map you can read a Harvey’s map.


My preference is to use both! A GPS locater can be extremely useful to see exactly where you are (although of course everyone should know) and sometimes having a peak on your phone when there is a route choice is more convenient. However any use of GPS is no substitute for a paper map, simply an addition.

Enjoy your Walking


  • Mark P says:

    Hybrid approach for myself. I’ve switched to planning on the OS maps online with aerial view to spot tracks and even google streetview, especially to find parking spots. Much better though I miss the whole-table covered OS map ritual.

    The app with downloaded maps is great but I always take a compass and paper map as well – the OL if I have it or a printout.

    I have an extra battery for the phone and usually use that. but more paper maps if I’m with my kids as it’s a skill they need to know.

    Compass still gets used occasionally, especially in low visibility, as I agree the phone isn’t good enough. Will introduce it to my children more as they get older as it’s still a needed skill

  • David Aldington says:

    I confess to being a GPS only walker, having ditched my paper maps about 10 years ago. I plan walks on a laptop or iPad at home where the screen is large enough to see a reasonable area and I can plot routes and measure distances without having to draw on a paper map or use a measurer wheel. When out on walks, I take two fully charged phones in waterproof cases along with a power bank just in case. I have all of the YD and LD National Parks downloaded as 1:25000 OS maps on the Maverick app and access to them on Outdooractive as well if required. I find it useful to know my exact position to check I’m not straying off public footpaths and the ability to zoom in and out is invaluable. I’ve never felt at all concerned even in dense mist on featureless fells because I can see my direction of travel and proximity to any potential hazards without having the hassle of repeatedly pulling out a paper map and compass. I guess I may be a lazy navigator but my phones give me all the information I need. The OS maps are kept up to date and the Skyline View features on Outdooractive and OS Maps give me the names of peaks, water features and settlements within view to add interest. I also like the ability to switch to aerial imagery so I can check if a track marked on an OS map is a surfaced shooting road or no longer exists, or even to look for a gateway in a wall to save having to climb over it. I think GPS positioning is pretty reliable now with the addition of Glonass and Galileo but if it did fail, I still have an OS map, altimeter and compass on my devices.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks David. The main point I am making is that both have their advantages and whilst I use a combination everyone is different, its what suits the individual. Some people are comfortable with technology, some are less so.
      The most important thing is that anyone venturing on to the fells can read and interprate an O/S map whether on paper or on line. Witout that ability you will get lost whatever aid you have in your pockets!

  • Fiona Goddard says:

    I agree with you, we use both. The fun of laying the map out at home exploring the route makes it more tangible and gives perspective. Once walking we have started to use the Ordnance Survey maps on the phone as you can zoom in without having to get the glasses out and seeing the arrow of where you are can be occasionally helpful! We always have the paper map for back up. We have found your Dales book invaluable when we visited. We often refer to that as well. I would always purchase the map and then use the code to download the map onto the phone.

  • Kathleen Curtiss says:

    I attended your intermediate map reading course a few years ago now, as a refresher. I have a smart phone with OS locate on it..that’s all. I’d love to be able to combine both technologies as you describe. I still rely on paper maps and a compass, as I’ve done for well over 50 years .
    Would you consider a course where both new and old technologies are used ?

    • Jonathan says:

      Hi Kathleen, rather than a seaparate course I may just include it as part of the normal 1 and 2 day courses. I how I use the technology is described in the peice.
      Glad you are using paper and map, still the best!

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