An age-old question asked by more than a few explorers, navigators and backcountry adventurers. In the past, a map and/or charts combined with a sextant, compass or other such instrument could calculate one’s location. In the digital age, a new instrument has emerged, the handheld GPS receiver, and backcountry navigation will never be the same.
Handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) navigators are a relatively new backcountry gadget, recently expanding as standard equipment in many new automobiles. These handy devices communicate with satellites, determining your location (longitude and latitude) and altitude, accurate enough to plot your actual location on a digital topographical map found on most of the devices.
Purists often decry the use of GPS devices in the backcountry, convincingly arguing all they need are loincloth, sundial and the lay of the land to find their way. They only grudgingly accept using a map and compass to navigate. Yet, GPS devices do have their uses in the backcountry, and although not an essential piece of gear, they do come in handy in some circumstances (e.g. in the rain, marking the location such things as dead bodies and buried treasure, etc.).
Some may immediately scream foul, accusing me of hypocrisy, especially given my scathing treatment of certain digital devices within my guidelines for using such contraptions in the backcountry. Before lighting the torches and gathering the pitchforks, they should consider that these digital navigation devices lack many of the annoying characteristics found in cellphones and smart phones. Handheld navigators do not make noise (at least not yet), and generally people do not talk to them (although I have been known to talk to my own equipment on occasion).
When I first started hiking into the Adirondack backcountry, a handheld GPS was the furthest thing from my mind. Planning a menu and determining the essential gear was enough to send me into a weeklong panic, let alone figuring out what few luxuries I could afford to accompany me.
A handheld GPS finally made into my backpack in 2001, when I performed some ornithological fieldwork for the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Breeding Bird Atlas throughout the central Adirondacks. The work required extensive amount of bushwhacking to get into every hill and dale in that unpopulated portion of the Adirondack Park. Marking points where rare birds were found seemed like just enough of an excuse for me to purchase a new backcountry toy.
It was a rather rudimentary GPS, with a primitive map displaying only major roads and the largest of water bodies. Primarily, it was used to mark points, and infrequently, to locate my position on a topographic map. On my recreational adventures, it only accompanied me on solo bushwhacking trips, as it served little purpose when sticking to the trail.
When I started writing about my bushwhacking trips, the handheld GPS became a standard piece of equipment in the backcountry. The addition of a series of points enhanced my textual descriptions, providing another dimension to my blog posts. A newer GPS replaced the rudimentary one a few years ago, complete with a color screen (making it easier to see in the sunshine), an optional chip with a digital topographic map and more plentiful memory.
Rarely do I navigate with the GPS, as I find the digital compass awkward, and my neo-Luddite skepticism prefers the tactile satisfaction of using a map and compass. The GPS, with its weatherproof nature, is only used when navigating in the rain. This does not happen often, as I find bushwhacking in the rain too reckless, to be avoided except when absolutely necessary, such as on the last day of adventure when exiting the backcountry is not an option, due to lack of food, toiletries or worse.
Unfortunately, these navigation devices are only as accurate as the underlining technology allow. Just because a digital device provides location information, sometimes placed on a digital topographic map, there is no excuse for not using one’s own natural ability to process information. Sometimes foliage or rain interferes with satellite signals, providing inaccurate locations of both the device and artificial landmarks (e.g. trails) on the digital topographic maps.
Once while returning to the Five Ponds Trail, after a six day bushwhacking adventure visiting such places as Oven Lake and the Robinson River, my handheld GPS indicated I had already passed the trail without seeing it. Immediately, I doubted the accuracy of the device, as it was unlikely that I crossed the well-defined, though narrow trail without even noticing it. Despite my incredulousness, doubt in my own abilities increased as the GPS device showed me moving farther and farther from the trail. When I finally reached the trail, the device was still showing it in another location. Obviously, either my location (caused by signal interference) or the trail’s (map inaccuracies) was incorrect, though I never found out which with any certainty.
Signal interference can be an issue, as under some circumstances these handheld navigation devices function poorly. In deep ravines where views to the sky are limited often lead to the devices’ confusion, as the current location jumps around much like a flea on a hot griddle. This same phenomenon can occur during rain and/or within dense coniferous cover.
I experienced signal interference on a final day of a trip within the Pepperbox Wilderness once. I was bushwhacking on a wet morning from the northwestern shore of Moshier Reservoir to a large, interior beaver vly where an old hunters trail would lead me out of the backcountry and back to my waiting vehicle. Unfortunately, it rained the previous night, and moisture still dripped from the soaked foliage. Instead of pulling out my map, where it would get soaked in my wet hands, I used my GPS to determine my progress. With the wet conditions, and especially when under conifers, my location would suddenly shift from one place to another, sometimes showing where I expected and others a significant distance away. Luckily, I disregarded the often-inaccurate GPS and relied on my compass to get me where I needed to go.
Handheld GPS devices are often useful for navigation purposes in the backcountry, even though they largely remain luxuries rather than navigation necessities. For purposes of documenting a trip, these devices can enhance any associated documentation especially in a digital medium. In addition, they can answer that age-old question very quickly with a pointed finger and a simple reply.
I am here.
Photo: Moshier Reservoir at dawn in the Pepperbox Wilderness by Dan Crane.