Wired in the Wilderness

GPS can help pinpoint your location on a map (saving you the trouble of actually observing, and paying some attention to, the surrounding terrain), but in the Ventana Wilderness that isn’t necessarily useful in getting you to where you want to go.

Are GPS units and cell phones creating more “emergencies” in the Wilderness than they’re preventing or resolving? An article in today’s New York Times suggests this may be the case.

We’ve been seeing some pretty compelling evidence of technology-manufactured emergencies right here in our own backyard. Earlier this year, for example, the Ventana Wilderness saw two dubious “emergencies” in a single weekend.

In the first, an “experienced” hiker called for rescue (apparently from somewhere in the vicinity of Mocho Camp) because she was disoriented, or not looking forward to climbing back up the Devil’s Staircase, or … something. When the rescue helicopter was, unsurprisingly, unable to find a place to land in her vicinity, rescue personnel hiked in and provided her with … well, with hiking companions for the trip back out.

The very next day, an individual making a day hike across the Wilderness from Arroyo Seco to Big Sur developed sore feet and called for rescue while on the final stretch of his hike along the Coast Ridge. Rescuers dutifully drove up the Coast Ridge Rd., found him, and gave him a ride back down.

What’s notable about both these incidents is that the people involved would likely never have gone to the places where they found themselves in “trouble” had they not had their technological security blankets with them and, if they had gotten into those situations without a way to call for help, they would almost certainly have been able to resolve their problems themselves. Hiking a few miles on sore, even very sore, feet may not be pleasant. Standing at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase on a hot, buggy afternoon may be acutely demoralizing. But neither of these things are emergencies in the traditional sense of the word.

The Devil’s Staircase

While we have never seen a reason to carry electronic devices with us in the woods, we have no issue with other people doing so – provided they don’t use them to call for help every time they feel fatigue or fear. They’re having their fun, just like we’re having ours. But we do worry about those who operate under the delusion that the ability to pinpoint one’s position on a map, or to call for rescue with the push of a button, is making them significantly “safer.” While serious injury or death is very unlikely in the Ventana Wilderness, none of the primary dangers one faces (heat stroke, hypothermia, falling into ravines, etc.) is made less serious by carrying electronics.

While it is easy to dream up imaginary scenarios where sending a distress signal to a satellite saves the day, real accidents where this kind of capability is necessary are few indeed. Safety in the wild begins with awareness of one’s surroundings. Anything that distracts you from giving your full attention to where you are and what you’re doing, or encourages you to believe that you need not be fully self reliant, is making you less safe.

9 Responses to Wired in the Wilderness

  1. martha diehl says:

    Bravo, yes indeed, and I could not agree more! Just sent some unexpected visitors on their way after their car GPS just apparently told them our driveway was the Old Coast Road. (It isn’t. Maybe the ‘private road’& ‘entry by invitation only’ and ‘beware of dogs’ signs might have provided a hint?)

    BTW this is a fairly longstanding issue for maritime operations too, and has been since the advent of reasonably priced GPS navigation devices. It has gotten much worse with cell phones. Like the wilderness, the ocean turns out to be REALLY BIG, and sometimes not only is a cell phone out of range, GPS and other electronics sometimes don’t work right (especially when wet…. go figure….!)

    In the ‘old days’, we were used to that, and stood by the standard practice of never relying entirely on one source for navigational information. Now though many people end up in serious trouble on vessels that should never have been where they were, but got there because their operators were overconfident in the ability of GPS to trump wind, current and tide. And that’s not to mention that all the distress calls that happen – and have to be answered – because someone is seasick, or cold, or forgot their can opener….

    Nice to share a pet peeve!

  2. dave n says:

    I’m glad I learned the Ventana ‘ropes’ before I had a cell phone. I gradually learned how to follow these disappearing trails and when to stop and turn around when I really couldn’t find a route. Now I admit feeling a bit safer, as I get more feeble, with a phone because if I or a hikemate has a REAL problem help, can be sought sooner-provided someone can make it up to a place with reception!

