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Cities+Nature

How GPS has (and hasn’t) changed hiking

Cellphones and beacons have saved lives. Have they also encouraged risky behavior?

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki

It was January 13, and Scott Benerofe had spent a month hiking from Maine to New Hampshire along the Appalachian Trail, facing frigid snowstorms and wading through half-frozen rivers. Now, he was approaching the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the highest peaks in New England, famous for dangerously cold weather — even in summer.

On this winter day, it was a total whiteout. As Benerofe crossed the snow-covered boulder fields of the Presidential Range, carrying a 60-pound pack, he struggled to see the trail. He relied on ice-encrusted piles of rocks that had been erected as markers, progressing from one cairn to the next as each appeared through the mist. 

But somewhere near Mount Jefferson, Benerofe realized that he was going downhill when he was supposed to be going uphill. Any diversion from his course could prove dangerous in these conditions, so Benerofe did what most people would do when they think they’ve gotten lost. 

He whipped out his phone.

A navigation app told him that he was about 200 feet off the trail, which he quickly remedied by turning back the way he came. “People die in these mountains,” Benerofe says. “Having the device was very, very helpful.”

For hikers in remote settings, losing the trail — even by a little — can easily become a dire situation.

Benerofe, who first hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail in summer 2019 after graduating from Northeastern University, took up hiking so he could disconnect. Now, he won’t go into the mountains without his Garmin inReach Mini, a satellite device that links to his smartphone. He’s one of many hikers who have come to see such technology as an essential addition to their gear.

For hikers in remote settings, losing the trail — even by a little — can easily become a dire situation. In July 2013, thru-hiker Geraldine Largay stepped off the Appalachian Trail in Maine to relieve herself. Two years later, her remains and gear were found about two miles from the trail. On Largay’s cell phone, investigators found text messages to her husband saying she had gotten lost and asking him to call for help. The area had poor cell service coverage, so the messages were never sent

Over the past half-decade, cell service coverage has improved, satellite technology has advanced, and the number of safety-focused technologies that hikers can hold in their hands has increased significantly. Already, rescue groups have noticed that the pocket-sized technologies have shifted how lost hikers behave when they get turned around: Where people used to hike downhill or follow streams that could lead out of the wilderness, now some hike uphill instead, in search of cell service.

These devices change the calculation when a mishap occurs, and save lives. But wilderness experts — already embroiled in a debate over how to handle hikers whose recklessness endangers the lives of rescuers — caution that this tech could give hikers a false sense of security, encouraging risky behavior.

“Technology doesn’t get rid of the potential for human error,” says Drew Hildner, a long-time volunteer for Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder, Colorado. “In some ways, it reduces the risk, but it introduces other areas for human error.”


Wilderness adventurers can carry two main kinds of satellite devices in case of emergency. The simplest option is a personal locator beacon, which sends out an SOS message along with your location when you press a button. It typically sends out a stronger signal than the other options but cannot send out a customized message or receive messages back. 

“So you have no idea when help may be coming, or they can’t ask you questions about your vitals,” says Jeremy Cronon, Rocky Mountain outfitting manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School. “It is such a one-way form of communication that it is hard to get a full picture for either party on what next steps might be.” 

That’s why many adventurers opt for satellite messengers, which can send SOS signals and non-emergency text messages. Many models also include GPS navigation features. Some, like Benerofe’s Garmin inReach Mini, can relay with a smartphone, giving the phone satellite connectivity for text messaging when it is out of cellular range.

For some backcountry adventurers, like Benerofe, technological devices don’t just serve as an emergency call for help, but as part of their daily routines. The Garmin device that Benerofe carried during his winter hike of the Appalachian Trail allowed him to send his family a text from camp at the end of the day, or after any tricky spots, like frigid river crossings. He also would text his family when he didn’t have cell service for days and couldn’t access an updated weather forecast himself. They would quickly alert him to any concerning conditions on the horizon.

As Cronon explains, such devices just allow you to send a short text message. It isn’t the rapid-fire communication we’re used to in urban settings. “A conversation that would take one minute, 10 text exchanges, in the front country, is going to take an hour and a half. So you feel like you’re ‘out there’ when you’re using it.”

Together, these devices have shifted search and rescue operations to involve less searching and more rescuing, says Hildner. In the past, most calls to search and rescue groups came from a worried family member or friend when an adventurer hadn’t returned from the backcountry yet, he explains. “We’re already hours behind the ball, and then we go to a trailhead, identify that their car is there, and then we have an extensive search problem. Where are we going to find this needle in this large haystack?”

Now, he says, a higher percentage of the calls come directly from imperiled outdoorspeople themselves, making it easier for a rescue team to strategize and assemble the appropriate gear.

For at least one injured mountaineer, that made all the difference. A few years ago, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group responded to an SOS from a man who had fallen on steep snow and slid, tumbling over sections of rock as he went. When he came to a stop, he activated his satellite device while bleeding from an open femur fracture. The man was alone, with no cell service, Hildner says. There was nobody else for miles to hear him shout and he was losing heat laying on the snow.

“He would have perished,” Hildner says. But with the information he had sent, the rescue group was able to send a helicopter hoist, fly him to the hospital, and save his life. 


The technology has also created some hiccups for search and rescue operations — largely due to human fallibility and overreliance on devices. 

“People are a little bit more adventurous with their digital armor,” says Keelan Cleary, board president of Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue. “And sometimes they’re not recognizing the limits of that technology.”

For one, he says, users expect their devices to work. But they might not. Satellite technologies can break, and they don’t always provide an accurate location when the user is under dense foliage or in a canyon. Their batteries can run low or get drained faster by the cold; Benerofe says he planned it so that, on the day he traversed the dangerous Presidential Range, “it wasn’t so blistering cold that my [devices] were going to freeze and stop working.” (It was a balmy 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with a windchill of zero to -10.) 

These devices can also be expensive. The Garmin inReach Mini, for example, is priced at $350, and it is one of the simpler, less expensive emergency electronics. So some hikers might opt to stick with cell phones.

Experts also warn that hikers need to have realistic expectations about what rescuers can do. Backcountry rescues can take a lot longer than emergency calls in a city or suburb, says Jay Christianson, public information officer for Colorado Search and Rescue. The rescue group needs time to gather and strategize based on the terrain and conditions — and, in some cases, to hike to the injured adventurer. “Responses are still going to be measured in hours,” he says. Not minutes.

That’s why search and rescue groups advise hikers to rely primarily on a map and compass, the old-school methods navigation, rather than expecting their phones to guide them. Cronon urges adventurers to carry a set of survival tools dubbed the “Ten Essentials” — which includes extra food, a headlamp, and a way to start a fire — that has been the go-to checklist for backcountry safety since the 1930s.

“In the wilderness,” says Christianson, “being under your own guidance and awareness, and using your judgment as a human being, is critical.”

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Eva Botkin-Kowacki is a writer based in Boston. She has written for Popular Science, The Christian Science Monitor, the Reading Eagle, and the Tennessean.

 

Illustration by Geoffroy de Crécy

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