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How to Avoid “Death by GPS”

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In wilderness areas and remote regions, the suggested GPS routes may be out of date, out of commission, or just plain wrong.

By Eartheasy.com Posted Feb 11, 2011

Death by GPSIt was the simplest of directions. Only one road led to the high ground we were seeking, and since it was “high ground”, we could always just look out the window to see where we were in relationship to our destination. It should take less than an hour, no problem.

MapAnd so on we drove through the remote region in western British Columbia, where my son and I were on a 10-day hunting trip. And we drove, and drove, for over 6 hours before giving up and camping for the night, utterly lost. The road had worsened as we drove, with unexpected forks, turns and dead-ends. The next morning, using a compass, the vehicle odometer and a pen and paper, we methodically found our way out.

Although we did not have a GPS unit with us, we would have likely wound up in the same predicament if we had one. We had the latest map showing the roads in the area, which GPS should also show, but one critical piece of information was missing. There had been a forest fire in parts of the region a few months previous, and the roads had been changed, some bulldozed into fire breaks and others made impassable by heavy machinery. As darkness fell, obscuring visual landmarks, it became even more disorienting.

GPS units, whether hand-held or installed in vehicles, are great at showing you where you are. And in most cases, they’re effective at showing the route to your destination. But in wilderness areas and remote regions, the suggested GPS routes may be out of date, out of commission, or just plain wrong. In these instances, GPS can give you a false sense of security, and lead you into a situation that can be perilous, or in some cases, deadly.

GPS can give you a false sense of security, and lead you into a situation that can be perilous, or in some cases, deadly.

“It’s what I’m beginning to call death by GPS,” Death Valley wilderness coordinator Charlie Callagan told the Sacramento Bee. “People are renting vehicles with GPS and they have no idea how it works — and they are willing to trust the GPS to lead them into the middle of nowhere.”

“People don’t realize that if they tell the unit to find the shortest route to somewhere, it’s not necessarily finding the shortest, safe, paved route,” Callagan said.

In August 2009, Alicia Sanchez almost died, after following incorrect directions on her GPS. Her 6-year-old son did not survive the searing temperatures. Another hiker vanished last June in Joshua Tree National Park. His body has not yet been found.

Many roads shown on some GPS systems are no longer passable. “People are so reliant on their GPS that they fail to look out the windshield and make wise decisions based on what they’re seeing,” said Death Valley search and rescue coordinator Micah Alley. “GPS units are not only fallible but send people across the desert where no road exists.”

The National Park Service has updated Death Valley’s website with a warning about the use of GPS, in an effort to limit the number of so called “GPS deaths”:

GPS Navigation to sites to remote locations like Death Valley are notoriously unreliable. Numerous travelers have been directed to the wrong location or even dead-end or closed roads. Travelers should always carry up-to-date road maps to check the accuracy of GPS directions.

The following measures should be considered by those venturing into remote areas to minimize the risks associated with GPS navigation devices:

Bring a hard copy of the latest map of the area.

A map may be low-tech, but it can be easily packed around and can be written on to mark waypoints as you pass them. Park wardens usually have the latest maps available showing road closures and open routes.

Ask ahead if there is cell phone coverage in the area.

Cell phone reception is spotty or non-existent in many remote regions.

If lost, go back the way you came.

There seems to be a built-in resistance to turning back and retracing your route when road conditions deteriorate or you begin to feel disoriented. If we just go a little further, we reason, the road will get better. Park Rangers and wilderness guides offer the following advice for most situations if you are uncertain of your location or the road you are on: Turn back and retrace your route.

Don’t proceed along a road if you won’t be able to retrace the route.

If you encounter a steep grade, for example, which you can drive down but you’re not sure if you could drive back up, then think twice about following this route. Giving up the option of retracing your route may result in your having to drive through deteriorating road conditions, where you may take unnecessary risks, have a mechanical breakdown, or get stuck in a dead end or impassable situation.

If uncertain of direction, or if backtracking, mark your trail.

Retracing your route can be difficult in many areas where roads are unmarked and the network of roads seems maze-like. If you’re uncertain of the course you are following, get out of your vehicle and mark turns you’ve taken with rocks, flagging tape or strips of bright cloth. Rocks should be placed alongside, not across, intersections so they are not removed by other travelers. Flagging tape should be prominent and well-tied, so wind does not blow it away or conceal it within foliage. If you do use flagging tape, be sure to remove it as you return along the route.

