“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.”
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
Old Timer: You’re not carrying maps and a compass?
Newbie: “Not necessary……….everything I need is on my phone………just gotta 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.”
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 & compass. That’s 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 & 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.”