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Using GPS and smartphones as navigation aids

GPS devices and smartphones are increasingly being used for navigation in the mountains.

Many devices will let you pre-plot a route using mapping software on your PC (such as Memory Map, Anquet etc.), or download a prepared route from elsewhere, such as the Walkhighlands website. The line of the pre-planned route can then be shown on the screen.

It sounds the ideal solution for finding your way safely about the hills, but it’s important to realise there are limitations to technology and that safe navigation involves the skills to read and interpret a map rather than just blindly following an arrow. Mountain rescue teams respond to many call-outs because of GPS/smartphone failure or because people are unable to use the technology properly.

Electronic navigation aids are currently available in a handheld GPS, watch or smartphone format

There are too many devices on the market to advise readers which one is best. Functionality varies enormously depending on the brand, model and price, so you should research carefully prior to purchase.

The following tips may help you choose the right device for you:

  • For use in a mountain environment a major consideration is ‘battery life’, particularly in a cold environment when batteries will drain quicker. 
  • It is tempting to go for the smart phone option: that way you are only carrying one device.  But be wary, as your smart phone is also your emergency communication device; if the batteries are drained using it as a navigation aid then it may not be functional for an emergency call.
  • Can you read the screen in bright sunlight?
  • Can you use the touch screen with gloves on?
  • Consider how robust the model is. Would it survive an unintentional drop onto a rocky surface or be waterproof?

It is recommended that you also carry a power pack with a USB connection so that you can recharge your device. You should remember, however, that it may be difficult to do this in rain or extreme weather.

Whichever option you choose, you should take the time to learn how to use it well and understand both how it works and its limitations. This should be done in a safe/low level environment where you can easily find your way off the hill if the technology (or your knowledge of it!) falls short.

Occasionally GPS signals are jammed by the military for training purposes. We are sometimes informed of when this is scheduled to happen and include a news story on the website if the jamming is likely to affect hill walkers, though there are also GPS jamming exercises which are not announced.

 Regardless of which device you choose you should still carry and be able to navigate effectively with a paper map and compass.

Even if you have a smartphone or GPS with full OS mapping, it can't read and interpret the map for you. All it can do is show your position - being able to actually interpret the map correctly remains an essential skill.

You need to be able to understand from the map what the terrain will be like, choose suitable routes from it and be able to make decisions about changing your route if you need to. For example, in the winter, there may be a dangerous cornice where a summer route runs close to the edge of the cliffs above a corrie. Plans may also change, the weather may close in, heavy rain might mean that a burn won't be crossable, there may be an accident. All such eventualities can’t be pre-programmed into a GPS, so everyone needs to be able to look at the map – whether on paper or a screen – and work out the best way to adjust any route to deal with changing situations.

Every hill and mountain walker needs to learn how to interpret a map, and to navigate effectively using a map and compass, including in poor visibility.

Read more about navigation


For those less sure of their abilities, Mountaineering Scotland offer excellent navigation courses from just £35 including basic skills, night and winter navigation.

Find out about courses

Most dedicated GPS devices are of rugged construction and are reasonably waterproof. Smartphones can be much more fragile, though waterproof cases are available and they can be used with care. Some smartphones are 'rugged' models which may be waterproof and better able to stand up to knocks - probably a good choice for those wanting to take them into the outdoors.

Download the free OS Locate app onto your phone. A simple, quick tool which shows your location in a OS Grid Reference format which you can transfer onto your map to confirm your location.

Remember, any form of modern navigation technology should be viewed as an additional ‘tool of the trade’ to add to your navigation tool box.  It should never be relied upon as a stand-alone method to navigate.