/ Motoring, Technology

Ditch the sat nav and use a map!

Sat nav sign

A survey this week revealed that more than two thirds of under-25s can’t read a map and are totally reliant on a sat nav when driving. Shouldn’t we be able to manage without GPS?

Two small occurrences have combined to compel me to start banging away on my keyboard about sat navs.

A couple of weeks ago, my other half declared indignantly that he should buy a second sat nav so he could have one in each of his two cars. He uses the devices religiously, even on journeys when he’s pretty sure that he knows where he’s going already.

And then MyVoucherCodes’s survey about the majority of under-25s being unable to read a map hit my inbox. What on earth happened to the adventurous spirit of the young at heart? You can’t stick a pin in a sat nav to select a destination and then drive there just for fun!

Learn to use a map

On a more serious note, what do such people do if their electronic directions box develops a fault? If they haven’t even mastered the simple art of map-reading, they’re unlikely to have learnt how to work out where ‘north’ is by using the sun or stars – so they’re going to be lost for a long time.

In contrast to the under-25s surveyed, I don’t own a sat nav and I don’t want one. It may take a little longer to check the map and note down directions before setting off, but once I’ve done this for one route, all this info will stay in my head for future journeys.

Ok, so I do get occasionally lost, but considering I drive around 15,000 miles a year, I don’t think that’s too bad.

There’s a place for sat navs

This isn’t to say I’m a total luddite. Just like my colleague Chris Christoforou – who recently posted a Conversation questioning our reliance on sat navs – I appreciate that they’re important for industries like aviation and shipping.

They can be useful for other situations too, such as directing you to a cheaper petrol station when you’re on a long haul journey. And we know it’s important to test them, as so many people find them useful and want to know which sat navs are best.

But, like Chris, I am concerned that our society is becoming too reliant on these little black boxes. What about you – are you on the side of the sat nav or the good old paper map?


Don’t tell me that Orienteering is no longer part of the school curriculum? No wonder my daughter gets lost in her bedroom.

Both. Sat Nav is invaluable late at night in a strange town, it’s useful too on a complicated cross country route. Come to a country cross roads with no proper signpost and the sat nav will guide you correctly. North South there are some “interesting” motorway divisions. Ending up on the wrong tarmac is frustrating and wasteful of fuel and time. Solo driving makes map reading en route difficult, and my memory doesn’t stretch far enough to hold all the details. Usually, however, it’s the end of the journey that’s the hardest as major towns are well signed. I’m glad to have a sat nav in the car, but I can tell it where to go, too.

Adrian McCarthy says:
12 July 2011

As someone nearer 60 than 50 I learned to read maps very well, and I still use them a lot. However after a long frustraiting period using a satnav, I eventually learned its strengths and weaknesses. I use one whenever I go on any route I do not know and on long journeys even if I know the route well. I find it very usefull to know how much further I have to go, and how long it is predicted to take and finding your way round roadworks etc it’s also great for finding your way back if you take a wrong turn. OK you might think with a sat nav you shouldn’t make any wrong turns but in large built up areas where turns come very quickly you can easily find yourself in the wrong lane and forced in the wrong direction. Just don’t let your partner give you the postcode without checking, it may not be good for matrimonial relations.

I have no problem in using maps but when driving alone I have to stop and look at the map periodically or glance at it when driving, which is potentially dangerous. The satnav removes a lot of stress, even though my inexpensive model tends to take me through city centres rather than round ring roads.

One of the best features of satnavs is that they identify which street you are on, which helps when referring to maps. Another useful feature is that they show speed limits, which is handy when it is not obvious whether the limit is 30 or 40 mph.

I always have a map in the car and use it to plan longer journeys, often with the aid of a route planner.

“You can’t stick a pin in a sat nav to select a destination and then drive there just for fun!” – this made me think: are there any sat navs which have a ‘random’ function? How much fun would that be?! Maybe the driver could specify how far they want to drive (50, 100 or 200 miles radius) and what type of place they want to end up at (beach, forest, river, mountain, restaurant…)

Fat Sam, Glos says:
15 July 2011

excellent idea! but on a sat nav you can zoom out to any scale and then blindly press the screen and see where the cross hairs land.

I might just try this!

My integrated Toyota sat nav has a POI (Points of Interest) feature you can use in this way. You search for categories such as leisure, tourism or restaurants by distance, either from your current position, a place name, or simply by zooming out to the required radius and touching a spot on the map (>>> pin in a sat nav <<<).

