Help or hazard? Why GPS may be leading us astray

Posted by Carey Davies on 08/06/2016
Are people following their phones intro trouble?

Are hill walkers becoming so reliant on technology that we may be losing a part of ourselves and our ability to ‘see’ the bigger picture? Heather Morning, Mountain Safety Advisor with The Mountaineering Council of Scotland, debates whether that GPS ‘safety net’ is becoming more of a hazard than a help.

Navigation in the mountains can be challenging; particularly if the cloud comes down and visibility is lost. This is a time when many hill walkers will pull out their GPS, press a few buttons and confidently follow instructions from the small screen in front of them. 

It’s an attractive thought to think that purchasing an electronic gadget is going to solve all our problems in the mountains and keep us safe from harm. However recent trends with mountain rescue call-outs suggest in fact that it is quite the opposite.

Those electronic gadgets, designed to make our life easier and safer in the mountains are in some cases contributing to problems and even leading to situations where a 999 call has to be made.

Our GPS can fail us, not by being wrong necessarily, but by being too right. GPS will do the job it is designed to – computing our exact position and the most direct route from point A to point B, but what it can’t do (and you can) is read the ground in-between.

An example of this would be a crag or very steep ground on the line between A and B, which will be obvious on the map because of the tight contour lines and crag markings. But miss the detail, punch in A and B with no regard for the terrain marked on the map and our GPS will just blindly take us on the straight line between the two points.

WATCH: How to: Use GPS devices safely on BMC TV

Modern technology can fail us for a variety of pragmatic reasons, battery life and user error being top of the list. But I would argue there is also something much more subtle going on.

Studies around the world have indicated that using GPS for navigation – even when it’s done properly – can leave us with less knowledge of where we are, not more.

People subconsciously build up a mental map as they move around, but it seems to be that, when they are following directions from a GPS they are not registering their surroundings in the same way they would have to when using a map and compass.

One city-based study indicated that walkers using GPS had less memory of a route than those who had followed the same route using a map. And another study concluded: “GPS eliminated much of the need to pay attention.”

It seems to be clear from these studies that 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.

WATCH: How to: Take a grid reference on BMC TV

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.

It’s not only relevant in nightmare scenarios either: it affects the satisfaction and pleasure you get out of any walk. Real navigation involves you in the terrain, both in your immediate surroundings and in the wider sense.

Surely that’s a lot more satisfying an experience than following an electronic arrow up and down a hill it seems you hardly pay attention to – that’s just exercise.

Letting the gadget do the work also allows any existing navigation skills to grow rusty.

The basic skills of navigation – the use of a map and compass – remain essential in the hills and mountains.

Heather Morning, MCofS

WATCH: How to: Take a compass bearing on BMC TV

GET SKILLS: Learn how to navigate with subsidised courses 

  • The BMC offers subsidised courses in Snowdonia, designed to give you the skills you need to be a confident hill walker at a bargain price. Details here.
  • If you’re a member of a BMC club, you can take part in our training weekends to learn about navigation, first aid, climbing, or winter skills. Details here.
     
  • The MCofS offers a number of heavily subsidised navigation courses in Scotland, which give walkers an easy to follow practical introduction to map and compass skills which will make them safer and more confident in the mountains. See the McofS website for details.  

JOIN THE BMC: 5 reasons hill walkers should join the BMC

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WATCH: What does the BMC do for hill walkers? on BMC TV

GET THE KNOWLEDGE: BMC resources for hill walkers

  • Hill Walking Essentials DVD: Follow Fredelina and Ben as they learn essential skills and techniques for the British mountains. Buy it now in the BMC shop.

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1) Anonymous User
06/07/2016
> GPS will do the job it is designed to – computing our exact position

GNSS may not compute your exact position in locations where there are large reflective and obscuring elements. This is true in both mountainous and high-rise urban environments. The term 'urban canyon' is often used in the GNSS field, and is an active field of research.

The problem is that, with obscured satellites, and strong reflected signals, the computed position can be incorrect (due to the increased flight time of the reflected signal), and can be hundreds of metres out. And the receiver can find it hard to know that this is occurring, and cannot warn the user.

So, as with all aspects of navigation, is is vital to continue asking yourself if your instruments are 'making sense', rather than just blindly following them.

captain paranoia

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