GPS: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable GPS: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

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    Backpacking Light


    Locale: Rocky Mountains

    BPL author Rex Sanders tackles the pros and cons of navigating by GPS in a short blog post that includes links for further info.

    Mark Wetherington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Montana

    Good article. I don’t use GPS and there’s only been a few times in over a decade of backpacking (including lots of off-trail hiking in the West and Southeast) where I’ve really wished I had it.

    Once when I was hiking up in the middle of winter to an abandoned lookout tower to spend the night and had some navigational issues and ended up bivying in -5 F temps (which I was prepared for, but not excited about) only about .1 miles from the lookout. If I’d had the GPS location I would’ve kept going rather than calling it quits after I became exhausted and it got dark.

    The other time was in a recently burned area in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness in WA/OR where the trail totally disappeared in new growth. I got pretty turned around up there but was able to re-orient myself eventually. It was a long day and I was more frustrated by the slowing of my pace than any real sense of “danger”.

    Both times I ended up with memorable experiences (and entertaining stories) and, since I was prepared for things not going according to plan, there wasn’t any real risk involved. “Make plans, but don’t plan on them . . . ” and all that.

    I suppose what I’m most curious about in regard to GPS (as someone who has no immediate plans to incorporate it into my hiking gear collection) is the impact it has on the experience of the user. Mostly in regard to the actual cognitive process of navigation, immersion in the landscape, situational awareness, and overall appreciation of the experience. I tend to skew more the side of engaging in backpacking as an “art” rather than a “science” and I savor the mystery of not knowing if I’m a mile away from the lake I’m trying to reach or 0.893 miles away. I’ll get there when I get there and it will be beautiful; there’s no satisfaction I gain from the details.

    An acquaintance of mine who was a long-time environmental professor at University of Idaho and led semester long field trips based out of a research station in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness said that there was a profound difference among students when just looking at plot sites on GPS vs. pulling out a topo map and seeing how everything connects — watershed to watershed, plateau to peak, etc. The GPS was useful for the specificity of science but obscured the “big picture” view of things, at least in his estimation.


    Andrew Marshall


    Locale: Tahoe basin by way of the southern Appalachians

    There’s a really good podcast episode (I think of Hidden Brain) about an American tourist in Scandinavia who followed a car GPS deep into total wilderness despite lots of hints he was on the wrong track (increasingly bad roads, etc). Thanks Rex for all this info – it totally filled in some knowledge gaps for me.


    BPL Member


    Locale: The Cascades

    “Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness in WA/OR where the trail totally disappeared in new growth.”

    I wonder if that was the same trail I ‘suffered’ through last year. Completely overgrown for a number of miles, didn’t look like anyone had been on that trail for years, lots of downed trees to climb over/under. I had gps and it didn’t help. :-) My hiking partner lost his gopro on that trail. An interesting trip.

    Mark Wetherington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Montana

    Andrew — pretty sure I heard that podcast, too. It was an interesting story, for sure. Outside Magazine also had a similar story about the phenomenon that is well-worth reading:

    “What, we wonder, is our now habitual use of navigation tools doing to our minds? An emerging body of research suggests some unsettling possi­bilities. By allowing devices to take total control of navigation while we ignore the real-world cues that humans have always used to ­deduce their place in the world, we are letting our natural wayfinding abilities languish. ­Compulsive use of mapping technology may even put us at greater risk for memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. By turning on a GPS every time we head somewhere new, we’re also cutting something fundamental out of the experience of traveling: the adventures and surprises that come with finding—and losing—our way.”

    It focuses most on use in non-wilderness settings, but does touch on its use in the backcountry a bit.

    It noted that GPS might be making the backcountry safer (a good thing!) as SAR calls in national parks had dropped from 2004-2014. I’d be curious as if SAR calls are lower now than in 2014 since use of national parks has increased and many new visitors are often underprepared for the realities of wilderness areas, with some relying on their phone or PLB as  bail-out option.


    @doug-i  The trail that I got lost on was around Smooth Ridge, above Fairview Bar. I could follow the trail well enough from Fairview Bar up to the ridge (finding its start was a bit hard, but the switchbacks were pretty distinct). Once I got on the ridge it was a mess and I didn’t reconnect with the trail until a mile or more later, that took me about 2 hours to get to. It was a long day for me as I had planned to hike from Fairview Bar to Oregon Butte and getting lost just made it feel that much longer. If you found a bandana and a Write-in-the-Rain notebook out there it was mine — I slipped on a downed tree and the bottom of my cargo pocket ripped without me knowing, so I didn’t realize I had inadvertently littered until later.



    Ben C
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kentucky

    I have always carried a printed map but rarely look at them any more. It’s becoming more rare every trip. There are a few reasons.