It's particularly handy on holiday when your first choice is unaccountably closed for the day, like Fontainebleau on Tuesdays – when we found Vaux-le-Vicomte instead, or when there is a gap in the journey with time to fill.

Depending on the sat nav system, you can browse the map and select any point to navigate to


you select Where to? and select a point on the map.

I try to not use a sat nav wherever possible as it distracts you from the road, that’s not saying a map doesn’t, but I generally have a good sense of direction and I can read maps easily.
I tend to plot my route before I leave, I may just need to take a left at this junction or a right just as you go over the railway, but that way I end up having my own sat nav in my head.

Sat in the usual M1 Luton contraflow last week and I am amazed how many people have their sat navs right in the middle of their windscreen! This is honestly the most distracting place you can have a sat nav and I wonder why police haven’t cited this as driving without due care and attention. Although they would probably prefer to make another new law that they won’t enforce.

Tom says:
13 July 2011

I agree with some if the comments that the sat nab is a god send, especially at night and navigating towns, the detail if which is not always clear on a typical road map. Plus it saves on petrol minimising wrong turns and reduces poor driving with people making emergency stops when they’ve just missed an exit. Technology is only going to get better and besides I bet most sat nab errors are the fault of their owners.

Gareth says:
13 July 2011

I totally disagree with this as I have a very poor short-term memory and cannot commit map layouts or a series of instructions to memory. This means that without a sat-nav I am forced to make stops in order to look at the map again several times in one journey. I have no problem reading a map, but I cannot use one when I drive solo in the car.

A second point is that signposting in urban areas, particularly in London is extremely poor, with many roads not named or the signpost hidden. With a sat-nav I can see I need to turn into the next road without having to try and find the road name in amongst the advertising boards, fly posters and parking restriction signs.

A third point is that in modern Britain we are frequently diverted off the intended road to avoid an accident, burst watermain or unannounced repair. These diversions are often poorly signposted and navigation can save hours of wrong turns by quickly rerouting you. On one occasions on the A303 the road had been closed due to a fatal accident. The official diversion was jammed solid, causing hours of delays and wasted fuel. I went with the sat-nav and came back onto the A303 after the closure, using a minor road and saving a huge delay.

I totally agree that the ability to read a map is important, but I think that the sat-nav makes my driving safer and more efficient.

I’m right with you on local sign-age, it would be nice to have a complete overhaul of this, but yeah, fat chance 🙂

My new satnav is brilliant as it even sets a route according to prevailing traffic conditions for the time and day I start. It will even detour if there is a holdup ahead. Having said that, I always carry a map just in case. I learned to read a map in the CCF when at school, honed my skills in the Army and taught map reading to ACF cadets for six years. Both things have a place and IMHO everybody should be able to read a map.

I’m amazed at how many people rely on sat navs nowadays – I’d never even considered getting one until I came to work at Which?!

What annoys me about the sat nav culture is people cruising around in-between lanes because they’re waiting for directions or distracted looking at their sat nav. I was in a taxi the other day – the driver had obviously only just moved to London and was following the sat nav route. Not only did he drive incredibly dangerously because he wasn’t getting his directions early enough to make a clear indication of turnings etc, he also took a ridiculously convoluted route. We ended up having to direct him ourselves because the sat nav route was so long-winded.

It’s for these reasons that I resist getting one. Saying that, we recently got unbelievably lost on holiday in France and could have done with one then, so they do have their place!

Boblechien says:
20 July 2011

While returning from France last year the Motorways were subject to large snowfalls. It meant that we had to press on regardless with the SatNav or go cross country (taking our chances). With frequent radio updates about the state of the roads (some in English) and a map we managed to reach Calais in good time.

Who needs a sat nav when you can use Google Maps and Navigation for free on your phone? I need it simply when I’m walking in London…

I use google maps a lot, their traffic is particularly useful and you don’t have to pay for it.

Not sure about their in-car navigation yet though. I tried using my HTC desire as a navigation and music device for my car and it didn’t quite work. 1 cable for power, 1 cable for sound output and the interface for switching between music and navigation is slow.

Also with google nav, it interrupts your music, which is annoying. If you pay for “premium” navigation, it doesn’t.

It’s great for walking though, agreed

I haven’t tested it with music, but I expect it’s slow because an HTC Desire isn’t the most up-to-date Android phone – it isn’t that great at multi-tasking like the latest smartphones.

