The increasing number of hill walkers being rescued after relying on smartphone apps for navigation has prompted a rash of negative newspaper headlines. Can our love of technology really be that bad? Ed Douglas discovers there’s no substitute for a map and compass.
The Guardian’s report couldn’t have been less equivocal. “Hill walkers have been warned not to use smartphone apps to navigate in the Scottish mountains after the police had to rescue 16 people who got lost in the Cairngorms,” the newspaper said.
It had clearly been a busy few days for the Braemar and Aberdeen mountain rescue teams, as well as the helicopter crew from HMS Gannet sent to look for a group of 14 lost on Ben Macdui. The group had, according to The Guardian, relied entirely on a smartphone for navigation.
Dave Tate freely admits he made the same error on Scafell Pike this summer. He and his walking partner Cheryl Leech got lost descending in bad weather and as they experienced the first signs of hypothermia, called the police, who alerted Wasdale MRT.
Cold and wet, and badly disoriented, Tate wasn’t able to give many clues about his location, and it took the combined efforts of the Wasdale, Duddon and Keswick teams, plus the Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dogs to comb the whole of the Scafell massif.
Tate and Leech were eventually found at 2am near Calf Cove Gill under Ill Crag. Richard Warren, chair of Wasdale MRT, drily noted: “Their location was probably the furthest point from a road-head within the team’s operational area.” It was clearly a long and unpleasant night. After they’d been warmed up, the casualties were evacuated by Sea King helicopter.
Both Tate and Leech went out of their way to thank publicly the mountain rescue teams involved and freely admitted their errors of judgement. “We were naive,” Tate says. He is now raising money for mountain rescue, and wants other hill walkers not to make the same mistake he did, of relying too heavily on a smartphone.
“Even when I got a phone signal the GPS,” he told the BMC, “maps and compass were rendered useless by mother nature. I did actually ring Apple to tell them I had a product review for them and managed to speak to a senior official in the USA. He told me the iPhone was not meant for use at altitude, in remote areas or in extreme weather conditions. So basically any time you might actually have to rely on it, they have a disclaimer for it.”
Of course, life is never that simple. Because while at least two police forces in the last month have warned about the risks of using a smartphone, plenty of guides, instructors and ordinary climbers and hill walkers use one routinely.
The popular navigation app ViewRanger, which matches GPS to downloaded Ordnance Survey or equivalent maps, has glowing references from mountain rescue teams. (“At Kendal MRT we are finding the more we use ViewRanger the more we like it.) And while The Guardian told readers the police were warning hill walkers not to use smartphone apps, their message was more nuanced than that.
Kevin MacLeod of Northern Constabulary, for example, wasn’t dismissive: “Smartphones apps are a great innovation, but, on their own, they are not reliable enough for navigation in the mountains.” Simon Steer, deputy leader of Cairngorm MRT, also told The Guardian: “We need to be very aware of the limitations of new technologies and avoid relying solely on them.”
So what are those limitations? Carlo Forte is chief instructor at Plas y Brenin and author of the recently published Navigation in the Mountains. The book gives detailed guidance on how to use a dedicated handheld GPS unit and mapping software – but smartphones aren’t mentioned at all.
“A handheld GPS system has several advantages over a smartphone,” he says. “If you removed the antenna from a phone you’d see that it’s a third of the size of one from a GPS handset. The information you’re getting on a smartphone can take longer and may not be as accurate as it is on an outdoors GPS. You can also get handsets with big buttons that are easier to use in bad weather than a touch-screen.”
An outdoor GPS, he says, is also much more robust than a smartphone which is vulnerable to getting wet or being dropped. “Then there’s the issue of battery life. Cold temperatures can affect the performance of a smartphone battery. And having a GPS function turned on drinks batteries.”
Some of these problems will undoubtedly diminish or disappear as technology improves. ViewRanger already offers lots of advice on preserving battery life and turning off your GPS when you don’t need it is at the top of the list.
But the most important point, Forte says, is nothing to do with the advantages of an outdoors GPS versus a smartphone. It’s to do with map-reading experience. “Those guides and experienced outdoor people using smartphones have long experience of using paper maps. They know how to read them. It’s absolutely fundamental to know how to read a map and use a compass. You have to be proficient.”
It’s a view echoed by Simon Steer: “Advances in technology are a great addition to the range of navigational aids, [but] they do not remove the two key requirements to travel safely in the mountains, which are the ability to navigate using traditional map and compass, and the need to go to the hills properly equipped for mountain weather.”
The message is simple: by all means use an app, but don’t leave your paper map and compass behind – and know how to use them.