Why it’s a real mistake to count on a cellphone when you go hiking

Sarah Savage was alone in the woods and didn’t know which way to turn. She had been eager to explore the Appalachian Trail when she moved to Pennsylvania and discovered that her house was near an access point. But not long after she took off from the trailhead, the path branched in different directions. She wasn’t carrying a cellphone or a map. Nervous, she turned back.

“I was afraid of getting lost. I didn’t know how to read a map or even that maps existed for where I was hiking,” said Savage, 49, who works in educational publishing.

But she liked the physical and emotional benefits of being out there, so she kept going back. She brought a map and followed the trail as best she could, yet she still felt apprehensive. “I had no sense of direction,” she said. “I wasn’t paying attention to north, south, east or west.”

Navigating is a use-it-or-lose-it skill and one that few hikers, cyclists or walkers employ anymore because of their increased dependence on GPS units, Garmin computers, Google Earth and similar technologies. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, nine of 10 smartphone owners use their device to get directions or for other location-based services, up from 74 percent in 2013. That heavy reliance on devices can give people a false sense of security.

A GPS won’t tell you there is a mountain in the way or there is a huge river that won’t be safe to cross, but a map will. GPS units break. Batteries go dead. Phones get dropped in streams. Also, turn-by-turn GPS [navigation] in which you see only one route and are always going straight ahead doesn’t teach people to situate themselves on a route.

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