The Frugal Navigator - How To Find Your Way on the Cheap

A map, compass, GPS, and altimeter are all essential pieces of the navigation puzzle. Check out these useful tips on how to score them for good price.
Placeholder Contact Profile John Godino
Mazamas main navigation instructor
April 21, 2017

Mountaineering is an expensive sport. It's especially daunting for beginners, who often have to prioritize spending across competing items. With a fixed amount of money, do you go for Gore-Tex undies, an ice axe made of sleek unobtanium . . . or yawn, a compass? (Let's face it, a shiny new cam is way sexier than a compass.)

Given that the main four navigation tools are a map, compass, GPS, and altimeter (with an optional 5th being an emergency communication device like a Spot or inReach), how might a frugal navigator procure these essentials?

As a lifelong cheapskate, I've given a lot of thought to this issue. Here's my take. Your opinion will probably vary. Please debate freely.


Solution: CalTopo. Learn it in a few minutes (via YouTube) and you may never pay for a topo map again. CalTopo’s newest layer, "MapBuilder Topo," is especially useful, offering shaded relief, good visibility of trails, decent contour lines, basic vegetation cover, and overall is just about perfect for backcountry travel. Print out any map scale you like on most any size of paper. Overlay a GPX track and waypoints. Email yourself a PDF file of the map to keep on your phone as a back up to your printed copy, and do so at various scales (e.g., 1:25,000 for the actual climb, and maybe 1:50,000 for the approach hike.)
Maps: $Free


My go-to compass is the Suunto M3. It's a solid base plate compass with adjustable declination, and does not have a sighting mirror (which I consider unnecessary for most recreational users, and which adds weight and cost). REI has really jacked the price on the M3 over the last year or so, but you can get this compass at Amazon for about $30.

If you really want to go frugal, one step down is the Suunto A-10. It does not have adjustable declination, but you can draw in your local declination with a sharpie pen and use that. The A-10 is $17.30 (today, March 2017) on Amazon.
Compass: $17 


As soon as I got Gaia GPS on my iPhone, I ditched my old Garmin and haven't looked back. This $20 app has superior screen resolution, map sources, and user interface compared to dedicated GPS units. Yes, it's not as durable and the battery life can be a limitation, but I treat the phone pretty carefully and always carry an external battery pack and short charging cable, which I consider the 11th essential(s).
GPS: Gaia GPS $20 + Anker auxiliary battery pack & 4 inch charging cable $20 = $40 


The (rare) times I use an altimeter, I use an iPhone app. Most newer smart phones have a barometric pressure sensor in them, and the various free altimeter apps are quite accurate. Altimeter: $Free

Emergency communication device

I don't own one, and don’t plan to. I feel it’s not realistic to ask beginning climbers to buy one, and most weekend warriors probably won’t either. However, if you’re in a formal leadership role and taking organized groups to more remote places, it can certainly be a good idea to have one.

There are various approaches. One that’s fairly realistic is to buy one collectively with a few friends and share the unit and the costs. DeLorme inReach SE (now owned by Garmin) is $300. Cheapest contract, $12 per month, $144 year. Total $444 for the first year, divided by four friends, $111 per person for the first year, $36 a year after that. Extend this out to three years (a reasonable lifespan for technology) and you pay a total of $184ish over three years for a 25% share.
Communicator: Cost over 3 years: $184


Let's tally it up. Map= $Free, Compass=$17, GPS=$40, Altimeter=free, DeLorme inReach $184 (for 3 years) = $241

Dropping the optional inReach, you’re only paying for a GPS and compass, which totals $57. That's about the price of a brand-new #2 Camalot. Now which one do I really need?

John Godino is Mazamas’ main navigation instructor and committed cheapskate. He is a frequent contributor to Navigation Northwest. Contact him at .

Invited Critique of The Frugal Navigator

By Bruce Crawford

I'd agree on all except the PLB. They are typically tied to one person's contact info for emergency use. The SPOT capital and operating costs are about half those of InReach. If you want to forgo the annual fees, look at a ResQLink instead. The one-time cost is offset by no annual fees.

But PLB's, like much technology, are complex and can be used in different ways. Do you want SOS and an “I'm OK” message? Look at a SPOT. Do you want tracking? Look at SPOT with extreme tracking. Do you want two-way messaging? Look at InReach. Do you just want SOS without subscription fees? Look at the ResQLink.

SPOT covers portions, but not all of the world's landmasses, and not much of the ocean. InReach covers a lot more. But in the continental US they both work similarly. (Trying to avoid a detailed technical discussion of the satellite networks.)

My first MOFA instructor was a smart SAR guy. He said sending a bit of money to SAR organizations was cheap life insurance that would actually benefit you, not your heirs. A PLB would complement those contributions.

Bruce Crawford is a veteran member of the Seattle Navigation Committee, much involved in recent revisions to the Wilderness Navigation curriculum. A civil engineer, he is active in the mushing community. Contact him at .

Author’s Response to Crawford Critique

By John Godino

That's about the kindest “critique” I've ever had! Bruce must be a very charitable guy =^). I agree with all that Bruce said. He clearly has researched the rescue beacon thing more than I. Good to know about “probably can’t share a PLB issue." How might this affect Mazamas / Mountaineers, if our clubs were to buy a dozen Spots to issue to leaders? [Ed Note: Seattle Climbing loans out 10 ACR ResQLink PLB-375 devices and rewards trip leaders at a certain volunteering level.]

The PLB options are expensive, a bit confusing, and not for everyone. And I fully agree to donate to your local SAR team!

This article originally appeared in Navigation Northwest, a quarterly publication issued by The Mountaineers Seattle  Navigation Committee. To view the original article and read more stories from the publication, click  here.

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Chris Chisholm
Chris Chisholm says:
Sat, Apr 29, 2017 7:49 AM

Thanks for the great article John. I love how concise and practical each suggestion is. Just added a link to this from my map/compass and navigation/orienteering/lostproofing articles on the Wolf Camp and Conservation College site.