Wednesday, March 20, 2013

GPS in the Adirondack Backcountry

Moshier Reservoir at dawnWhere am I?

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.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

8 Responses

  1. Pete Nelson says:

    Dan, Dan, Dan:

    We all know who you are talking about when you describe “purists” in their “loincloths,” toting their “sundials.” Well, at least I know who you are talking about.

    I’m going to let pass that this is the second time you have referred to me in a loincloth… but one more time and I’m giving you my phone number.

    I could go on and on about how GPS is for sissies. I could refer you to my upcoming Dispatch on Brodhead’s survey: that dude was no sissy and he sure enough didn’t need a GPS to take a route that no contemporary hiker would even think of trying.

    But I won’t.

    More seriously, I could attempt to wax eloquent about the virtue of NOT knowing where you are, about the elegant dignity of uncertainty, which in today’s culture of vacuous know-it-all posturing is more vitally needed to salvage our humanity than ever before. If I did so proceed I would not be kidding in the least.

    I could also articulate the value and importance of cultivating – nay, even relying upon – skill in navigation versus settling for yet another dumb visage absorbing itself in yet another dumb screen.

    I could – and certainly will right now – decry the rapid polluting of our conception of “back country” or “wilderness” with a flood of GPS points for every last feature that can be found, eliminating the joy and wonder of discovery from the lexicon of the hiker in favor of some version of a video game. Bob Marshall, where in the name of God are you when we need you?

    GPS is a marvelous tool, there is no doubt of that. Your bird study was an entirely laudable use of that tool. As an aid to ecology, cartography, forestry, search and rescue, botany, wildlife study and countless other fields GPS is a wonderful thing. As to carrying it as a matter of safety equipment I would not argue against GPS either, though I would caution against over-reliance – and will personally never use it.

    But as a ready and foregone part of a wilderness experience I think it’s just awful.

    • Dan Crane says:


      What? Did you really think that I would put a line about purists in loincloth and NOT expect you to know who I was talking about?

      I bet the people that used the first maps were called sissies. And the first compass too. I shall wear my sissy badge with honor, and mark a few waypoints for you every time I am out in the backcountry!

  2. Bill Ott says:


    Your article is right up my alley. You and Pete have covered most everything, but I think there should be a warning attached to each unit. This warning should read, “Know where you are on the map at all times. This unit is subject to failure, loss, or whatever, especially when you most need it.” It is too easy, especially for newcomers, to be over-dependent on the unit. I wonder how many people using gps units have had to be found? Perhaps an Adirondack Guide (oh, Hi Dan) would have input here.

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio

  3. Teresa DeSantis says:

    Dear Dan: You write:

    “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.”

    As a cartographer/GIS nut, I run into this all the time. Here’s the deal: All the data is off. Some of it is off a little bit, some a lot. All maps are inaccurate, to some degree. And it holds true for electronic maps as well. (Perhaps a secret of the profession?) Tell us about the trail data you were using- was it what came with the device, or related software?

    Also, the satellites can occasionally flip out- its twice had me out over the Pacific Ocean, and once over Siberia, when I was in the Adirondacks.

    Dan, this was a great read! Thanks for it. It is food for thought for tonight, and brought back great memories of many wonderful outings with “bad” maps, and “funky” gps!


  4. Tony Goodwin says:

    Dan, my guess would be that the trail data was off on your GPS’s map. Remember that most base maps in the Adirondacks were made before there was GPS capability and that trails are generally not visible on the aerial photos from which the maps are made. There was never the time or money to traverse every trail, so they were put on the maps by a variety of methods – not all of them accurate. The 1953 USGS Marcy quad had a trail running through Panther Gorge. In the 1979 (field work 1976) mapping the Panther Gorge trail was eliminated, but somehow a trail was drawn down the southeast ridge of Saddleback where no trail ever existed.
    The suggested warning on GPS units is right on. I have suggested that trail maps now have the added promotion, “No batteries required.”

  5. Bill Ingersoll says:

    It should be assumed that trail locations on most USGS quads are inaccurate at worst, not completely accurate at best, probably for the reasons that Tony Goodwin cited. In some cases in the western Adirondacks these errors can be noted by anyone with eyes, especially in cases where the map shows a trail passing close to a pond, but in reality is skirts up a hill several hundred feet away.

