Philmont Council Contingents


Global Positioning Systems

Every year, there is an extensive discussion over whether GPS units should be carried on a Philmont Trek, whether they are necessary, and philosophically, whether their use should be taught at all.  Like many issues, there are probably no right or wrong answers (although many people think their answer is the only one).  Provided here is one more set of opinions from the author!

Do Philmont participants need to know how to use map and compass?

They do!  While you can certainly participate in a Philmont trek without these skills, they are basic knowledge for navigating on other backpacking trips and are extremely useful throughout life.  As Scoutmaster, I not only had my Scouts complete all the map and compass requirements for rank requirements but also strongly encouraged them to earn the Orienteering Merit Badge.

If a Philmont crew has participants without competence in use of map and compass, this can be the focus of one of the "shakedown" activities.  These can be done in a classroom environment (I used topographic maps of west Austin with my Troop so they could locate familiar places to be able to visualize what the map was showing them), at State Parks, at orienteering events, and other places.  Simple compass games and other teaching aids are useful.

Why?

Philmont:

If the crew's itinerary keeps them exclusively within Philmont proper, there is little real need for map and compass skills from a strict navigation standpoint.  Most trails are pretty clearly marked and it is generally relatively easy to know how to go from camp to camp.  There are however times when map and compass skills are handy.

When the crew reaches a trail intersection where trails go off in several different directions and the trail sign post is laying on the ground, it is comforting to be able to use the map and compass to intelligently select the correct trail.  Picking the wrong trail in instances like this can make for some really, really long days!

It's also great to use the map and compass skills to track the crew's progress as they are on the trail.  As crewmembers ask "how much farther is it?" (the backpacking equivalent of "how many more towns?"), it's good to be able to let them find where they are on the map and know precisely how much farther.

Valle Vidal:

If the crew's itinerary goes into the Valle Vidal, the need for map and compass skills are much more important.  In the Valle Vidal, there are few, if any, trails and crews typically "bushwhack" cross-country when going from camp to camp.  These can be relatively long distances and it is essential that the crew have the ability and skill to get where they are going.  Map and compass use is of utmost importance in the Valle Vidal.  That is also one of the elements that makes the Valle Vidal a unique experience -- there are few places left where you can backpack without being on trails.

Should Scouts be taught to use GPS?

Yes!  After a Scout becomes proficient in map and compass use, they should definitely be taught to use a GPS.  In this day and time, this tool is just as much a part of our life as a map and we should train our Scouts in its use, benefits, and limitations.

Because a GPS unit basically tells you where you are, it is essential that knowledge and understanding of maps be taught as well.  Combining a GPS unit with a map, a user can determine the best way to get to their destination -- something that cannot be done with either by itself.

Many people will say "what about when your batteries run out?"  This is a valid consideration but should be treated the same way as any other potential equipment malfunction.  A Scout who follows the motto of "be prepared" wouldn't go on a backpacking trip with a single compass (they can be dropped, lost, etc.) -- they shouldn't go on a trip with a GPS unit without having one or more compasses as backup in case it runs out of batteries, gets dropped, lost, etc.

A useful aspect of carrying a GPS unit is that most can provide you with your altitude.  For years, I carried a barometric altimeter as I found knowing your altitude was a very good help in locating your position on a map.  By being able to show where the trail crosses a particular elevation contour line, you can easily answer the "where are we" question.  Altitudes given by GPS units are significantly more accurate than barometric altimeters as they are not impacted by weather changes.

GPS Preparation:

If you are planning to take your GPS to Philmont, you should load it with the coordinates of the camps you will be going to (and possibly some nearby camps and landmarks).  A list of these coordinates (waypoints) provided by the Philmont Logistics staff is available in an Excel spreadsheet.  This spreadsheet may be downloaded by clicking on the button below.

GPS Coordinates

You should verify these coordinates with topographic maps and other sources.

Recommendation:

Take a GPS with you.  Teach your other crewmembers how to use it.  If you are going into the Valle Vidal, don't just take your GPS but also load the coordinates of your camps into it and know how to use it to navigate to your next camp.  This can save hours of time!

Know how to use your GPS to locate your position on a map -- this can be by using your current coordinates, altitude, etc.  While on trails, don't rely solely on the GPS to point you to your next camp -- the trail most likely doesn't go directly there.  Use it as a tool to help be sure you know where you are and be sure you are doing what you intended to do.

You may want to have alternate navigation teams -- half the crew use map and compass to navigate and the other half use map and GPS.  Switch the teams periodically (halfway to your destination, every other day, etc.) so that everyone can become proficient in using all the tools.

Fun:

A number of people use their GPS to keep track of where they have been.  If you have the capacity (and battery power) in your GPS, it can be entertaining to print a map showing exactly where you were when you get home.  Some crews like to review their day's hike in the evenings.