Maps. Paper or GPS?

New to kayaking. Hope to explore easy rivers (class 1-2), lakes and possible campsites. What do you use for navigation? Thanks!

Generally topo maps give you the most information

Paper charts/maps can’t fail because the batteries died…

@Celia said:
Paper charts/maps can’t fail because the batteries died…
Absolutely true. You can make topo paper maps waterproof and tough (if they are not already) with a coat of Thompson’s Water Seal, or by simply using an inexpensive can of waterproof spray from Walmart. I treated almost 100 sheets of computer print paper maps for the Yukon 1000 mile canoe race with spray, put them in protective plastic sleeves and held them in a 3 ring binder. All survived the wet and rigors of the race perfectly fine.

My main use of navigation is on the ocean. I use waterproofed paper, cut to convenient size. GPS is a nice complement to paper, particularly helpful in fog or when the currents and winds are weird. I suspect most of the people here use GPS in that fashion.

When you successfully learn to navigate with compass and chart, you learn a lot more without leaning on the GPS as a crutch. The topo maps help identify which island in a grouping is which etc.

Two things:

  1. I was on a multi-day trip down the Colorado and although I used a Fish-n-go paper map & deck compass, the couple next had a mapping GPS.
    PROBLEMS: they thought that the GPS map was ‘real time’ and never understood why the GPS map never matched the river. Rivers change and all maps are out-of-date. Smart people understand this and compensate.

  2. I was on a three-hour patrol in the desert when I noticed that we had passed that same rock three times.

  • “We are lost, aren’t we sir?”
  • ’ Yup."
  • “Sir, where is your map?”
  • “lost it.”
  • “Sir, where is your compass?”
  • “Didn’t bring one, I have a (military) GPS”
  • “Where is the GPS, sir?”
  • “Dead, fried, maybe the batteries died.”
  • “Why don’t we ask those people for directions?”
  • “They hate American soldiers and have better guns than we do.”
    Fortunatly, I always carried a back-up compass and gave it to him with my pocket binocs and sent the Lt and a Sgt up a hill to look around and find a way back. We DID get back, alive. But it taught me to a) always bring a compass, b) always bring a paper map, c) Never trust a GPS and d) never trust a new Lt.

A GPS is a wonderful tool IF it works. But in a canyon, the signals bounce off the walls and the GPS thinks Sat-11 is in the east when it is in the west. Or they get wet. Or the constant sunlight fries the screen. or the heat bakes the electronics. Or the batteries die. Or the GPS is old and cannot pick up the newer sats while the older sats have fallen from the sky. or…
I carry a GPS but I rely on my map and compass.

For freshwater and land, map and compass.

For saltwater, chart and compass.

Paddling the Yukon River, particularly below Dawson… Canadian and US topo maps are practically useless, going back to the 1950’s, the river looks nothing like the maps say. oxbows come and go, cut banks make open water where there previously was none. My GPS installed map showed us paddling on “dry land” in many places. The summer after the great flood of 2009 had undercut banks dropping great sections of earth into the flowing current. We had to be careful of those, since they tended to be where the fastest current also flowed (and where we wanted to be)
I am an instructor in a program to teach a training course to certify wilderness guides. Part of the course involves navigation in the Adirondack wilderness by map and compass only and students are under evaluation for the leadership and navigation. One year, the guy I caught cheating by secretly using a GPS failed the course on the spot. I mention that to all new students each year.

I do use a GPS when working on a SAR mission. It is mandatory in that case, so that the day’s search track and area coverage may be known.
I also use a GPS for canoe racing. Usually not for navigation, but rather for speed monitoring. I do navigate with it on the Yukon, using relatively current Google Earth maps. Over 5 years of racing on the Yukon, using those GE maps that are only a couple years old, the river will in many places show a number of significant changes from year to year.

An old guide once told me to always carry 3 compasses. One as my primary, a second as a backup, and a third to give to the poor sole I encounter who lost his or didn’t bring one. I don’t know many people who would carry more than one GPS.

