Tips on Navigation in Remote Areas: How to Avoid GPS Failures

With the trend of “First Day Hikes” growing nationwide, New Year’s Day is one of the most popular hiking times of the year. This should come as no surprise in this season of New Year’s resolutions when many Americans set goals to be more active or exercise more frequently. Starting the new year off with some fun, adventurous outdoor activities is an excellent idea, as long as you take the necessary precautions to ensure your safety—especially if you plan to go completely off the grid!

Whether it’s camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, or skiing, the most important thing is to stay safe. Many people rely on smartphone GPS and vehicle navigation systems to help them get to unfamiliar or remote destinations, but it’s important to remember that off-the-grid excursions typically do not go hand-in-hand with satellite service. While GPS tools are meant to be an aid, they aren’t foolproof and should therefore not be depended upon as a sole source of guidance. There have been more than a few cases of GPS failures, with GPS leading people on unsafe routes or taking them to the wrong location altogether—our friends in Search and Rescue have a story or two to tell when it comes to getting lost in the wilderness!

Luckily, there are steps one can take to ensure that your excursion goes according to plan:

1. Plan the Route Beforehand

navigation-in-remote-area_plan-the-routeWhile it may be tempting (for some) to embrace true ruggedness by exploring a new area without mapping it out first, the risk of getting lost can be greatly reduced if you plan out your route ahead of time. Some better-maintained hiking trails are comprised of clearly marked loops or gravel-lined paths, but more secluded or backcountry trails are often devoid of any signage at all.

That’s why it’s extremely important to look at a map and plan out exactly where and how far your route will take you—especially if you’re venturing into completely unfamiliar territory. In addition, make sure to pack adequate amounts of food and water to last you the entirety of your excursion.

2. Bring a Map and Compass

It’s safest to assume that any smartphone will lose signal after some serious trekking. To be prepared, bring along a map of the terrain that you’ll be traversing. Be sure to check it often and mark any objects or landmarks that may help guide your route and facilitate the return trip. A topographical map will provide a more detailed representation of the terrain. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the scale of the map (the standard is 1:24,0000, which means that one inch on the map equates to 24,000 real-life inches) in order to adequately gauge the actual distance of your route.

Additionally, it’s vital to bring along a map’s best friend: the compass. A basic handheld compass is the safest bet. Although smartphone compasses can be quite accurate, they still occasionally have issues with calibration. And keep in mind that you most likely won’t have access to electricity to charge a phone battery while out in the wilderness. There are plenty of handheld compasses available for purchase, as well as military-style compasses, which are estimated to be about ten times more accurate than a basic compass. For more information on using a map and compass, check out this article.naviational-aides_compass

3. Consider Investing in Additional Navigational Aides

Tools like locator beacons can be lifesavers—literally. ACR/Artex’s 406 Survivor Club stories feature the harrowing tales of people whose lives were saved by using a portable transmitter. There are two types of transmitters: personal locator beacons and satellite messengers. The first type, personal locator beacons, are able to send out a distress signal to a frequency that is monitored by the Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Since emergency responders are automatically notified by its signal, a personal locator beacon should only be used in severe emergency situations. The second type of transmitter, satellite messengers, are best for casual hiking and backpacking. The signal is weaker, but these gadgets are able to relay the user’s GPS coordinates to friends or family to inform them of the traveler’s whereabouts. On that note, it’s always a good idea to alert loved ones who won’t be on the trail with you of route/destination details ahead of time. Anyone who’s seen the movie 127 Hours, about a stranded climber forced to do the unthinkable to survive, can tell you why it’s so important for at least one other person to know where you’re heading.

If you’ll be hiking in the mountains, it may be a good idea to invest in an altimeter or to purchase a tool that has one built in. Oxygen levels decrease steadily the higher one climbs, so for safety purposes it’s important to pay attention to the altitude and consider heading back down if breathing becomes difficult.

5. Enjoy the Activity, But Remain Cautious

navigation-in-remote-areas_remain-cautiousThe wilderness often provides more unforeseen circumstances than regular daily life. Partaking in outdoor activities with friends and family is something that should be enjoyed, as long as everyone in your group is aware of their surroundings and any potential risk that comes along with that particular activity. Risks can come in the form of flash floods, avalanches, rockslides, earthquakes, and predators, among other things. Of course, it isn’t necessary to dwell on the possibility of these risks occurring. It is wise, however, to familiarize oneself with as many potential threats as possible, including GPS failures, in order to devise a plan of action in case of an emergency.

These tips should be helpful in preparing for and (hopefully) avoiding navigation failures during any outdoor excursion. While being in the wilderness is never completely risk free, it’s possible to greatly reduce the risks and help ensure that everyone in your party returns home safely.

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