Which Way Do I Go?

Which Way Do I Go?

Did you ever ask yourself, “Which way do I go?” What is the best way to find your way around? If trying to drive around town near your home or to an unfamiliar destination, a navigation app on a smartphone is very cool. If you didn’t have one and someone dropped you in the middle of a forest, maybe not so cool. Moss on the north side of a tree doesn’t work very well.

Our ancestors found their way around by known landmarks, nothing like Golden Arches on a corner, but by natural features just as familiar to them. Traveling to new territory required navigation by the sun, moon, and stars. The Chinese invented one of the first navigation aids about 200-265 AD. They mounted a movable pointer in the form of a doll or figure with outstretch arms to their two wheel chariots to point to south. The pointer would be manually moved to point south before a journey and through a set of gears, would approximately retain the same direction as the vehicle traveled and made turns in the process. The system was essentially a directional dead reckoning, certainly prone to errors that grew greater the more distance traveled.

which way do I go


The compass, also invented by the Chinese sometime between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD, was initially used fortune telling. It wasn’t until sometime between the 9th and 11th century that they applied the compass to navigation. Recorded appearance of the compass in Europe was around 1190 and 1232 in the Muslim world. The compass became the standard navigation tool for civilization whether traveling across land or sea.

which way do I go

The invention of the radio allowed the evolution of another navigation technology, a radio direction finder (RFD). The first experiments for this technology were actually carried out in 1888, but it eventually became a key factor for position location since World War I.

Then a guy named Ivan Getting with a degree in astrophysics who worked at Raytheon developed the first three-dimensional, position-finding system at the request of the U. S. Air Force and Navy. That became the basis of the future GPS. In 1983, GPS ended it existence as a military system and was declassified by President Ronald Reagan as a result of a civilian Korean Airline flight getting lost in Soviet air space. That plane was shot down by Soviet fighters. Full operation was achieved in 1995 with the completion of a system of 24 satellites. Since then, GPS capability has continued to improve with more satellites placed in orbit.

which way do I go

So now back to the opening of this post…if someone dropped you in the woods, should you have a smart phone or a hand held GPS? Or if you’re planning a trip by car, is your phone good enough or is a nav system better? Smartphones with apps for maps and navigation have evolved to the point where the convenience of using a phone for navigation outweighs the few minor advantages of a dedicated vehicle navigation system. Apart from a few small areas, the smartphone is a least as good, if not better. But what about the forest thing? If you are going to walk in a park or take a short hike, the convenience and capabilities for GPS using a smartphone is probably more than adequate. But if you plan serious hiking in remote areas, the benefits of a handheld, dedicated GPS device should be considered for the following major reasons:

  • Durability—Handheld GPS devices are waterproof and shockproof. A smartphone screen will crack if dropped and many of you have probably had some experience with smartphones and water. Sometimes putting them in rice overnight helps.
  • Battery Life—Many handheld GPS devices will go 15-20 hours and you can pop in another pair of AA batteries for revival after that point. Smartphone may give you 3-4 hours used for navigation if you’re lucky. Then you need to find an electrical outlet on some tree to charge it .
  • Accuracy—Good handhelds will have accuracy to 2 meters whereas a smartphone may be 15 to 20 meters off in heavy forest.


This topic prompted by the following passage from the novel, The Field Trip:

With the morning behind him, he now faced the broiling effects of the blazing sun and rising temperatures. The air was heavy with humidity. Oppressive. Unwilling to continue to endure the sauna-like conditions imposed by the poncho, he stopped for a lunch break.

Snacking  on a dried apricot, he pulled the GPS from his pocket and laid it on the ground to determine his current location. Following  the apricot, he brought out dessert and began gnawing at a chunk of freeze-dried ice cream as he turned on the device.

A shadowy silhouette momentarily darkened the screen. Then vanished….

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