GPS For Adventure

So, we recently ran a poll on our Instagram asking if you carried a dedicated GPS unit as a backup in your kit.

The answers surprised us – 70% of those who responded actually said no.


Now we understand that those answering the poll may be just getting outdoors as a casual hobby, may not have even started their outdoor journey yet and follow us for inspiration, may not be Mountain leaders or outdoor professionals so there are all sorts of reasons they may not be carrying a GPS unit. Or maybe they are using their smartphone with a GPS app as is very common these days.


However, what we’ve also seen is almost a bravado about stating you would never use one, that your old school map and compass does all you need, and you won’t dirty yourself with one of these devices. In our opinion this is a dangerous attitude if you are leading groups or heading to the truly remote parts of the world.


I can tell you that here at MDA we hold old school Map & Compass skills in our top three skills for adventure, we teach navigation and pride ourselves on this skill BUT every single one of us here carries a dedicated GPS unit as a backup in our kit and frankly any instructor working with us in the mountains or true wilderness, we would expect them to have one also…


So, let’s take a quick look at the benefits of a dedicated GPS, the benefits over just using your smart phone and why we see a dedicated GPS as essential kit for any outdoor leader whether your being paid or just leading a group of friends.


Pros of a GPS unit over your phone


  • ANTENNA – Your phone has a tiny GPS antenna compared to a dedicated unit – this means your far more likely to lock onto satellites and get a good GPS signal when you need it.
  • CHOICE – Modern GPS units will be able to lock onto GLONASS (Russian equivalent of GPS) the US GPS satellites as well as the GALILEO satellites ( EU). Being able to use multiple systems will of course expand your service and different systems work better in different environments. GALILEO for example is said to be better in urban environments but GLONASS is supposedly better in deep valleys and wooded environments.
  • BATTERY LIFE – Your Smart phone is being used as a camera, maybe a fitness tracker, maybe GPS and of course a phone. GPS is just doing its thing so of course the dedicated battery will last longer.
  • SAFETY – linking into the battery life, using a dedicated GPS unit for your nav back up means you can preserve your phone battery for any potential emergency calls. If you need to call Mountain Rescue, then you don’t want to find your battery is dead.

Some modern GPS receivers can also now access weather and live weather radar via satellite – invaluable on longer trips and expeditions.

  • COMMUNICATE – With the advent of the Garmin Inreach mini and now that technology has been incorporated into the newer GPS MAP units you can use the Iridium satellite phone network to send text messages to friends and family anywhere in the world even when there is no phone signal. If you’re on expedition then basecamp/family/friends/sponsors can follow along online using the satellite tracking and should anything go horrendously wrong there is an SOS button to call in the rescue to wherever you are on the planet. (oh, and bearing in mind the world we live in – need to update social media for your brand or sponsors from that remote basecamp? Yes, the satellite comms feature will link to your phone and allow that too!)


Leadership and GPS



As a mountain leader I like to lead by example and wherever I can use my map and compass skills, hopefully imparting some knowledge on this subject as we go. However, with a large group, on trickier terrain, or when the weather has closed in or maybe even particularly demanding clients then being able to free up some headspace is absolutely a godsend. I can if needed relax a tiny bit knowing I have GPS pre-loaded with my route for that day, relevant waypoint markers and key features allowing me to free up time and concentration to keep my group safe, on track, motivated or entertained. A good leader’s role is not simply to make sure the group is safe and doesn’t get lost but is to ensure the group has a good day.



Modern society loves gadgets and almost expect their use. You will undoubtedly have clients at some point who have bought themselves a shiny new GPS and expect you to help them figure it out. You may have clients who wish you to teach them how to integrate GPS into their newfound navigation skills. We have had clients we have trained and supported for their international expedition goals who we trained in the use of GPS as a backup, pre-loaded their units with maps and even when no good maps were available uploaded satellite imagery to their GPS units to use alongside Long/Lat coordinates.



As a leader in the outdoor industry, you wouldn’t venture out with clients without insurance, would you? No of course not, you hope to never need it but regardless you have it. GPS can be seen in the same light. You have a duty of care to your clients to take every step possible to ensure they are safe so why wouldn’t you want a device in your pack that at the push of a button will confirm your location, put you back on track (we all get geographically embarrassed at some point) or worst case gives that immediate 10 fig grid to pass onto Mountain Rescue.


  • EGO

Just because you have a GPS unit doesn’t mean you have to use it , you can still wherever possible continue with your map and compass in fact we recommend that you do!

But don’t let ego get in the way of common sense. When I was in the army, I prided myself on my map and compass skills, I refused to purchase or use a GPS as I wanted my land nav skills to be on fire in prep for a career course I had my eye on. However, the first time I deployed to Afghanistan I had to let my ego slide.

The middle of a contact is not the time to be doing a re-section to work out your location and guessing is not for winners when it comes to fast air or fire support! It’s the same now as an ML, should the worst happen and I need mountain rescue I don’t want to be guessing, I don’t want to be smashing out bearings for my re- section and I don’t want approximate I want exact and I want it fast.

I also don’t want a dead smart phone as I’ve been using it instead of GPS! It’s simple I would pull my GPS from my pack and boom 10 fig grid right when I need it.


To Conclude


If you’re only ever going to play near the paths, only ever going to be outdoors just you and a couple of friends then maybe a dedicated GPS unit is not needed. Good map and compass, maybe a smart watch and your smart phone as back-up will most likely be just fine. If you’re an outdoor professional or making a habit of leading larger groups of friends and certainly if you’re planning on playing abroad then put aside any ego and look at carrying a good quality GPS unit.


If you have any questions on what features to look for then please do get in touch, we’re always happy to talk gear!