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Is GPS ruining our ability to navigate for ourselves?


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Viewing 25 posts - 1 through 25 (of 27 total)
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  • #3771123
    Ken Larson
    BPL Member

    @kenlarson

    Locale: Western Michigan
    #3771204
    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member

    @rex

    A few thoughts, mostly based on personal experiences:

    The article doesn’t cover other ways of staying spatially oriented. For example, I often use hills, mountains, and oceans as references. Around LA and the suburbs, the big mountains run east-west. In the San Francisco Bay Area and Sierra Nevada, they run northwest-southeast.

    Around Monterey Bay, everything curves. Borrowing a trick from traditional Hawaiian words, I often think of directions as toward the mountains or inland (mauka), or toward the ocean (makai), assisted by reference points like “toward Santa Cruz” or “toward Monterey.”

    I get stressed navigating around flatlands like Florida and south Texas, even with maps or map apps. But I’ve almost always lived in areas with tall mountains visible. I’ve known flatlanders who freak out about all the mountains where I’ve lived.

    For well-worn routes and trails, I make more of a mental graph with point-to-point straight lines, instead of remembering that Street X or Trail Y curves around.

    I’m sure that hundreds of PCT and AT thru-hikers exclusively following apps like FarOut (formerly GutHook) have a different experience than old-timers relying on maps and compasses, for many reasons. Is one better than the other? Maybe.

    So I think that modern brain science can explain some of the factors that go into staying oriented and following routes, but not all. Will GPS mess with that? Probably, but that cat is way out of the bag. Life will go on. Even relatively accurate maps are a recent invention!

    — Rex

    #3771239
    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member

    @rex

    USGS started making topographic maps in 1884, 139 years ago, and didn’t finish the lower 48 states until 1991, just 32 years ago. Somehow countless backpackers survived and thrived before smartphones with GPS, or even detailed topo maps in many backcountry areas. BTDT. If 1:250K maps were all we had, we still headed out.

    And they are surviving and thriving by “blindly” following smartphone directions. Their experience will be different, but that’s always changing, too. Try hiking the PCT, slowly, with 50 pound packs!

    — Rex

    Used to work at USGS, but not making (onshore) topo maps.

    #3771362
    Tom K
    BPL Member

    @tom-kirchneraol-com-2

    Those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born into the pre smartphone/Garmin era, when the only ways to navigate with whatever maps were available and reading the terrain perhaps have the best of both worlds.  I certainly appreciate the ease of navigating with GAIA, my particular choice of software packages, but I also have fond memories of working with paper maps and developing the ability to navigate without them when necessary.  They are two different worlds, and I feel very lucky to have experienced both.

    #3771387
    Mike J
    BPL Member

    @mikejones3-2

    Locale: SoCal

    Ironically enough I was having this conversation with someone on twitter the other day. I was half joking at the end of it but been thinking more about it, but I was thinking of building a game like app to help make you more spatially aware on hikes.

    Essentially a map app that you open every so often on a hike and tap where you think you are, and it awards points based on how close you get. The more you play the game the more “competitive” you become and you may pay more attention to the terrain around you as you walk. Just an idea…. lol

    #3771391
    W I S N E R !
    BPL Member

    @xnomanx

    I would have to presume it is ruining the ability to navigate for many.

    I have taught teenagers for 22 years now. My own children are currently 21 and 19 and I know their friends well.

    I was once giving some kids a ride home.

    “What exit do I use?”

    “Uhhh….”

    “Ok, what are the cross streets?”

    “Uhhh….”

    The kid then handed me their phone with the route loaded on Apple Maps. This was an 18 year old.

     

     

     

    Just follow the blue line….That’s where home is.

     

     

     

    And then there are all you lazy bums that don’t know how to make friction fires…

     

     

    I think humans have been complaining about these sorts of things since the birth of language.

     

    #3771395
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    ChatGPT is getting banned in some universities or school districts and the creator of ChatGPT said – well, calculators were once thought to be evil. You could argue that your brain is getting worse by using calculator. Or spell checker.

    The brain is an amazing piece of machinery. Neurons will get used for other things – like critical thinking. Leave all the dumb, formulaic stuff to machines.

