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Advice for Navigating Anywhere — Including Where You Don’t Have Cell Service

Advice for navigating anywhere including where you dont have cell service header

By Laura Newcomer on November 18, 2021 in Travel

A lot of previously unassuming items skyrocketed in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hand sanitizer had its moment. Toilet paper was extremely high in demand. Board games are still selling faster than store shelves can be restocked.

Another surprisingly hot commodity these days? Maps.

In 2020, U.S. sales of print maps and road atlases grew by a five-year compound annual growth rate of 10 percent. This increase is largely attributable to the rise in road-tripping as a safer means of travel during the pandemic.

Even as paper maps are gaining traction, they trail the enormous popularity of map apps. One estimate puts the number of Apple Maps users in the U.S. between 75 and 100 million adults. A 2019 post from Google shared that “more than a billion people [use] Google Maps every month and more than five million active apps and websites [use] Google Maps Platform core products every week.”

While map apps are convenient and wildly popular, drivers in rural or remote areas, where cell service can drop unexpectedly, need alternative navigation plans. Below, we’ll lay out tips for traveling to or from a location using different navigational tools and tricks so you can minimize the risk of getting lost — no matter whether you’re driving across town or exploring the depths of a national park.

Tips for Navigating Anywhere with Maps and Sans Cell Signal

Even if you don’t anticipate losing cell signal, it’s always a good idea to travel with backup navigation plans. If you do expect to lose signal, a plan B is critical for safe travels. Here are some proven strategies for using maps to navigate anywhere.

Start using a map app ahead of time.

This plan isn't foolproof, but it does work most of the time. Simply open the map app in a place where you have a strong cell signal, input your destination, and start the navigation. So long as you don't stop the navigation or turn off the app, it should continue to work even if reception drops. Make sure your phone’s battery is fully charged; if your phone dies and reboots, the map app will cease running and you won’t be able to restart it if you’ve traveled beyond the range of cell reception.

Save the written instructions.

Some readers remember the days when we would print out MapQuest directions before embarking on a trip and then navigate using the written directions. You can do something similar today — only without paper. As soon as you've started the navigation in a map app, open up the written directions and take a screenshot(s). That way, even if the app cuts out, you'll still have step-by-step instructions on hand.

Download the map from your map app ahead of time.

This works much the same way as screen-shotting the step-by-step instructions, only your focus will be on the map itself instead of the written directions. Most map apps allow you to download the map in question so you can scroll and zoom in and out even when your phone doesn't have reception. Do this in an area where you have strong signal (and plenty of time for the map to fully download onto your phone) so you're prepared if reception cuts out down the road.

Several apps specialize in GPS data for offline mapping. You can find some great options for Android here and options for iOS here. If you’ll be hiking in the backcountry, consider a dedicated backcountry navigation app such as Caltopo or AllTrails.

Go old-school.

Know what will never lose signal or run out of battery? A paper map or atlas. You can pick up maps and paper atlases at your nearest AAA, gas station, visitor center, and travel center. Skip the hand-me-down maps from your parents and invest in the latest version: Road systems change all the time, so it's important to work with a contemporary map.

Even if you're confident you'll have cell signal for the duration of a trip, it's a smart idea to have paper maps on hand as backup. Phones randomly die, apps glitch, or the directions were entered incorrectly. You don't want to lose your only navigation system along with your primary communication system.

One caveat here: Before embarking on a trip with paper maps, make sure you know how to read them! There's no reason to be embarrassed if you don't; many of us have grown accustomed to having map apps available at all times, and map apps do a lot of the hard work for us. Reading paper maps takes a bit of know-how (especially topographical maps), so get some pointers from someone who's comfortable navigating this way before you hit the road.

For extra credit, purchase a compass along with your paper map(s) and make sure you know how to use it, too. A paper map becomes all the handier when you have a compass because the compass will enable you to orient accurately.

Don't Have a Map (or an App)? Use These Emergency Navigation Tips

If you don’t have access to a map, you can use these emergency navigation tips to orient yourself.

Observe the sun and shadows.

