GPSs, Compasses and Navigation

Back in July, I wrote something about reports of a quick and painless helicopter rescue of a couple of people who’d become lost on Quoin Ridge, and especially how it was reported that they were in trouble due to a failure of their GPS. The point I was really trying to make was that the way it was reported, through propagation of a couple of simplified press releases that stated limited facts without analysis, implicitly validated reliance on a GPS as an acceptable way of avoiding getting lost, not to mention a cellphone as a rescue alert device, even though neither of these things is great to rely on. (I have no idea whether the reports accurately reflect what actually happened.)

Reading about the incident, probably because of how it was reported, had me thinking more about why I don’t really trust GPSs in the outdoors. Actually, it’s not so much that I don’t trust a GPS as that I don’t think they naturally encourage a really good navigation sense as well as a map and compass can.

I bought a GPS about a year ago, primarily for keeping track of where I’ve been. I usually just leave it switched on in the top of my pack, and it works very well. At the time, I expressed some concern that I might be less motivated to practice navigation skills. And yeah, I’ve used the GPS from time to time to get positions, but a year later I feel better about it, I think because I know I’ve also been improving my general navigation skills at the same time. It’s augmenting what I was already doing but not replacing it, and I’ve never felt as if I’m relying on a GPS and that I’ll be trapped or in deep trouble if it suddenly switched off.

A while back I had an informal chat with a GPS fanatic, moreso from the mountaineering than the tramping community, and I was trying to argue that GPSs were still relatively new and unproven and subject to possible failure. He countered this by saying that in at least 5 years his GPS has never failed him, ever. He fully trusts it, and he’s had arguments with “old men in huts” who have glared at and criticised him for not “doing it properly”. I guess everyone to their own, but it’s not something I’m too comfortable with at all. To me it’d be like entrusting my life to one piece of rope that’s not allowed to break, and maybe that’s why I’m not so much into mountaineering.

The often-repeated claim is that to navigate properly, you should learn to use a map and compass. It’s wrong, though, to simply argue that a compass is better than a GPS on grounds that a GPS might fail for some reason. For one thing, a GPS (as long as it works) can be very useful. It’ll give a guaranteed fix on exactly where you are, and potentially has other nifty tricks like showing how to back-track exactly the way you’ve come, and these are things you simply can’t guarantee getting when you pull out a compass. Furthermore a compass might also fail, or become lost, as can happen with any item. I’ve lost a compass when out tramping recently, fortunately not in a setting in which it was essential.

I’m still learning to navigate, and I think it’ll be a lengthy process, maybe lasting a lifetime. Early on I thought navigation skills were all about learning to use a map and compass and the various tricks that go with them. As time goes on I’m coming to realise that navigation concepts go much deeper than that. There’s a small amount of theory, lots of getting outdoors with people who are great navigators, some getting outdoors with people who maybe aren’t very good navigators, and a lot of trial and error and experience.

Everyone has different techniques and ways of doing things, and there’s much that can be learned just by watching other people. The popular thread seems to be that effective outdoor navigation skills involve a trained unconscious perception of many things that would often go unnoticed, combined with a plethora of tricks, techniques, habits, experiences and ways of thinking that all combine and support each other. Sometimes good navigating doesn’t even require knowing where you are, only knowing how to get somewhere useful and being able to recognise that. As long as that can be achieved comfortably, there’s no sense of being lost. Maps and compasses are important tools, as are other tools like altimeters, but no tool is (or should be) un-expendable. A GPS can be just another tool in this equation, and if enough care is taken then it too can be expendable.

If there’s a gripe with GPSs that might have something to back it up, I think it may be to do with the way in which they often appear to be used, and techniques they encourage. Using a map and compass isn’t usually very effective without combining at least a few other tricks, such as observing and recognising terrain over time, and learning to make good guesses about movement through the landscape. With a GPS, it’s possible and sometimes much easier to avoid needing any understanding or observation of the surrounding environment. If you’re using a GPS in this kind of isolated way, there’s a lot more dependence on it and potentially much more trouble if and when it fails, and that’s probably the biggest problem. So maybe it’s not so much GPS’s that should be criticised, but the isolated use of and reliance of them.

Just more thoughts as per usual.

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