    I come from India where we used to memorize a whole lot of stuff in school. When I came to US, I found that the thinking here was “if it is in the book – why memorize it?” Refer to the book. I was shocked that we had open book exams – only thing was that answers to questions could not be easily obtained by referring to open books. Usually at work, when we are discussing some back of envelope calculations, multiplications or additions etc will be answered first by mostly Indians :-) But I didn’t think that makes us smarter. I do see after living here for 33 years, I now reach for the calculator rather than doing it in the mind.

    I rely on GPS and think it is an awesome tool. I and my hiking partners navigated using our GPS on the SHR – our main navigator used the compass just for kicks. I actually read that some folks relying on compass/maps got lost on the SHR and it is very expensive (time, effort to correct etc) when you get lost on off road trails like SHR.

    Why waste your brain on dumb navigation? Instead enjoy the scenery. Use your brain for something else. Your brain is elastic. It will adapt to other things.

    #3771398
    Mike J
    BPL Member

    @mikejones3-2

    Locale: SoCal

    Murali C,

    I love your perspective, thanks for sharing!

    #3771411
    Paul D
    BPL Member

    @paulieva

    Not me.  Give me a compass, a map and I’ll tell you where we are and how to get there.

    Land Nav is like riding a bike to me; learned it in the Army.  I still shoot azimuths and navigate with a compass periodically when I am hiking.

    #3771414
    LARRY W
    BPL Member

    @larry-w

    Man I loved traveling and studying places on paper maps. You would see a place on the map and wonder what it was like, find a way to get there and often have it all to yourself. Just a good feeling.

    Nothing wrong with apps but the sense of wonder isn’t as easy to come by when you know everything ahead in advance. Some people like that though.

    #3771432
    Nick Gatel
    BPL Member

    @ngatel

    Locale: Southern California

    In a similar vein — GPS for cars.

    I spent the last 18 years of my career traveling for business averaging 100,000 air miles per year. During that time I worked in 49 states. Never went to Alaska.

    The first three years I used paper road maps and MapQuest. I had to study them to avoid getting lost and I always had a sense of where I was and where N, S, E, and W were. Then I started using Hertz Never Lost GPS in their rental cars. And so for 15 years I pretty much had no idea where I was or what direction anything was from my current position. I had to depend on the GPS. But I never got lost as long as I traveled in my rental car.

    #3771470
    MJ H
    BPL Member

    @mjh

    As Rex noted above:

    I get stressed navigating around flatlands like Florida and south Texas, even with maps or map apps. But I’ve almost always lived in areas with tall mountains visible. I’ve known flatlanders who freak out about all the mountains where I’ve lived.

    Yes. I was raised in rural Nebraska where everything was on a grid and the ground was flat. It took me years to get used to driving in Pittsburgh because I can’t stop my brain from applying a grid where the grid doesn’t work. My son was raised here and he is much better at getting directions right in his head. We were in a large local park and he was able to point to where we parked after we had been walking for about an 45 minutes and were still a half mile away and could see nothing but the side of the hill we were going up. I was way off (before I looked at my phone).

    #3771541
    AK Granola
    BPL Member

    @granolagirlak

    As we all know, GPS devices can break, get dropped into a raging river, or simply have the batteries die. Where most people go, it won’t make any difference and they’ll be fine. I do enjoy using maps though. I like knowing the mountains and bodies of water and roads beyond the boundaries of a tiny digital screen. Last summer I spent some time in camp showing some teenagers how to read the various marks on a topo map; they knew none of it. Reading a map is like reading a book – it’s interesting and fun to see what’s up ahead, how steep the trail is going to be, how the terrain is going to change. I’m glad it’s a skill I learned when young. I’m also glad I can sew and knit, bake bread from scratch, making yogurt, cook all my meals, growing a garden and preserving garden produce – none of which is really necessary any more. But I take pleasure in having these skills and using them.

    #3771703
    R L
    BPL Member

    @slip-knot

    Locale: SF Bay Area, East Bay

    A subtitle to the OP’s inquiry might be, Or: Is technology dumbing down the human race?  I’m a map guy as soon an I step out of the van.  When driving, I’ve buckled like a belt to the ways of the GPS.  sigh

    #3771704
    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member

    @balzaccom

    Locale: Wine Country

    I’m going to add one more perspective here.  Since I live in California, in a area heavily affected by fires over the past ten years, I have learned the cell phone towers are not as dependable as we would like.  In one fire, our city was without cell phone coverage for about three days, until they could bring in emergency temporary service.

