When “Hike Your Own Hike” Ceases to Apply

“On Thursday, June 16, five members of the Camp Sherman Hasty Team responded to Carl Lake in the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness area to locate a lost Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hiker………Sterley (the hiker in question) told team members that her cell phone, which she was using for navigation, had died and the snow on the PCT had forced her down. Sterley used her DeLorme satellite device to contact search and rescue.”

~ NuggetNews.com

Scenarios such as this are becoming increasingly commonplace on America’s long distance trails. Unprepared hikers heading out into the wilderness with nothing more than an app on their phone for navigation purposes, who subsequently find themselves in trouble when faced with challenging conditions and a phone battery that has died unexpectedly.

A Brave New World

Veteran: You are not carrying maps and a compass?

Newbie:  Not necessary. Everything I need is on my phone; just have to follow the colored line.

Despite the urgings of organisations such as the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), with each passing year more and more aspirants are beginning their thru hiking journeys without paper topographic maps and a compass. Within the space of a few short years, Hiking Apps have become the modus operandi of choice on America’s popular long distance trails.

I get it. People gravitate towards “easier options”, and there’s no denying that pressing a few buttons on an electronic device is far simpler than taking the time to learn basic map, compass and route finding skills. “What about the potential consequences of not having a backup if a worse case scenario arises?” Unfortunately they often manifest themselves in the form of afterthoughts, that occur to the rescuee once SAR teams have already been deployed.

Hike Your Own Hike?

If you’ve spent any amount of time on America’s long distance trails you will have heard this expression. It basically translates to, “find out what works for you, put it into practice, and don’t try to tell others how to hike.”

In theory I couldn’t agree more; there is no universal blueprint when it comes to long distance backpacking. However, I will add the following caveat. Once you make the decision to venture into conditions that you have neither the experience, skill and in many cases the equipment to handle, all bets are off. You have forfeited the right to “Hike your own Hike.”

“Why?” Because not only have you put yourself at risk, you’ve potentially also placed the Search & Rescue (SAR) workers that have to come and find you in danger. “Isn’t that their job?” No, it’s not. At least it shouldn’t be. These individuals have more than enough to do as it is; the last thing they need is to be spending time and resources looking for ill prepared hikers that more often than not have no one but themselves to blame.

What will it take for people to realize that hiking apps aren’t a navigational panacea? How many of these stories do we have to hear before the penny drops? Would hikers be so blasé if they knew that they could potentially be up for multi-thousand dollar search and rescue bills?


I’m not implying that folks should give up their GPS/Smart phones and go 100% old school map and compass. That is not going to happen. What I am saying is that hiking apps are not the be all and end all, and shouldn’t be thought of as an “easy” substitute to map and compass proficiency.

Batteries can die, electronics can fail, signals don’t always come through. GPS have their limitations, and if you have nothing in the way of a navigational backup to call on if a worse case scenario occurs, then you may well find yourself up poo creek without a technological paddle. I’ll leave you with this quote from a recent article I read on the British Mountaineering Council’s website:

“People using GPS for navigation just aren’t building a mental map in the same way you do in traditional map and compass navigation, where you are constantly relating the map to the terrain around you. That means if the technology fails for whatever reason, you are going to be a lot more lost than you would have been if you were using a map.”



When “Hike Your Own Hike” Ceases to Apply — 33 Comments

  1. “Stupid is as stupid does” to quote a famous American philosopher. My big problem with phone map Apps besides the fact that I have a Flip phone is that they do not provide a large enough overview of the surrounding terrain. Even when it works the area you get to see is so narrow as to be useless in situations that stray from the normal.

    And nice post.

  2. It used to be common sense to take the “10 essentials”. That did not include electronic gadgets. We on becoming too dependent on electronics to do everything in life. IMO it makes sense to learn to read and use a map and compass. And I agree with Roger W., you will not have any idea where to bail out when needed. Some gadgets do have a place for families peace of mind but should not be depended on.
    Just my 2cents worth.

  3. The article fails to identify correctly the reason that hikers often don’t take a compass and map: it’s weight. They have a belief that since the trail is relatively well-marked and well-maintained they won’t need to haul around the “extra” weight.

