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Maps, GPS and adaptability

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

Poor weather on the Cairngorm plateau

I have seen various posts and threads online regarding the use of mobile phones with GPS and maps being used and some heated debates over their use. Personally I find it a very useful tool and Im happy to use it as the primary tool on a mountain day. It doesn’t replace though the need for map and compass skills. Good understanding of the map is vital and will also aid your understanding of your OS app. It certainly doesn’t seem to me that a device which pinpoints where you are on an up to date map can be anything other than a good thing. Certainly from my experience over many years in the industry I have noted that peoples weak point in navigation is nearly always the ability to read a map. As an experiment I wonder if you where to take ten mountain users and and ask them all to point to their location on the map and how many would be as accurate as the OS maps app on their phone? I suspect the result would lean in favour of their phone. So in short I don't think there is any harm in using a device which accurately pin points where you are either to lead the way or sure up your judgment on a paper map.

There are also quite a few wrong ways to use your phone to navigate. For example google maps works well in inner city London but won't work that well coming off the Ben in a whiteout. Using the write app is important and even though with OS maps you do have a location and choice of map and scale if you don't have a basic understanding of map symbols, relief etc then you are at a significant disadvantage in plotting your route from your identified position. Not knowing what crags symbols are for example could quickly lead you into trouble.

Using your mobile along with the OS app

Things can go wrong with technology and often do, battery dies, it gets wet, broken or you loose your signal and cant download the map you need. That said though a map can get soaked, blow away or you pull out your compass which sits in its usual case in your top pocket to find it has a huge bubble in it! Things happen that’s why its vital as a mountain user that you are prepared and have the knowledge and skills to adapt and deploy some different tactics at any given moments.

Many years ago topping out from Pygmy ridge and happy to have ticked a route on a brutal weather day we trudged off round to 1141 in poor visibility. Bashed by the wind and zero visibility we made the classic error of heading off down Coire Raibeirt. We did have a map and compass out but where young and still finding our feet we quickly realised what was happening and as we walked we had been shunted off course by a heavy wind. We quickly got back on track and back on the correct course. This would probably not have happed if we had phones then and pulled them out and tracked our movements with pin point accuracy in real time. Of course learning those navigational skills was invaluable in terms of having those skills for life and perhaps the difficult thing at the moment and concern would be that people by pass those skills in replacement of an easier option with the phone. Bypassing those essential map and compass skills in favour of using the phone could have the potential to have catastrophic consequences when your tech fails.

Certainly a pro for me and something I shall use in teaching navigation is that perhaps younger people are more used to seeing things on a screen and perhaps relate better with that compared to the conventional hard map. So using the phone to help visualise the ground around will perhaps help people to better relate that to the paper map. I think a combination of both methods could compliment each other from a teaching perspective and for those developing the skills needed. It's also vital as an instructor to appreciate that this a bit of kit which is here to stay and people will be using so its important as an educator to recognise that and keep with the times. But I would urge participants to be well aware of the pros and cons of both methods. I get a little annoyed by threads and posts from people getting irate about someone who has cocked it up using a GPS when I would think that same weekend thousands and thousands have used their device successfully navigating their way round their chosen objective. It would also have been highly likely that the unfortunate individual who has been torn to bits for his GPS cock up would also have been just as likely to have cocked it up on a paper map.

Adaptability is the key to success in the mountains in my opinion and moving with modern times, new aids and methods which if used and deployed at the right time will only serve to make the experience safer. Ive been fortunate enough to work in many areas and outdoor environments around the world. Where mapping has gone from excellent with Ordnance survey and Harvey’s maps to not so good, to Italian and then totally non existent. Where they have been non existent often in the developing world a GPS or even hand made sketch maps as you go have been massively useful. I can remember one such incident while working with a group in the Peruvian Amazon where we took an excursion with a local guide for a couple of hours walk in the jungle. As we left the boat I decided that this environment looked pretty easy to get horrendously lost in and as such every so often took a back bearing and noted some features as we went. This turned out to be a wise move as we can to stop after a couple of hours only for the guide to take me aside and tell me he was lost. We took to my bearings and notes and made our way back to the boat. I think if we hadn’t we would probably still be wandering around there now, it would have been handy then to have had a map and compass on my yet to be invented Iphone.

Education is also key and working in the industry of delivering skills for those wanting to use the mountains as safely as possible it would be entirely wrong of me to dismiss OS maps on my phone as a perfectly viable method of navigation. What is key is that people are aware of the pros and cons (which I keep repeating intentionally) and to have the ability to use a wide range of methods when perhaps the preferred method is viable or working. So using your phone as your primary method on the day for navigation for me this is not a problem. But I am aware that it may fail and what to do when it does.

The conclusion and I hope no one is expecting to read which the best method as I don't think its as straightforward as that. The best method in my opinion is the you don't get lost with. But and its a pretty important but is to be prepared for your chosen method not to work and be able to adapt to using something else that does work quickly and efficiently. So if you choose to use your phone as your primary navigation tool then its vital that you have the skills, map and compass to hand should there be an issue with the tech. Equally human error is very common in map reading so perhaps no matter how experienced you are don't let arrogance or a refusal to take on new technology stop you from just double checking when using your map and compass with your phone that you are where you think you are. Also should you have a preferred method be it the phone or the paper map then don't to be to judgemental that other people may have a different preferred method which works for them. Both methods will have a large proportion of people who cant use it that well so rather than judging that the failure was the method used for example the phone the issue will most likely be that it wasn't the phone or app but the individual user who got it wrong.

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