Know Where You're Going - Navigation

Goal: Find your way home when you’re forced from the roads with which you’re familiar.

All the parts in this series:

Maybe you have a better sense of direction than a homing pigeon. Or maybe you drive by your own house three times out of ten. Either way, you need to be able to figure out a route home when you’re on unfamiliar roads, distracted, and the weather has reduced your visibility to yards.

We’re big proponents of having a PACE plan for your critical needs, like navigation.

This means you have a Primary way to plan your route, an Alternate method when your Primary dies, a Contingency plan when your Alternate craps out, and an Emergency when, well, all else fails and you’re in emergency mode.

Getting home from less than 75 miles away is not like you’re storming the beaches of Normandy so we don’t need to get crazy. But you absolutely need backup navigation because it’s pretty difficult to get where you’re going if you don’t know where that is. #DeepThoughts

Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night (or even loss of cell signal) will keep you from getting home.
Links to recommended items in the picture:

Primary navigation is obvious: your phone. My wife is still angry with me for replacing her Motorola flip phone with a smartphone years ago, but it doesn’t matter, she hasn’t gone back and no one else has either. Everyone has a smartphone and everyone knows how to use Google Maps. Apple Maps too, I guess, if you don’t need good directions or your name is Tim Cook.

In our get-home scenario, the most likely event to occur that will kill your Google Maps plan is the loss of a cellular connection. Google Maps and Apple Maps need a connection to download maps as you move, so you’re dead in the (flood) water when your signal disappears. Which is why our recommended Alternate navigation is offline maps on your phone.

(In other articles we argue for a second device for your Alternate nav, but remember that every recommended load out is based on a goal. Safely in your truck, with power for your phone and max 75 miles from home, your smartphone breaking is less likely than it is if you’re backpacking the Rockies.)

Offline maps are exactly what they sound like. Some mapping apps let you download maps to your device while you have a signal, allowing you to use them when you don’t. Be prepared by downloading the maps for your hometown and the areas to which you travel regularly. Before you head out to a new destination, take a couple minutes to download the maps along and around your expected route.

Our favorite mapping/navigation app is Gaia GPS. It’s available for iOS and Android and is crazy useful in how many maps it lets you download and stack. It’s highly recommended if you regularly do anything outdoors, whether that’s hiking or overlanding. But it’s overkill if you just need directions to and from Lowe’s.

If Gaia is too much, you can use...Google Maps!

Few are aware of it, but you can download Google Maps for offline use. Granted, it is a bit of a pain and you have to “renew” your maps once a year, but it’s free!

Apple fanboy? You can also use Apple Maps. Just kidding! Apple doesn’t allow map downloads in advance. Nice try. If you happen to start a navigation and then lose your signal, it will (usually) continue helping you on your way since it downloads the map for your route when you start a navigation. But if you want to start a new route or pan around a map when you’ve already lost your signal, you are out of luck.

By now, some of you are screaming at the screen, “You moron! Your whole premise is I’m in my vehicle and my vehicle has navigation!!” Fine, yes, most modern cars and trucks do. But it’s scientifically proven that in-car navigation is horrible, the maps are always out of date because no one pays for updates except Porsche owners, and almost none of them include unpaved roads.

There is an exception! Gaia GPS now has compatibility with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. If you have a Gaia account plus Android Auto or CarPlay, this is a solid Ready Rated alternative for your navigation, but you should still download area maps to the Gaia app on your phone.

Others are still screaming, “Moron squared! I’m not talking about my stupid Ford-or-whatever in-dash maps, I’m talking about the Garmin suction cupped to my windshield!!!!” Okay, that one’s fair. If you have a Garmin unit, the navigation is at least decent and hopefully you have free lifetime map updates. But almost none of them include unpaved roads! (Garmin Overlander and their outdoorsy handhelds being the notable exceptions.) This prevents our making a Garmin in-vehicle device the Alternate choice.

But the ubiquity of in-dash and Garmin-based navigation forces us to make it the Contingency option. For the reasons comedically cited above, we don’t recommend relying on it (unless it’s a handheld, like a Montana), but if your phone gets destroyed, you might have this at hand and they work offline, almost by definition.

All this being said, if you have a handheld GPS unit, like a Garmin GPSMAP 66i or Montana 700i, that is immeasurably superior to the street-only maps in your dashboard or your Garmin in-vehicle unit suction-cupped to your windshield.

Which brings us to the Emergency option. Paper.

Screens break, batteries die, phone connections fade. But paper endures. Ideally you have paper maps--especially topographic maps--of your frequently traveled areas. If you also have a good compass like the Suunto MC-2 and you know how to use maps and compasses, well then my friend, you are unstoppable.

Topo maps are lightweight and compact, telling you even more than Google Maps can about the terrain, and are always there when you need them. Good ones are even waterproof. That being said, they’re pretty useless if you don’t know how to read them.

At the very least, buy a Gazetteer for your state and leave it in your vehicle. It’s not going to be the most detailed map, nor will it necessarily be the most current, but it will have all the major roads and if your phone is just a paperweight, it can guide you home.

To recap, if you’re trying to get home in an emergency you need to know how to get there, so make sure your get-home kit includes:

  • Primary: your smartphone with Google Maps
  • Alternate: maps downloaded to your smartphone in Google Maps and/or Gaia or similar navigation app
  • Contingency: a separate device that’s capable of navigation, like the Garmin GPSMAP 66i or Montana 700i; less-desirable alternative is your in-dash navigation if the maps are current
  • Emergency: paper maps or a Gazetteer, and a compass

Build this nav stack and you’re Ready Rated to find your way home.

But how do you tell your family you're on your way home? Check out Part 3!

We participate in Amazon's Associates Program, along with some others, which means that we may receive a small commission when you click on and buy any of our recommendations (at no extra charge to you). That being said, we don't really care if you decide to buy something we recommend or not, because our goal is to help you get prepared for anything. The reasons for our recommendations are spelled out in the articles, but they all boil down to one thing: this is what we think is currently the best option. Sometimes that means you'll buy it, sometimes not, that's fine. Just know that our recommendation was honest, unbiased and (hopefully) of value to you.

Apr 20, 2022

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