The Global Positioning System and Its Place in Wilderness Navigation

Those readers who have perused our blog posts and the Desert Explorer Navigation Pages may have noticed the limited references to the Global Positioning System or GPS.  I do not write much about the GPS mainly because I do not use one for daily navigation, and do not recommend them as a primary method of navigation for foot travel.

I am not shunning the technology entirely- the GPS is a useful tool.  It has applications as a navigational aid- I purchased my GPS to use while working as an archaeologist, I have used a GPS in a vehicle while navigating the streets of unknown cities, I use mine now to log back road travel and to mark campsites and trailheads from my truck, and my son and I use it for finding Geocaches. But for foot navigation in the bush, the GPS is secondary to the map and compass. Navigation is done with a map and compass and there is no substitute for knowing how to use them.

For most people I encounter using a GPS, it is merely another toy, not unlike their iPhone or Mp3 player.  This is true of people I see on the local trails when I run, people riding around the park with their bike GPS units, and even people I encounter on top of Colorado’s Fourteeners (peaks over 14,000 feet in height). In these cases the GPS is not necessary, but merely a diversion, and at this point it is not a danger.

But the GPS can and does get people into trouble.  Time and time again, on nearly every trip I make, I run into confused and misoriented (see the 24 April Blog post for more on misorientation) people in the bush, “navigating” with a GPS, who ask me to confirm their location. I have helped off-roaders find their way back to pavement, ATV’ers find where they parked their trucks, and pointed hikers back to trailheads. Each time I wanted to ask these people if they had a compass, or even a map, let alone the knowledge to use them. And have they even read the instructions for their GPS unit? In all cases I pointed them in the right direction and let them go.

A recent experience on the Escalante River further supports my advice against the GPS. While Robert and I were at the mouth of Fence Canyon we ran into a backpacker who, with two others, had hiked in during the night.  They had come from a trailhead less than 5 kilometers away using their GPS to guide them to their destination.  They came in about midnight and stumbled around the mesa top for hours before finding their way into the canyon, walking miles more than they needed to. The moon was nearly full that night, and a 100 year old cattle trail led from the trailhead into the canyon.  It is probable that my five year old son could have followed that trail.

None of these people were navigating– they were busy looking at their GPS screens, completely unaware of their location on the ground, of the terrain around them.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary to navigate is to plan, record, and control your course and position. In my examples above there may have been some planning, we assume the GPS recorded, but there was apparently no control of the process of navigation. This is a problem. And this is my main argument against the use of GPS units as a primary method of navigation. If a person lacks the knowledge to use the GPS properly, that is bad enough. If they cannot navigate without it, this is even worse.

Further arguments against the GPS, especially as an ultralight backpacker are the weight of the units, and the weight of extra batteries. And batteries can die,  electronics can fail.  Remember too that satellites can be shut off- recall that this happened to the Global Positioning Satellites in September of 2001.

To avoid the problems that might be caused by a non-fucntionaing GPS, dead batteries, or the lack of knowledge of the unit, anyone venturing into the bush should be carrying and be able to navigate with a map and compass. There are plenty of great books explaining basic navigation, most of them presenting too much information.  The average person really doesn’t need to know about polar coordinates or the vairous projection systems.  But they do need to know about declination and topographic features. The Desert Explorer website presents basic navigation on the Maps and Navigation pages. There is no substitute for navigation skills, to becoming a competent navigator, and reliance on technology does not build these skills.

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5 Responses to The Global Positioning System and Its Place in Wilderness Navigation

  1. […] phone, any type of two-way radio, or even a GPS in the bush. For more on my thoughts on the GPS, see my recent blog post . But after listening to peoples’ experiences with SPOT, after doing research for a blog post […]

  2. […] Any GPS is as reliable as the batteries in it. I carry one whenever I go into the backcountry, but never without a topo map of the area and compass.  (In fact, my survival kit has a backup compass in it, too.) Several times, in terrain as varied as high desert and rainforests, my GPS has let me down. The map and compass never have!  https://desertexplorer.wordpress.com/2009/09/15/the-global-positioning-system-and-its-place-in-wilder… […]

  3. David says:

    I’m one of those folks who are in love with their GPS. I really like the ability to save the track as I’m wandering, flagging interesting points, and just having the resource.

