The value of a good map: blaming technology is foolish

The Donner Party is famous because of what happened after it got caught in an early snowstorm on the east side of the Sierras. They were delayed in the journey to California because the guide they hired knew about a shortcut in Utah that turned out to be not really suitable for a wagon train.

The same thing happens today, more than 150 years later. Death by GPS in desert illustrates that the guide these days is the maps embedded in GPS navigation units. You will nearly always find these sorts of stories blaming “GPS” when it is really the maps (the guide) people use and the judgment they employ in their travel based on those maps.

These are not just stories of unimaginable suffering. They are reminders that even with a growing suite of digital devices at our side, technology cannot guarantee survival in the wild. Worse, it is giving many a false sense of security and luring some into danger and death.

Technology, of course, is not the only denominator to those disasters. Others include poor planning, faulty judgment, bad luck and the lemming-like rush of visitors to Death Valley in the summer, many of them unfamiliar with the danger – making heat-related illness and fatalities nearly as predictable as the searing temperatures.

But then the header is “Not all GPS units reliable” … The article is full of assertions like “the unit directed them” and “tourists are being led into danger by technology” as if the driver had no choice in the matter. But the truth is in there if you read carefully such as about four tourists who disappeared.

The German tourists “made some classic errors,” said Callagan, the Death Valley wilderness coordinator. “They had no business being where they were in a van, alone, in the summer. They didn’t have a good map. The road systems out in Butte Valley are confusing. They were traveling in the summer, unprepared. Did they have 10 gallons of water? No. They had very little.”

The GPS is not the only guide that may lead you astray. On a forums discussion an RVer was asking about dispersed camping in the Mojave National Preserve. He got two responses. One said to stick to the established campgrounds and avoid off road camping until he had had a chance to investigate them personally. The other said that there were a lot of places where he could pull of the road for an overnight. It is true that there are many such places but what happens when you find you have left an established road at sundown for a trail with no way to turn around or where the trail rapidly degrades to deep soft sand? How do you know who to trust?

This is related to those folks who decide to do a bit of back country hiking near a resort location like South Lake Tahoe. They don’t go prepared. They don’t have a good map. They just hope their cell phone will work to call for help. It may work near a populous area but in places like Death Valley, the odds of a cell phone working are remote, even on the main roads.

We do have very good maps these days. You can know exactly where you are with a good deal of precision nearly anywhere. Vehicles are incredibly reliable and capable. Search and Rescue teams have tools and techniques (and practice in their use) that give them capabilities to find lost travelers like never before. As the Sacramento Bee article notes, though, there is no substitute for proper preparation and good judgment. Never underestimate the wilderness.

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