The other day my wife sent me on a mission to China to recover an important tactical item. That would be China, Maine and the item was a coffee table she found on Craigslist. Anyway, I jumped in my trusty pickup truck, fired up the GPS, and headed inland from the coast to grab the package. The GPS, a literal device, took me on the shortest route. Which, as you’ve probably discovered, doesn’t always necessarily mean the fastest. I was going up over mountains, down back roads, and twisting back and forth on an old dirt road that made me happy I have survival gear in the back of my truck.
Now, the coffee table was in South China, and when I got to an intersection where I could go left to South China or right to China it took me right. Confused, I stopped and checked it out a little closer. It took me north over China lake and down the other side. Ok, I thought, maybe they consider “south” to be on the west side of the lake. People and directions are funky and I was willing to give my GPS the benefit of the doubt. With a few misgivings, I followed the GPS.
I should have listened to my instincts. I got to the other side of the lake and all my warning bells were now going off like a five-alarm fire. I pulled over, looked, and sure enough the GPS was taking me to the wrong address. I put in the address I wanted and it pointed to another area. I won’t use the real address, but here’s an example of how it appeared. Address I typed into the GPS: 83 Fire Road #45, China Me. It decided I really wanted to go to: Fire road 45, no number address. Ok, they give addresses very oddly in China, so I tried this instead: Fire Road 83, #45. It then decided I really wanted to go to Fire Road 11. WTF?
I poked at it for a few minutes with rising frustration then did something I haven’t had to do for awhile. I asked for directions. There was a guy across the street playing with his dog and I pulled in and asked if he knew where Fire Road 83 was. He rubbed his chin for a minute while his friendly black lab sniffed my leg. I patted the dog (best part of the whole trip) while he thought about it. He then pointed me to the other side of the lake with some head scratching, giving me low confidence in his directions.
At a store on the top of China lake, I stopped and asked directions. Nope. They had no idea. I called the woman I was getting the item from and she asked where I was. When I told her I was at the top of China Lake, she said, “What are you doing there?” She then gave me some confusing directions on how to get to her house. I finally asked her what she was near and she gave me the address of a bank. When I put that in to the GPS, it worked and I followed it there. Of course, when I got there, the GPS told me I was at Fire Road 83, #45, just where I wanted to be. Really? Thanks a lot!
Not Just Road Directions Either
A few years ago I was hiking behind my house following my GPS. As you know, driving and hiking are two very different forms of navigation, so being the paranoid survivalist that I am I was keeping track of my location with a map and compass too. At one point I looked down and it showed my location in a town about fifteen or twenty miles away in a completely different county! There was a moment of “congnitive dissonance” as I looked at both map and GPS. Finally I put the GPS away and followed the map and compass. I knew exactly where I was even if the GPS didn’t. I told a friend about this and he said, “Yeah, sometimes that happens.”
So, I did what any self-respecting human being would do and turned to Google. Turns out this is a pretty common issue. Wow. I’m no Luddite. I love my phone and my laptop. I use Linux. I understand computer networks. I get it. But after a little study, I’ve determined that if you’re going to trust yourself to a technology that works “most of the time,” you might find your ass lost in the woods crying about your GPS.
Carry a Compass
I’ve written about this before and I’ll write about it again. If you’re going to go out in the wilderness, carry a map and compass. Carry it, know how to use it, and at the very least be able to follow a cardinal direction. A few years ago Geraldine Largay went off the Appalachian Trail and got lost. Her body was found a couple of years later. She had a compass but didn’t know how to use it. A compass is not an ornament. If you put it in your pack, at least know the basics of how to use it.
In my opinion, the best way to operate in the wild is to use your GPS as primary navigator with a map and compass as backup. This accomplishes two things.
- You’ll learn map and compass reading almost as well as how to use a GPS.
- If your GPS fails for whatever reason, you’ll know where you are and how to get out safely.
Use a Bailout Azimuth
I coined the term Bailout Azimuth. If you’re lost and can’t go point to point, you can at least follow your compass until you hit a road, stream, river, or landmark. Refer to the map on Geraldine Largay. Look carefully at where her remains were found and then look where the Appalachian Trail is. A little common sense and some very basic map reading skills could have saved this woman’s life, but she chose to walk north looking for a cell phone signal instead of following her compass south back to the trail. I’ve been in this part of the Maine woods before and it would be quite easy to walk off the trail and get lost. That’s why a compass is a critical piece of equipment.
Related: GizzMoVest GPS Cases
In this case, she moved north of the trail. The moment she discovered she was lost, she should have pulled out her map and compass. She would have seen that she was hiking east on that particular piece of trail. With a little study, she would have found that moving south or east would bring her back to the trail. Instead she made a fatal error and moved north. This really breaks my heart because a small amount of time spent at a compass class could have saved her life.
There are many stories where a GPS led people off road in their vehicles and they wound up stranded in the wilderness. Sometimes they get rescued, sometimes they don’t. Don’t be a statistic, folks. Learn how to read a map and compass and be a survivor. That’s why you’re here isn’t it? To learn how to survive? Trust me, if there’s one skill you can learn that trumps everything else, it’s how to navigate in the wilderness with a map and compass.
Use your GPS! Like I said, I love mine; however, I try to be critical of it when traveling because it’s not always 100% accurate.
Here’s a little challenge for you. The next time you decide to go on a trip take out a map and plot it by hand to see if you remember how. I’ll bet when you look at the route you selected and where your GPS wants to take you, you’ll be thinking, “Why the hell is it taking me that way?” Questions? Comments? Sound off below!
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