Digital or paper maps for walks which is best?

I am not a great map reader although I have been doing it for many years. My problem is my lack of attention to detail, and on an Ordinance Survey map there is a lot of detail. I have a tendency to look at the map and go “oh that’s it over there” and charge of in that direction only to find out that it is not. Then kick myself for not doing some proper map work, and saving myself a whole lot of bother trying to get back to where I really wanted to be.

The beauty of paper maps

Some people speak of maps as a thing of beauty or artistry, which I understand. I have always loved looking at maps even when I was a kid. I found them fascinating and they fired up my imagination with distant lands and all kinds of different people. I certainly think that map reading and especially map and compass work is a form of artistry, and some of the real experts are artists who love their work. The pleasure is not simply getting from A to B, but the accomplishment of having accurately used their map and compass techniques brings them a genuine feeling of satisfaction.

Buying a new map is always a thrill for me, crisp and shiny with the promise of new adventures, and a shelf full of them is almost as good as a shelf full of good books. Despite my map reading foolishnesses (I have to say to myself sometimes “slow down Clive, look properly and pay attention to detail”. I always feel more secure on a walk with a map in my pocket (even if I have some form of GPS as well). I know that wherever I am I can find a way out with the map.


A map is always available in your pocket when walking and I feel looking at one gives me a bigger sense of my surroundings. A digital map or GPS is focused much more on what is immediately around me. Digital maps create a micro-environment on your phone or GPS which is very useful for accurate map reading. But there may be features in the distance that I want to note, perhaps to give me a sense of the distance I have to walk for instance. When I walk any of the National Trails I use their guide books, but I always have an O/S map with me in case of an emergency and I need to get to the nearest village, or something similar.

Paper maps the downside?

So what is not to like about maps – well. Firstly when opened up they are pretty huge and having to refold one in the middle of nowhere can be a nightmare. Especially on a wet or windy day, fighting to fold a map in the wind is almost impossible and guaranteed to end up with it torn (OK so you could photocopy your route on sheets of paper to make it easier). On a wet day a soggy map is useless it ends up as paper mache great if you want to make a model of your location! You can get laminated O/S maps but trying to refold them is even worse and I find them pretty bulky.

I have a map holder which is waterproof, it hangs round my neck and is very effective at keeping the map dry. I have found two minor drawbacks to using this though. One is on a windy day I have been smacked on the back of the head more than once by the holder caught in a sudden gust of wind, and the other is changing the page of the map is an even bigger fiddle (and it gets wet in the process).

Are digital maps better?

About a year ago I installed the ViewRanger app on my mobile phone. Mainly it was so that I could track my routes and publish them. However it is of course a good navigation device with some useful extra features, such as showing the skyline where you are and the names of the hills around. It also tells me exactly where I am on the map.

On my Sumsung Galaxy S7 Edge phone I now have available to me all of the Ordinance Survey maps of the UK. It does not look so cool as a line of maps on the shelf, but it is a lot more convenient.

The maps work offline so whenever I am going on a walk anywhere in the UK I simply download the relevant map, it’s really simple and I have the map I need in my pocket. A few times I have not pre-loaded the map onto my phone and relied upon it locating me where I was. This normally works but a few times the map has blanked out and left me staring at a white screen with a red cross in it. Not very helpful when standing in the middle of Snowdonia.

I have discovered though that generally there are some real advantages to having a digital map rather than a paper one – so here they are.

To start with it is simply more convenient and easy to handle, my phone sits in one of my pockets I do not need a special watertight pocket to carry it in. I do not need to refold it to get to the next part of my walk, and I can easily use it in the wind and rain (my phone has a water tight case).

I know the O/S maps are the most current ones published by the Ordinance Survey. I can Zoom in to check on small detail at any given point, or zoom out to get a bigger picture (although this is never as big as a map). There is a little red arrow on the screen which tells me exactly where I am, which is so much easier than trying to do it with a map and compass. The trouble is that I have found it is making me lazy, and I worry sometimes that my map abilities are getting even rustier.

One of the greatest advantages I have found is that if visibility is really bad, then it is easy to follow the map on my phone knowing exactly where I am, and knowing if I am on the right path, which saves me an awful lot of stress.

So there must be some significant disadvantages? – well yes. The major one is pretty obvious – the battery running out – then what? You are stuck in the middle of nowhere with no idea which way to go! That’s a frightening thought.

I always carry a battery charger with me. It is a bit of a heavy thing relative to it’s size but because I nearly always track my walks my phone battery nearly always requires charging. The other disadvantage as I have already said is that it does not give you an overall picture of where you are or of places further away should you need them. I can zoom out but very quickly the detail becomes so small that it is useless.

phone and charger

Other GPS briefly

rI have got a Garmin, which to be honest I have never really got the hang of. Setting a coordinate to aim for is fine, but it takes you in a staight line . This does not take into account the lie of the land which could be a major problem i.e. a cliff face! Fair enough mine is a basic model and I am open to some good instruction to improve my skills!

So which is best?

These days when I go walking I always use the ViewRanger app and take a map and compass with me. Even if the walk may seem reasonably easy and not require any great navigational skills – my reasons? Using the app is really easy and convenient, but if I need to look much further afield or if something goes wrong with my phone I have a map and compass as back up – I am not that confident in the electronics. What I have found reassuring about my belt and and braces approach is that I am told that mountain rescue teams also use both.

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I have loved walking in the in the great outdoors as long as I can remember, weather is not an issue and any landscape is a new adventure. Personal details:- Height 5'10"(1.78m), Wt 12st10oz(81kg) Chest 41"(104cm) Trouser size 32"W,32"L, Baselayer/midlayer size medium. Hardshell layer size large.