Getting lost in the wilderness can be terrifying, even tragic. It can also be perplexing, as with a recent case in a remote area of Nevada.
A little over a week ago, a woman was rescued on the verge of death after being stranded for nearly two months on muddy back roads in the northeastern part of the state. Her husband, who walked off looking for help, is still missing. The most baffling part of the story: The couple had a GPS device. And they were following its directions when they got lost.
It’s not the first time that blind faith in a GPS has led people astray and into big trouble. And given the growing influence of computer technology on our lives, experts say, it’s not that surprising. As we become ever more reliant on digital devices, the relationship between humankind and the wilderness is rapidly shifting.
Armed with a GPS, in particular, many people ignore notice ridgelines, stream routes and landscape contours, said Bill Borrie, a wilderness researcher at the University of Montana, Missoula. Most also fail to learn critical wilderness survival skills in the first place.
“The scary thing is that people don’t even realize they have become so reliant,” Borrie said. “Anything that takes you away from paying attention to nature and instead has you paying attention to a gadget is going to get in the way of you seeing, noticing and learning from nature. You wonder how people can stop thinking, but they do.”
The availability of satellite technology in personal devices may be fairly new, but GPS units are just the latest item in a long list of gadgets and gear that have gradually separated humans from nature, Borrie said. When you buy a weatherproof tent, you may feel more confident camping above tree line, but it’s still a dangerous place to be. And when you zip up a hooded GORE-TEX jacket, you cease to feel the breeze on your neck, but you also no longer learn the smell of rain approaching.
“Technology enables us to go further and faster and do things we couldn’t do before,” Borrie said. “We presume we can get ourselves out of whatever trouble we get ourselves into. People expect that because they have a cell phone, they can call for help. Therefore, they take more risks. They assume a bigger safety net than they used to have.”
Time and again, people with GPS units have made bad decisions in remote areas. There have been several high-profile strandings in the Northwest in recent years. And in remote sections of national forest near the Grand Canyon, park rangers regularly report encountering tourists who are looking for the National Park but have followed the GPS units in their rental cars to the wrong place, said National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson.
In just about every case, people fail to crosscheck with maps or ask directions. Instead, they turn where the GPS tells them to turn. And they only realize their mistake when it’s too late.
Part of the problem stretches back to the earliest days of the scientific revolution, when people transferred their sense of faith from the church to science and technology, said David Stearns, a historian of technology and part-time lecturer at Seattle Pacific University. Since World War II, he added, Americans have begun to entrust technology with the ability to save us and solve all of our problems.
Today, it is second nature to look toward a scientific authority as the source of truth, whether that authority is a textbook, a professor, Google or a GPS. The couple that got lost in Nevada represents this kind of trust at its most intense.
“These are the most extreme cases, where people have ascribed so much faith in the advice given by the GPS navigation system that they’re willing to completely ignore all other warning signs and other sensory inputs and just trust blindly in these things,” Stearns said. “They are treating the navigation system as an ultimate authority, something that is infallible.”
Like nuclear power plants and other promising technologies, however, GPS units can and do fail their users, sometimes leading to disaster.
The pattern has parallels in religious settings, Stearns said. He offered the example of a rock-star pastor, who convinces his followers that God is always good and loving, only to be devastated by a natural disaster that kills thousands of people.
“Those who treat the leader as an absolute authority will rationalize away the evidence before them to maintain the truth from on-high,” he said. “Others will realize that perhaps the authority doesn't really know everything, and that they should seek other sources of knowledge.”
Using multiple navigation strategies is always a good idea in wilderness settings, Borrie said. As useful as GPS devices can be, plenty can go wrong. They can run out of batteries. They can’t always connect with satellites, especially if you are in a deep-sided gully. And they don’t always recommend the most sensible paths through forested areas. Even in places with roads, software is often not updated, and maps change all the time.
Before plunging into the backcountry, Borrie recommended, the best thing people can do is to build wilderness experience and solidify navigation skills.
“Never trust your GPS,” he said. “Always question it.”