Which is better for navigation — compass or GPS?

Compass vs GPS — the Pros and the Cons

In order to determine which is better -- compass or GPS -- we need to t­ake a good look ­at the pros and cons of each. First, let's check out the pros and cons of the compass.


  • It's a lightweight, pocket-sized device -- perfect for when you need to travel light.
  • It's inexpensive. You can buy a basic compass for around $10.
  • It needs no external power to operate. You take it out of the box, and it's good to go.
  • In fact, a compass is so simple, you can make one yourself with stuff you probably have in your own home.


  • You need to learn a few skills in order to read a compass properly. Most people know they should always carry a compass, but do they all know how to actually use it?
  • Without a map, a compass really only shows you north, and that's it.
  • If you're completely lost and don't know where anything is, your compass may not be useful all.

Now, let's check out the pros and cons of GPS:


  • You can carry a huge variety of maps in the palm of your hand. The unit will pinpoint exactly where you are on the map.
  • The electronic compass is easier to use than a traditional compass when you're on the move. The GPS unit will let you know how much distance you've covered and how much further you have to go.
  • It will even tell you your altitude.


  • A GPS unit runs on batteries. What if they run out? You can always carry extras, but that's adding extra weight to your pack.
  • A GPS unit is an electronic device -- it can break or stop working if you drop it or if it gets wet.
  • GPS units are expensive. A basic unit will cost around $100, and the more advanced ones can run upward of $350.
  • It requires a strong signal to work accurately. It won't receive a signal inside most buildings or in caves and sometimes under heavy forest canopy or even just a cloudy day.

Final conclusion: A GPS unit may provide you with much more detailed navigational information than you could ever get with a compass. But because it relies on battery power and a clear signal, any trekker should always hike with a good old-fashioned compass and a map, as well.

Related H­owStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Berger, Karen. "What are the pros and cons of taking a GPS unit on a hike?" GORP.com. 2009. (Feb. 26, 2009) http://gorp.away.com/gorp/activity/hiking/expert/exp071801.htm
  • Brain, Marshall, and Tom Harris. "How GPS Receivers Work." HowStuffWorks.com. Sept. 25, 2006. (Feb. 26, 2009)https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/travel/gps.htm
  • Curtis, Rick. "OA Guide to Map & Compass - Part 1." The Backpacker's Field Manual. 1998. (Feb. 26, 2009) http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/manual/mapcompass.shtml
  • Diaz, Jesus. "Nokia 6210 Navigator Keeps Pedestrians on Course with Compass, Accelerometers." Gizmodo. Feb. 11, 2008. (Feb. 26, 2009)http://gizmodo.com/354769/
  • Garmin. "GPS Beginner's Guide." Garmin.com. July 2008. (Feb. 26, 2009) http://www8.garmin.com/manuals/GPSGuideforBeginners_Manual.pdf
  • Garmin. "What is GPS?" Garmin.com. 2009. (Feb. 26, 2009)http://www8.garmin.com/aboutGPS/
  • HowStuffWorks.com. "History of the Vikings and Navigation." 2009. (Feb. 26, 2009) https://videos.howstuffworks.com/nasa/2034-how-the-vikings-navigated-the-atlantic-ocean-video.htm
  • Magellan. "GPS In Action." Magellan.com. 2009. (Feb. 26, 2009)http://www.magellangps.com/products/GPSInAction.asp
  • National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Coordination Office. "Global Positioning System." USA.gov. 2009. (Feb. 26, 2009)http://www.gps.gov/
  • REI Expert Advice. "More About Compasses." REI.com. 2009. (Mar. 1, 2009) http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/compass+navigation.html
  • Robison, Ed. "How to Use Your New GPS Receiver." REI.com. 2009. (Feb. 26, 2009) http://www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/gps+receiver+howto.html
  • Wilson, Ron and Kalinowski, Andrew. "Maps, Compasses, & GPS's 101: A Basic Course." GPSNuts.com. 2009. (Feb. 26, 2009)http://www.gpsnuts.com/myGPS/GPS/Tutorials/Maps/maps.htm