“Head-Down Syndrome,” GPS and Finding Your Way in the World

map-collage-road-gazetteerOn a recent trip back from a race in Miami, one of the outrigger team guys I was driving with shouted “Old School!” and pointed out a car in which the passenger had a paper map unfolded in their lap. It’s a rare sight in a world where our cars and phones are equipped with GPS devices that will map routes, find us a Starbucks and even talk us through the directions.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, that I often use my iPhone or iPad for directions while I’m driving. I’ve even used a GPS to navigate in the woods on occasion (sacrilege!). But, even in those circumstances, I’m sure to study (even briefly) the map and route that have been generated. Why?

First, I tend to be a visual person–I like to be able to “see” the route in my mind. There is also a practical side to this–being prepared if for some reason the GPS device fails. By reviewing the map and route, I will at least have some idea of where I’m headed and the roads I’m taking to get there. I might even remember a few landmarks.

national-geographic-magazineSecond, I just love maps. I have to thank my dad, and his National Geographic Magazine subscription, for originally stoking my love of maps. Add to that years of backpacking, hiking and adventure racing–poring over topographic and trail maps–and I find it difficult to not pause and look at any map I come across.

photo-1Over the last 12 years or so, I’ve taken my love of maps and land navigation and taught hundreds of people the skills they need to find their way in the woods. Every once in awhile, when I post an upcoming course, I get a questioning comment like “Why would anyone need this anymore? Use a GPS. Use your phone.” Or now, “There’s an app for that.”

Sure, our modern electronic devices and modern software can most likely get you from point “A” to point “B”–on the road or even in the woods. If they are properly charged (and/or have an adequate battery life), they might last the duration of your need. But, they are machines operated by humans and these things tend to break down from time to time. What happens if they break down in the middle of a road trip? What happens if they breakdown in the middle of a backpacking expedition or a mountain bike ride? Without some basic map and compass skills, without some basic land navigation skills, you might be screwed.

Why? “Head-down Syndrome.” We’ve all seen it. We’ve all likely participated in it–head down, focused (most commonly) on our phones while the rest of the world goes on around us. We often know more about what’s going on 5,000 miles across the world  than what’s going on five feet in front of us.

That lack of “situational awareness” or “local awareness” is something that carries over into using GPS to navigate on the roads or in the woods.

On the road, we are no longer looking at road signs or for landmarks, we are often simply waiting for the GPS to tell us when to turn (sometimes cutting across multiple lanes of traffic because we don’t even pay attention to the GPS until it says “turn now”).

In the woods, GPS-dependence similarly deteriorates “awareness” over time. While there are a few apps available that are able to do some slightly more advanced route-finding, most GPS still simply create straight-line routes–the shorter distance between your start and end points. These simpler apps don’t take terrain (waterways, cliffs, interstate highways, etc) or elevation change (steepness of incline or decline) into consideration when plotting your route. The more advanced apps may be able to take some of those variables into consideration, but often don’t account for recent local conditions (e.g. drought or heavy rains) that may either hinder or open up other route options. Either way, GPS use still reinforces looking more at the device screen than at the environment through with you are traveling. Again, if the GPS fails, you might not know how far you’ve gone on what trail or what trail you were supposed to turn on next–you could be in serious trouble far from assistance.

What is the solution in these cases?

On the road, you can stop and ask directions, if you can find someone who is still familiar with this archaic method. Of course, you’re unlikely to be able to take the direction-giver with you and have them give you verbal turn-by-turn assistance. So, you will have to write down the directions. Then, you’ll have to rekindle your awareness skills–looking for road signs and landmarks. Purchasing a paper map might also help–if you have enough familiarity to recognize (on that map) where you are and where you are going.

In the woods, potentially farther from civilized assistance, shelter or provisions, lack of awareness of your environment or route might create a much more dire situation. Do you even know what trail you are on? Do you know which way is north or south? Do you know which direction you could travel to reach a road or town? Do you know the location of any fresh water? In both situations, basic land navigation techniques can help mitigate potentially time-consuming or dangerous situations.

photo-2In my navigation clinics, I emphasize map reading, terrain recognition and environmental awareness. Map reading involves developing a comfort level with a variety of common map types, map symbols, map scales, topographic lines and colors. Terrain recognition involves looking at a feature (e.g. a hill, a river, a road or a particular habitat) in nature and locating it on a map (and vice versa). Environmental awareness is possibly the toughest skill to master–challenging because we may be trying to move quickly (driving, running or mountain biking) while also paying attention to the map, road, other drivers, our footing, other bikers or trail obstacles. But, efficient land navigation (sans GPS) requires an almost constant awareness of features behind, around and ahead of you.

If you are interested in lifting your head up from your phone, liberating yourself from your GPS and developing the confidence that comes from enhanced environmental awareness, get more information on my upcoming land navigation clinics by CLICKING HERE.






~ by kipwkoelsch on November 30, 2016.

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