    This is not just a problem with the older USGS sheets, but with most modern commercial maps as well — which are all derived from the USGS quads. Don’t ever think that Garmin (or any other GPS manufacturer) performed their own independent survey of the Adirondacks!

    For the last 6 years I have been using GPS extensively on my hikes — not to navigate, but to track where I have been. The result is an extensive database of actual trail locations, complete with meanders, detours, and switchbacks. I have mapped some areas so completely that I have been able to upload these tracks to MyTopo to create detailed paper maps with the corrected trail locations. The goal is to eventually retire the GPS by creating these maps for all of the areas that i like to explore.

  6. This is a topic that usually generates a massive number of posts in a highly polarized debate, albeit with a few people who “go both ways”. Regarding the loin cloth: that attire is best reserved for trails where a GPS is more of a toy than a tool anyway. 🙂

    The pro vs. anti arguments (they are rarely discussions) tend to revolve more around technology than anything else and indeed there is always the remark that if you are anti-gps then you should hike in home-made leather moccasins after dispatching a deer with a flint-tipped spear.

    In spite of being on my third GPS and having spent a lot of time learning how to use one fairly proficiently I greatly prefer using a map and compass. It turns out that one can use a M&C, wear Gore-tex and shoot digital pics all at the same time while having fun and remaining free of internal mental conflict.

    That the GPS is a “killer-app” is obvious and its potency never ceases to amaze me. However, I find that M&C navigation is simply a whole lot more fun and satisfying. And to my thinking that’s a big part of outdoors recreation: fun and satisfaction.

    My principle uses of a GPS while hiking are:

    1-for sticking to an unmarked herd path which may be buried under virgin snow.

    2-bushwhacking in the dark.

    Another excellent use is for marking in advance where to park my vehicle on back roads prior to bushwhacks and to coordinate meeting places with friends on those same backroads.

    Re: bushwhacking in the dark. Definitely not recommended for descents, GPS or not.

    “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
    ― Francis Bacon, The Advancement Of Learning

    I’ve gone from certainty to doubt disconcertingly quickly on several occasions.

  7. kevin says:

    I greatly enjoyed the topic and comment threads. As an ADK 46er and RF Engineer for the GPS Space Program since the 1980’s, I also struggle with the notion of using GPS in the High Peaks. Heck, I love the GPS technology but am still trying to remain an ADK purist too. Where am I ?

    Without question, GPS is a National Treasure for our Warfighters and commercial users around the world. While the accuracy and coverage for the Civilian user is superior, the Military application is even greater. However, for folks in the High Peak region, if you opt to use the GPS asset, the limitations can be minor yet twofold. In a nutshell, the tree canopy and limited accessibility to the sky and horizon unequivocally degrades access to the satellite signals. The less satellites within the constellation that are acquired by your handheld receiver, the less accuracy of the triangulation coordinates. High end receivers do better. Aircraft, Ships, Smart Bombs and superior Military Man-pack receivers do not have these reception shortfalls, hence their superior performance.

    The application of the signal, and resultant coordinates, are only as good as the accuracy or correlation of the digital or paper map. After all, the laws of physics, measurement of propagation delay and/or speed of light and triangulation yield phenomenal accuracy ever time. These Space Vehicles do not upset, and if they ever do, your receiver knows to ignore them. If you lose signal, the receiver alerts you. So .. when the receiver acquires, it knows your true Earth location in GPS or Latitude & Longitude & Altitude coordinates. In saying so, unless these correct or true GPS coordinates are accurately programmed to correlate onto your map, there can be some error in the translation or extrapolation. This is sort of the same issue folks encounter when driving and seeking a new street address or highway exit. If the software within the receiver is not accurate or up-to-date, you can get the wrong instruction or correlation. Where am I? The error is NOT the fault of the Space Vehicle’s signal. It is the quality of the receiver and the accuracy of the map within the software package than can send you for a “loop”.

    In the end, while I now pursue the Winter 46, I shall sustain my protocol with the traditional map and compass. Cool. However, if I do come across a GPS unit with truly intelligible coordinates of the north woods and high peaks region, I suppose I just might be inclined to commander one as a backup someday? Ain’t tellin’ 🙂

    Happy Hiking!

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