Our Reliance on Technology Makes the Backcountry More Dangerous

GPS trackers and cell phones give us a false sense of security in the wilderness. And with more thru-hikers than ever set to take on the Appalachian Trail this year, we should be on alert.

Mar 16, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Our Reliance on Technology Makes the Backcountry More Dangerous

Counting on GPS trackers, personal beacons, and cell phone reception while in the backcountry is a mistake, wilderness experts say.    Photo: Flickr/TheJaan

In July 2013, 66-year-old Geraldine Largay was hiking in western Maine, nearing the end of a three-month, northbound solo journey on the Appalachian Trail. She’d logged more than 950 miles and traveled through ten states, sending regular texts to her husband, George, who was pacing her by car and meeting up with her from town to town with fresh supplies. On the morning of July 22, the two arranged via text to meet at a nearby trailhead the next day. George arrived on time and waited, but Largay never showed up.

George phoned authorities, and a search party combed the wilderness near Largay’s last known location on the trail, but found nothing. Then, last October, more than two years since Largay vanished, foresters surveying a U.S. Navy facility near Mount Redington found Largay’s remains and some of her belongings near a stream about two miles from the AT, not far from where she was last seen, the Morning Sentinel reported. According to the coroner’s report, released in January, Largay died inside her tent, zipped in her sleeping bag. The official cause of death: inanition—the effects of dehydration and starvation—from prolonged environmental exposure.

It’s unclear what exactly happened to Largay, but wilderness experts familiar with the AT point out that a potential factor in her death reflects a major problem among hikers: an over-reliance on technology to navigate and call for help in times of distress. “One of the worst trends we’ve seen in the past 20 years is the proliferation of cell phones and technology in the backcountry,” says Tim Smith, a registered Master Maine Guide and the founder of the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School, which instructs students in brush living, guide skills, and long-term winter survival. “It gives people a false sense of security. It's the idea of, Who cares how bad of a jam I get myself into? Because if there’s cell coverage I’ll call and someone will come get me. But if you had no outside line, no way of contacting other people, you’re way less likely to take risks.”

Over the past three years, the number of thru-hikers on the AT has steadily increased. In 2014, about 2,800 thru-hikers and between three and four million day hikers took to the trail. The week after Largay’s disappearance, the Morning Sentinel published an article noting that about 28 AT hikers get lost in Maine each year, and that 95 percent of them are found within 12 hours and 98 percent within 24 hours. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that promotes and encourages hiking the AT, doesn’t maintain records of deaths or injuries on the trail. But land managers up and down the 2,168-mile trail say they see hundreds of naïve and unprepared hikers pass through.

Hikers land in dangerous situations all the time when technology fails. In March 2014, two inexperienced California hikers got lost on a local trail and were unable to call rescuers once their cell phones died. The next day, other hikers discovered and helped save the young woman among the pair, who had fractured a leg and was unable to walk, but her male companion died, mostly likely from a fall, after leaving her to try to find help. In a case last October, a woman hiking in a North Vancouver park required rescue when she became separated from her husband and her cell phone ran out of battery. She was the fifth person saved in the park that weekend, which a lead rescue official attributed to hikers both putting too much trust in their phones and failing to prepare or do enough research. “We keep stressing to people you cannot rely on your cell phone in the backcountry,” the official told News 1130. “The cell service is really terrible up there.”

Cell phones bear much of the blame for these type of mishaps, but personal locator beacons, designed specifically for survival applications, are not fail-safe, either. In 2009, a British hiker fell 15 feet down a cliff in the Southern Alps, breaking an ankle, a number of ribs, and a wrist—and losing his PLB in the process. The man survived, despite having no apparent backup plan, but only after being stranded for more than a week and then hobbling two days in immense pain to safety. Then, in 2011, a New Zealand camper went missing in a wilderness area, but searchers didn’t pick up the signal from his PLB until the following afternoon, likely because of tree cover, leaving him unaccounted for for nearly a day.

A 2012 study of 235 overnight visitors to a California wilderness area found that self-identified risk-takers said that they were more likely to potentially put themselves in dangerous situations if they had a cell phone, GPS, or similar communication device with them. Moreover, 80 percent of all the respondents admitted to having done something in the wilderness they considered unsafe at the time. The majority of respondents acknowledged, too, that they believed technological communication devices create a false sense of security in the wilderness.

“There is little (if any) disagreement that technology like personal locator beacons, cell phones, and satellite phones makes it easier to request a rescue, often leading to an increased, and sometimes unrealistic, expectation of rescue,” the study states.

Likewise, an often-cited 2000 report from the Forest Service concluded that, as we come to depend on our devices more and more, “confidence in the ability to go anywhere is likely to increase, and the willingness to turn back declines.” So hikers may not only be relying too much on their devices in emergencies, but they may also be slower or less eager to try to find a way out of tough situations on their own.

“If you couple the increased numbers [of hikers] taking great risks due to technology, we’ve just set ourselves up to see more backcountry mishaps—especially on the Appalachian Trail,” Smith says.

Rather than entrusting a cell phone or GPS device for safety, thru-hikers should consider bringing along an old-fashioned compass and a map—specifically a 7.5 topographic quadrangle—and know how to use them to navigate. Beyond that, Smith says, the best antidote is simply experience and preparation: “If you’re waiting for something bad to happen to then come up with a way to get yourself out of that situation, you’re relying on rational problem-solving, which probably isn’t available to you under extreme stress.” 

Filed To: Thru-Hiking, Appalachian Trail, Hiking and Backpacking, Technology

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