Be prepared

To GPS or NOT to GPS

Before we started the CDT in 1999, Ginny's boss wanted to give her something useful for the Trail. So he asked if she wanted a GPS unit. And he was shocked when her answer was: "No, thank you."

There are those who believe they "should" carry one just because they "can." There are those who carry one because (to paraphrase several people) they "might get lost and it'll help them get found." And there are those who've come to believe that carrying a GPS unit on the CDT is a necessity.

But we have a different attitude about it. We didn't use a GPS on the CDT, either in 1999 or in 2006. Yes - we hiked the trail twice. We didn't need one. Nor did we "need" one on the Great divide Trail in Canada (although we DO recommend one for others who do this trail.) Nor will we use one when we go back to the CDT in several years.

It might be useful to start by examining the reasons stated above. Let's see where it leads us.

So - the first "reason" reduces to this: "If you CAN carry one, then you SHOULD carry one so you'll be "as up-to-date as possible." Yep - I've actually heard that one. I wasn't impressed then - and I'm not impressed now.

Fact is that I "could" carry a .44 Magnum on the trail - but I don't. I "could" carry a PDA on the trail - but I don't. I "could" carry a lot of things - but I don't. To put it in terms a little closer to home for those who are likely to read this - we "could" drill for oil in ANWR. Just because one "can" do something doesn't mean that one "should" do it. That's not a reason - it's an excuse that some people use to cover the real reason. Which is not a surprise. Most people have three "reasons" for doing what they do - the "reason" they tell the world, the "reason" they tell themselves - and the REAL reason.

Hey, if you want to "be as up-to-date as possible" - why don't you just mountain-bike the trail? After all - if you stick mostly to the roads, you're a lot less likely to get "lost." And mountain bikes are certainly at least a couple thousand years more "up-to-date" than mere "hiking."

And then there's the second "reason" - there are those who "might" get lost and want help getting found.

Well - I "might" fall and break a leg - so maybe I should carry a splint and a sat-phone. I "might" be attacked by a grizzly so maybe I should carry a rifle. I "might" get caught in a blizzard so maybe I should carry an extra 5 days of food and an emergency locator beacon. REALLY??!!

No - NOT really. For several reasons - the first of which is that if you're gonna thruhike the CDT, you've already been told that you WILL get "lost" - so why are you gonna depend on a machine to do your thinking for you? Why aren't you busily acquiring the skills to both stay "found" as much as possible - and to "get found" when you do get "lost." It ain't that hard and it's a whole lot more satisfying than allowing a machine to do it for you. Hell, mon - where's your pride? You're supposed to be capable of real, rational thought - and you're willing to give up the "real" thinking to a machine? Really??!!

I was recently told that using the GPS doesn't constitute "allowing a machine to do your thinking, that the man holding the tool has to do the thinking." That, of course, is one opinion. Mine, however, is that if one doesn't have the "tool" in one's hand, then one has to "think" in order to perform the function that the "tool" performs. That's when one finds out if their "thinker" is still operational.

Hmm - is that too subtle for the average bear hiker.

And then there's the third "reason" - the idea that a GPS is "necessary" is, of course, utter nonsense. Until 2000, a GPS was one of the least likely items of equipment for CDT hikers. That means that those who hiked the CDT prior to that time did it without a GPS. Which leads to the question - If you believe that you NEED the GPS, why are you so much less competent and self-reliant than those who've hiked before you? And why aren't you scrambling to fix that lack?

So - ask yourself the question - "could" you hike the CDT without the GPS? In some cases, I've come to believe the answer is NO. But for the majority, the answer is yes - if they were willing to actually try it. So - why don't they do it that way? It's certainly not a "necessity". After all, a lot of people have hiked the CDT over the years - sometimes even extending their hikes to the Yukon or Point Barrow - or to Tierra del Fuego. All without the GPS.

So why would YOU need a GPS?

In general, the answer is - "laziness" and/or "fear."

Oh my God!! Laziness?

Yeah - because it's easier to use the GPS than it is to learn the skills you need for "real" navigation before you start the Trail. I know the kind of effort it takes to really learn to "navigate" rather than blindly follow a well-marked, well-maintained path as most AT and PCT hikers have become accustomed to doing. It's not all that hard to learn how to read a map and compass - and then spend some time on an orienteering course in order to put a fine edge on it before starting the trail. It's time well spent - as well as being a lot of fun. Try it - you might like it.

"Fear"? Yeah - that too.

Anyone who's watched Lynne Whelden's video on lightweight backpacking knows that there's a level of fear involved in anything you carry on a long distance hike other than the basic gear. Carrying extra food says you're afraid of hunger. Carrying too many clothes or an overly warm sleeping bag says you're afraid of being cold. And carrying a GPS says you're afraid of being lost.

A lot of people - including some CDT hikers - are REALLY afraid of getting LOST. Which is precisely why we talked so much about it during the CDT workshops - and spent a lot of time telling people about attitude - and about learning how to read maps and how to use a compass - and even (gasp) to take a GPS if they feel it's absolutely necessary.