Yeah, I also suspect it has something to do with the Orange firmware too and that it’s a Desire Z, but I won’t rant on any longer about that 🙂

Gingerbread available soon apparently

Fat Sam, Glos says:
15 July 2011

you can do but loading the maps eats into your data allowance whereas you don’t get this prob on a sat nav. also, the screens are much bigger but a phone is more convenient when walking around.

I prefer to have both for their various advantages 🙂

I bought a Nokia X6 phone for when I can’t use my car’s integrated sat nav (hire cars and walking in unfamiliar towns) and the sat nav feature stinks. The sat nav takes about 20 minutes to position itself before you can start using it, even with expensive Internet roaming enabled, and it will drain the phone’s battery flat in about 2 hours. The Ovi map software mangles the pronunciation of names so badly, that even a non-French speaker would fail to recognise familiar names like “Marseilles” or “General de Gaulle” in Ovi-speak.

Since a lot of the negative comments about sat navs seem to stem from poor design and features, I’m slightly annoyed Which? didn’t pick up on this in their testing – the phone is an unqualified “Best Buy” and I based my decision to purchase it largely on that review. If this was my only experience of sat nav, I would be in the anti camp too!

SJ says:
15 July 2011

Sat navs are a scourge and should be banned. Too many drivers turn off their brains when they turn on the sat nav – such as my brother-in-law who would have followed the (ever so annoying) mechanical direction to turn the wrong way down a very busy one-way street had my husband not cried out and stopped him. Routing yourself along ring roads is trivial, so there’s no reason to follow a sat nav’s directions to go through the city center — except because your brain is turned off. What other parts of these drivers’ brains are turned off – what else are they ignoring on the road? Driving along, with so much else to think about, I really wouldn’t want the mechanical voice to tell me three times to turn left at the next junction; I wonder how many wrecks this interruption of concentration has caused?

Even if you don’t agree with my views above, sat navs are often wrong. How many signs I’ve seen (like the one pictured at the top of this page) directing people elsewhere because the sat nav is wrong; relying on them to tell you about roadworks only works if they’re updated; relying on them to get you around unexpected roadworks/accidents/etc only works if it doesn’t continually simply tell you to turn around. Perhaps all sat navs don’t work this way, but knowing to take the second left is much more useful than “turn left in 200 yards” – even if you have the ability to tell how far 200 yards is, you’ve got other things to do than figure out when you’ve moved that far while driving, particularly in congested areas.

For the amount of money that has been shelled out on sat navs, proper street signs could have been placed at every junction in the country. Campaign for proper signage, Which?, and let natural selection act on those who turn off their brains when they turn on the sat nav. Hopefully they won’t take too many others with them.

Sat-navs and maps are both optional.

But a brain is a must-have when driving.

I wouldn’t be without maps – everything from road atlases to 1:25000 OS Explorer. I love browsing them, whether or not I’m going anywhere! But sat nav has many benefits, especially when driving without a navigator.

Sat nav comes into its own on complex cross-country or city routes. What I like best, though, is being able to add POIs, whether shops, ATMs, petrol stations, NT properties, public toilets or anything else.

POIs come into their own if you run sat nav on a smartphone (I use TomTom on an iPhone), so can easily carry your sat nav everywhere, even when travelling and driving a rental car.

And then, of course, there are speed camera warnings: I use the Pocket GPS World speed camera database, which is great, but most sat navs and sat nav apps have some form of speed camera database built in.

Bottom line, then: Maps AND sat nav for me, please.

Sorry, but I have to take issue with some of SJ’s points.

“My brother-in-law would have followed the mechanical direction to turn the wrong way down a very busy one-way street” – yes, but the same applies if you’ve read the map and made a mental note that you need to turn down there. Either way, you need to apply common sense. Just like a map, sat nav is a tool, and neither should not be followed blindly.

“Routing yourself along ring roads is trivial, so there’s no reason to follow a sat nav’s directions to go through the city centre” – sat nav will only take you through a city centre if it’s the ‘best’ way, ‘best’ depending on what you’ve chosen – fastest, slowest or whatever. Sat navs will generally use a ring road, if you opt for ‘fastest’.

“Driving along, with so much else to think about, I really wouldn’t want the mechanical voice to tell me three times to turn left at the next junction”. I find it much easier to concentrate on things like pedestrians, if I don’t have to worry about navigating; sat nav makes driving safer, as far as I’m concerned, giving me plenty of warning of turns etc.

“Even if you don’t agree with my views above, sat navs are often wrong” – as are directions worked out from maps. Once again, common sense is required, however you’ve planned your route.

