Outside with Charlie: Finding one’s way

By March 1, 2011


Electronic gadgets are everywhere. It’s almost impossible to go through a day without using one. They’ve evolved from large, heavy, expensive things to lightweight, small, expensive things.

The gadgets do all manner of things — run your car, keep hearts beating on a regular basis, assist with hearing, turn lights on and off and tell PG&E how much electricity you use.

Phones used to sit on desks. To talk away from the desk you had to have a long stretchy cord. They are still available but for the most part, phones are mobile. The biggest leap was the move to cell phones that have morphed into smart phones that perform more functions that one can list.

Hand-held GPS units belong in the same must-have column. Not surprisingly, they are becoming part of the newer smart phones. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, a satellite-based navigation system that connects to 24 satellites that cruise around in space, about 11,000 nautical miles from here.

The proliferation of these devices is amazing. The advertisements want you to believe that with either a stand alone GPS unit, or an app on your smart phone, you will always know where you are and how to get where you are going. Google maps are in this package of technology as well. Just type in where you want to go and the directions, along with a map, are printed from your home computer. Easy.

Outdoor enthusiasts have taken to these technological advancements like kids to candy but there’s a catch. They don’t always work and aren’t always accurate.

Taking your cell phone, smart or otherwise, when you venture into the backcountry is probably an OK idea. At the trail head you might be able to call and notify someone you’ve arrived safely or you’re back from your trek. There is just as big a chance that your phone won’t have reception, especially in the mountains or the forest. Relying on being able to call for help while in the forest or canyons is a bad idea. To make a call phones need access to a cell tower and there aren’t any in the woods right now.

To depend on the accuracy of a GPS unit or Google map is just as questionable. You may not be able to connect to the satellites and even if you can, without a good map, a compass and the ability to use them, you may be stuck. Google maps and GPS info can be out of date or confusing. Nothing is perfect.

Stories abound among the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, State Park Rangers and search and rescue units about people who have run into difficulty because they completely relied on the map information from their smart phones, GPS units and Google maps — following errant directions into very unforgiving areas believing their destination was just around the next bend. Instead they were headed into the great unknown.

I use Google maps and recently, smart phone GPS readings when I am exploring. My wife and I typically explore areas in the summer and fall looking for places to cross country ski in the winter. On more than one occasion we’ve tooled around residential streets in the Tahoe basin with Google map in hand, only to find the road that was supposed to be there isn’t there at all. We do not, under any circumstances, rely on them while in the backcountry.

The best thing to have with you is a map of the area along with a compass and the ability to orient the map correctly (north is always the top of the map). You just may figure out where you are.

For anyone who is more than a casual hiker, knowing how to use a map is critical. Your GPS unit won’t do you any good if the battery is dead or it can’t connect to the mother ship. A map, a compass and some minimal training will always give you a solid idea of where you are. With luck you’ll know how to get back to the trail head — no batteries needed.

Charlie Ferris

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