Posting GPS mash-ups of my hikes at EveryTrail has been an education in the law of unintended consequences.
Consumer GPS units came to market to do for all Americans what they once did only for the military: help navigate unfamiliar terrain. And since then, consumer GPS receivers have added ever more ways to help people navigate via satellite.
And then there’s EveryTrail: nobody there uses GPS to navigate. Most, like me, use it as a kind of electronic notebook to tell me how far we’ve gone, how high we’ve climbed. I’ve never used my GPS to navigate. Really, not even once. Perhaps the coolest manifestation of GPS users taking the future into their own hands: creating art by walking down city streets. (More on this at the New York Times, for those who missed it a few weeks back.)
Though GPS is changing the way people navigate in cars (probably for the worse, degrading their natural sense of direction), GPS has rougher sledding in the outdoors — mainly because nobody wants their lives to be riding on how long their batteries last. People take them along and use them in a crunch, but as long as I’ve been blogging, the mantra has been outright distrust of electronic devices beyond the reach of electrical outlets. Don’t expect it to be there when you really need it.
Geocaching, the most popular use of handheld GPS units, turns satellite navigation on its head: Instead of helping lost people get found, it helps people find inanimate objects that were never lost to begin with.
With GPS capability already in iPhones and coming to all mobile phones and PDAs in the coming months, it’ll be fun to see how this all shakes out. Guys drawing Space Invaders characters on the streets of San Francisco is barely the beginning.
(Speaking of GPS in iPhones: here’s an EveryTrail trip by a guy who used his for 6.5 hours — that’s when it ran outa juice — on a mega hike/run from Clouds Rest at to Half Dome — 25-plus miles. The technology’s getting more mainstream every day.)
I too primarily use my GPS primarily to generate track records rather than as a navigation device, but the times where I *do* use it to navigate it is a completely invaluable tool. They tend to be most useful for offtrail travel or for navigating during low visibility (fog, whiteout, or night) conditions.
Part of the issue is that with the current state of the technology, trail GPSs really aren’t terribly useful. A road GPS will help you make route tradeoffs, notify you of nearby landmarks around your route, give you accurate arrival time estimates, etc. Current trail GPSs do none of these things.
Unfortunately, the major GPS manufacturers seem to be following the path that the consumer digital camera makers took when they focued on mexapixels at the expense of picture quality- adding gimmick features and ignoring the needs of their core market. We don’t need cameras, phones, touch screens, radios, geocaching software, etc in a backcountry trail GPS.
What I *would* like to see:
– Sufficient battery life for a full day/multiday (20-40 hour) outing
– Sufficient antenna strength to hold a signal under heavy tree cover (I’ve taken to using an external antenna with my Garmin because the baseline antenna will not hold a signal in the coastal redwoods or the Sierra evergreens.
– Preloaded topographic basemaps for all of North America (some of the high end units now have this)
– Trail navigation/routing similar to the automotive units (i.e. Be able to report the actual trail miles to the destination, do path routing assistance, make time estimates based on the elevation grade of the trail, etc)
– Assistance on finding the nearest water source, nearest campsites, nearest road/trail, nearest cell phone coverage area, warnings on likely problematic stream crossings, etc
(These are more of an issue with the backcountry maps raather than the GPS units themselves)
I bought a GPS unit primarily for geocaching. I don’t use it for navigating either, but the geocaching does help enhance my hiking experiences sometimes. It gives me a little bit of fun when I’m at a place that I have hiked many times before.
You never used a GPS to navigate, Tom? You must be the responsible hiker who always carries a paper topo, and probably doesn’t have a topo loaded onto his device.
I often navigate with a GPS – particularly when double-checking distance traveled vs total route to make sure I have plenty of time. And if I do have plenty of time I can always use the GPS to adapt my route on the fly.
GPS navigation with pre-loaded GPXs can be valuable to folks who want reassurance that they’re following the correct route. Breaking new trails through snow along existing trails is much easier with GPS, as is night hiking.
I agree with you about in-car GPS degrading folks sense of direction though. And I worry that a bells-and-whistles packed hikers’ GPS might have the same effect, which is worse since not being aware of your surroundings in the wilderness is much worse than being misdirected on a network of roads.
I bloody wished I had a GPS a couple of weeks ago. Instead I wandered blind in a literal cloud, eventually tenting right beside the mountain top trailhead where I had started.
The folks that drove me to the trailhead simply followed their preloaded GPS route walking 2hrs directly to their alpine hut. It worked perfectly.