As noted above, a high-quality compass is an incredibly useful tool when you need to orient yourself (read: identify the four cardinal directions) sans maps. However, if you don't have a compass on hand, you're not completely out of luck. You can use the position of the sun to determine where north is.

This process varies a bit depending on the hemisphere you're in. In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun's highest point each day is directly south. So, when the sun is at its highest point, you will know where south is — which will also allow you to determine north, east, and west. If you have the time (say, if you’re staying in a campsite), you can spend a few days observing the sun's passage through the sky to get a feel for when it's at its peak. Not feeling so leisurely? Consider making a homemade sundial for faster results.

Use the stars to assist your navigation.

Just as you can identify north by observing the sun's arc in the sky, you can also do so by observing the locations of stars — or rather, specific groups of stars in the form of constellations. First, you need to identify the Big Dipper. Once you've located the Big Dipper, find the two stars at the front of the "scoop." Trace an imaginary line from the bottom of these two stars to the top, and then onward to the ever-bright North Star, also called Polaris. (If you're familiar with the Little Dipper, the North Star forms the tip of the "handle" in this constellation.) This aptly named star doesn't move much in the sky, even as other constellations move around it, so identifying this star will give you an approximate sense of the cardinal directions, starting with its location pointing north.

Familiarize yourself with local bodies of water.

For eons, water has shaped landscapes. Bodies of water are prominent landmarks, and familiarizing yourself with local bodies of water and their relationship to the landscape will help you orient in any region. For instance, if you know you're near a particular lake, and you know where that lake is in the area, then you're one step closer to identifying your whereabouts. Same goes for finding yourself on a particular bank of a river or alongside a small creek or tributary. This isn't an exact science, obviously, but an understanding of nearby bodies of water will help you navigate any region more confidently.

Take note of landmarks.

Speaking of landmarks, it's good practice to note any significant landmarks while traveling. As you move through a landscape, observe how it appears in both directions. Notice unusual "landmarks" such as a colorful tree, an enormous boulder, a yard filled with plastic flamingos, and so on. As you head home, these landmarks will signal that you're moving in the right direction.

General Safety Tips for Navigating Anywhere

No matter whether you’re road-tripping to a major city or striking out into the wilderness, maximize your safety with these tips from experts such as Search and Rescue.

Be prepared.

Even a simple day trip can go awry, so it's always worthwhile to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. No matter whether you're traveling on foot or by car, check the forecast before you head out and plan accordingly. Bring along the "11 essentials":

  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Whistle
  • Waterproof matches or a lighter or other fire starter
  • Sun protection
  • Pocketknife
  • Large plastic bag (preferably orange because the bright color can double as a signaling device)
  • Plenty of water and nutritious snacks
  • Extra layers
  • A first aid kit
  • Compass and map
  • Charged cellphone

Tell someone where you're going.

Before you embark on any trip, notify a trusted friend or family member about your intended destination, any stops that you plan to make, and when you expect to return. That way, someone will be aware and can check on you or take action if you don't show up when you were supposed to.

Remember to STOP.

This acronym, which is common among backcountry hikers, stands for Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. Here's how it plays out:

If you realize that you're lost, Stop. Take time to calm your nerves and get any panic under control, and don't make any moves until you're calm.

Next, Think: Consider how you got to where you are and any landmarks that you noticed. Stay where you are as you trace through your trajectory up until this point.

Next up, Observe: Can you identify the cardinal directions? Are you on an identifiable road or trail? Are you near one?

Finally, Plan: Identify some possible action plans, think them through to their conclusion, and then choose one plan to follow.


When you’re traveling by car or foot, a little foresight and some basic navigational skills will go a long way toward helping you navigate safely to and from your destination. Prepare for a variety of scenarios, familiarize yourself with your intended route in advance, have a backup plan in place should your primary navigational tool fail, and strive to stay calm.

You know the medical saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” When it comes to travel, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of safe navigation.

Laura Newcomer is a consultant for Say Insurance. She is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura now lives and works in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. An avid outdoorswoman, she can often be found hiking, kayaking, backpacking, and tending to her garden.