    • First, ease of  access. My phone is always handy in my pants pocket. A printed map is typically in the front pocket of my pack, so I have to take off my pack to see it.
    • Second, it almost always puts me on the map, so that I can easily see where I am.
    • Third, it becomes obvious much more quickly if I get off my intended route.
    • Fourth, in the rare situation where I can get a satellite fix, its still a good map. I usually fin it easier to read for most purposes than a printed map.
    • Fifth, if I’m ever a little confused as to what peak/pass/etc. is what, gps makes it pretty obvious.
    BPL Member


    To add to Ben’s list

    • Sixth.  I carry a real camera for its higher quality photos.  I can download the gpx file and easily add gps points to my pictures after the trip. It’s fun to relive the trips years later and see my pace, distance each day, etc.,  and pull up the pictures to enhance the memories and places.
    Bob Kerner
    BPL Member


    I can’t imagine not using both a GPS and a map. My hiking frequency has increased lately and I have encountered quite a few people on the trail using phone based GPS and they cannot reconcile what the phone tells them with what terrain they are on. “Can you tell me where the trail is?” was The most common interaction I had last weekend. Followed by “Where is the road?”

    I don’t start a trip without 3 mapping sources: I start with a guidebook and sometimes photocopy the small guidebook map of the trip; then the regional paper map goes in my pack; finally the route on Gaia in my pants pocket. Gaia has saved my bacon twice recently where markers were down or missing and knowing my ‘precise’ location helped me find the concealed intersection of trails.

    I worry about people new to hiking that are out there with only their phone and no understanding of how GPS works or how to read the map on the phone.

    Sam Farrington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Chocorua NH, USA

    “I worry about people new to hiking that are out there with only their phone and no understanding of how GPS works or how to read the map on the phone.”

    I’ve often met these folks, and try to be as helpful as possible. This year the NH White Mountains seem to have attracted an onslaught of visitors.  Fortunately, many of the rescuers are volunteers; otherwise Fish & Game and the Forest Service would probably go bust.  I think it is because folks in more heavily populated areas would just like to get to someplace outdoors where they can enjoy the fresh air without a mask on.  I feel the same, but don’t have to travel to get to my bushwhacking routes where I see nobody, ever.  And they are great practice for areas where designated trails have not been maintained and have grown over as mentioned above.

    Like the first poster above, I don’t use GPS.  Have read many manuals, and learned a lot, but not the skills needed to dispense with laminated sections of USGS paper maps.  There have been a number of trainings, but they all cost several hundred dollars, not in my budget at the time.  For me, the maps are also essential for planning long distance hikes, and if there is a problem, having a ‘big picture” to find routes to the nearest highway.  So carry trail maps of the entire region, along with the more detailed USGS sectioned maps.

    Rex Sanders’ article scares me a bit about getting trained.  Do carry a little Garmin 301 to record points for others’ reference, and a PLB, the smallest and lightest I could find.  The 301 has a screen to select the datum of the map.  Am surprised that a smart phone app would not have the same.

    Used a PLB only once, and it brought the K9 deputy and his dog, Ivan, to a parking lot over 50 yards away.  Fortunately, the PLB was an older model with a strong flashing light, and the deputy was just leaving when he spotted it.  He told me some hikers use PLBs in the middle of nowhere.  My shelties were scared ____less to get in the back seat of the cruiser with Ivan, until they realized he could not get out of his cage.

    When recording waypoints, I’ve often noticed that the coordinates change later in the day, even standing in exactly the same place.  So Rex is probably right about the error potential.   But it is not so much about perfect accuracy as about how close the GPS gets.  Except maybe for rescues in heavy storms, for someone badly injured, and their location must be pinpointed.  Just such occurred in the Whites some years ago, and a fatality resulted.

    I know one thing, I’ll never drive or even ride in a self-driving vehicle unless it’s a hearse, in which case it won’t matter.

    BPL Member


    A runner ended up running a 49 mile marathon because of a GPS app failure……

    A GPS failure meant this runner completed 49 miles in the virtual London Marathon




    Ben C
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kentucky

    I suspect hundreds have done the same without GPS. I really find it reliable and easy to use. A GPS makes it MUCH more likely that I don’t do extra miles. Most times I have gotten off route, it has been my phone GPS that has shown me my error.

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member


    Locale: California

    This New York Times opinion piece “America Has a GPS Problem”

    describes many of the issues outlined in my article. Plus a law passed in 2018 was supposed to have a GPS backup system running by 2020. Obviously they’ve missed that deadline, and there’s lots of finger-pointing and not-my-probleming going on.

    I’d be surprised if mere mortals, like backpackers, ever get a usable GPS alternative from the U.S. Government.

    Note that GPS jammers and spoofers usually work against the other systems, like Galileo, GLONASS, and BeiDou.

    Time to brush up on your map and compass skills?

    — Rex

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