Part of the problem, of course, is that most CDT thruhikers have gotten their training and attitudes on the AT or the PCT. The AT provides them with a well-blazed path as well as detailed information about nearly every twist and turn in the trail. They ALWAYS know exactly where they're at. On the PCT, recent developments have given PCT thruhikers pretty much the same kind of information. As well as what can sometimes be described as a "wheelchair" trail that makes it nearly impossible to get lost. On the CDT, of course, knowing precisely where you are is a lot more chancy. Not because of the trail, not because of the terrain - but because the AT and PCT hikers have developed "habits" - like hiking mindlessly on those superhighway trails; listening to music; and thinking about their dog, girlfriend, family or job - instead of paying attention to the trail and where they're at and where they're going. And that mindless hiking can - and will - lead those people astray.

There are, of course, variations. Some people are just better navigators than others - with or without the GPS. And a few (very few) people don't seem to be able to learn how to navigate at all - with or without the GPS. There are a few people who consistently manage to get lost in shopping centers. My recommendation is that they never leave home without their GPS.

But you can't sell me the idea that the GPS makes you "safer" - or less likely to get "lost" - or a better navigator - while you're on the CDT.

As part of our preparation for the CDT workshops at the ALDHA Gathering, I've "collected" quotes from the CDT journals for the last dozen years or more. I have more than 100 pages of "lost" quotes from those CDT journals and for a while, I was puzzled. Because, in general, I've found that those who use (or at least "depend on") GPS tend to get "lost" more often than those who don't. I've come to believe that the GPS engenders a false sense of security, that it gives one a "lifeline" to hang onto, that it sometimes leads hikers into going places they wouldn't dare go without it, and that it negates the sense of urgency in developing the skills needed for "real" navigation. To put it simply, the increasing GPS usage is one more way that hikers, like the majority of Americans, are becoming less self-reliant.

I recently found verification for that hypothesis in the words of the man who ran the Mountain Rescue Service in New Hampshire for a number of years. To quote his words:

"As a nation, we've made ourselves less self-reliant by developing a dependency on "magic wands," such as cell phones and GPS units. We live in a culture that demands 'safety' above all else and encourages us to place responsibility for our lives and actions on someone else. George Orwell labelled it "protective stupidity."

My expresson for it is: "the nanny-state." Or, in this case, the extension of the nanny-state into the backcountry.

Or as Rudyard Kipling wrote in a different context:

There's sore decline in Adam's line if this be the spawn of Earth.
----------- from "Tomlinson" by Rudyard Kipling

Conversely, observation indicates that those who don't carry GPS learn earlier and better to pay attention, to be more observant of their surroundings, and to relate better to the maps and/or guidebooks. And the better you observe the terrain and your surroundings; the better you notice the details of the country you're passing through; the better you relate to your maps - the less you'll get lost. Which, of course, is why hikers tend to get lost less as they spend more time on the trail regardless of whether they're carrying GPS or not. Those who can't learn those things generally go home early.

So - do you NEED the GPS? I don't know - only you can answer that. But as one hiker said:

I felt a sense of freedom without the need for the GPS.

As do I. We finally experimented with a GPS (a Garmin Etrex Legend) in Alaska in 2004 - in a place where the only trails were made by bear, wolves, moose and caribou. And at no point was the GPS a necessity. At no point was it anything more than a toy - a diversion - extra weight - and a time waster.

That's right - we found that it ate up more time and gave us no more useful information than our eyes and brains and the maps. And that it was a lot more fun and a lot more satisfying to do the navigation ourselves rather than let the GPS do it for us.

For us, the GPS was unnecessary and annoying "mind clutter". It was a distraction from the reason we were out there. It took too much time, it was too much of a distraction from the country, the wildlife and the hike. And it added to my pack weight by the weight of the GPS, the case, the tools necessary for map work and the extra batteries. Not much, but more weight than I'm willing to carry on a long hike for something I don't need. It also adds mental and emotional weight - and it WILL affect your hike.

The bottom line to all this is that getting lost is no big deal if you have the right attitude about it (and enough food). One of the advantages that many of the earlier hikers (5 or 10 years ago) had was that there was no GPS - and there was a lot less of the "Oh my God, being lost is just so terrible and I'm gonna die in the wilderness and the bears are gonna get me and I'm gonna starve to death and...and, and......" type attitude. The idea of having to stay "on-trail" is an attitude hangover from the AT and PCT. It's an attitude I keep telling people to get over. Some do, some don't. A lot of the earlier hikers didn't bring that attude with them. Their attitude was more like: "OK, so I missed a turn - let's see what's over THIS hill - maybe it'll be something good". I like that - it fits with my own brand of insanity.

What a friend told us before we started the CDT held true: as long as we were heading south, we weren't lost. We may have wandered off the trail, but with a little time and effort - and thought, it always showed up again. Even without the GPS.

After all, if one is hiking south - it's awfully hard to miss the Mexican border. And if you're headed north it's even harder to miss the Canadian border. And that IS where you're headed, isn't it?

Finally - as another hiker said:

"Right now I know only one thing - "I ain't on the PCT no more".

He was right.

Created: 06 Jan 2005
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
Copyright © 2005-2017 Spirit Eagle