Bring spare batteries for hand-held GPS devices.

If you are relying on a hand-held GPS, be sure to bring an extra battery. You may also want to put the unit in a zip-loc bag, or keep it in a zippered pocket so it can’t fall out and get damaged or lost.

Bring a compass, and know how to use it.

An inexpensive pocket compass can be a lifesaver. Take the time to learn correct use of the compass to avoid common mistakes. Taking a reading from your vehicle, for example, may give incorrect information because of the proximity to metal. Hold it away from your belt buckle. Take several readings to ensure accuracy.

Consider adding a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) to your wilderness travel kit.

A Personal Locator Beacon, also called a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon is a handheld pocket-sized battery-powered emergency distress transmitter. It alerts authorities to a distress situation via a 406 MHz signal that is transmitted to orbiting satellites. Through a variety of means it allows authorities to locate the source of the distress signal and thereby, the person in distress. PLBs range in price from $60 – $750, and are easy to find online through a Google search.

Keep emergency provisions in your car.

Travelers to remote areas should bring several days supply of drinking water and food. Flares, matches, blanket or sleeping bag, and first-aid supplies are also good to bring along. Bringing extra fuel is dangerous and not advisable, unless your vehicle has a separate compartment (like a pickup truck bed) appropriate for carrying jerry cans. It goes without saying that jerry cans should be well secured, and checked regularly to ensure there are no signs of leakage or spills.

Leave a trip plan with a friend.

A detailed trip plan should be left with someone reliable who can report your absence if you don’t return as scheduled. Check in with this person, if possible, during your trip to report your current location as you progress.

 

GPS manufacturers are aware of the hazards of providing incorrect or outdated information, and are working to update their databases. But many dirt roads, quad trails and off-road tracks will never be logged onto GPS databases, yet remain in place. Even with the latest GPS units, travelers can still become lost or confused where ground conditions and routes either contradict or fail to appear on the database. Anyone venturing into remote areas should take all precautions to prepare for becoming lost, regardless of the GPS unit they may be carrying.

 

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  • MNTaylor

    Great read! This advice applies not only in remote regions. Selecting the shortest or most direct GPS route in urban areas will often lead you through parts of the city you don't belong. The urban jungle has as many dangers as the wilderness. People need to know the city and think about what route they're following.

    • Greg Seaman

      This is a great point, thanks. Getting lost in some urban areas can be as hazardous as being lost in the wilderness.

  • Author

    This is one thing that people are probably taking for granted for sure! Everyone became reliant on technology sooo fast that they aren’t questioning it’s capabilities as often anymore, and to a fault.

  • manny

    such good advice! handheld gps units are subject to loss, breakage, immersion. they're man made gadgets and not perfect.

  • Fresh Hip hop

    Keep the GOLD coming. I am from Pakistan and I have also some wild areas, and many times I travel to them. I feel this information will guide me good.

  • Gus

    Great post, it's terrifying to get lost and thankfully it has not happened to me yet. I think going back the way you came is the best choice.

  • Silk sarees

    LOVE your site, will visit again Submitted this post to Google News Reader.

    • Greg Seaman

      Thanks, your comment is much appreciated.

  • Atithidevo Bhavah

    Great post, it’s terrifying to get lost and thankfully it has not happened to me yet. They’re man made gadgets and not perfect.

  • Warden

    Blind faith in technology puts people in the hands of technicians who may never venture out into remote nature. Buying a GPS device is no shortcut to being prepared. Good article.

  • Sparky

    That’s why you should carry several GPS’s with you :)

  • Tim Humphrey

    Great Article and definitely right! I went out on a trek last year and felt safer going farther than my mind suggested I should because I had GPS. On the way in things totally changed and I had to spend the night in the woods.

  • http://metalranchandfarmsigns.com Noah Clark

    It is intersting how reliant people are on GPS. I’ve always driven and traveled by the idea that I know the general direction and area I want to arrive at. It’s not too hard to figure out how to get anywhere when you know the general direction and assuming that the area is big enough or has landmarks to get you in. I can see how someone would/could follow GPS into some pretty hairy situations because it said, “That’s the best way!”

  • Tyler

    We just had an elderly couple from Canada get lost in Nevada back country due to faulty GPS directions. The lady was found after 7 weeks, the husband tried to walk out, probaby dead now. The reporter said that the more remote the area the more likely the GPS is wrong.

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