The Global Positioning System and Its Place in Wilderness Navigation

15 September 2009

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.