    • Except my phone and a solar charger, while certainly not by much, OUTWEIGH a map and compass. No it’s pure laziness. Topo map reading can be hard and lots of people can’t even navigate with a road map

      • its not “A” topo map its a shit load of topo maps for a 2600ml hike. if your trundling along at 20mls a day your going to go through half a dozen a week. the cost is immense as the bulk.
        that would be my reasoning for phone only- nothing to do with navigation skills.

        • The cost is not immense. You can download Half Miles maps for free or have them professionally printed for a very reasonable price from people such as “Yogi’s Books” ($60 for the entire trail/Double sided 8.5×11).

          As for the bulk, thru hikers only ever carry the maps they’ll need for a given section. The rest are mailed ahead with resupply boxes and/or “bounce box.”



          • oh i see. half inch to a mile sounds abit vague to me. anyway i see where your coming from – isnt bounce box was an early nineties video game…..?

          • Excellent point. There are a number of topo map apps, which obviously need a functional device. I use Phil Endicott’s Topo Maps, which has all the USGS 7.5 minute maps (40 foot contours) in its data base. It also has a GPS feature that doesn’t require a cellular connection so you can locate yourself on the map, and you can mark way stations, like “cliff I almost fell off” or “start of High Sierra Trail.” You do have to download the maps onto your device before the hike.

    • I think most lightweight hikers are more knowledgable than average backpackers, so realize that the weight of a button compass and map sheet is not unnecessary weight…more likely the SPOT device is unnecessary.

  4. Spot on article. It needs to be said. Otherwise, we run the risk of thinking nothing is really wrong, that electronics didn’t really fail this hiker because in the end electronics worked for him/her! as it was possible to call SAR and sort it out. But SAR is not meant for lost hikers that are otherwise fine, it is meant for true emergencies. And the risk here is that if we start using SAR for things other than emergencies, SAR will be changed and it will not work as it does now for true emergencies. We risk losing the public service stance and turning SAR into a commodity. Not pretty.
    The BMC’s part is spot on too. It’s not that paper maps can’t fail (they obviously can) but paper maps force you to be aware and resourceful so map failure alone will rarely trigger a SAR call.
    Lack of awareness & resources and the easy button push can’t become the new normal.

  5. Not to be the devils advocate here, but the moral of the story is to have some sort of a backup system for your electronics. That would, IMO, best be served by having maps and a compass, but if the hiker written about had been carrying a dedicated GPS in addition to the phone app, or if the hiker had been hiking with another person with a charged phone plus the phone app then the story probably would of had a happier outcome.

    There was a incident two years ago on the coaligned CDT/CT where a SOBO hiker fell crossing a raging stream and destroyed his phone being used for navigation. The hiker also had maps and compass, but the maps were all printed on typical printer paper and became just as wet and worthless as the phone. (Plastic bags or waterproof cases might also be considered a good third line of defense.)

  6. I love the quality of your outdoor sarcasm. It’s not a brave new world when there exists a button tempting to “Get me out of here” instead of adopting your own motto of “Live Free or Die.”

  7. a lot people think the spot backs up their cell phone and aps and maps and they are right. they did fail to consider risk and expence to other people. I myself don’t like to rely on other people. so I always carry maps

  8. Pretty easy to get a bit self righteous here, old school vs New, etc.
    I’d say give yourself as many route finding options as possible.
    I just returned from 450 miles on the rugged GET, and I know the map only blokes out there often struggle. Waypoints are huge time savers on obscure routes.
    When I hit the CT in July,a phone app our simple guidebook are sufficient.
    Still there I go hauling those beloved paper maps. Always a good compass.

  9. I’ve been hiking/backpacking since the 70s. I use both — map and compass (MC) and electronic devices (ED) such as cell phone GPS/satellite device/app. I agree. We must learn to use map & compass. We must use SAR only in emergencies.

    Using both, MC & ED has its pros and cons. Technology though should compliment MC, not replace it. Maybe there should be a “mandatory” MC course as a permit to hike that needs to be renewed every year. A $10 annual charge can help improve NP and non-NP according to enrollment and demographics.

    The common thread we all enjoy is the outdoors!

