Thursday, December 12, 2013

My GPS Manifesto

There is nothing that can bring out passionate hikers than the question, "do you use a GPS?"  Predictably, there is a tsunami of responses that accuse GPS users of being clueless about their location in the woods and unable to use a map and compass.  And it makes some GPS users defensive, like this blogger.

I think the haters are ignorant.

Let's get one thing straight: nobody loves maps more than I do.  I have been collecting them since at least the third grade, and by age 10 could spout for a half hour about which gasoline companies produced the best road maps.  (I am pretty sure that I am solely responsible for gas stations charging for maps - I would always clean them out when on family road trips.)  I have several maps on the wall in my office, ranging from a relatively new map of the entire Appalachian Trail to an 1855 map of the United States that measures 4 feet by 5 feet.  I treasure the framed 1842 map of the United States over the piano at home.  I am a volunteer for the local trail club's Map Committee.  And I teach map and compass to the Boy Scouts.  In short, I can map and compass circles around most hikers out there.

And I love my handheld GPS.

I never go on a hike without my GPS.  I also take a map and compass.  I use both.  But those who accuse GPS users of having suspect skills are plain wrong.  Both tools have their place.  I don't bring a GPS to help me in case I get lost - a good use of the maps will keep me from getting there.  But there are times when I need an assist and the GPS has helped.  An example is coming down Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire on the A.T. last summer.  Mt. Lafayette is the tallest mountain in the state not found in the Presidential Range. The top of the mountain is a boulder field.  It is a little harder to find your way there than it is when following a dirt path through a grass covered southern bald.  When I got off course there, my GPS told me to head to the right 20 feet to get back on the trail.  No amount of map and compass expertise is going to tell you that.
Backpacking in the White Mountains,
with my trusty GPS clipped to my belt.
So what is it that gets some hikers riled up about GPS use?  I think there are several things, ranging from elitism to a concern that some hikers out there are not prepared to explore the wilderness.  But I also think a lot of them equate a handheld GPS with the units people have in their cars.  (Which, by the way, I do not have in any of the family cars.)  Listen folks, a handheld does NOT tell you to turn right in 300 steps!

So what is the point of the GPS?  I keep a library of my data.  That way, if I return to a trail I can have a record of how long it took to complete the hike the last time I hiked it.  And I have a record of how long a drive takes to the trailhead.  And I have a record for the IRS in case they ever question the volunteer miles I have driven.  And I can analyze data to get a sense of whether one hike is harder than another.

I have not been blogging much this year, even though I am on pace to set an annual record for most miles hiked.  Much of my time has been spent measuring trails for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, using my GPS to increase the accuracy of their maps. The group that is currently obtaining GPS data for each trail in the club's 19 maps.  This has gotten me back on several trails I hadn't hiked in two decades, and added considerably to my own library of GPS trail data.

Several of my colleagues have purchased new Garmin GPS units recently, and I have given them some advice.  It has me thinking that I should go live with a GPS blog - there aren't that many out there, and a new GPS requires a learning curve.  So I am putting out information on that blog specific to learning a new GPS. Check it out!  LINK.

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