    IF you are counting on your phone to get you to safety in an emergency, you may find that your phone works, but the system doesn’t.  Just sayin’

    #3771708
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    Paul – your phone will work in airplane mode (no cell signal required) with GPS ON – navigation still works in the backcountry.

    What if your paper maps fly away in the wind? Or they get wet, torn, ink smudged beyond readable? What if your compass breaks or falls into a raging river? I mean you can always cook up situations. I am not saying that you should not have backups. By all means carry compass, maps etc. But, don’t tell me that is faster or a better way to navigate. I have several backups – my Garmin watch, my phone with Farout, gaia, caltopo and my Inreach GPS with navigation tracks. In fact on the JMT this past summer, my phone GPS stopped working for couple of days – none of the apps worked. So it was the phone GPS that was misbehaving. My Garmin had my route – not that you need any tracks for JMT or you will get lost – but, my watch worked perfectly fine. My Garmin will also show me upcoming hills, length, slope etc. Technology is the future – use it wisely to become more efficient. On the SHR, I did have paper maps, compass in addition to Inreach navigation – but they were all backups with caltopo on Phone, Garmin watch and Roper’s book for navigation.

    Maybe we all need to learn to navigate using the stars! That is an useful skill as well to have.

    #3771714
    DWR D
    BPL Member

    @dwr-2

    You can also carry a 2nd cell phone as backup. Older phones are cheap (or your old one sitting on the shelf) and you don’t need a sim card to have the gps and mapping app working…

    #3771720
    AK Granola
    BPL Member

    @granolagirlak

    Do we need to be efficient in navigating in the backcountry? Efficiency isn’t one of my goals – slowing down is. Just as with the endless debates about footwear, as long as your navigation methods work and you don’t get lost, it’s good.

    #3771722
    AK Granola
    BPL Member

    @granolagirlak

    And I for one would love to learn to navigate by the stars! It’s like bushcraft – is there any reason to do that stuff other than it’s fun and interesting? Ditto for backpacking; it would be a lot more efficient to just drive somewhere instead. Maps are just super cool. If you don’t love them, don’t bother.

    #3771777
    jscott
    BPL Member

    @book

    Locale: Northern California

    “You can also carry a 2nd cell phone as backup. ”

    I think this more or less affirms the original question. The implication of the question is, ‘are we helpless without technology?”. (OK that’s overstating the case but you get the drift.). If the answer is, bring backup technology, then…

    But what if the system goes down, and all our devices become useless for a time, as has been mentioned?

    I get lost at the drop of a hat when driving on city streets. I’m the perfect candidate for car gps, and welcome any aid in that regard. I’ve used, gladly, gps in winter over snow covered trails on unfamiliar day hikes. But I leave it behind in spring when a backpacking trip takes me over snow, even several miles. To me, it’s not worth the weight and distraction. and I suppose I like testing myself.

    I don’t think DWRD was advocating for bringing two cell phones on a backpacking trip (?). Those who are going many miles off trail may prefer gps maps for very good reason. As folks here may be tired of hearing me say, I can’t imagine why one might need to carry a device that requires charging and maintenance if travelling on trail. surely a paper map would do? Maybe it has to do with what we’re familiar with; what feels homely to us.

    since I don’t hike off trail at night, I have no need to navigate by the stars.

    #3771781
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    My phone is my kindle, my journal, my spreadsheet showing my daily hiking plan, my navigator, my Inreach texting interface with family, calling Uber from the trailhead, my camera, video recorder etc. As I write this, I don’t know why anybody would not carry their phone or use it if you carry it.

    People sometimes get lost even on trail as well. Some trails have lots of maze like connections without many markings and it is easy to get lost. I encountered one such hiker on PCT Washington a few years back.

    Also if you hike AZT or any desert – it is good to know if water sources are present – dry or still flowing. Sure you can always carry 5 liters all the time. But, you don’t have to if you have such information. Farout (Guthook) is an awesome app where hikers routinely provide up to date information.