    I’m also the type that carries full topo maps (often marked with GPS waypoints I’ve saved in the past — software is wonderful), a compass, and even a tiny compass in my emergency kit. The first thing I do after getting a decent (< 30 foot error) is mark my car.

    At the end of a trip, I download the info to my computer and re-live where I've been by comparing the track/waypoints with zoomed in topo and satelite images. I've also saved points like "look North" when I've seen something interesting in the distance — then I can figure it out with topo/images.

    I also use the same Garmin eTrex Vista (yes, I know, no longer produced) when I fly. When I'm at the controls (small plane), I use it for the track download. I've also used it to find areas that I've hiked (letting a passenger handle the GPS). When I'm a passenger (commercial) I use it to figure out what I'm seeing below (what are those two cities along that river? Ft Collins and Boulder (?)).

    And yes, I look at the map and my back trail. I found there is little worse than hiking back a way you think you should know only to feel "this all looks strange".

    Good article.

  4. jsragman says:

    GPS Is an absolute MUST have item for anyone that hikes, boats, cycles &tc. If for no other reason, GPS gives your exact position anywhere on earth. In case of an emergency an individual can give the rescuers his/her exact position, facilitating rescue. A map and compass are virtually worthless in providing this info. Carry extra batteries if need be but get a GPS and learn how to use it!

    • Thanks for the comment- this gives me a chance to reiterate my points, all of which are in disagreement with the comments submitted.

      First of all, a GPS is not a must have, rather it is something that is secondary to the real knowledge of knowing how to use a map and compass. As I have stated repeatedly, I do not carry a GPS, and have not used one for navigation in 45 years of visiting the bush all around the world. I do carry a map and compass, always. And again, I help people out of the bush nearly every time I am out who are lost because they are using only a GPS, and either do not have a map and compass, or do not know how to use them if they do.

      To clarify, a GPS may give your exact location anywhere on the earth, if it is powered up, not broken, if you are not deep in a canyon, under a jungle canopy, or if the satellites are not blocked out because of a national emergency or during the start of a war (remember, this did happen) to name just a few scenarios. Next, the GPS may give you your coordinates, but it is not a cell or satellite phone nor a personal locator beacon (PLB), and cannot be used to call for help. Another piece of electronic equipment, potentially equally as fragile, requiring power, and the ability to communicate out of your location is needed for that. Cell phones do not work in most of the locations I go. Satellite phones might, a PLB probably will, except at the bottoms of some canyons, and definitely not in slot canyons. Remember, all of these devices require a clear view of the sky to communicate with the satellites, except cell phones which are questionable in the bush at best, and mostly just unnecessary weight in the pack. The very best choice for an emergency communication device is the PLB, which gets your coordinates and communicates them to help when necessary. Again, it requires a clear view of the sky to operate.

      As for a map being worthless to get your coordinates from, I have to say I have never heard such a statement before. Maps are where the coordinates come from, maps are where your coordinates are plotted by emergency personnel should you transmit a distress signal to them. These coordinates on their map are how they will find you when you get lost. Far from being useless for coordinates, without the map, there would be no coordinates!

      I use, and recommend using, the Military Grid Reference System, or MGRS, to plot my coordinates, and communicate them to others who might be joining me at a specific location and on my trip itineraries I leave behind. You might look in the setup of your GPS unit and see the MGRS as an option for plotting coordinates. This is not something that was created for the GPS to use, the GPS uses this reference system, or one of many others, to tell you where on the map you are. When you read the terrain as you move across it, and note your location on the map, you then plot that location, to within your desired accuracy (using an 8 digit grid coordinate for example, and plotting your location to within 10 meters.) This is how the system works.

      I suggest anyone interested in navigation first learn how to read a map, the terrain, and use a compass. Get a good book on the subject and read it from cover to cover, or take a class through your local outdoor store. We have a navigation primer on the Desert Explorer website. Practice these techniques and make sure you understand them. Then get a GPS for fun. But my opinion is to never rely on the technology. Go into the bush and use your map. Look at the terrain, relate it to your map, and know where you are. Do not rely on the GPS to tell you, but rather to confirm what you know.

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