Why I Always Carry the FarOut App AND a Guidebook or Map
Hikers have been rehashing the old paper map vs. smartphone debate since time immemorial (or at least since 2012, when FarOut arrived on the scene and changed the thru-hiking landscape forever). Most people rely exclusively on GPS-enabled apps these days, but in times of old, it would have been unthinkable to set foot in the backcountry without a paper navigation aid.
Before FarOut came guidebooks like AWOL’s AT Guide and Yogi’s PCT Handbook. And before those resources existed, there were these weird squiggly things called maps and these spinny circle doodads called compasses.
The transition makes sense, of course: guidebooks are far easier to interpret than maps for thru-hikers following a single linear track, and navigation apps are even more user-friendly. Moreover, apps like FarOut add nothing to your base weight, since you’re presumably going to carry your phone anyway.
Admittedly, I’m nothing if not a product of my times: I love the FarOut app. It’s easy to follow and chock full of helpful information, particularly the crowdsourced comments on water sources and campsites. But unlike many of my peers, I always bring a paper guidebook or map/compass too. Yes, ultralighters think I’m psycho, but I am what I am. Here’s my reasoning.
FarOut vs. Guidebook vs. Map: Why You Should Bring More Than Just the App
1. Hard copy won’t kill your battery.
A quick glance at FarOut (The App Formerly Known As Guthook) doesn’t seem like a huge power demand, but the app is deceptively draining: partly because of the power-hungry GPS feature, but also because I end up checking it way more frequently than anticipated.
I prefer not to carry a heavy battery bank when possible and can normally get through at least one resupply cycle on a single charge if I mostly limit my on-trail phone usage to photography. Using a paper guide means I can study the waypoints for as long as I want and never worry about battery life, freeing my phone up for other uses and extending the life of a single charge.
Pro tip: make sure you shut off the GPS and close the app when you put it back in your pack—the last thing you need is to have it running in the background all day, silently killing your battery while you’re not even using it.
If my phone dies or drops off a cliff and I don’t have a paper backup, I’m out of luck. Ending up with no phone and no reliable way to navigate is just adding insult to injury. Despite the fact that it will objectively suck if I go for an accidental swim, for instance, I’ll be that much better off if I have a waterproof map or a set of guide pages well-protected inside a ziplock bag than if those resources only live inside my now-defunct phone.
We must always take personal responsibility for our safety when we’re heading backcountry. It’s not a good idea to err on the side of the best-case scenario when planning a long hike. Getting off trail is surprisingly easy. Killing or losing your phone is also surprisingly easy. If you manage to do both at the same time, which is well within the realm of possibility, let’s be honest, you could have a full-blown disaster on your hands.
3. GPS is rotting our brains.
^Me trying to take a compass bearing. via GIPHY
Is that so surprising? We’re essentially letting a little arrow on a screen do all our thinking for us. In the olden days, people routinely flexed their noggins navigating by map and compass. Even in the front country, travelers had to use maps to navigate unfamiliar roads.
The fact that GPS makes navigation so incredibly easy is exactly what’s wrong with it. It’s so straightforward that it’s literally mindless. Numerous studies indicate that habitual GPS use negatively affects spatial memory. I happen to like my spatial memory the way it is, thank you very much, and I want to keep it nice and healthy. And should something go wrong with my phone or GPS device, I’d like to have the skills, tools, and mental capacity to figure my way out of a troublesome situation.
Even guidebooks, which require way less mental bandwidth than maps, still make you think harder than a GPS-enabled app. The app has a little dot that tells you exactly where you are and how far you are away from everything else at any given time. In contrast, with a guidebook, you have to carefully read descriptions and context clues and flex your dead-reckoning skills to pinpoint your location on the trail.
4. Maps are fun!
Maps are like puzzles. Although the paper feels heavy and bulky in an ultralight backpacking setup, they’re incredibly space-efficient. The best ones contain a wealth of information and detail in a compact package for those who know how to interpret them.
Sitting at an overlook enjoying the view? You can pull out your map and learn the names of the surrounding mountains. Make a game out of it. It’s an open secret that the actual daily grind of thru-hiking can sometimes get a bit boring, so why not pass some time puzzling out your location with a map?
Also: maps free you from having to stick to the beaten path so you can expand your hiking horizons. They’ll help you figure out if a side trail is worth exploring and give you more confidence to explore off-trail. (Just be responsible if you decide to do some bushwhacking. *stern dad voice*).