    If you are hiking 20 to 30 miles a day on a month long hike, you absolutely want to be efficient – that is not get lost and waste time backtracking etc. I usually rumble into my resupply point with very little food – that is I cannot take an extra day to get tyo my resupply point. I make my reservations for hotels months in advance. I have so far hit all of my schedules. People hike from sun up to sun down. Sure there are folks who want the “camping” experience where they camp by 2PM and spend the rest of the day swimming, chatting, drawing whatever. But there are many folks who do big miles every day and for them efficiency is very important. If you are lost on the SHR or off trails and backtracking – you can get into deep trouble very soon. it can be outright dangerous.

    Anyways – hike your own hike. Always realize that there are all kinds of backpackers in this world with wildly different requirements of what they want to get out of their backpacking experiences.

    #3771782
    DWR D
    BPL Member

    @dwr-2

    I hike solo mostly. Often off trail. And am proficient with a map and compass. But there times when a map and compass just are not as helpful. One example:

    Off trail multi day backpacking in some of the Utah canyons. Before gps existed, I would try to keep track of my location by counting bends in the canyon (you can’t get a bearing on anything when down inside). But counting bends is not always so easy… was this little bend the one on the map? Or was this bend just that squiggle on the map? You can also count side canyons, but sometimes the light is so stark that you can walk right by a side canyon and not even know it… or you are down in an eroded gully and can’t see it. If you lose track, you may miss your exit side canyon and end up miles off your route. Sometimes you don’t know if you missed it or not so end up doubling back just to make sure only to find out that you did not  miss it…  It is soooo much easier (and less stressful) with gps.

    Another example: once you exit the canyon  you may need to hike over a couple of miles of mesa top back to your car that you left parked on a dirt road. Even if you know exactly where your car is on the paper map (which you probably don’t if you aren’t using gps), good luck walking a bearing accurately through rolling hills of pinyon an juniper thicket. In that instance, I learned over the years to intentionally walk a mile or more to the left or the right of the car. That way, when you get to the dirt road, you turn to the left and walk the road back to your car if you had intentionally walked to the right of the car location. Otherwise, if you tried walking a bearing directly to your car and get to the road and you can’t see your car (can’t see around bends with the pinyon and juniper trees), you don’t know whether to walk to the left or the right… You could walk a mile or two in the wrong direction looking for your car…  all while extremely tired and thirsty at the end of a long, hot day. With GPS it is simple: just track to the way point you set at the car. Easy Peazy, no wasted extra mile or two of walking. Sure, my phone gps can break or the battery run dead. But I have redundancy if I have a hiking buddy with a phone… or if I take my old phone or use tracking with my Garmin.

    I am certainly not against just using a map and compass and do at times. But I am a big believer in the right tool for the job… and gps is definitely the right tool for canyon hiking.

    my 2 cents…

    #3771783
    DWR D
    BPL Member

    @dwr-2

    And, yes, I would say my skill at counting bends in canyons has atrophied, but I also can’t use a slide rule any more and not so good at long division using a pencil either, but not about to throw away my hand held calculator just to sharpen up my math skills…. :))

    #3771784
    Murali C
    BPL Member

    @mchinnak

    I remember the time I set up tent to lighten my load as it was going to rain the next few days and I wanted to see the Goat Rocks. I said to myself that I will go as far as possible in Goat Rocks and then return to my tent as it was getting dark – make use of all available sunlight. Luckily, I started my GPS even though it was on trail. Once I was ready to return, I hit “trackback” and as I approached my tent site – which was off the trail with a small climb towards a clump of tall trees – I realized how fortunate it was that I had remembered to start my GPS. There were lots of such clumps. There was no way I would have found my tent without GPS that day. Not with a compass/map.

    On the SHR again, 3 of us set up camp and then decided to go get water. We started walking and soon realized none of us knew where our campsite was after we got water. Luckily we found it – but, worst case, I would have used my GPS to find it as I had it ON the whole day and the tracks would have been there on my watch.

    #3771805
    jscott
    BPL Member

    @book

    Locale: Northern California

    Yes, canyon hiking is its own thing. Often there are no trails or markers. So gps is a good thing. If it will work down there!

    I was relieved to find Doug Peacock relating how he almost lost his tent one time when he went for water at dusk. It’s happened to me and is an awful feeling. It’s good know I have company!

    I haven’t made that mistake again. I like to think I don’t need gps to go get water.

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