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.

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