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Global Positioning Systems GPS Good But Beware

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This entry about the trust parameters that should be placed around Global Positioning Systems — GPS — technology is the first part of a Vagabond Journey series on navigation.

The hand held GPS unit is perhaps one of the greatest gifts that civilization has ever given to the back country wanderer. With properly knowledge of its use, it becomes almost impossible to get lost in the wilderness. If you have the UTMs of a place that you want to go to, then navigation will not be a factor in whether or not you get there.

GPS units are good. When they work.

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Payson, Arizona, Southwest USA, North America
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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I remember when I first began doing archaeology — around a decade ago — that GPS units were a joke. We would go way out into the woods with a big old Trimble GPS unit attached to our backs — the big backpack model with the big white globular antennae — just to have the damn think conk out and lose its signal just when we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere.

“What do we do now?”

“I dunno, sit in the woods with our nuts in our hands until we pick up a signal again?”

That is what we would do. Sometimes crew members would rig up defacto lifts out of various strands of rope and fling the damn GPS up into the canopy of the trees in an attempt to usurp the blockage of the satellite signals.

Backpack trimble GPS unit

Backpack trimble GPS unit

Photo from http://facility.unavco.org/project_support/polar/summit/rover.html

And this is how we spent our days in the midst of high technology. It is interesting how, in a time of rampant technological advancements, a group of people can be rendered far more impotent and archaic than any of our human forebearers in a matter of moments if our magic machines all of a sudden conk out on us.

People once relied on skills to survive, now we rely on machines. And our machines all too often show us for the fools we have allowed ourselves to become.

In the early days of doing archaeology with GPS it quickly got to the point where we would no longer use GPS for navigational purposes, and only rely on it for recording the position of archaeology sites. With our nifty backpack Trimble upon our backs, we would revert to our compasses and flagging tape to ensure that we would not be stuck in the woods all day long with our nuts in our hands.

And this was good — we did not place our time and safety down upon the wobbly base of our magic machines.

Garmin GPS Unit

Garmin GPS Unit

But today, nine years later, I use hand held GPS units while out in deserts, mountains, and forests for most navigational purposes nearly without incident. They work great — I find the coordinates of where I want to be on a map and I go there. I take a way point (record a coordinate in the GPS unit) at my vehicle, at camp,  or where I enter a wilderness area, and I know how to get back.

This is simple. This is almost too simple. I fear that these hand held GPS units may soon atrophy my once highly toned compass and nature navigational skills.

GPS units are good. When they work.

But GPS units still fail. If your batteries die, so too does the GPS. If you accidentally leave its power on while camping, you will wake up with a useless cadaver of a navigational device laying next to you. If you lose or impair your spare batteries, you will soon be carrying a useless clump of plastic and electronic circuitry around with you in the woods.

GPS units still cannot be relied upon. A basic knowledge of navigation — a reliance on your own skills and knowledge — is still needed to more safely travel through the wilderness.

To be able to simply triangulate your position on a topo map with a compass is a life saving skill, and one that only takes moments to learn and even less to utilize.

I sometimes fear that the ease of using GPS may ease my mind into a lazy stupor. It happens sometimes. When I would do archaeology surveys with a compass as my only tool, I always knew where I was, I very seldom misplaced myself in the woods. But now that I use GPS, I sometimes catch myself lazily following the numbers in the magic box at the expense of a mental mapping of my physical location.

If my GPS unit would conk out at this time, I know that I would be in a mad scramble to somehow shoot my bearings out of the woods with a compass. And without my headings previously angled out, this is a shot in the dark.

Archaeologists navigating with GPS units

Archaeologists navigating with GPS units

You can get lost in the wilderness and die. It happens all the time — especially in deserts and mountains. It is very easy to croak in the wilds. To stake your life on a battery powered electrical device and some floating chunks of space junk is absurd.

GPS should be used — it takes a stubborn man to wantonly not use such a helpful piece of technology — though it should not be relied upon. A check and balance system is advised: use GPS, but also jot down compass headings, directional cues, and, if it may be necessary, tie up flagging tape at terminal points in your route.

The reasons for not fully trusting GPS

  1. The batteries can die — GPS units eat up batteries at an alarming rate.
  2. They can break — I have not yet broken one yet, they are pretty hardy, but I am sure it is possible. Try crossing a river with one, check and see if it still works after being submerged — maybe it will, maybe it wont. I don’t want to stake my neck on maybes.
  3. They can lose satellite reception — and then you are f’cked.
  4. You can lose it — it is easy to lose things in the woods.
  5. The government controls GPS satellites — Something that can be turned on can be just as easily turned off.
  6. A whole bunch of other malevolent circumstances that cannot all be mentioned.

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I went out to work in the Tonto Forest of Arizona today as usual. I turned on my GPS unit as usual. I did not get a signal — this was not usual. Everyday during the ten weeks that I have been surveying in Arizona, I have gotten good satellite reception — my hand held GPS worked without a hitch. But today the satellites were either out or were not able to provide a signal to my unit. The archaeologist next to me had same problem, and a couple other members of the crew were getting very poor signals.

It was an hour and a half before my GPS picked up a signal again.

In this circumstance, this was not much of a problem. I just went about my work the old fashioned way. But in another situation, in another place at another time, with far more extreme safety parameters his blip could have been more of a problem.

I imagine a scene where a cold night is falling upon a day hike that went out a little too far. I imagine just taking a way point (record the coordinates) of my camp and relying on the GPS to guide me safely back home (hey, it’s always worked before). I imagine helplessly sitting on a ridge top staring blankly at my stupid little machine that refuses to work its magic. I look into the screen that only flashes the ominous words “no signal” as I curl up and freeze through the night.

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It was once the dream of the space age that humans could engineer machines, appliances, and devices to take the load off of being human. We could make machines that transported us around town so we would not have to walk, we could make appliances that mashed out potatoes or blended our smoothies so we would not have to strain our arms, we could make gadgets that released our minds from having to go through the exercise of thought.

We did this.

Now we are facing the backlash of our progress. Like a dog on a leash who tries to run in a single direction at full speed the inevitable point of retraction has hit: our throats have been choked thoroughly by the leash of our own making.

I look around America and see a country of people who cannot hike 10 miles without keeling over, people who fret and gasp at the prospect of having to do simple math, people would could not defend themselves if their lives depended on it, people who cannot extract fish from the rivers, people who cannot even fire a hunting implement.

I only wish that our machines could see us now, I wish that they could know the power they hold over us, how we have entrusted our very lives, comfort, and safety to the intimate objects that we created. I wish our machines could have the hearty laugh they deserve.

We have thoroughly backasswarded ourselves, and seem to be proud of it. The rapid road forward just lead over a mighty ledge at the top of a mountain — and we all fell down, even more rapidly, way down to the bottom.

I look around the world at a dominant species de-evolving as a result of its own dominance. Rome ate Rome.

The very awesomeness of GPS, is precisely what is dangerous about it. When the public usage GPS bands were shit, I had no fear. I could navigate better than my machine, I was in control. But now that my machine can outwit me 99% of the time I am cowering.

Like from a deal that seems a little too good, like from a man that smiles a little too much, I am cowering. I am cowering so much that I still navigate “by hand” when out camping or hiking. I still use a compass, I still pay attention to the sun and stars, even though my magic little box can do it all for me.

GPS is good. Global Positioning Systems are a little too good.

Garmin GPS unit with no signal

Garmin GPS unit with no signal

This is part one of a series on navigation
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Filed under: Archaeology, Arizona, Back Country Travel, Camping, Geography, Hiking and Trekking, Navigation, Technology, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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