“Knowing to take the second left is much more useful than “turn left in 200 yards”” – I agree, although a combination of both is best, and that’s what some sat navs give you – “Take the 2nd left in 200 yards”. Failing that, a very quick glance at the map tells you whether it’s 1st, 2nd or whatever.

“For the amount of money that has been shelled out on sat navs, proper street signs could have been placed at every junction” – street signs could certainly be improved but could never replace sat nav.

Tony Wakefield says:
15 July 2011

I like maps. I look at them quite regular and when a particular town or village is mention on TV. I will look it up. I’m not really that sad but I do find maps very interested.
But I also have a tom-tom satnav and I find it very useful. When you have found the car park in the middle of the town or city and have days shopping with you know who it is very nice to turn the satnav on and get out of the place as quick as possible. Especially when they will put in more more roundabouts and more. And more signs sods law says I see every sign except the one I want.
So I am sitting on the fence. I like them both

Clive says:
15 July 2011

While the skill of map-reading is important in knowing the geography of the area/country, a recent purchase of a sat-nav has vastly reduced tense moments in the car due to differences of opinion about which turn-off to take.

John says:
15 July 2011

Using a sat-nav blindly is asking for trouble! It should be used as a secondary means of navigation, after first working out the route on a map, or at least having a good idea where you’re going. And maps don’t break down….

Using a map blindly is equally asking for trouble. A map can lead you down blind alleys just as easily as sat nav. Both are simply tools, both must be used with common sense.

Have not yet succomed to temptation. I grew up with maps and do not see the same excitement in Sat Nav’s. Where I know that I would find a Sat Nav useful however, is for city navigation especially if they give you lane details for negotiating one way systems. However, judging by some of the comments already posted, city navigational accuracy, it appears, can be a bit hit and miss. Across country, as in cities where possible, a little pre-drive planning cannot be beaten. If then hidden snags materialise the driver is aware of where they are, which of course, all good drivers are at all times anyway. Perhaps the younger generation prefers to spend hours swearing at the Sat Nav than educating themselves on the geography of the country. The time spent might be approximately the same.

Fusspot says:
15 July 2011

How did we all manage before sat nags. Is life truly too short not to get lost once in a while. I love maps, they are about so much more than getting from a to b. Another skill lost to technology. It seems that a few geeks are going to have us incapable of independent thought before we know it!

Why does use of sat nav mean losing map reading skills? Does watching movies and dramas on TV render people incapable of reading books? Does using a word processor make them lose their ability to write?

Why do so many people here see maps and sat nav as mutually exclusive? I love maps and can find my way anywhere with them but wouldn’t be without sat nav which makes navigation easier on the move while offering benefits that maps can never provide, notably POIs.

how did we manage before sat navs?

I’ll tell you:
We used drive around aimlessly in unfamiliar towns looking for someone to ask for directions.

We used to have to deal with unfamiliar one way systems and get lost and take longer on journeys using unfamiliar routes or

stop under a street light to view an out of date map that wasn’t to the right level of detail or

We used to part with cash to buy an atlas for a town or city we were hardly likely to visit again.

We used to sit for hours in traffic jams that we only found out about when we hit them or

if we knew of them in advance we’d have to second guess where best to turn off, find somewhere to stop and then plan a route around it or

just sit in the hideous queues of the official diversion.

We used to drive around looking for cash machines and petrol stations.

We used to brake suddenly when we realised there was a speed, sorry, safety camera ahead without warning.

We used to fill up at expensive motorway services without realising there was a cheap supermarket stop half a mile from the last junction.

We used to switch lanes on busy town centre roads at the last minute when we realised we were in the wrong one and infuriate others with our lack of local knowledge when we effectively queue-jumped.

So that’s what we used to do.

Asking how we used to cope before sat navs is like asking how we coped before we had electricity. It’s this little thing called innovation, the process of providing effective solutions to problems.

Personally, I like both. Because they serve different functions. I absolutely love maps, Cartography is what I did my main degree in. Sat navs have a purpose in the same way maps have a purpose. A sat nav wouldn’t be much use in a field on top of a hill in the Yorkshire Dales and wouldn’t be nearly as pretty to look at as a good 1:25000 OS Explorer map.

So this whole argument about there being a choice between sat navs or maps is just outdated and flawed. It’s like comparing whether you drink water or wine. Pointless.

I have never used a SatNav and have been driving around 20k miles a year for 36 years. However, having recently gone back to a motorbike (though I still drive both a car and a van as well) I can see that the SatNav would be a handy gadget for the bike when finding city addresses or on continental trips. Map reading is more difficult on a bike.