Smartphone apps: handle with care

Posted by Ed Douglas on 29/08/2012
Real maps for real mountaineers

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.

 



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1) Anonymous User
31/08/2012
Useful addition to the subject from the MCofS http://www.mcofs.org.uk/navigation-gpsandsmartphones.asp
2) Anonymous User
31/08/2012
Of course, the flip side should also be considered. I use Viewranger to help when my map + compass skills let me down, or to double check myself, making for really good practice.
More importantly, the "Buddy Beacon" feature regularly beams out your last known location to be viewed by other trusted users of your choice online. Would've been a good start when scouring Scalfell Pike into the early hours, if they'd used it.
3) Anonymous User
01/09/2012
"The information you’re getting on a smartphone can take longer and may not be as accurate as it is on an outdoors GPS".

I disagree with this. I've been using various smartphones with OS map software (Viewranger, Memory Map, BackCountry Navigator) and Geo-caching software for about 5 years and several 1000 miles. I've always found the accuracy to be perfectly acceptable.

"smartphone which is vulnerable to getting wet or being dropped".

Again, not so much. There are several smartphones available that are every bit as durable as 'dedicated' GPS units. Otterbox and Aquapac cases provide a great deal of protection to the others, if that's what you need. I have yet to drown or break one of the smartphones I've used for navigation over the years.

"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. "

Absolutely agree with this. End of the day, you just can't fix stupid.

People are going to get lost, as they have for years, and into trouble. Doesn't matter if they have the latest, greatest, most detailed paper or digital maps or a sketching from a mate down the pub who went on the same hill 20 years ago.

If they don't know what tools they need or how to use the ones they have, there's nothing to be done. Blaming smartphones is 'trendy' right now, but its doesn't change the core issue (see 1st sentence).
4) Anonymous User
06/09/2012
I hope these dopes were asked to pay for the costs of their rescue
5) Anonymous User
10/09/2012
I had a compass fail on me on a hike. Didn't look at it until I needed it at the top of Esk Pike in the mist.
i.e. too late!
We followed our path back down. Now I even check my compass before I leave the campsite!
6) Anonymous User
11/09/2012
Good balanced article, in any critical situation don't rely on any one gadget, always have a backup. Put another way, your dedicated hand held GPS is designed for the outdoors (waterproof, drop proof and a screen you can read in sunlight) and is tested and certified. The smartphone is a phone and subject to different design criteria. Maps are paper and get soggy and blow away in the wind. I've used a number of smartphone apps and the best is view ranger but its main use is as a time saver to confirm where you are, quicker and easier than compass triangulation.
7) Anonymous User
12/09/2012
ex-military.....i am often informed i carry too much kit in winter or adverse conditions,sometimes i have loaned warm clothing on the hill to those stranded,and allowed them to borrow a map and compass to get of the hill.nothing better to shame someone in a gentle way there and then.........it is scary the amount of people who only use gadets and have no knowledge of how to use map and compass.in spain recently and was shocked to see hardly anybody with map and compass and a small bag for a shell etc.
8) Anonymous User
12/09/2012
as messner pointed out "todays mountaineer carrys his courage in his rucsac " to rely on flimsey technology designed for the riggors of the high street is folly . next time you pop out on the top of ben nevis in a white out the mag bearing should be in your head and your compass set in your gloved hand . !!!
9) Anonymous User
13/09/2012
On 3 peaks last year and ascending Scarfell around midnight in torrential rain and fog view ranger guided our group safely back to the bus.......2 other teams behind us had to be rescued after becoming lost. Agree map and compass skills are essential. But we were all very grateful to the smart phone.
10) Anonymous
20/09/2012
This comment broke the house rules and has been removed
11) Anonymous User
22/09/2012
I agree the whole issue is around a lack of proficiency with map and compass. The technology changes but that issue remains the same. Over the years I remember many similar articles blaming mobile phones and hand held GPS units when these were all new technology.
12) Anonymous User
24/09/2012
I have tried several apps, free apps and two paid. As much as I liked the MemoryMap on a friends GPS device I found it lacking as an iPhone app. After speaking to a couple of members of a Mountain Rescue team in the Peak District they pointed me towards ViewRanger, I have to say the online service looks a bit poor as it only shows the basic map (still worlds better than Google Maps), but once it uploads to the phone I found it to be a spectacular piece of kit, the 1:25000 and 1:50000 OS maps are clear, the route logger and uploading is clear and fairly accurate, with many functions to set toggle distance, altitude alerts and distance alerts, a wide variety of telemetry features and the easy at buying new maps.
I have been using the app for over a year and with the exception of not remembering to fully charge my phone prior to a trip over Bleaklow I have not had any major issues, the compass, maps and features are as good as any GPS I have used and as a tool for Moorland Surveys and logging Material drops it was amazingly easy, as a GPS it still functions as well as any GPS I have used.
I have used this app in emergencies to get off the hill easily locating myself and routes off, although it can be slow with heavy cloud base and severe weather effecting the GPS locator.
I don't know what other people think of this app but I highly recommend it to the casual user and the day tripper.
13) Anonymous User
12/11/2012
Whilst there is no doubt that technology can be of use as a backup, my experience has led me to carry back up battery power (such as a PowerMonkey) at all times. I have found that on a long day walk, having the GPS on all day will drain my iPhone battery in a fraction of the time it would normally. If you are solely dependent on it, then when this happens, you have no means of telling where you are and no means of contacting the rescue teams. It just doesn't make sense.

On the flip side, In a white-out last winter, I was able to check my position on the map using a grid reference supplied by my phone app. This acted as a great back up to get me back safely and support my map skills.

Common sense must prevail.
14) Anonymous User
18/01/2013
Relying on a smartphone is something you do once. Smartphones are smart devices and are sensitive to temperature, shock, humidity and a lot more besides. I take two spare charged batteries for my android, and it still barely lasts the day.

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