5. Guidebook pages are more convenient to check on the fly.
I know apps are supposed to be the kings of convenience, and they are easier to use than real maps. But if I simply need to check my location quickly and keep moving, I think the easiest way is via guidebook. I should point out here that I never carry the entire book at one time. I just pack the pages I need for a given section, mailing the rest ahead and discarding older pages as I go. That saves weight and makes it easy to check the pages throughout the day, as I can keep them folded up in a hipbelt pocket within easy reach.
Checking the pages somehow seems less onerous than fishing out my phone and waiting for the app to load every time I want to reorient. And that way my phone can stay safe in my pack where it’s not at risk of getting dropped, soaked, or lost.
I can also use my guidebook in the rain as long as I protect the pages inside a ziplock. I keep my phone in a ziplock, too, but even then I don’t often want to risk it so I go without checking. Not inherently a bad thing, but I like to keep my options open.
READ NEXT – To Guthook or Not to Guthook
6. Keeps me from checking my phone every five seconds.
Isn’t this partly the point of backpacking—to escape the hustle and bustle of regular life? If I need to check my phone for navigation purposes, that contradicts my desire to disconnect from the outside world. I inevitably find myself racking up more screen time checking photos, weather, messages, etc. Maybe other people have more self-control than I do, but what can I say? I’m an impulsive human with access to a magic rectangle containing the collected knowledge and works of the human race, and my willpower is limited. Phones are designed to be distracting, and my feeble hiker brain is only too willing to take the bait.
If The Rectangle never has to leave the safety of my pocket, so much the better. That way I can study the waypoints all I want without exposing myself to technology-induced temptation.
Maps offer you something that neither apps nor guidebooks often give you: context! Paper or smartphone-based guides are linear: they mostly just describe the features of a single trail. Useful for thru-hikers, sure, but a map shows you what’s happening on the trail and what’s all around.
You can see that a stream crosses the trail at Mile X, just like you would with a paper or digital guide. But unlike in a guidebook, you can also see in detail where that stream came from, where it’s going, and what the surrounding terrain looks like—handy if you’re out of water and you can’t make it to the next on-trail source. (On the other hand, you can’t automatically assume that a stream is flowing just because it appears on a map. Guidebooks shine in this area because they typically rate the reliability of water sources. FarOut takes it a step farther by providing crowdsourced updates in almost real-time in the comments).
You can see the network of trails surrounding you, awakening you to the complex hiking ecosystem around you—it’s not all about just your trail! You can see nearby roads, alerting you to possible bail-out points should you run into trouble. And should you get off trail accidentally, with the right skills you can reorient yourself and find your way back.
App, Map, Guidebook, All Three?
It mainly comes down to your level of risk tolerance and the nature of the trail you’re hiking.
For instance, on the AT I used a combination of FarOut and guidebook pages. A map and compass would have been the most reliable option, but I took a minor calculated risk by opting for the lighter option—a few small pages don’t add much weight to a pack, and I could throw them out as I completed each page. The AT is such a well-marked, well-trafficked trail I figured I would probably be OK. Besides, most of it is so treed in that I didn’t think I’d get much recreational use out of a map.
If you’re an AT hiker, you’ll have to make this risk-reward calculation for yourself. A map and compass (and the skills to use them) will always be your safest bet, but it’s also true that very few AT hikers actually carry a map with them, and even the AWOL guide is falling out of favor as more hikers rely exclusively on FarOut.
In contrast, when I hiked the Colorado Trail, I carried a map and compass. While I primarily navigated with Farout, it was fun to practice identifying nearby trails and landscape features with the map. I didn’t regret the weight penalty and would bring it again in a heartbeat.
Ask yourself: how much do you value pack weight vs. objective safety and skill development? What is your level of risk tolerance? Will you be hiking under tree cover most of the time or will you be exposed? How well-trafficked and well-marked is the trail? Wherever you’re hiking, your choice of navigation aids will involve similar math every time.
Don’t get me wrong—I still use and love FarOut!
Look, I’m not trying to act like I’m Bear Grylls out there, tramping around with my map and compass and eating raw ox hearts, which is what I assume actual Bear Grylls does all day. I mean, that would definitely be cool (I guess?), but that’s just not me. Like most people, I appreciate the simple convenience of navigating via FarOut most of the time. I’m actually facing up to the reality of my subpar orienteering skills right now as I frantically prepare for an off-trail high route hike at the end of summer. (If my posting schedule abruptly ends in late August, you’ll know I failed to bring my skills up to snuff.)
So I’m not saying you shouldn’t use the app. By all means, use it! Bask in the comforting glory of The Arrow! Just don’t close your heart off to the joyful possibilities offered by maps and books.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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