    Another idea SAR should consider for long-range & interested hikers is issue out chips that satellites lights can read. They can track these hikers and (a) warned them ahead of time of what’s coming up (ED) and find stranded (MC) hikers who haven’t moved or reported back in a while.

    Hmm. I wonder how our military would answer this?!?

    Mother Nature is calling… but she also is unforgiving. Be prepared my friends.

  10. While your points you are make are valid and very helpful for new and inexperienced hikers/backpackers, you did a very poor job in fact gathering regarding to series of events that ultimately led to your unilateral post. I’m not certain why bloggers and journalists alike are not more thorough. Said hiker completed a completed pct thru hike last year as well as very skilled. If you had read her blog post you would have read that she had maps and a compass and the know how to use. Ultimately she made the decision to use/call SAR because her delorme battery (which has SAR coverage) was running low. We unfortunately are living in a damned if you do and damned if you don’t world. We can all over analyze her decisions and be hypercritical because in the end we all can learn from this series of events but please make sure you as well as your readers are know the facts. Her is the latest no to her blog post for your reference….

    • I read both Alison’s post and the article that appeared in the Nugget News. According to the Search & Rescue Coordinator, Dave Blann, “Alison was dependent on the app she used on her phone for navigation.” From what I can gather, this appears to be a spot on observation.

      Mr.Blann’s words directly contradict your assertion that Alison is “very skilled” and not only had “maps and compass” but ‘knew how to use them as well’. Indeed, if she was such a skilled navigator, why wasn’t she using her maps & compass periodically beforehand rather than eating through all her battery capacity? When the GPS died, her thoughts seemed to turn almost immediately to being bailed out by the SAR, not to extricating herself by means of the tools she had left her.

      I’m afraid that these are not the actions of a “very skilled” navigator. Quite the contrary. These are the actions of a person who was out of her depth, and whilst she may have been carrying a map and compass, apparently she had very little idea about how to use them.

  11. There is nothing worse than suspecting that the cursor on your GPS is not moving, then definitely realising that your out of coverage after travelling further.
    With the zoom set too high you can also miss important land marks.
    These are all compounded when you haven’t checked where the sun is and in which direction you are heading.
    You then get the map out and wish that you had only taken the time to look at it before starting out.
    Yes, guilty of these and many more.

  12. I’ve read Alison’s account, and feel that Cam’s analysis is spot-on. She ran down her app battery rather than switch to compass navigation and keep some juice in reserve to confirm her position from time-to-time. She didn’t seem to formulate any plan to determine her location and self-extract. Given her lack of navigation smarts she probably made the right decision to activate her DeLorme rather than wander at random. But she seems to have misjudged her capabilities and got out of her depth. A healthy walker with two days of food who gives up because they feel hopelessly lost is certainly not “very skilled”.

    It’s not just carrying maps that’s the issue, but knowing how to use them and stay orientated as you walk. Writing in Nature, a former President of the UK’s Royal Institute of Navigation wrote of his concern that over-use of GPS means that people aren’t keeping their navigation skills well honed, even if they developed them in the first place. My own experience chimes with his view that good navigation is a use-it-or-lose-it type of skill that needs continuous practice. Over-reliance on GPS in our regular walking means that our navigation may have deteriorated when we suddenly need it.

    My own approach is to use map and compass routinely with GPS as the last resort, and not the other way around. I also regularly re-read the best books on navigation and practice the skills in the field. I intentionally put myself in challenging situations from time-to-time, such as Dartmoor in the mist or dark, and check that I can still keep on course. That way, when I hit a crunch situation in a remote wilderness I’ll hopefully have retained some skills to fall back on if my GPS fails.

    I’m acutely aware of the fantastic and selfless service offered by SAR (mostly volunteers in the UK). It’s the responsibility of all of us who venture into wild land to do all we can to ensure we don’t need to call them out – and honing our navigation skills on a regular basis is surely a wise investment?

  13. I absolutely use my cell phone GPS app when hiking my hike supported by a battery charger and backed up with a detailed paper map. Redundancy is the key and I have never had a problem.