Huge Solar Flare Disrupts GPS Satellites
Was anyone using a GPS last Wednesday?
https://gizmodo.com/huge-solar-flare-disrupts-gps-satellites-1801838410

Map/chart, 3 compasses (boat mounted, in PFD pocket, and dry bag in day hatch, plus my completely waterproof phone with GPS and offline maps of the area I’m in plus a generous buffer around it.

I do not rely completely on the phone’s GPS but will admit to checking it often when I’m in a hurry and don’t want to end up in a dead end bay and need to back track.

Use your map and compass as much as you can to make decisions.

Use your GPS to figure out whether your decision is incorrect and what mistakes you made. Become aware of factors you did not anticipate. (Wind, currents, obstructions)

Learn from the mistakes.

Rather than jumping into details of maps and compasses, e.g. declination, variation, true North, map North blah blah, datum, coordinates, I suggest you focus on activities.

How do I follow a bearing?
How do I locate myself on a map?
How do I navigate to a point on the map if I only know my location on a map?
How do I estimate distance travelled?

Then the details and the truly immense volume of information on a chart will become clear.

@Celia said:
Paper charts/maps can’t fail because the batteries died…

EXACTLY! My maps and compass have never failed. Never have bought or used a GPS, but several friends have, and they seem to fail quite a bit?

I also remember when a group of us did a day trip of 20 miles on the Jacks Fork, putting in at 12:30 pm thanks to one of the damn things! I argued that a certain river section on the Jack’s Fork was almost 20 miles and my friend with the GPS was adamant it was about 12. Since I didn’t have my map handy, I thought maybe I was confused about accesses? We put in at 12:30 and at dusk we were discussing pooling supplies to spend an unplanned night on the river. Got to the access at full dark Decided right then I’d never waste my money on a GPS! I looked at my map that night and saw it WAS over 19 miles and not 12.

A GPS is an extremely useful tool… when used with some intelligence. Anyone who is lost without it shouldn’t be there in the first place. Anyone who blindly believes the numbers it spits out without some independent evaluation, is foolish.

In a difficult place to navigate, however, a GPS can provide a lot of useful information. It can help confirm your position, which is especially helpful in fog and dark. It can also provide very fast distances and bearings - though admittedly a map or chart is also very good on this point. It can mark places for later return, and record tracks for evaluating speed and distance traveled.

I’d never only bring a GPS on a back country trip. I’ve completed lots of trips without every referring to it for navigation/position. But considering it’s one and the same with my phone, which in many places can provide emergency communication, I’m unlikely to leave it at home.

It depends on where you paddle not because someone is right or wrong. On the ocean GPS is essential these days as navigation charts give you no frame of reference in the fog. Yes larger ships can plot a course and be reasonably sure where they are based on Eldredges Pilot book which gives tidal currents but doing math on the deck of a kayak is considerably trickier. Especially when you can’t find a landmark that is not a lobster buoy. GPS does fail and every kayaker off the coast of Maine should write a safety bearing on the deck of your kayak. This is the bearing that sooner or later ALWAYS will bring you to land
Everglades paddling is almost impossible off the Wilderness Waterway without GPS. One mangrove looks like the other and campsites can be hidden from you even though you are fifty feet away. Same on island studded lakes like Wabakimi where losing track of what island you just passed can mean the difference between making the portage and searching hours for it.
I use compass and paper chart for the big picture and GPS for the little picture. Both are complementary.
I’d happily paddle Ozark rivers with a road map… GPS gives you crow directions. Map might give ant mileage.

I think that if one is set on one or another, it is an indication that they need to paddle more environments.

I paddled Bowron Lakes with nothing other than a paper map… I could have done without that.

Gps, map, compass, local knowledge, sat pictures, and experience reading water.

For example, at the Delta of the Ocklawaha River, gps will give you a bearing through trees and mud, map will all look alike, compass will give bearing (see gps) but reading the most current will get you in the main channel.

