Do you know where you’re going without your GPS?

How heavily do you depend on one of these?

I have some friends who do not like to run trails by themselves. Or more specifically, they don’t like to do it at my city’s urban wilderness area.

It’s not really a question of being in danger or anything like that. It’s a question of getting lost.

Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness has a pretty extensive network of trails, and it’s easy to get off track.

Heck, I get off track almost every time I go there. I can count the number of times I’ve actually stayed on track on my hands, and I’ve been running there for quite a while now.

Not that I’m worried. Because I know which direction is south. And south will always get me back to the trailhead.

More specifically, I know enough about the topography of the area (Turkey Mountain is a north-south ridge) and the position of the sun to determine which direction I’m headed. If I ever get “lost,” even in the depths of the trees, I know which way leads me back to the trailhead.

I’m not bragging here, because this is no great skill. But notice what’s missing. When I’m out on the trail, I don’t look down at an electronic device to tell me where I am or where I’m going.

There are a few reasons for this. I don’t like carrying a lot of stuff with me when I run or hike. But I also think that it’s important to be knowledgeable about where you are and where you’re going before you actually get out there.

A great place to be, but doing a little homework about this kind of area is a sure-fire way to steer clear of trouble, especially if the batteries in your GPS die.

GPS devices and other gadgets designed to assist in these tasks and bolster safety are great. There are probably thousands of stories of people who got lost, consulted a device on their wrist, then got re-oriented and back home safely.

But there is a danger to becoming too reliant on a mini-circuit board with an LED screen telling you what to do.

Batteries run out. They break. Sometimes they don’t give you accurate information.

Case in point: A Canadian man and his wife traveling in Nevada got stranded in their car after their GPS got them off track. He left to find help, still using that GPS, and died about six miles from a nearby town. His remains were found earlier this month by hunters, 18 months after he got lost. His wife stayed in the van, stranded for 48 days, and survived.

I wonder if a paper map might have worked out a little better.

There are other stories of people who drive to a cliff’s edge by slavishly following their GPS. One guy even died after driving his car into the ocean.

And these are drivers!

On the trail, I can remember numerous instances where a GPS told us a mountain was in one direction when we could clearly see it somewhere completely different.

And then there are the emergency locator devices. These are invaluable tools for those who are going into remote areas, backcountry ski locales, etc., where a mishap can be deadly if rescue can’t come quickly enough.

A great safety tool, but they’ve been abused to the point where some search and rescue personnel call them “Yuppie 911.”

Unfortunately, some people abuse these tools. A few years ago, I wrote about “Yuppie 911,” cases where people went into the backcountry, got tired, thirsty, wet or just weren’t having fun anymore, and hit the button on their SPOT beacon. Others, seeing the beacon as a safety net, will try things they wouldn’t ordinarily try. Like maybe a tougher hike, scramble or climb, one in which they’d hope for rescue if they got stuck or hurt.

Electronics are great. They can be helpful tools. But I would think that they should be something used alongside the knowledge you already possess about the places where you’re going. Unfortunately, they’re becoming an electronic crutch.

How reliant are you on things like GPS devices, locator beacons and other electronics? Are they an integral part of your trail running, hiking and backpacking plans? Or do they take a lesser role? And do you prefer more Old School methods of orienteering?

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


4 thoughts on “Do you know where you’re going without your GPS?

  1. I do carry my GPS on all my hiking and biking trips but I also carry a laminated paper map with a compass as well. I do like the freedom of being able to go off trail and when I decide to head back to the truck I can make a straight line trip back. I also love to take the days trip and load it into Google Earth and observe my trip from a bird’s eye view. My wife also bought me a GPS locator last Christmas to give us both a little more peace of mind when I’m out in some very remote areas by myself. Since I hike or bike nearly exclusively alone this is a nice device to have in the case of an emergency. I recommend to all outdoor enthusiasts to familiarize themselves with the area they will be in well enough that even without electronic device or paper map that they still have an idea of what direction to go for quickest assistance if the need arises.

  2. That’s a very legit reason for keeping something like that with you when you’re out and about in the wilderness. Peace of mind goes a long way for those unfortunate to be attached to folks like us who like to wander a little bit. Great take!

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