Which GPS Unit is best for Vancouver Island Mountains?

Posted on Aug 29, 2023
Ok. I got your attention. I thought I might. Social media feeds are full of this question these days. That is understandable. GPS units or GPS enabled smartphone apps are incredible pieces of technology that have totally revolutionized the way we navigate. But is that entirely a good thing?

There is no doubt that having a high resolution map on your smartphone screen - your location marked with pinpoint accuracy by your phone’s GPS - is an incredible advancement in navigation technology. That geolocation is only the start. You can also pre load routes into these apps, track your own route, make up route plans, overlay satellite imagery or slope angle or any other number of layers etc. etc.

These days some of the most common questions I see on social media outdoor forums are “I’m planning on going to x or y destination, does anyone have a gps track for that route?”. This focus on the use of other peoples gps tracks concerns me, and not just a little. Here are some reasons why:

  1. As a guide and outdoor educator I increasingly see people on courses who use these gps enabled tools and follow other people’s tracks to find their way through the mountains. These same people may then ask me “how do I learn to route-find and make my way through mountain terrain”. The answer is that you need to put away your smartphone and start by simply visually understanding terrain. That means looking at it, making some guesses about what’s ahead and then going forth and simply moving through the terrain to see what happens. It also involves looking at an old school topographic map, identifying features on the ground and relating them to what you see on the map (and visa versa) and then moving through those features and observing how your chosen line of travel relates to the graphical representation on the map. Over time, learning from your successes and failures you’ll start to see patterns, learn lessons and understand terrain. Ultimately you’ll get good at reading and moving through all kinds of terrain both in the field and during trip-planning on the map. These skills cannot be learned any other way. If you simply blindly follow other people’s gps tracks you will never truly acquire these skills and you’ll probably find yourself in some pretty strange places after having made some pretty illogical choices.
  2. The shared GPS track you are following may not be the best route. Just because someone else has done a route does not mean it is a good one. Their level of skill and experience, risk assessment and management are likely unknown to you. Add to that the fact that because they also leant on a GPS it’s possible they themselves lacked the map and terrain-reading skills described above. This problem is exacerbated many fold when it comes to moving through terrain in winter when avalanche risk is at play. Terrain and route choices that may be the most effective risk management under conditions prevailing on one day could be completely different the next as avalanche conditions change. Relying on a GPS track in these circumstances is like wearing blinders as you travel into terrain where a complete assessment of the surroundings is required.
  3. Smartphones can fail. They can break, get wet or run out of battery power. I hear you saying “yeah and your map could blow away in the wind too” and that is true. The fact is that any of our navigation tools can be compromised so we’d better carry more than one option and know how to use all of them in case one fails.

I use my smartphone more than any other of my navigation tools these days. The reason is clear: it is an incredibly powerful tool that does way more in less time than the old map and compass did. But I implore everyone (especially those in the learning stages of mountain travel) to not use these great tools to the exclusion of learning to move through terrain, finding your own way, being able to read a map and to use a compass. Learn these skills first and then move on to GPS aided navigation. When you do, and to get back to the somewhat disingenuous title of this blog, some of my favourite apps at present are Caltopo, Gaia and Fatmap.

Happy Trails,

Jan and the team at Island Alpine Guides