My current preparations for BOFSKS drive home the point that maps and charts are complimentary to GPS (for me, anyway). Last night I was preparing digital maps, charts and such for my waterproof phone. Tonight I’m marking up paper charts with up-to-date magnetic north lines and scale. These are print outs from the large chart that fit in my waterproof deck case.

like the op I’m mostly an inland paddler and find most but not all rivers are pretty easy to navigate- the important thing is to able to recognize the takeout or if overnighting then finding the campsites. Portage trails and waterfalls require diligence. Lakes can be a bit trickier with fog, or drastically different water levels that can make islands appear as points, and over larger distances all features blend together until you’re close to them. A gps and its compass feature is essential for flooded swamp paddling or in dense fog. Paper maps like topos are my favorite but often I rely on brochures, internet based maps, even guidebook descriptions, or a delorme map book for navigation Often the scale of those materials lack detail and that makes things interesting. I’ve made plenty of blunders- but that’s part of the fun. It is best to keep a map or chart out and refer to it frequently throughout the day. Sometimes I use google earth satellite images when trip planning. I do carry a compass but only use it occasionally. I’ve sort of replaced it with a gps. I found the distance and time features of a gps helpful as well for navigation. I also spend some time driving around scouting put ins and take outs.

Regarding on the ocean, I would always have a marine GPS with charts loaded there with me, even if it is not a primary reference. That is partly because of Maine where pea soup fog can and given long enough will catch you out on the water. I have been in a group where we navigated back in deep fog. But I also pulled out the GPS twice to confirm that we were where we thought. We were, but it felt a lot better to have that backup.

It is also a useful backup to confirm where you are if paddling in a new area and reading the islands is being difficult.

But IMO no one should consider themselves able to navigate on the water without being able to manage basic compass and map/chart skills.

@wildernesswebb said:

@Celia said:
Paper charts/maps can’t fail because the batteries died…

EXACTLY! My maps and compass have never failed. Never have bought or used a GPS, but several friends have, and they seem to fail quite a bit?

I also remember when a group of us did a day trip of 20 miles on the Jacks Fork, putting in at 12:30 pm thanks to one of the damn things! I argued that a certain river section on the Jack’s Fork was almost 20 miles and my friend with the GPS was adamant it was about 12. Since I didn’t have my map handy, I thought maybe I was confused about accesses? We put in at 12:30 and at dusk we were discussing pooling supplies to spend an unplanned night on the river. Got to the access at full dark Decided right then I’d never waste my money on a GPS! I looked at my map that night and saw it WAS over 19 miles and not 12.

The GPS will report distance “as the crow flies” unless a route is prepared on the gps. A route is a collection of waypoints, typically picked off a chart. The GPS will display, in one way or another, the distance to end point on a route, rather than “as the crow flies”

They are not mutually exclusive. Use both. Map and compass is essential. People say maps don’t have batteries and can’t break, but if you ever had a map blow away in a strong wind, never to be found again (which I have), it becomes pretty useless. Of course GPS batteries can die. That is why you bring extra. And if you find yourself in a thick fog where you can’t see shore reference points the map won’t be very helpful. My GPS has saved my bacon in foggy conditions several times. A GPS is so much handier to use in breezy conditions. A lot of the paddling maps I have are huge and ungaily to handle in normal condition. Add a stiff breeze and trying to orient it with your compass on the deck of the canoe or kayak can be really difficult. Turn on the GPS and you know excactly where you are.

Older GPS units had issues with tree cover (not usually an issue in a boat) and multipathing errors (signal bounce) in canyons and areas with cliffs or tall hills nearby. The newer ones handle those way better. If you are off, it will be a matter of 50 feet or so. Worst case perhaps 100 feet. The GPS maps can be old, but so are many paper maps. Many maps, whether paper or GPS are using USGS data that can be 20, 30+ years old. Of course you can find newer paper maps and newer GPS maps if you know where to look.