  14. What’s missing in this conversation is the subject of survival skills. WE are responsible for our own salvation, not SAR. There was a hiker on the Appalachian Trail whose skeletal remains were found 2 years after she left the trail to go to the bathroom, got turned around, and became profoundly lost searching for cell phone service so she could be rescued. She was also thought to be a “skilled hiker,” but in spite of the fact that she had hiked a lot, she did not have navigation skills or survival skills. Her mistake was that she was so focused on being rescued that she neglected her own survival. She lived for almost a month and kept a journal as she slowly starved to death. Electronics can fail, get dropped in a stream, and no app guarantees it’s accuracy. Know how to use a map and compass, and know how to survive in the wilderness–how to make a shelter and find water. Food isn’t as critical: 3 minutes, 3 days, 3 weeks is roughly how long you can survive without air, water, and food.

  15. I keep hearing this thing about surviving without water for three days…as if that’s a universal constant (Bob, not saying you don’t understand that – I can see plainly you do). I just want us to be clear that without water we can live for more than a week OR die in an afternoon — given the right circumstances.

    But, more importantly, without water our judgement can quickly become fouled up. And the implication there is that even with excellent navigational skill AND experience, we may not be thinking well enough to effectively make use of whatever resources we have on hand.

    • Very true–excellent point. The “3 days” is in the best of circumstances, and if you’re lost in the desert in 120° sun, you’ll be jerky in 3 days.

  16. Anyone reading this posting in the greater Los Angeles area who might be engaged in the kind of outdoor activity under discussion should take the Wilderness Travel Course offered annually by the Sierra Club and taught be dozens of volunteers.

  17. Not sure if this is true or not. I have heard it several times from my Marine buddies and have read it before. A new Marine LT was going through a class for navigation the instructor was a Die Hard Master Sargent. He asked why the LT did not have out his map and compass? LT responded I have this new gizmo that tells me where I am and where I am going. Master Sargent looked at the unit and immediately shot it. Basically comes to you still need to know and have a back up! PS… the story actually goes further into detail but you get the point.

    • Awesome. I guess Master Sargeants print their maps on Kevlar paper, too. Funny, I heard someplace that on many missions it makes sense to not take pieces of paper that explain your plans, that such papers might even have better map info than the natives.

  18. Here’s a reason that most people in the back country do not have good navigation skills: it’s difficult for most people to learn them from a book, and quality instruction can be hard to find. It’s a lot easier to spend a few minutes loading a smart phone app and GPS track, and off you go.

    If you want to learn basic navigation for free, at your own speed, search YouTube for “Columbia River orienteering club”. They have an excellent series of navigation instruction videos that covers all the key map and compass skills.

  19. Quick comment re electronics.

    I have used the backcountry pretty consistently for about 40 years, typically in situations where I am solely responsible for the navigation. The old compass was retired long before electronic aids. Locating the cardinal points, sighting for landmarks and walking a course are, for me at least, as intuitive and convenient with a good topo map, as with a magnetic needle.

    These days however I have fully converted to the nav functions of my phone GPS. I still bring paper maps as back up, but they mostly remain unused. The screen quality, instant position fix and ability to store dozens of full res USGS 7.5 quads are all fantastic assets. The iPhone easily lasts a week in airplane mode.

    Last summer I did the Wind River High Route, the Adventure Alan way, and just used the real maps in the tent at night to get the big picture. Never once was there a route finding riddle not easily solved by a quick look at the phone. And this is a 90 mile mostly off trail route of some complexity.

    The danger of this is jumping in head first without much experience. But then, the talus and bears and stream crossings could just as easily get you before getting truly lost.

    • Hey Jan,

      Thanks for the message.

      I think the crux of the matter is to always have a navigational backup and know how to use it.

      As to your suggestion that a compass isn’t necessary if you are a good map reader and a proficient route finder, I respectfully disagree. From Lapland to Tierra Del Fuego, over the decades I’ve encountered too many situations where I’ve been hiking in dense fog/whiteout conditions for hours on end and a compass was essential to my staying on course. In such scenarios, a great sense of direction and a detailed topo may be sufficient to get you through, however, for a weight penalty of between 1 and 2 ounces, in my opinion a good compass is well worth carrying.

      Of course, situations such as this are exactly the ones in which an electronic aid can be very handy to have.



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