Phones in the Wilderness

It’s no secret that smartphone usage has grown astronomically over the last few years, and the range of things they can do is undeniably impressive. From finding a new recipe to working out which star you’re looking at, a smartphone is your friend.

However, they can only go so far. Recently concerns have been raised about the number of hikers using phones to navigate in national parks and wilderness areas. Unlike a traditional map and compass, which (once you know how to use them) are pretty straightforward, there are several different ways phones can fail to deliver when it comes to navigating in the backwoods. They can run out of battery, lose signal or connection to GPS services, or become unusable in bad weather. Even when running and connected the basic mapping functionality they provide often doesn’t have the detail hikers need to get from A to B safely.

The English Lake District is one of the UK’s most popular destinations for mountain hikers of all skill levels. It sees around 16 million visits every year. Most people make it back down off the hills without a problem but lately there has been a sharp rise in call-outs for urgent help. Over the last five years the number of people who have needed to be found and brought back to safety from the Lake District National Park and surrounding areas rose by 50%. Local Mountain Rescue teams lay the blame squarely on inexperience, and in particular on hikers trying to find their way with cell phones rather than paper maps.

Across the whole of England and Wales, the percentage rise in call outs is about the same- somewhere near 52% in the five years to 2011. The UK Ordnance Survey is the body responsible for compiling and updating official maps across Britain, and they claim that sales of paper maps have dropped by a massive 25% over the same period. The trend towards alternative (and often inadequate) navigation methods is pretty strong.

On the other hand, smartphones can be extremely useful in rescue situations. Mountain rescue services in Wicklow, Ireland, recently found a lost hiker in ‘an extremely remote location’ by sending a special locator app to his phone by text. The app, known as SARLOC, has also been involved in a number of successful rescues elsewhere.

There have been reported cases where lost parties have sent a picture of a nearby landmark to rescuers, who were able to determine the correct location using their own knowledge of the area. One lucky hiker was even found when rescuers spotted the flash from his camera. And of course, it must be remembered that many calls to mountain rescue services come from cell phones. Sometimes the alarm is raised when a hiker, runner, mountain biker or climber doesn’t return home at the expected time but often it’s those in need of rescue that make the call.

It’s clear that cell phones are amongst the most important pieces of safety equipment a hiker can carry, but they shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for a traditional map and compass and the navigation skills required to use them. Mountain Rescue services from the UK, Ireland, Canada, and Australia all agree- take a cell phone, but take a map too.

Jess Spate is an experienced map-carrying hiker and iPhone user. She writes for Appalachian Outdoors, an American camping gear retailer, and edits a British outdoor clothing site.

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