Do you turn your paper map or GPS to face north?

TomTom Rider 550 GPS satnav Peter Davis map paper

Should north be at the top of your paper map or GPS satnav device for the best guidance? Satnav and mapping expert Peter (World Mapman) Davis looks into the phenomenon in the third part of our satnav series.

Paper maps always have north at the top. However, you can just as easily turn the map around to face the direction you are going.

GPS satnav units also have north at the top when showing your position on a map and sometimes even when a route has been selected.

However, they usually default to having the direction you are going at the top when you start navigation mode.

Map expert reviews TomTom Rider 550
TomTom Rider 550

You can overrule that by selecting the option to have north at the top.

So which is the right way?

I believe those who turn a map in the direction they are going may actually be better map readers.

Turning the map so the top is the direction you are heading allows you to get your bearings.

It also makes more sense. If you need to turn left, you turn left.

Having north at the top is not the wrong way to do it, but it does require your brain to do another process.Map expert reviews TomTom Rider 550 paper map

For example, if you are heading south, then a left turn becomes a right turn on the map.

This can become confusing and is often the cause of navigation errors.

On a motorcycle it is also better and safer to have a simple process as riding already takes a lot of mental activity.

Some people can do both methods. Some can only do one.

But people who say they are a terrible navigator are usually those who persist with the north-at-the-top orientation.

I can make them a good navigator just by turning their map around.

Are paper maps obsolete?TomTom Rider 550 GPS satnav Peter Davis map paper map

It seems GPS satnav devices and smartphones with maps have taken over the world.

In fact, some experts say the reliance on satnav has robbed millennials of their sense of direction.

I say use both.

Before you start your road trip and every day before you start the next leg of your ride, get out a paper map.

It shows you the whole route and gives you a good idea of distances and perspectives.

Also, when satnav fails — and it periodically does — you will have some idea of working out which direction to go.

A paper map is a great fallback and the image in your head will also help you find your way.

If you blindly follow satnav guidance it is just like following someone’s taillights.

Click here to find out about types of satnav guidance.

Click here to learn how to plan a route.

Do you have any questions or comments about map reading, route planning or using a GPS unit? Ask your questions in the comments section below and Peter will answer them.

3 Comments

  1. As a former aircraft pilot, from the days well before satellite navigation became a reality, I can tell you that there is only one way to orient a map and that is the way you suggest, i.e. track up (or in the direction you are travelling). It’s impossible to visually navigate an aircraft with the map oriented any other way; trying to do so using terrestrial forms of transport is just as insane.

  2. interesting perspective … as a boy scout back in the UK (about a hundred years ago!) I was taught to fold and turn the map as you go and some of the really early GPS systems annoyed me as they defaulted to “North is top” with no over-ride, and I pretty much always update defaults to adjust as I travel for anything – walking, riding, or car. I do know people who prefer North as the default and… tbh that just messes with my head!
    having moved country a few times (UK to various places in Europe, then Australia for some years, then the US for a decade, and now back in Aus) I’ve found my inbuilt mental compass also takes a beating with the hemisphere changes so isn’t that much use!
    I really agree about the cognitive overload of GPS systems for motorcyclists… even Google Maps and Waze sometimes display way more than I actually want to get me safely from A-to-B (wrote about it a while ago at https://offbeatmammal.com/2018/06/30/minimal-gps-for-a-motorbike/, and looking forward to trying the Beeline Moto early in the New Year) … a worry I have with some of the HUD systems in helmets is that they’ll try to be too clever, and overload the rider…

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