  3. Jack Glendening says:

    Both these incidents illustrate a overdependence upon cell phones, and I’ve read about other similar incidents. I’ve also read about GPS units incorrectly routing automobiles due to errors in their road database. But I’ve not yet read about an instance where a questionable “emergency” resulted from a hiker carrying a GPS, and it seems to me that a GPS is more likely to prevent an emergency, e.g. due to losing one’s way, than to create one.

  4. xasauan says:

    Meanwhile, MSNBC reports that over-reliance on GPS may shrink your brain … http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40138522/ns/health-mental_health/

  5. jack glendening says:

    Auto vs backcountry GPS – one experience:
    (from http://gpstracklog.com/2006/02/the_disadvantag.html)

    Does GPS navigation make you less geographically aware?

    As I’ve used my GPS receiver more and more for auto navigation, I’ve discovered a resulting irony; I have actually become less geographically aware! Navigating strange cities is a breeze, but my focus is on the little piece of map real estate captured on the screen of my GPS. With “track up” enabled, I don’t even pay attention to which way is north anymore. I come back from trips having learned little about the overall layout of the city, a new experience for me.

    Interestingly enough, the opposite seems to be true when it comes to backcountry use. Preparing for a trip — placing waypoints on the map, laying out routes, and printing a map — I actually become intimately familiar with the virtual terrain and find that the requisite prep helps immensely once I am in the field. Even the way I view the GPS screen is different in the backcountry. With topo maps, I tend to use a “north up” perspective; a constantly changing orientation is just too confusing.

    I find these differing effects fascinating, and I have to wonder if others are experiencing something similar.

  6. jack glendening says:

    On the VWA forum, someone just posted a trip report where his GPS helped extract him from a dicey situation on a rainy, snowy, windy dark night –

  7. xasauan says:

    Actually, it sounds like it was their GPS that got them into trouble in the first place by encouraging them to leave the main trail and look for nearly non-existent Spaghetti Camp. If they’d stuck to their original plan and continued on along the well-marked path to nearby Pat Spring, they probably wouldn’t have had any problems. They did use their GPS to find their way back to the main trail – which without the GPS they would never have left in the first place – but it’s difficult to believe they wouldn’t have been able to walk back uphill until they found the trail again under their own guidance.

  8. jack glendening says:

    I do not see that in their post at all. They looked for, but did not find, the _trail_ to Spaghetti Camp. Spaghetti Camp is very far from the VDC Trail – about 0.3 mile down the (now obscured) Big Pines Trail. They did not go down that trail at all. They simply ended up camping _50_ft_ off the _VDC_ Trail because they wanted a better camping site than could be had on the trail itself. That has nothing
    to do with having or not having a GPS. One doesn’t use a GPS to go 50 ft from a trail!

    What may be considered an easily followable “well marked trail” in sunny daylight may not be easy to follow under adverse conditions in a wilderness – as was indeed the case here.

  9. xasauan says:

    “It was getting dark and we were still about .5mi from Pat Springs, so we decided to try to set up camp at Spaghetti camp, which our GPS showed as being the nearest camp.” That’s their words, not ours. We read that as meaning that they left the main trail and wasted time trying to find Spaghetti Camp because their GPS told them it was closer than Pat Spring. What their GPS didn’t tell them is that there’s virtually no trail left to Spaghetti Camp, whereas the trail to Pat Spring is in good condition. A perfect example of how reliance on GPS can get people into trouble.

    If their GPS helped them, or made them feel more confident, as they retraced their steps 50 feet to the trail, or followed the trail back out, that’s great, but we’re betting they would have found the way pretty easily without it. Like you say, one doesn’t need a GPS to go 50 feet.

    In our opinion, GPS units are a lot like chainsaws. Both can be very useful tools in the hands of people who have a real need for them and know how to use them safely. But both are also tools that most people have very little real need for, that tend to give the unwary a false sense of power and control, and that can be genuinely dangerous to inexperienced users.

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